Alex Steer

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Ethics and opportunity in a world without third-party cookies

919 words | ~5 min

I wrote this back in January 2021 for The Drum, and it was recently (unexpectedly) commended by the Atticus Awards, so pasting it here.


In January 2022 [scratch that, late 2023 late 2024, maybe...], as most marketers know, big changes will be in the air. Google Chrome, the most popular web browser in the world, will no longer allow the tracking of third-party cookies (probably). This has sent brands, marketers, and advertisers scrambling, as third-party cookies have become a critical part of how online advertising works. Words like “walled gardens,” “cookieless tracking,” and “customer data platforms” have become common. But before rushing into replacement systems, perhaps the industry should stop and reflect on what got us here, what it means, and how we can shape a better future.

How we got here

For background, cookies are nothing more than bits of code that websites and other digital properties put on people’s browsers and devices. The industry has been using them for the last 25 years or so to track and remember user behavior. In practical terms, they give us a way to create memory and persistence — and distinguish between people.

As brand marketers, we’ve always felt that cookies are a good thing. They help us to be more relevant, less interruptive, and more helpful to consumers. Unfortunately, there’s another side to this. In order to create that relevance, we’ve also had to build a massive data ecosystem and technology infrastructure to connect brands and consumers. As a result, data about individuals is shared billions of times a day, not just with advertisers but with hundreds of thousands of intermediaries.

To give you an example of just how extensive that sharing is, whenever you log in to CNN, in the first 16 seconds your data is shared 950 times. Of course, it is used to create communications and media that are more relevant and valuable to you, but the extent of digital data collection has become so vast that many consumers and regulators feel the value exchange between users and data collectors has become imbalanced.

How we use data

The problem is not merely how much of our data has been shared, but also how it is being used — without our knowing it. Most people have a mistaken tendency to think of data collection as a form of memory. It’s much more than that.

When you share data with a brand, it is not only remembering you but also using that data to make predictions about other people. Those predictions are typically about two things: the next best action and the next best person. The next best action means deciding the best offer, opportunity, or action to recommend to an individual. The next best person means finding individuals who will likely respond well to messaging based on their similarity to existing customers.

This gets into some uncomfortable questions, especially around the idea that data sharing is a personal choice. Many people think they choose what brands will share in exchange for a more personalized experience. But a more accurate analogy for data sharing is public health. If you consent to give information to a brand or a technology company, it can also use those things to make predictions about other people. As a result, we have a collective risk and responsibility about how we use data, much as we have a collective risk when it comes to infectious disease.

To give an extreme example, in the 2016 election, Cambridge Analytica built models about user behaviour on Facebook that made some extraordinary predictions. For example, one model found a relationship between whether you like curly fries and how intelligent you are. Another could determine political affiliation by whether or not you liked Hello Kitty. It’s really difficult to give consent to the use of your personal data when you have no idea what it is being used for.

Predictably, this has led to a backlash. Consumers, regulators, and other technology platforms have become concerned about the pervasive and potentially abusive nature of data collection, and as a result, the cookie itself is being forced to retire.

The implications moving forward

For marketers, this is a reality check. As an industry, we need to acknowledge that whatever type of media we are using or communications we are devising, we are always thinking about the next best action and next best person. We are always trying to be more relevant, whether that’s tracking people online or putting the right posters halfway down the escalator at Piccadilly Circus. We are always trying to incite change and influence behaviour. These are things we cannot run away from; rather, we must engage openly and honestly with them.

Before we start to think about what the future of cookie-less tracking looks like, we need to have a conversation about the ethics of data technology. We should ask whether there are ways to do it better than we have in the past. Few people thought about these things 25 years ago when the data industry was in its infancy. Over time, this lack of attention to data ethics has led us down paths that now threaten the basis of digital advertising. It is time to do the hard work of getting it right so that we don’t find ourselves in a similarly uncomfortable position a decade or so down the road.

# Alex Steer (27/01/2022)

Predicting the future of advertising: hits and misses

1939 words | ~10 min

Back in 2013, the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania ran a study exploring what the future of advertising might look like in 2020. I wrote about it at the time, and did some basic and only-partially-scientific word distribution analysis to look at whether the language being used to describe advertising seven years in the future was significantly different from, or more diverse than, language used in predictions of advertising over the next twelve months. I found, at the time, that 'predictions about 2020' looked eerily similar to 'predictions about 2013', and wondered whether they were underestimating change.

Which brings us to today. While the study's website has not survived to 2020 (see its archive), this blog just about has. So now that 2020 is the present (and what a present it's turned out to be), I thought it would be worth revisiting that analysis.

First off, no, I'm not going to deduct any marks for failing to predict a pandemic. We're better than that. Instead, let's re-run the analysis, to see how 2013's predictions of 2020 vary from 2019's predictions of 2020.

To do this, we need a new data set. The old one was built from:

  • The raw text of all the 2020 predictions submitted to the Wharton programme - a total of 39,405 words.
  • The raw text of a set of 2013 predictions from industry sources I found at the end of 2012 - a total 33,041 words.

This time round, I've pulled together the raw text of a set of 2020 predictions from industry sources from the end of 2019 and January 2020 - a total of 37,422 words. As before, all are from reputable sources, mainly interviews/talking heads, appearing in the first two pages of Google search results for 2020 advertising predictions.

So here goes. The table below shows the top 20 words appearing in the 2013 predictions from 2012, the 2020 predictions from the Wharton study, and the 2020 predictions from 2019.

Rank2013 trends2020 predictions2020 trends

You can see the top 500 words/two-word phrases by frequency here (common stopwords and obvious noise removed).

So, from this rather partial analysis, how do the current concerns and buzzwords of marketers compare to what the Wharton participants talked about seven years ago?

The first and most obvious thing is the dominance of data as the single most talked-about thing - up from fifth place in the predictions about 2013, and up from 13th place in the Wharton 2020 predictions. This suggests that the Wharton predictions underestimated the persistence and prevalence of data even at the time, or perhaps assumed it would decline as a topic of conversation and become a solved problem. Clearly not. Digital, which even in 2013 may have felt like a term nearing retirement, has also moved up into the top five.

But beyond the dominance of data, what's interesting looking down the new top 20 list, and indeed the top 500, is how thoroughly the language of business and marketing has come to supplant the familiar language of the advertising industry. Advertising, which unsurprisingly was the most frequent word in the Wharton predictions, doesn't even make the top 20. In the new 2020 data, advertisers are in 27th place, and advertising in 29th. Communications is only the 483rd most common word. The same shift is visible in the movement up of customer(s) vs consumers, a subtle shift that may reflect the increasing dominance of direct marketing and CRM thinking vs the language and ideas of brand marketing. Agencies is in 195th place, on a level pegging with customer data. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that the words companies and business are in the top twenty for 2020, as they were for 2013, since they are for the most part the funders of advertising... but they were not as well represented in the Wharton predictions.

There's some reassuring familiarity here too. Brands remain every bit as vital a part of the conversation as they were in 2013, much in line with the concerns of the Wharton respondents. This should act as a sense-check to those who persistently predict their demise. Media has hardly moved - though about a third of the usage is in the term social media.

What else was under-represented? Experience makes an appearance now, as does content, reflecting the new front line of concern for where brands show up and (rightly or wrongly) pushing advertising off its perch. Purpose is also a notable addition, but digging into the underlying text it is used in two different ways - the broad notion of brand purpose, on the one hand, and the nuanced and technical territory of data collection purpose(s), on the other - which concisely demonstrate the competing pressures on the modern marketing organisation, and the need to find a simplicity on the far side of so much complexity. The prevalence of human is exactly the cry for help that it appears to be.

Comparing the Wharton prediction text with the updated 2020 word list, what stands out? First, the extent to which the language used by the predictors back in 2013 suggests that they thought the future of advertising would be recognisably ad-like: advertising brands to consumers through media to achieve marketing goals, even while grappling with the changes and challenges of social, content, digital, data and mobile. These were the concerns of 2013 but (reading back through the original Wharton responses) they also came with a degree of confidence: that advertising was at heart a human discipline and that brands would adapt to a noisier, more democratised environment by learning to listen before they talked, and earning the right to be heard.

Little of that same confidence is found when listening to how we talk about 2020 now. Pandemics and downturns aside, there is a sense that advertising is a complex, technical, precarious and demanding discipline, using data to do digital marketing to customers of a business... while at the same time grasping for purpose and human connection for brands. The word social, aptly, is the 43rd most common word, just one step ahead of AI.

It sounds clever, it sounds complicated, it sounds like a high-wire act of technology, privacy and coordination.

It does not sound fun.

What feels like it's missing, between the data mines and the mountaintops of purpose, is any real discussion of how to create communications and experiences that people might actually enjoy. Or, indeed, how to get beyond the nuts and bolts of how to deliver advertising, to the trickier but more fulfilling question of how to get it to perform. The discourse of advertising feels like it has been been co-opted by those who profit by making advertising sound hard, rather than those who profit by making it look easy.

For all that complexity, there is little sense of progress. Looking back at the next-twelve-month predictions of marketers in 2012, it takes an attentive reader to notice that they are eight years old. Of the dominant concerns of 2012 - marketing, brands, content, social, data, mobile, consumers - only mobile seems like a solved problem.

Agencies may look at the language of the industry today and feel sidelined. They bear a share of the responsibility. By ignoring these problems of capability and coordination - by under-investing in or divesting expertise in data, technology, media, production, etc. - many agencies have left their clients to solve them. It's no wonder they have become preoccupations, and that new sources of help have been sought.

What's driving those preoccupations? Ultimately, I think, the increased difficulty of finding growth from markets, due to more diffuse demand, oversupply of good-enough products and services, more competition, and shifts in the mix of channels where people discover brands, research purchases and buy. Many of the foundations of the economy of mass markets, mass production and mass media have changed. These changes were well underway when the last set of predictions were made. The fundamentals of marketing have become less familiar, and harder, for many businesses.

What's been lost? Perhaps the optimism with which the future of advertising was talked about in those Wharton predictions - the sense that the challenges facing advertising's next decade would be social rather than technical, and that brands would respond by adapting the arts of persuasion to a noisier and more complex environment. Too little effort has been spent since on learning to communicate more effectively, compared to the effort spent on increasingly sophisticated marketing technology and operations. Worse, these have too often been treated as separate conversations - numbers on one side, words and pictures on the other. Agencies should have shown more interest in the mechanics and the maths.

Where next? I suspect that if we asked the industry to predict advertising in eight years' time, the results would just reflect today's preoccupations again, as they did eight years ago. To take that at face value would, I think, be a mistake. Many of the technical challenges of marketing, media and commerce are now well understood by marketers, technology companies and consultants, if not well enough by agencies. As we converge on solutions, the competitive advantage of having certain technology, and even of operating it in certain ways, will begin to decline again. The 'tech stack years' are, probably, drawing to a close. What will become more valuable is what can be done uniquely: this includes building strong brands and creating distinctive and powerful communications, but it also includes analysis, prediction and innovation based on the information a brand has about its consumers (or customers), the coordination of all marketing's assets to be more interesting and more effective.

A new golden age for agencies is far from guaranteed, but far from impossible. Those who succeed will be growth partners, finding advantage from all a brand's assets, mastering complexity rather than selling it or ignoring it, and making it all look easy again.

# Alex Steer (09/08/2020)

The media agency of the future will have no boundaries

1019 words | ~5 min

Note: this piece first appeared in Campaign in October.

Change can often be a shock but not a surprise. We love to talk about "black swans", but shifts in society, culture or business often announce themselves a long time in advance, if we know how to listen.

Our industry is no different. The narrative of media agencies as lumbering giants is flatly wrong – there are few sectors with media's track record of evolution and reinvention. It's happening again, driven by changes in technology, consumer behaviour and client need – but it's easy to miss the signs.

When things change, our response is often to look for patterns from the past rather than signals from the future. This may explain the recent spike in industry commentators asking whether we're returning to the era of the "full-service" agency after years of increasing specialisation.

I'd like to suggest that the change is real, but the analogy is wrong. The future isn't full-service, it's modular.

The connected customer experience goes beyond media

The traditional agency model, of offering a fixed scope of high-class outsourcing that doesn't change for years, is simply no longer sophisticated enough to suit the demands of today's clients.

That isn't just because clients have changed – it's because the world has changed.

The experiences people have with brands are more interlinked and less predictably linear, and this creates challenges and opportunities.

Marketers now have to look at the whole consumer experience journey, finding ways to get advantage out of each part without losing sense of the whole.

If that sounds obvious, it's because it has been coming for years. Any business that isn't organising its marketing around people, journeys and outcomes is behind reality.

The response from brands has been gaining momentum for some years. Most brands are fusing together brand advertising with performance marketing and bringing customer relationship, service, subscription, membership and digital behavioural data into the mix.

Marketers have long been frustrated with the fragmentation of the agency market into narrow, specialist service providers.

Being able to offer an opinion or service relating to only part of the picture may have worked once; now, it's a recipe for gaps and overlaps.

The re-engineering of brands' operational requirements, unified through data, is now bringing matters to a head and is forcing the media and advertising industry to respond.

Clients need agencies without boundaries

In this context, planning and buying media can no longer be a distinct stand-alone discipline. It is now part of a complex landscape, connected with content creation, influence, technology design and build, consumer engagement strategy, data creation, experience design and performance measurement.

Just to make things more exciting, we are nowhere near a settled answer to what the marketing function of the future looks like.

A fixed "full-service" scope is a risky bet, and a constellation of specialist agencies means you spend too much time managing your agencies, not focusing on your customers.

Clients need agencies without boundaries – ie an agency with many specialisms, along with the ability to assemble them and evolve them fast according to client needs. To become an agency without boundaries, you need to move on from focusing on service silos to understanding how to move people from a passive brand relationship to action.

And of the old breed of agencies – from creative to digital, CRM and branding – it's media agencies that have shown themselves the most able and willing to evolve and adapt.

When WPP created Wavemaker, for instance, we were asked to design the agency of the future now. It's not often you are given a challenge or an opportunity that big.

We decided from the outset that Wavemaker should not be another media agency in the mould of those that had come before, but a new model focused on unlocking growth by finding opportunities in people's paths to purchase and the huge array of influences on that.

Every one of us is on a perpetual journey in relation to many different brands. We see, engage with or ignore these brands in 100 different ways every day. The beginning of a journey may take years, days or minutes, or it may never start.

If it does start, it may take months of media, content or tech nudges, inspiration, persuasion and reflection before it reaches a conclusion. Or it could take 30 seconds from discovering a need to clicking "buy now".

Looked at this way, the scope for creativity and invention is boundless – from inspiring affinity with a brand to delivering a double-digit sales uplift in a matter of hours. But it requires a unity of service provision, thought and action to achieve meaningful impact.

Removing service boundaries has not only meant that we can align ourselves with a client's business strategies more completely, but it has unlocked our business model.

Media agencies are uniquely able to adapt

Clients are asking for flexibility, speed, problem-solving, rapid innovation and delivery. Inevitably, many briefs are not simple media planning and buying retainers; they could just as easily include a consultancy project or a content development initiative.

Rather than being marginalised, media agencies now have an incredible opportunity to enhance their relationship with brands as a business growth partner rather than a media service provider.

Historically, media agencies have shown themselves uniquely acquisitive and flexible in terms of absorbing skillsets and expertise across strategic planning, media performance technology, customer insight, content development and data utilisation.

You can see the difference in the diversity of skillsets and backgrounds in our teams. The mix of people involved in our agency and across the media agency sector as a whole is dramatically different from even two years ago.

I expect the breadth of expertise and delivery offered by agencies to continue to grow, reflecting the radical changes facing clients as they continue to digitise their business operations and respond to people's changing desires and needs.

Agencies have been, and always will be, a reflection of clients' needs. Technology has changed how brands and people interact profoundly. That's not sudden, but it's important.

Marketers need agencies to respond to this and help them see and act on the whole customer journey.

# Alex Steer (21/06/2020)

Machine learning needs people knowledge

1079 words | ~5 min

Written on behalf of UKOM and originally published on the Mediatel site.

If you were to write out a list of the data-related topics that marketers talk about, and arrange them in order of sexiness, it’s a fair bet that you would find ‘artificial intelligence’ at one end of that list, and ‘credible standards for audience measurement’ at the other.

This should come as no surprise. After all, we’ve lived through the best part of a decade of incredible advances in cloud computing which have given new life and (let’s face it) big new injections of cash into artificial intelligence and machine learning research. We’ve seen the rise of tech and media giants whose entire business models are built on predictive analytics, not to mention significant B2B marketing efforts directed at getting brands excited about the possibilities of ‘AI’ (a phrase whose definition ranges from the enormously specific to the borderline mystical).

Nor is this purely hype, the way so many other supposed marketing innovations are. (I’m looking at you, blockchain.) Artificial intelligence does, after all, offer the prospect of being able to make better decisions faster, and to update those decisions as the evidence changes. For an industry like ours, whose practitioners have gone from being parched for lack of data to drowning in the stuff, in little more than a decade, the promise of an approach that can help make sense and create value from all that data is hugely appealing.

The kinds of questions that AI, machine learning and cloud computing can answer read like the back of a self-help book for marketers. How do I understand my customers better? How do I make better predictions in close to real time? How do I create better customer experiences? How do I see how every marketing touchpoint contributes to penetration, customer acquisition, lifetime value, and so on? These are genuine and legitimate needs, and the application of data science (the well-branded union of statistics and software engineering) can offer meaningfully better answers.

Back in 2012, Harvard Business Review famously declared data science ‘the sexiest job of the 21st century’. It’s a fair bet that they were thinking about the AI end of the spectrum. Meanwhile, down at the other end of my list, away from the excitement, are those of us diligently working out whether the individuals who see all these new AI-powered ‘brand experiences’ are the right people, or indeed people at all. In a world of elegantly-architected walled gardens, some of us are checking the bricks.

Now, I’m a bit of a nerd, as the whole ‘let’s rank data topics by sexiness’ thing in the first paragraph has probably made clear, so I don’t think being on the boring-but-important end of the spectrum is anything to be ashamed of. But I think diligence can be its own worst enemy when it forgets to win hearts and minds – so now is the time to start shouting, loudly, about the importance of people measurement.

Why now? Because for the last ten years or so, we’ve been building a house of cards – building businesses and deploying billions of dollars of marketing spend on ‘good-enough’ proxies for people and audiences. From clicks, to cookies, to ‘roll-your-own’ customer IDs, to ‘trust-the-platform’ walled-garden reach and frequency estimates, we’ve created a digital economy that rewards audience scale and granularity, without insisting on independent validation of that information. As if that weren’t bad enough, we’ve taken a similar ‘good-enough’ approach to behavioural metrics such as ‘impressions’, ‘views’ or ‘engagement’, with the result that media planners are now routinely forced to compare apples to oranges, which is bananas.

So what happens when you pay for ‘people data’ without insisting the people are real? After a decade of fake news, disinformation, electoral interference, data breaches, echo chambers and unchecked hate speech, look me in the eye and tell me you don’t know.

But the real answer to the question, ‘why now?’, is that if those of us who control media budgets don’t insist on a higher standard now, we’re at the start of a catastrophe, not the end of one. We are only beginning to explore the ability of artificial intelligence and machine learning to classify, predict, decide and act, based on information about people. What do you think happens if we allow algorithms to make decisions based on fake people? The consequence for advertisers is a massive escalation of fraud. The consequences for people and for society as a whole are much worse. Optimising towards unverified engagement metrics such as clicks has already led to a noisy digital ad ecosystem which has prompted rampant ad-blocking. That will look like a fairly small problem compared to the reputational damage to our industry if we are seen as the major source of funding for platforms that enable fake news and disinformation.

There’s a wonderful scene in the film The Big Short where one of the lead characters, a hedge fund manager who’s been betting against dodgy loans, realises that for every dollar invested directly in those loans, there are thousands of dollars invested in exotic financial derivatives built on top of the value of those loans. Without a commitment to verified people data, many businesses will find themselves in a similar situation, making huge investment decisions based on machine learning algorithms which are trained on dodgy data about the behaviours of people who cannot be verified as real. The results will be like playing Jenga. With a hammer.

There is good news, and it’s simpler than you might think. Most of us think that these problems are inherent to the ‘black box’ nature of AI and machine learning. In fact, the vast majority of them are data problems, not algorithm problems. Marketers can take two actions that, if applied at scale, will drive the cleanup of the ecosystem. The first is to work directly with responsible businesses in a transparent media supply chain. The second is only to plan, measure and pay for media based on independently verified people data, such as that provided by UKOM. Do not accept machine learning, however sophisticated, in the absence of people knowledge.

Digital audience measurement may never be sexy. But now, more than ever, it’s important – to brands, to individuals, to societies. And that matters more.

# Alex Steer (30/07/2019)

When they go deep, we go wide: Why almost everyone is getting marketing science wrong

2571 words | ~13 min

I'm going to start the new year off on a controversial note – not with a prediction (predictions are overrated) but with an observation. I think most of the chatter and hype about data science in marketing is looking in the wrong direction.

This is a bit of a long read, so bail out now or brace yourself.

I've worked in marketing analytics, marketing technology, digital marketing and media for the last decade. I've built DMPs, analytics stacks, BI tools, planning automation systems and predictive modelling tools, and more than my fair share of planning processes. I am, it's fair to say, a marketing data nerd, and have been since back when jumping from strategy to analytics was considered a deeply weird career move.

My discipline has become, slowly-then-quickly, the focus of everyone's attention. The industry buzzwords for the last few years have been big data, analytics, machine learning and AI. We're starting to get to grips with the social and political implications of widespread data collection by large companies. All of this makes data-driven marketing better and more accountable (which it badly needs). But all of this attention - the press coverage, the frenzied hiring, the sales pitching from big tech companies, all of it – has a bias built into it, that means talented data scientists are working on the wrong problems.

The bias is the false assumption that you can do the most valuable data science work in the channels that have the most data. That sounds self-evident, right? But it is, simply, not true. We believe it's true because we confuse the size and granularity of data sets with the value we can derive from analysing them.

Happiness is not just a bigger data set

We're used to the idea that more data equals better data science, and therefore that by focusing on the most data-rich marketing channels, you will get the best results. We are told this every day and it is a simple, attractive story. But the biggest gains in marketing science come from knowing where to be, when to appear and what to say, not how to optimise individual metrics in individual channels. Knowing this can drive not just marginal gains but millions of pounds of additional profit for businesses.

This makes lots of people deeply uncomfortable, because it attacks one of the fundamental false narratives in marketing science: that the road to better marketing science is through richer single-source data. This narrative is beloved of tech companies, but it comes from an engineering culture, not a data science culture. Engineers, rightly, love data integrity. Data scientists are able to find value from data in the absence of integrity, by bringing a knowledge of probability and statistics that lets us make informed connections and predictions between data sets.

Marketing data is the big new thing, but from the chatter, you would believe that the front line of marketing analytics sits within the walled gardens of big data creators like Google, Facebook, Amazon or Uber. These businesses have colossal amounts of user data, detailing users' every interaction with their services in minute detail. There is, to be sure, massive amounts of interesting and useful work to be done on these data sets. These granular, varied and high-quality data resources are a wonderful training ground for imaginative and motivated data scientists, and some of the more interesting problems relate to marketing and advertising. For example, data scientists within the walled gardens can work on marketing problems like:

  • How do I make better recommendations based on people's previous product/service usage?
  • How do I find meaningful user segments based on behavioural patterns?
  • How do I build good tests for user experience features, offers, pricing, promotions, etc?
  • How do I allocate resources, inventory, etc., to satisfy as many users as possible?

All of which is analytically interesting and important, not to mention a big data engineering challenge. But if you're a data scientist and particularly interested in marketing, are these the most interesting problems?

I don't think they are.

These are big data problems, but they are still small domain problems. Think about how much time on average people spend in a single data ecosystem (say, Facebook or Amazon), and the diversity of the behaviours they exhibit there. You are analysing a tiny fraction of someone's behaviour; worse, you are trying to build predictive models from the slice of life that you can observe in minute detail. If you work in operations or infrastructure, almost all the data you need sits within the platform. But if you are doing marketing analytics, swimming in the deep but small pool of a single data lake can cause a serious blind spot. How much of someone's decision to buy something rests on the exposure to those marketing experiences that you happen to have tracked through that data set?

As a marketing scientist you have an almost unique opportunity among commercial data scientists: to build the most complete models of people's decision-making in the marketplace. Think about the last thing you bought: now tell me why you bought it. The answer is likely to be a broad combination of factors… and you're still likely to miss out some of the more important ones. As marketing scientists we're asked to answer that question, on a huge scale, every day in ways that influence billions of dollars of marketing investment.

We need bigger models, not just bigger data

Marketing analytics is a data science challenge unlike most others, because it forces you to work across data sets, often of very different types. The machine learning models we build have to be granular enough to allow tactical optimisation over minutes and hours, and robust enough to sustain long-range forecasts over months and years.

The kinds of questions we get to answer include:

  • What is the unique contribution of every marketing touchpoint to sales/user growth/etc?
  • Can we predict segment membership or stage in the customer journey based on touchpoint usage? How do we predict the next best action across the whole marketing mix?
  • How do touchpoints interact with each other or compete?
  • Are there critical upper and lower thresholds for different types of marketing investment?
  • How sensitive are buyers to changes in price? What other non-price features would get me the same result as a discount if I changed them?
  • How important is predisposition towards certain brands or suppliers? What is the cost and impact of changing this vs making tactical optimisations while people are in the market?

Yet we have a massive, pervasive blind spot. We are almost all acting as if marketing science applied only to digital channels. Do a quick Google for terms like 'automated media planning' or 'marketing optimization'. Almost all of the papers and articles you will find are limited to digital channels and programmatic/biddable media. I have had serious, senior people look me in the eye and tell me there is no way to measure the impact of brand predisposition on market share, no way even to account for non-direct-response marketing touchpoints like television, outdoor advertising or event marketing. This is, of course, wrong.

Everywhere you look, there is an unspoken assumption that the whole marketing mix is just too complicated to be analysed and optimised as a whole – that the messy, complex landscape of things people see, from telly ads to websites to shelf wobblers, needs to be simplified and digitised before we can make sense of it. It's little surprise that this idea, that anything not digital is not accountable, is projected loudest by businesses who make their money from digital marketing.

Again, this is an engineering myth, not a data science reality. Engineers, rightly, look at disunited data sets and see an integrity problem that can be fixed. Data scientists should (and I hope do) look at the same data sets and see a probability problem worth solving. The truth is that it is possible to use analytics and machine learning to build models that incorporate every marketing touchpoint, and show their impact on business results. The whole of media and marketing planning is a science and can be done analytically – not just the digital bits. Those who claim otherwise are trying to stop you from buying a car because all they know how to sell you is a bicycle.

This is the part that makes people uncomfortable – because it requires a more sophisticated data science approach. Being smart within a single data set is relatively easy – getting access to the data is a major engineering problem, but the data science problems are only moderately hard. As a data scientist within a single walled garden, it's easy to feel a sense of completeness and advantage, because only you have access to that data. Working across data sets, building models for human behaviour within the whole marketplace, needs a completely different mindset. There is no perfect data set that covers everything from the conversations people have with their friends to the TV programmes they watch to the things they search for online to the products they see in the shops – yet we need to build models that account for all of this.

Probability beats certainty… but it's harder

Making the leap from in-channel optimisation to cross-channel data science means having a better understanding of the fundamentals of probability theory and the underlying patterns in data. For example, I've built models that predict the likelihood that people searching for a brand online have previously heard adverts for the brand on the radio, and the optimum number of times they should have heard it to drive an efficient uplift in conversion to sales. If I had a data set that somehow magically captured individuals' radio consumption, search behaviours and supermarket shopping, this would be a large data engineering problem (because there'd be loads of data) but a trivial data science problem (because I'd just be building an index of purchasing rate for exposed listeners vs a matched control set of unexposed, etc.). This is the kind of analysis that research and scanning panel providers have been doing for decades - it's only the size of the data set that's radically new.

But of course, that data set doesn't exist. It's unlikely it'll ever exist, because the cost of building it would be far in excess of the commercial interests of any business. (Nobody is in the 'radio, online search and grocery shopping' industry… at least not yet. Amazon, I'm looking at you.) So what do we do?

The engineering response is to try and build the data set. This is a noble pursuit, but it can lead to an engineering culture response, which is to try and change human behaviour so that people only do things that can be captured within a single data set. An engineering culture will try to persuade advertisers to shift their spend from radio to digital audio, and their shopping from in-store to online, because then you can track all the behaviours, end to end. So measurement becomes trivial - it's just that, to achieve it, you've had to completely change human behaviour and marketing practice, and build a server farm the size of the moon to capture it all.

The data science response is to look at it probabilistically - to create, for example, agent-based simulations of the whole population based on the very good information we have about the distribution of occurrence of radio listening, online search and supermarket shopping. To do this, you need to be able to master the craft of fitting statistical models without overfitting them - building a model of exposure and response that is elegant, both matching reality but capable of predicting future change and dealing with uncertainty. When you do this, it's possible to build very sophisticated models that give a good guide to how the whole marketing mix influences present and future behaviour, without trying to coerce everything into a single data set.

Data science cultures are vastly better suited to transforming the future of marketing than engineering cultures. They see ambiguity as a challenge rather than an error, and they look hard for the underlying patterns in population-level data. They build models that focus on deriving greater total value from the marketing mix, through simulation and structural analysis across data sets, rather than just deterministic matching of individual-level identifiers. With apologies to Michelle Obama: when they go deep, we go wide.

Data science cultures may not be where you think

Marketing needs to change, and data is going to be fundamental to that change, as everybody has been saying for years. The discipline needs to be treated as a science, and the agencies, consultancies and platforms that want to survive in the next decade need to make a meaningful investment in technology, automation and product.

But while everybody is looking to the engineering cultures of Silicon Valley for salvation, I think the real progress is going to be made by data science cultures - the organisations that combine expertise in statistical data science, data fusion, research and software development, to create meaning and value in the absence of data integrity. Google, to its credit, is one of these. Some of the best original statistical research on the fundamental maths of communications planning is being done in the research group led by Jim Koehler and colleagues.

My employer, GroupM (the media arm of WPP), is another. Over the last few years we've quietly built up the largest single repository of consumer, brand and market data anywhere, of which the big single-source data sets are just one part. We are in the early years of throwing serious data science thinking at that data, building models and simulations for market dynamics that no single data set could hope to capture. Some of the other big media holding companies have strong data science cultures and impressive talent. There are a handful of funded startups, too - but vanishingly few, relative to the tidal wave of investment behind data engineering firms and single-source data platforms.

This is a deeply unfashionable thing to suggest, but a lot of the most advanced marketing science work is being done in media companies and marketing research firms, not in technology companies. There are two reasons for this. First, the media business model has supported a level of original R&D work for most of the last decade, even if it's not always been turned systematically into product. Second, media companies and agencies are ultimately accountable for what to invest, where, how much, and when - the kind of large-scale questions that can't be solved simply by optimising each individual channel to the hilt. (On a personal note, this is why I moved from digital analytics into media four years ago - the data is more diverse, the problems harder and more interesting.)

While everybody is focusing on the data engineering smarts of the Big Four platforms, keep an eye on the data science cultures who are transforming a huge breadth of data into new, sophisticated ways of predicting marketing outcomes. And if you're a data scientist interested in marketing, look for the data science cultures not just the engineering ones. They're harder to find because money and fame aren't yet flowing their way… but they have a big chance of transforming a trillion-dollar industry over the next few years.

# Alex Steer (04/01/2019)

Nets, spears and dynamite

804 words | ~4 min

This originally appeared in the 50th edition of Campaign. It's co-written by my colleague David Fletcher.


Nothing brings us together like a good theoretical disagreement, does it? For an industry built on a reputation for persuasion, we are rather fond of picking sides. This can be on almost any topic, but the prize fight of the year, possibly even the decade, is over the question of data and targeting.

This clash of advertising cultures has become so profound that those on either side no longer seem to be talking the same language. In the red corner are those who argue that the era of mass communication is dead, and that highly targeted, in-the-moment interventions to fragmented 'segments of one' will determine what people buy and why. In the blue corner, we have the defenders of scale, reminding us that broadcast media packs a bigger punch, that brands need to reach new buyers and that costly signalling makes them more desirable in a market driven as much by emotion as logic.

The problem is, we are asking our clients to referee – and that's an exhausting distraction from the 'day job' of solving business problems. Marketers know that the right answer is both: both shared experiences and precision, brand-building and demand fulfilment. They are looking to us – and others – for guidance on how to do both together, and do them well.

Marketing is more than a bit like fishing. Sometimes you fish with a net: there is value in catching lots of potential buyers all at once, even if some aren't ready yet and need to be thrown back for another day. Sometimes, you fish with a spear: you go after individuals because they're easy to spot and disproportionately appealing. And sometimes, you fish with dynamite: you throw something new into the water and blow everything up.

Our agency, Wavemaker, is only 10 months old, born in one of the most disruptive periods our industry has seen for decades. When we put the words "media, content and technology" outside our door, it was out of a sense of shared frustration with the "two tribes" thinking that leads to clients having to act as peacemakers and interpreters between their partners. We're building a large agency of specialists in different client verticals and marketing disciplines, none of whom claim a monopoly on the right answer.

We've now organised those specialists into three large disciplines: Wavemaker Media creates shared experiences for brands (fishing with a net); Wavemaker Content makes ideas and partnerships that shift brand perceptions (fishing with dynamite); and Wavemaker Precision brings all our digital marketing, ecommerce, analytics and technology experts into one team to deliver targeted relevance (fishing with a spear). Our insight, effectiveness, strategy and client-delivery teams operate across all three (fishing where the fish are). We've done this to simplify our offer to clients, and help them accelerate their own transformation by giving easier access to the right expertise, configured in the right way.

Clients' most urgent need is in precision marketing, as the fusion of digital media, search, ecommerce, CRM and tech is now known. Most businesses have digital transformation as a C-suite priority, and this means taking control of their data and technology investments, reorganising the marketing, sales and commerce functions around customer intelligence, and integrating media with digital user experience. Most agencies talk a good game with precision marketing but few deliver it in practice, and this includes many of the specialist performance agencies that make the most noise in this space.

We find there are three factors involved in making a successful leap from performance to precision. First, a focus on growth audiences. Too much digital targeting is based on reaching people who are easy to find or who respond well, rather than those who represent real and distinct sources of growth. This leads to bland demographic targeting instead of intelligent data use; or, worse, false optimisation towards digital hand-raisers.

Second, real data scrutiny. Much digital data makes promises it cannot possibly live up to (can you really target introverted low-fat cheese spread consumers in Leamington Spa?), and off -the-shelf attribution models give a wildly inaccurate view of marketing contributions. Precision means building up trusted data assets and measurement approaches, not just box-ticking.

Third, obsessive deployment. DIY digital buying is easier than ever. Clients need certified activation, tech and analytics experts who will work flexibly and collaboratively to squeeze every last bit of performance out of their tech stack and marketing platforms. Vague claims or mysterious proprietary tools are no substitute.

Clients and agencies who focus on these three things – growth audiences, data integrity and obsessive deployment – can avoid the theoretical debates and focus on finding new ways to do what great advertising has always done: building strong brands, delighting customers and driving growth.

# Alex Steer (27/10/2018)

Sustained vs temporary advantage

697 words | ~3 min

In marketing, as in so much of life, there are two types of advantage: temporary and sustained. This is obvious when you think about it, but thinking is hard.

Temporary advantage comes from doing the same thing as your competitors, but better, for a while. Most industry depends on temporary advantage. You may temporarily have better robots on your production line, better debt financing, better refund policies on your products, etc. Temporary advantage is driven by tactics, which let you grow share by getting ahead of the competition.

In marketing communications, temporary advantage comes through optimisation: better targeting of your advertising, better scheduling and allocation of your spend, faster or sharper algorithms to bid on placements or search keywords, and so on. Advertising tactics pay back handsomely for fairly early adopters, until most of their competition have the same capabilities. Temporary advantage is rewarding because the gains from it are realised very quickly (when you can suddenly do something others can’t), and decay quite slowly (as others catch up with you at different speeds).

Sustained advantage is more expensive and pays off more slowly, but it is structural. In most sectors, intellectual property is the only source of sustained advantage: patents, trademarks, and strong brands.

The last two of these sound the same but aren’t: a trademark is the protection of your identity, a brand is the identity worth protecting. Brand equity is the value attributable to a brand’s ability to influence purchase in spite of tactics. It is the sustained advantage created by communications and customer experience (both broadly defined).

To take a simple example: at today’s prices, you can buy a 420g tin of baked beans in Tesco for three prices: 32p (Tesco brand), 65p (Branston) or 75p (Heinz). Assuming that the quality of the beans is much of a muchness (ie roughly equal numbers of people would reject each in a blind test), it’s reasonable to say that Branston is carrying about 33p in brand equity, Heinz about 43p. In other words the value of the Heinz brand is worth 34% more to its buyers than the whole tin of Tesco beans. Now that’s a sustained advantage, built over years, paying off over years, but quantifiable.

The obvious question is: is it sustainable? Maybe not. If the Heinz brand didn’t continue to have distinctiveness in people’s minds – that mix of recognisability, emotional reassurance and legitimate beliefs that make people reach for it. or click for it or ask their Amazon Echo for it, despite the price premium – it would lose that pricing power. However, it would do so slowly, over years and not weeks. A strong brand is a battery that is slow to charge, slow to drain.

Much of the drama and debate in marketing at the moment seems to hinge on whether different groups of people are more interested in temporary or sustained advantage. There are obviously vested interests here. Technologists and management consultancies tend to like temporary advantage because they are complex to realise (mainly involving technology and data these days) and they decay fast, ensuring repeat business. Creative agencies tend to like sustained advantage because it requires real insight and creativity to realise (mainly involving very good design and writing) and it requires craft, ensuring repeat business.

The rather obvious answer is that you need both. Temporary advantage generates sudden improvements in revenue or profit, which keeps shareholders and executives happy. Sustained advantage creates ongoing revenue and profit and is an insurance policy against future austerity, allowing you to keep making money even if your product or service is temporarily uncompetitive.

There’s no magic formula for the right balance but there is a guideline: ignore any professional services business that tells you that either temporary or sustained advantage is unimportant. If a consultant or technologist says that mass communication is dead and only hyper-relevant brand experiences matter, they are trying to sell you software. If a creative agency says that tactical communications don’t matter and big ideas are all that count, they are trying to sell you expensive advertising. You may be right to buy both, but don’t ignore either.

# Alex Steer (02/07/2018)

Use data as a pogo stick, not a crutch

770 words | ~4 min

Years ago, when they said that social media would kill advertising, I imagined they were talking about the decline of the full-page print ad or the thirty-second spot. Now I realise what they meant. Open Twitter during Cannes week and you will see half the industry there, gleefully beating itself to death in full view of its clients.

From the tenor of the conversation, you would honestly believe that all advertising were a doomed enterprise. We are no longer creative, we do not have the ear of our clients, and the public do not care for us. The nation's tellies go unwatched, its cinemas are empty, its billboards tatter at the edges. What's physical is irrelevant, what's digital is fraudulent, and our influencers aren't influencing. We are blocked, bagged, ripped off, subscribed around, non-viewable, unfit for platform. Our impressions are not impressive.

Imagine being a marketer and reading this. Better yet, imagine being one of the professional services or technology companies treading the fringes of our trade, who do not seem to share our lack of confidence in the commercial value of what we do.

Data, apparently, is to blame. Data - the mere having of it - drives out original thinking, latching itself to businesses like carbon monoxide, preventing the fragile oxygen of creativity from having a chance. My fellow number-curmudgeons and I have ruined everything with our spreadsheets and our models and our research and our maths. Our dreadful machines have forced out all that is good and replaced it with (always, in this diatribe) a pair of shoes that follow you round the internet. We are fools for letting it happen to us, and our clients are fools for buying it.

In the words of that Sony ad: balls.

Sorry, but time's up. On blaming data for lack of bravery, on pummelling our industry in public, on treating our clients like fools for choosing us, and on the 'two tribes' mentality that treats our creative and our analytical people as opponents rather than collaborators.

No industry in the world evolves and adapts like ours. There are strains of the ebola virus with less agility and will to survive. The things we tell our clients to do every day - think round corners, organise around people, move fast with a sense of direction - are the things we do ourselves. In doing so, we create disproportionate, unfair, unreasonable gains for our clients, vastly in excess of the fire-sale value of their corporate assets. Only communications improves the value of a company merely by adjusting the perceptions of its would-be buyers. The financial value of the world's top hundred brands has more than doubled in the last decade while we sit here wondering if what we do makes any difference.

So don't tell me that data is ruining it. Analytics - the intelligent use of data - is the fastest route past the ordinary that I know. If all data told you was how to be safe and how to stay the same, there'd be no call for it. Looking deeply, clearly and thoughtfully at the numbers generated by a business, its audiences and its advertising lets us spot the un-obvious things that will lead to growth. What better way to find the space for creativity to transform our experience of a brand, whether shared or personal? What better stimulus to make something genuinely new?

But to do that, we need to be proud of our data side, and we need to hire and retain people who bring that analytical talent - human curiosity with statistical integrity - to work with them every day. To hire people who use data as a pogo stick, not a crutch - and who encourage their clients to do the same.

Our clients are as brave as we empower them to be - braver, often, since they have to stare down their sceptics across the boardroom table and defend our ideas. If we pick holes in the safety net, are we that surprised when they don't jump?

It's time to stop treating ignorance of analytics as a virtue. It doesn't make you more creative, it just makes it more likely that you're pointing your brilliance in the wrong direction. We have a vast amount of knowledge about how communications drives growth - more than our clients, more than our competitors. Let's teach our creatives to stand up for the value of evidence, our analysts and technologists the value of ideas. And let's show our clients that an agency - by definition a collection of do-ers - is a thing worth being proud of.

# Alex Steer (26/06/2018)

Algorithms will not kill brands. Really.

825 words | ~4 min

Right then, marketing industry, we need to talk. See, there’s this story going round that the future of brands is under threat from algorithms. It’s nonsense, and it does disservice to our trade.

Most versions of the story go like this. Over the last decade or so, and especially in the last few years, media consumption has switched dramatically from environments controlled by editors, to environments controlled by algorithms, which filter and prioritise the content we see (hear, watch, etc.) based on knowledge of our own preferences, generated through machine learning. I talked about this to the Advertising Association in early 2017, and I raised the prospect that as the use of algorithmic decision-making extends from media prioritisation to e-commerce, existing brands might have to work a bit harder to make sure that they don’t get relegated to becoming back-end service providers. For example, if I am constantly asking the Amazon Echo on my kitchen counter to tell, sell or play me stuff, I may lose the sense of regularly interacting with the brands who supply those services (Spotify, National Rail, Jamie Oliver, etc).

But the narrative of ‘algorithms vs brands’ is taking this to a ludicrous extreme. Take for example this extraordinary rundown from Scott Galloway:

Brands are shorthand for a set of associations that consumers use for guidance toward the right product. CPG brands have spent billions and decades building brand via messaging, packaging, placement (eye level), price, creative, endcaps, etc. The internet loses much of this, since the impact of zeroes and ones is no match for atoms, and much of the design and feel of the product loses dimension, specifically from three to two (dimensions). As a result, the internet has become a channel to harvest, rather than build, brands.

However, all these weapons of brand … all of them go away with voice. No packaging, no logos, no price even. The foreshadowing of the death of brand, at the hand of voice, can be seen in search queries.


Before we go any further, for some reason ‘brand’ is one of those terms that everybody seems to interpret differently. Which is surprising, because a company’s brand is normally its single most valuable asset, typically account for about two-thirds to three-quarters of volume across a year. You would think that, as an industry, we’d understand this and be pretty clear about what a brand is, the way that businesses tend to be pretty clear about what a pension fund or a manufacturing plant is. So, for the avoidance of doubt, I define a brand as a recognisable identity of a business in the marketplace, which creates value by increasing demand and discovery for its products or services.

So, I think this ‘death of brands’ narrative is rubbish. Not just because it’s not true, but because it’s the opposite of the truth. Let’s be loud and clear on this one.

The environment the scare stories describe, is the exact environment that brands were built for.

Cast your mind back to the mid nineteenth century in Western Europe and the young United States. As the economy went through a series of dramatic structural shifts, large populations began to urbanise and living standards went up, and with them so did competition for goods and services. Manufacturers began to find their profits under threat by new intermediaries. These intermediaries were large, powerful, and had enormous and rapidly growing user bases (as we’d now call them). Their power was cited as unfair influence, as the death of the manufacturer, as a slippery slope towards commoditisation and a race to the bottom. These intermediaries exercised almost total control over the goods that people saw, they could put substantial pressure on pricing, and their customers loved them for it.

They were called shops.

So manufacturers began to invest in raising the profile of their products in people’s minds. They used media to push back against the price wars and the margin pressure. They used creativity to make their products more appealing, more pleasing, more meaningful and differentiated — so that customers would ask for them by name, and so that shops would look bad if they did not stock them.

Sounding familiar yet?

Brands thrive under this sort of pressure, because they become the only unfair advantage that a business can deploy. Algorithms and ecommerce won’t kill brands, they will kill some brands, and they will raise the stakes. If your route to market involves someone standing in a kitchen and asking a plastic and metal box to ship a product to you, you need to make sure you’re already in the kitchen, by being in the mind. And there is a very good, reliable, extremely well proven mechanism for making that happen.

It’s called brand advertising. Ask for it by name.

# Alex Steer (05/01/2018)

False optimisation

2169 words | ~11 min

Right then. It's been almost a year since I last posted here - a year in the life of my agency, Maxus, that I look forward to talking about in more detail in future when the paint has dried. (Short version: IPA Effectiveness awards; I became CSO; restructure and retraining; building new cross-media planning tech; best agency in Top 100 Companies to Work for list; big new business win; merger with MEC to become Wavemaker as of Jan 2018.)

For now, a few notes on an idea that sits behind an increasing amount of what we do, and talk about, as an industry: optimisation.

First, a quick definition. Optimisation is the use of analytical methods to select the best from a series of specified options, to deliver a specified outcome. These days, a lot of optimisation is the automated application of analytical learning. I wrote a long piece last year on some of the basic machine learning applications: anomaly detection, conditional probability and inference. Optimisation can take any of these types of analysis as inputs, and an optimiser is any algorithm that makes choices based on the probability of success from the analysis it has done. Optimisation crops up in all sorts of marketing applications, that we tend to discuss as if they were separate things:

  • Programmatic buying
  • Onsite personalisation
  • Email marketing automation
  • AB and multivariate testing
  • Digital attribution
  • Marketing mix modelling
  • Propensity modelling
  • Predictive analytics
  • Dynamic creative
  • Chatbots

...and so on, until we've got enough buzzwords to fill a conference. All of these are versions of optimisation, differently packaged.

When I say optimisation 'sits behind' a lot of what we do in marketing and media today, it's because optimisation is almost the opposite of an industry buzzword: a term that has remained surprisingly constant in marketing discourse over the last few years, while its application has broadened considerably. By way of lightly-researched reference, here are Google search volume trends for 'optimisation' and 'machine learning' in the UK over the last five years (it makes little difference, by the way, if you search for the US or UK spelling):

Google trends: Optimisation and Machine Learning, UK, past five years

Search volumes for optimisation (blue) have remained fairly constant over the last half-decade (and are driven mainly by 'search engine optimisation'), whereas 'machine learning' (red) has risen, and crossed over in early 2016. I show this as just one cherry-picked example of a tendency for marketing language to imply that there is more innovation in the market that actually exists. We can see this more clearly by looking at the phenomenon of hype clustering around machine learning.

Hype clustering

Let's look back at the Gartner Hype Cycle, the canonical field guide to febrile technology jargon, from July 2011:

Gartner Hype Cycle: emerging technology, Q2 2011

We can see a good distribution of technologies that rely on optimisation, all the way across the cycle: from video analytics and natural-language question answering at the wild end, to predictive analytics and speech recognition approaching maturity.

Fast forward six years to the most recent hype cycle from July 2017:

Gartner Hype Cycle: emerging technology, Q2 2017

'Machine learning' and 'deep learning' have found their way to the top of the hype curve... while everything else on the list has disappeared (except the very-far-off category of 'artificial general intelligence'). Fascinatingly, machine learning is predicted to reach maturity within 2-5 years, whereas some of the technologies previously on the list six years ago were predicted to have matured by now. In other words, several of the technologies that were supposedly past the point of peak hype in 2011 are now back there, but rechristened under the umbrella of machine learning.

Machine learning is a classic piece of hype clustering: it combines a lot of analytics and technical methods that are themselves no longer hypeworthy, with a few that are still extremely niche. The result is something that sounds new enough to be exciting, wide-ranging enough to be sellable to big businesses in large quantities - very much the situation that big data was in when it crested the hype cycle in 2013.

Sitting behind a lot of 'machine learning' is good old-fashioned optimisation, albeit increasingly powered by faster computing and the ability to run over larger volumes of data than a few years ago. Across digital media, paid search, paid social, CRM, digital content management and ecommerce, businesses are beginning to rely hugely on optimisation algorithms of one sort or another, often without a clear sense of how that optimisation is working.

This is, it won't surprise you to learn, hugely problematic.

Doing the right thing

Optimisation is the application of analysis to answer the question: how do I do the right thing? Automated mathematical optimisation is a very elegant solution, especially given the processing firepower we can throw at it these days. But it comes with a great big caveat.

You have to know what the right thing is.

In the disciplines where automated optimisation first sprung up, this was relatively straightforward. In paid search advertising, for example, you want to match ad copy to keywords in a way that gets as many people who have searched for 'discount legal services' or 'terrifyingly lifelike clown statues' to click on your ads as possible. In ecommerce optimisation, you want to test versions of your checkout page flow in order to maximise the proportion of people who make it right through to payment. In a political email campaign, you want as many of the people on your mailing list to open the message, click the link and donate to your candidate as possible. In all of these, there's a clear right answer, because you have:

  1. a fixed group of people
  2. a fixed objective
  3. an unambiguous set of success measures

Those are the kinds of problems that optimisation can help you solve more quickly and efficiently than by trial and error, or manual number-crunching

The difficulty arises when we extend the logic of optimisation, without extending the constraints. In other words, when we have an industry that is in love with the rhetoric of analytics and machine learning, that will try and extend that rhetoric to places where it doesn't fit so neatly.

False optimisation

Over the last few years we've seen a rush of brand marketing budgets into digital media. This is sensible in one respect as it reflects shifting media consumption habits and the need for brands, at a basic level, to put themselves where their audiences are looking. On the other hand, it's exposed some of the bad habits of a digital media ecosystem previously funded largely by performance marketing budgets, and some of the bigger advertisers have acknowledged their initial naivety in managing digital media effectively. Cue a situation where lots of brand marketers are concerned about the variability of the quality of their advertising delivery, especially the impact of digital's 'unholy trinity' of brand safety, viewability and fraud.

And what do 'worry about variability' plus 'digital marketing' equal? That's right: optimisation.

Flash forward and we find ourselves in a marketplace where the logic of optimisation is being sold heavily to brand marketers. I've lost count of the number of solutions that claim to be able to optimise the targeting of brand marketing campaigns in real time. The lingo varies for each sales pitch, but there are two persistent themes that come out:

  1. Optimising your brand campaign targeting based on quality.
  2. Optimising your brand campaign targeting based on brand impact.

Both of these, at first look, sound unproblematic, beneficial, and a smart thing to do as a responsible marketer who wants to have a good relationship with senior management and finance. Who could argue with the idea of higher-quality, more impactful brand campaigns?

The first of them is valid. It is possible to score media impressions based on their likely viewability, contextual brand safety, and delivery to real human beings in your target audience. While the ability to do this in practice varies, there is nothing wrong with this as an aim. It can be a distraction if it becomes the objective on which media delivery is measured, rather than a hygiene factor; but this is just a case of not letting the tail wag the dog.

The second looks the same, but it isn't, and it can be fatal to the effectiveness of brand advertising. Here's why.

Brand advertising, if properly planned, isn't designed towards a short-term conversion objective (e.g. a sale). Rather, it is the advertising you do to build brand equity, that then pays off when people are in the market for your category, by improving their propensity to choose you, or reducing your cost of generating short-term sales. In other words, brand advertising softens us up.

Why does this matter? Because optimisation was designed to operate at the sharp end of the purchase funnel (so to speak) - to find the option among a set that is most likely to lead to a positive outcome. When you apply this logic to brand advertising, these are the steps that an optimiser goes through:

  1. Measure the change in brand perception that results from exposure to advertising (e.g. through research)
  2. Find the types of people that exhibit the greatest improvement in brand perception
  3. Prioritise showing the advertising to those types of people

Now, remember what we said earlier about the three golden rules of optimisation:

  1. a fixed group of people
  2. a fixed objective
  3. an unambiguous set of success measures

Optimising the targeting of your brand advertising to improve its success metrics violates the first rule.

This is what we call preaching to the nearly-converted: serving brand advertising to people who can easily be nudged into having a higher opinion of your brand.

It is false optimisation because it confuses objectives with metrics. The objective of brand advertising is to change people's minds, or confirm their suspicions, about brands. A measure for this is the aggregate change in strength of perception among the buying audience. DIagnostically, research can be used to understand if the advertising has any weak spots (e.g. it creates little change among older women or younger men). But a diagnosis is not necessarily grounds for optimisation. If you only serve your ads to people whose minds are most easily changed, you will drive splendid short-term results but you will ultimately run out of willing buyers, by having deliberately neglected to keep advertising to your tougher prospects. It's the media equivalent of being a head of state and only listening to the advice of people who tell you you're doing brilliantly - the short-term kick is tremendous, but the potential for unpleasant surprise is significant.

Preaching to the valuable

The heretical-sounding conclusion is: you should not optimise the targeting of your brand campaigns.

Take a deep breath, have a sit down. But I mean it. You can optimise the delivery, by which I mean:

  • Place ads in contexts that beneficially affect brand perceptions
  • Show your ads only to people in your target buying audience (not to people who can't buy you, or to bots)
  • Show better-quality impressions (more viewable, in brand-safe contexts)
  • Show creative that gets a bigger response from your target audience

But do not narrow your targeting based on the subsets of your audience whose perceptions of you respond best. That is a fast track to eliminating the ability of your brand to recruit new buyers over time and will create a cycle of false optimisation where you not only preach to the converted, but you only say the things they most like to hear.

Brand advertising is the art of preaching to the valuable. It means finding out which people you need to buy your brand in order to make enough money, and refining your messaging to improve the likelihood that they will. Knowing that requires a serious investment in knowledge and analysis before you start, to find your most viable sources of growth and the best places and ways to advertise based on historic information. This is anathema to people who sell ad-tech for a living, for whom 'test and learn' is of almost theological importance, not least because it encourages more time using and tweaking the technology. The 'advertise first, ask questions later' approach looks like rigour in the heat of the moment (real-time data! ongoing optimisation!) but is the exact opposite.

Testing and learning is exactly the right approach when you have multiple options to get the same outcome from the same group of people. It is precisely the wrong thing to do if it leads to you changing which people to speak to. It's like asking out the girl/boy of your dreams, getting turned down, then asking out someone else using the same line, and thinking you've succeeded. Change the context, change the line, but don't change the audience.

# Alex Steer (22/10/2017)