Reviewing The Brand Marketer’s Digital Strategy With GroupM’s Rob Norman

Rob NormanRob Norman is CEO of of North American operations for GroupM, the parent organization for WPP Group media agencies Maxus, MediaCom, Mediaedge:cia and Mindshare.

Norman sat down with during last weekend’s Association of National Advertisers annual meeting in Scottsdale, Arizona. What is happening with the brand marketer and their digital strategy today in comparison to, let’s say, five years ago?

RN: If you place it in any kind of historical perspective, what tends to happen is that when a new medium comes along, people’s first instinct is to experiment – and most commonly experiment with objects that look like or feel like the objects they have used before.

The classic example is that television was radio with pictures. That was TV’s beginning.

If you go back to the early days of the web, you may remember brands like Zima. Modem Media built a website for Zima and everyone went. People figured this was intriguing, because suddenly you could build brand assets and all of the cost was in building the asset. None of the cost was in the distribution of the asset.

Then they realized that you had to surface these brand assets in some ways. So what you would do is go and do listings on Yahoo. Then you would go and buy search listings, because you couldn’t get them for free in quite the same way anymore. Then you realized that, if you want to get more traffic to your asset, you had to drive people there.

Soon enough, the banner advertising mode – which was the “Oh well, it looks like a print ad that sends people to go somewhere”, became the lingua franca of the market. Because the goal was to get people to the asset, it became an internal measure of the medium, and logically clicks became the measure, because how else could you do it?

Now, the online ad industry – from the buyer and the seller’s point of view – went to Boy Scout camp. We tied ropes and knots and we made them look like a noose and we hung around our necks and attached them to the rafters. Thus clicks became the dominant thing and we hung ourselves on them.

So, then what happened was that people realized that websites had to have a purpose. If you were a brand owner the purpose was, by and large, a deeper brand experience that would do a part of the progression of awareness to preference and consideration and actually move people through the purchase funnel by letting them understand.

[Brand owners] realized – as they did in the automotive industries – that if they put the tools in people’s hands to research before they got to the dealership, you had a better informed customer.

So they started realizing that online activity, for the brand, was a kind of hybrid of a brand message in the classic advertising form and that of direct, brochure‑driven marketing.

It worked for a number of people and influenced a lot of off‑line sales. Then, of course, e‑commerce came along. This perfect correlation grew between the degree of e‑commerce you committed within your environment and the amount of money you would spend on online advertising, because it was the same thing.

The idea of advertising drives sales in the analog world became banner advertising and search advertising driving sales in the digital world.

Now, probably in the last three years, people have revisited the idea, because of the amount of peak time people spend with digital media. In the purest sense, we have to build our brand attributes online and what we create and distribute has to change. [Brand owners] reduced their dependence on building their own websites and being big traffic generators, unless they had either a commerce or customer service piece wrapped around them.

Then video came along. People, because they can’t help themselves, revert to type. They revert to type and say, “Wow, here’s a new channel. This looks like a television‑like object. What we will do then is take the created asset or object and just distribute it in this new channel.

The more the video asset looked like regulation television, the more legitimate [brand owners] felt about doing it because it was TV content. And, it had a relatively low ad load compared to regular TV.

It had some kind of anti‑skipping functionality that felt good. In the early days, you would have a very limited number of advertisers in any show.

So the opportunity to go back and re‑create the narrative thing with sequential advertising and add some interactive elements to that, became interesting.

So we got to that place. And, we are there now.

Then the next thing people did, “OK. We’ve now got the social media world as well. What is happening is that instead of bringing people to our destinations, we have to take our brand to what we started referring to as “the edge.”

People were at Hulu and at Facebook.  Instead of trying to get people to come to the brand owner, the brand owner would go to them at the edge and try and get the highest level of engagement it could at the edge.

In the Facebook world, the currency for that became “likes” and “friends.”

But soon enough, an arms race started. What happened was you get this phenomenon of two degrees of separation on the Boards of the Fortune 1000.

The thought was that there is a guy on the board of Starbucks, who is also on the board of GE. He goes to the GE board meeting and there is a guy on the board of Target at the same meeting. The guy who is on the board of Target goes to the Target board meeting and says, “Do you know Starbucks has 25 million fans? How many have we got?” Then the arms race starts to buy “likes” and build volume. Then you get to, as always happens, the same situations. In the same way that we built a website, which we thought was working for us; we then had to start buying media. It

Then we built a fan page on Facebook and expected the free lunch of earned media. But then we started buying engagement ads to build those fan bases, at which point we started working for that. The whole thing repeats in cycles.

So, if you are brand advertiser now, you have to balance two things in my world. There are lots of conversations about paid, owned and earned and all that but the more I think about brand advertisers, the paid portion of the advertising has two real functions. The first is to deliver a socially relevant message to the ecosystem that tells people that this brand functionally, emotionally, at the price point, is a brand for me. So, in my head, I opt-in to a brand.

The other thing I do, when I buy advertising, is I drive people to brand experiences that amplify the brand and may lead people down the funnel and closer to the transaction.

So, the question when you are a brand marketer now is how you balance the visibility side of the house with the delivery of the brand experience side of the house. The cool thing about creating brand experiences for people – especially now with all the social tools available – if they are really good brand experiences, those people will share them into relevant places. Those relevant places are all of the search platforms like Google, so you can maximize your share of shelf, organically, so to speak.

It also helps you in the Google page rank algorithm, because it makes your brand more important. Then they syndicate or share things into their social platform, whether it is Google + or whether it is Facebook. Again, you are trying to beat the algorithm.

The edge rank algorithm and the page rank algorithm are suddenly super important things. One of the things that marketers don’t realize  – or some of them don’t realize maybe as well as they should – is just how powerful and important the beating of the algorithm is.

The challenge for a brand owner has to be what assets and programs you can create that make you more socially relevant, more of a tie‑in to more people. To get back to the point, what brand owners do in the digital world is create, distribute and allow for the sharing of highly engaging, involving, often service‑oriented assets that give their consumer some reason to either keep, share or use their asset for some purpose.

I distinguish social creativity in my mind as creativity that is kept, used and shared, as opposed to creativity that is just watched.

The challenge for brand marketers is, how you balance visibility versus delivery, how you create brand experiences that are, in themselves, populated by assets that are inherently social, which, in turn, enables the sharing and the subsequent discovery of those assets and those experiences by more people.

It’s very simple to me.

By John Ebbert

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1 Comment

  1. Not surprisingly Rob has opened up a quite interesting question about how we as producers and distributors of advertising can re-imagine how we can add value to advertising in a digital world. With a captive audience on TV (and to a less extent other channels) we were able to add value by making the commercials interesting, funny, engaging and generally worth paying attention to. The better the ad, the more attention paid, the more effectively the message was communicated and the less media the advertiser had to buy to spread that message. We in the advertising industry could do a dollars worth of work and provide many dollars worth of value to the clients.

    In a digital world as audiences are no longer captive to our messages and in context where they have infinite choice, we as marketers need to rediscover the value we can add. In the past for a commercial to succeed it only needed to be funnier or better then the one the preceded it –obviously a very low bar- whereas now we must be better then the entirety of the internet which is at the user’s finger tips.

    Even as I personally inhabit a small portion of this question working on the evolution of media buying to deal with its own challenges caused by digital, it is great to think about the much larger questions the whole industry faces. Good work Rob

    John, I misses the community that Adexchanger used to have in the comments. Can we please get more thought pieces like this so they come back? It is hard to comment on the commercials that now predominate on this site.