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How to de-risk the future in uncertain times

With the country living through tumultuous times, brands have their work cut out. Can they de-risk their activities and still reap the rewards?

Back row, l to r: Gooding; Ryan; Daniell. Front row, l to r: Peacocke; Oakes (chair); Robertson; Evans, Markham; Milne and Stubley*
Back row, l to r: Gooding; Ryan; Daniell. Front row, l to r: Peacocke; Oakes (chair); Robertson; Evans, Markham; Milne and Stubley*

We are living in risky times. MPs are at each other’s throats in the reconvened parliament, while the country wonders what comes next.

In the cultured confines of London’s Ham Yard Hotel, proceedings were more cordial as brands and agencies gathered for a Campaign Dinner Debate, in association with Neustar, to discuss how they can best derisk their marketing in such unprecedented times.

When eBay chief marketing officer Gareth Jones says that the self-confessed "granddaddy of ecommerce" is finding it harder than ever to predict the behaviour of consumers, you know things are challenging.

"Consumers are behaving differently to how they were 6-12 months ago. It’s a function of the shitstorm we are living in – it is screwing up our modelling. Retail in 2020 will be tough."

Understanding what marketing data is saying is increasingly business critical. It’s also getting harder, with issues such as GDPR and the demise of cookies changing the ground beneath brands.

For Mark Evans, managing director, marketing and digital at Direct Line Group, data is the weapon that has delivered hard-won trust that marketing is an investment, not a cost. 

"The job of convincing the business that marketing is not a colouring-in function is never done. If you’re proud of your advertising, show it to your mum, but you need to take econometrics to the board."

Goodbye cookie

But with tech giants Google and Safari recently limiting tracking, marketers could face data drying up in a cookieless world. Perhaps surprisingly, this doesn’t induce a collective shudder, with Billy Ryan, head of data at the7stars, noting that cookies did not measure the effectiveness of on and offline interaction. "It probably makes explaining effectiveness to the C-suite a bit easier now that we don’t have that promise of end-to-end tracking of every marketing exposure."

With Advertising Association research showing trust in advertising at an all-time low, brands need to better demonstrate the value exchange, says Mark Gooding, head of growth at Neustar. "If cookies were turned off tomorrow, customers’ experience of websites would be markedly worse as preferences wouldn’t be stored – brands need to promote how they are supporting the consumer experience."

Neustar aims to address this by developing an offline-online identity system for publishers and advertisers to address the privacy landscape – a win-win for all, says Gooding. It is also bringing solutions that help companies analyse, personalise and activate customer interaction, addressing customers at the moments that matter and connecting those moments to a complete customer journey to continually optimise and enrich those experiences over time.

Personalisation is certainly still on the brand radar. eBay is looking at ways to "collapse the funnel," says Jones. "We’re trying to sell more at the top and branding more at the bottom. Why not sell more when people are listening to a personalised radio ad?"

Don’t forget brand

Not everyone wants one-to-one, says Louise Peacocke, Starcom’s managing partner. "In FMCG, there’s still great value in the big cultural moment versus the tailored experience."

Nick Milne, consumer and marketing analytics director at Samsung, points to the struggle in not owning the consumer relationship. "About 80-90% of our sales are through retail. We can’t track the communication so cookies are less important, and there’s so much to get right beforehand."

Emma Robertson, CEO of Engine Transformation, says that there is a halo effect to great brand campaigns that digital benefits from, even if it’s hard to measure. 

"People engage with the brand because it means something to them," she says. "We had a client who told me that every partner they worked with had exceeded their metrics but the business was moving down because everyone was targeted on very tactical stuff."

Whose house?

With clients such as Vodafone bringing more digital in-house, some brands feel this reduces risk. Digital natives such as Deliveroo and eBay prefer to keep certain functions close to home, but not all companies have the appetite or resource to in-house. While Starcom is happy to help clients who want to build internal teams, Peacocke says the expected gains do not always materialise and some are going back to a more traditional agency relationship. 

Jones says agencies do different things for eBay, and are assessed against their contribution to growth. "We never dispute that marketing is an investment, but where spend goes is the conversation with finance. Numbers are facts and facts become reality, but with digital, there can be a false precision about numbers that breeds confidence. It doesn’t mean that we don’t invest where we can’t shine a light as well."

Lucy Markham, communications strategist at  VCCP Media, says a holistic approach can build the case for big, sexy brand activity and translate it into numerical language. "If we can make it as ‘sciency’ as the marginal gains stuff, then that will really get attention."

Rising demands

As data and analytics get smarter, expectations that everything is measurable will get higher, admits Paul Stubley, analytics manager at Deliveroo. Managing this will be a challenge. However, providing data visualisation tools covering media investments can empower stakeholders and make them more informed.

The technology and humanity overlap is a crucial area. Data only has value if it provides insight, and for all the talk of bringing new perspectives to the marketing department, data scientists don’t always know what to ask. As Stubley says: "There is no end to the questions we could ask, but the foundation of the business has to be based on asking the right questions."

For Tom Daniell, retail and marketing director at Aviva, the biggest risk remains failure to get senior backing. "Marketers may believe totally in what they do, but can you get the board to believe in assumption on assumption?"

Ultimately, Gooding notes, the most effective way to de-risk marketing is to connect it to real business outcomes in a holistic and predictive way.

* In the debate: Gareth Jones, chief marketing officer, eBay; Mark Gooding, head of growth, Neustar; Billy Ryan, head of data, the7stars; Tom Daniell, retail and marketing director, Aviva; Louise Peacocke, managing partner, Starcom; Omar Oakes, global technology editor, Campaign (chair); Emma Robertson, CEO, Engine Transformation; Mark Evans, managing director, marketing and digital, Direct Line Group; Lucy Markham, communications strategist, VCCP Media; Nick Milne, consumer and marketing analytics director, Samsung and Paul Stubley, analytics manager, Deliveroo.