Will brands regret rushing into digital?

Have brands that rushed headlong into digital allowed its dazzle to blind them to its shortcomings?

Marc Pritchard: chief brand officer, P&G
Marc Pritchard: chief brand officer, P&G

It was what you might call a marketer’s equivalent of facing the Ice Bucket Challenge. The fact that it was someone as influential as Procter & Gamble’s Marc Pritchard (pictured) doing the dunking made the cold dose of reality an even greater shock to the system.

The chief brand officer at the world’s biggest advertiser thinks companies have been blissfully dozing in digital’s warm bath for much too long and it’s time they woke up to the truth – that consumers are being bombarded with so much technology-created "crap" that it’s little wonder ad-blocking is growing so strongly.

And at a time when the £72bn spent globally on digital advertising exceeds the amount going into TV, Pritchard believes advertisers have no realistic idea of what bang they are getting for their digital buck because measurement methods are unreliable, giving fraudsters a field day. "The days of giving digital a pass are over – it’s time to grow up," he warns.

Pritchard isn’t the only one fearful that brands that rushed headlong into digital have allowed its dazzle to blind them to its shortcomings. Another is David Wheldon, chief marketing officer at RBS Group and president of the World Federation of Advertisers.

Writing in Campaign last month, Wheldon warned of a significant downside to the profound impact digital is having on marketing: "The basics are often ignored and shiny new solutions are reached for without pause for reflection."

The inference from all of this is that too many companies – Pritchard counts P&G among them – have attempted to be digital pacesetters without considering the dangers. But is he right in claiming that companies such as his own were willing to accept shortcomings in measurements and verification in their enthusiasm for "getting ahead of the digital curve"?

Some brands suggest that if they entered the digital world in a hurry, it is because the speed of its impact on their markets has left them with little choice.

Matt McDowell, Toshiba’s European marketing director, says, "The fact is that, unless you’re a company like Saga that targets the pre-digital generation, you have to move fast to keep up with your customers. Many of them know no other world but digital and few watch live TV."

Others argue that advertisers have suffered not because they have sought to gain competitive advantage by becoming digital early adopters. It is because digital is the fastest-growing medium ever seen. So much so that measurement systems are struggling to keep up.

This point is not lost on Facebook, which has just announced an expanded partnership with Nielsen’s digital ad ratings – which now cover 25 markets – in an attempt to halt further measurement errors.

"Measurement will get better and better, but every year will pose a new challenge because technology is constantly changing the way people consume digital," the boss of a major digital agency points out.

He adds: "Of course digital must be held to a high standard. But you can also argue that TV, out-ofhome and print have still not completely matched the demands for accurate measurement. How can we ever know how much time somebody has spent reading a newspaper ad?"

Bill Brock, chief executive, AnalogFolkAgency head

Bill Brock, chief executive, AnalogFolk

"There will always be new challenges for companies whenever they move into digital marketing. While it’s true that effectiveness measures have to improve, the expectations of digital are high, particularly as it gets more sophisticated and with the advance of programmatic advertising.

"Given how fast digital is growing, you could argue that what’s happening is no more than ‘growing pains’ and measurement systems will improve. However, I’m not sure whether the industry could come together to create one.

"In the end, clients will need to hold their agencies accountable. It’s going to put a huge onus on media agencies."

Amelia Torode, chief strategy officer, TBWA\LondonPlanner

Amelia Torode, chief strategy officer, TBWA\London

"There’s been a lemming-like tendency among some companies to leap over the digital cliff and hope for the best. Others just behave like ostriches and bury their heads in the sand. Strategists have to weave their way between these extremes.

"The truth is that brands won’t get anywhere by sitting on the sidelines and trying to see what works and what doesn’t. You have to do it yourself. You can’t live in a post-digital world unless you conduct your own experiments.

"The lack of credible measurement systems is one we as an industry have to fix. There have to be more open and honest conversations about it."

Giles Gordon, global brand director, John Frieda haircareMarketer

Giles Gordon, global brand director, John Frieda haircare

"We’ve reached a phase when marketing is no longer about ‘test and learn’. There’s a need now for instant campaigns and digital is a function that enables us to provide great opportunities for our brands. If there are going to be problems, we’ll just have to put up with them.

"I also think digital platforms can work together to overcome ad-blocking. It’s really no different from the time when people put the kettle on during Coronation Street’s commercial breaks. And while there will never be a universally agreed measurement system, we will be relying more heavily on our trusted sources."

Stephen Maher, chief executive, MBAAgency head

Stephen Maher, chief executive, MBA

"It’s not that brands are getting into digital too quickly. Many have been too slow. Today, people live their lives through social media.

"That said, there is an issue over rigour, which lags behind that applied to traditional media. Of course, a lot of digital areas are nascent, but the sector as a whole is capable of growing up – and it needs to.

"There’s no doubt that a universal digital metric would help the cause for more rigour and transparency enormously and, hopefully, endorse the need for more, not less, digital presence for brands. But this may take a while."

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