Google UK boss defends against 'contextless' digital advertising accusation

Google's UK managing director, Ronan Harris, was forced to defend the digital advertising ecosystem from suggestions that its relentless focus on targeting meant that the importance of context for brands was being overlooked.

Google UK boss defends against 'contextless' digital advertising accusation

Harris was taking part in a panel session at the ISBA conference in London this morning, alongside Saatchi & Saatchi chairman and chief strategy officer, Richard Huntington, and Guardian Media Group’s chief revenue officer Hamish Nicklin.

Huntington argued that many of the challenges facing advertisers in the digital space came down to what he called the "targeting fallacy" – the idea that reaching accurately targeted individuals "who are ready, willing and able to purchase your product" trumped all other considerations.

He added: "The result of belief in this is that we're forgetting a whole load of things we are all brilliant at and should be using. One of them, a massive issue for news brands, is we’ve forgotten the value of context in media.

"We believe that quality of media is simply the quality of the pipe, and whether it accurately reaches someone we’ve predicted might be interested in us, rather than the whole context around the message and the brand."

A key problem was that all digital advertising was stuck in a direct response-type mindset, said Nicklin, "where the only thing that really seems to matter is how cheaply you can get your message in front of an audience," regardless of platform.

He suggested that the absurd consequences of this approach could be seen by considering what its offline equivalent would look like.

"If we apply that principle of low-cost advertising to branding in the real world, what you might get is, say, Rolex, wanting to target 'City boys', putting an ad in a urinal in a boozer in the City, because you're targeting that individual in a very very cheap way.

"Rolex would never be happy with that, but that’s what happens every single day on the internet."

But Harris said that the important thing was to offer choice to brands, and disputed the idea that most were consumed by targeting. "I don’t think we’ve given up on context," he said. "All the advertisers I talk to are quite focused on it.

"Some are only focused on audience – they’re quite specific, they want to be able to focus on their audience – but for many it’s about making sure the context is the right context, as well as focusing on the audience."

But both Nicklin and Huntington raised other concerns about fundamental issues in the digital ecosystem.

"I’m concerned that we haven’t bothered building consent with consumers around new platforms in the way we did with traditional platforms," said Huntington. "There was always an uneasy truce between consumers, publishers and advertisers when it came to content and quality."

And Nicklin also warned that the drive for efficient spending meant that supposed "wastage" in how media spend is allocated was disappearing, which could have a negative long-term impact.

He gave the example of a ten-year-old seeing a BMW ad on TV – exposure that could probably only deliver a return for the brand 20 years down the line.

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