Last year showed that marketers had failed to understand the risks of digital media
A view from Alex Aiken

Last year showed that marketers had failed to understand the risks of digital media

Marketers still have work to do to secure transparency and brand safety in the digital space - but we are in a much stronger position than 12 months ago, writes the executive director of the Government Communication Service.

If 2017 was the year that P&G’s Marc Pritchard woke advertisers up to transparency issues, then 2018 should be the year that we do something about it.

When I was asked to write about my challenges in 2018, I could have chosen any number of topics. From communicating the implications of Brexit, to the battle against disinformation, there are many challenges currently facing government communication.

I’m focussing on transparency in media buying because the way we deliver messages is as important as the messages themselves.

Transparency affects not just government, but the entire communications industry, which is why we made transparency a top priority when we launched our Media Buying Framework procurement, which is currently live and represents an annual contract worth about £140 million a year across public service.

Facing reality

When discussing digital programmatic in New York, Martin Cass, former head of Carat US, was asked where on the spectrum "between criminal and cutting corners" the various intermediaries in the publisher-client supply chain sit.

His reply? "Somewhere in the middle."

If the same can be said of media agencies, as key intermediaries, then where on the spectrum between "gullible and ignorant" do some of the clients belong?

Post-2008, when marketing budgets were diminishing and agency fees were being driven ever-downwards, where did we think the profits were being made?

Some could argue that we, as advertisers, are as guilty as agencies, for allowing the industry to reach a state where trust has all but disappeared. The issue needs addressing from both sides, and true resolution can only be reached with transparency and high standards of practice.

Only when all parties have confidence in a transparent media buying process can we begin to rebuild what’s been lost.

The cross industry working groups held by the Government Communication Service in 2017 helped us identify how to better assess value and deliver transparent digital marketing. I’m grateful to agencies and in-house teams like BT, O2, Unilever and many others who helped us.

Nonetheless, agencies and government departments continue to produce great work, helping recruit teachers and soldiers, and saving and improving lives every day.

The new Army "Belonging" campaign, DWP’s "Get to know your pension" and Public Health England’s "100 calorie snacks" are three of my recent favourites.

Brand safety

It’s impossible to talk about transparency without also mentioning brand safety. In March last year, when government ads were found to be appearing against inappropriate videos, we shut off YouTube activity.

We did not take such a decision lightly. We are conscious that YouTube is a powerful marketing platform, and is particularly important for campaigns targeting youth audiences, with the average millennial watching YouTube at least once a day.

But as Her Majesty’s Government, we cannot risk taxpayers’ money going to support hate and extremism.

The issues of last year were a real wake up call for the GCS, as well as many other advertisers. Collectively we had embraced, and seen the benefits of, both digital platforms and programmatic buying. However, like many others, we had failed to fully appreciate the risks.

Interestingly, we were told that by streamlining our approach to certain platforms we risked having less impact and incurring greater cost.

The opposite happened: we spent the same, but achieved improved results by concentrating on fewer sites and publications, lowering our CPA cost significantly across our performance campaigns.

The science of communications

I mentioned that addressing this issue would require action from both clients and agencies. The agencies have a responsibility to provide transparency, and we have a responsibility to correctly harness the information we receive.

This openness needs to extend across the supply chain: only once we truly understand what’s taking place throughout the media buying process can we take advantage of new opportunities and properly mitigate risk.

Communications is as much a science as it is an art - a necessity when delivering nine billion impressions annually.  

The GCS has programmes underway to improve government communications, led by both communicators and data specialists. Increased transparency and access to data will enable us to accelerate these programmes and unlock new possibilities for campaign delivery, ensuring they are better targeted, able to demonstrate greater impact and improve value for money.

The future

This year is going to be crucial to tackling the problems in our industry, and I want government to be at the forefront of creating that change.

By establishing a more open and transparent relationship with our agencies and ensuring that we have the ability to collaborate in a meaningful way, we can go a long way to fixing past issues and identify a mutually beneficial path forwards.

This will be the hallmark of the new government Media Buying Framework: our evaluation process for selecting a partner will focus heavily on standards, transparency and safety.

This is not just because we want to protect against fraud or brand safety issues. We have made this core to the process because, in 2018, transparency is fundamental to delivering effective communications.

Finally, while our focus remains on digital during the current media landscape, it’s crucial that we do not lose sight of the roles that TV, radio, newspaper and out of home channels have to play.

In a recent regional campaign we tested all sorts of media, and found that the most effective single channel was a huge poster outside the local shopping centre - a reminder to us all to keep learning, and be critical in assessing our impact.

Alex Aiken is the executive director for government communications and a member of Campaign’s 2017 Power 100.