The Complexity Ruse

Brand Aware” explores the data-driven digital ad ecosystem from the marketer’s point of view.

Today’s column is written by Belinda J. Smith, global director of media activation at Electronic Arts.

I find it interesting to hear people complain about programmatic being too complicated. They say that they are essentially helpless to figure out how to navigate programmatic, and sometimes digital in general, because there are too many moving pieces. “Just look at that Lumascape!”

And while it’s absolutely true that programmatic has many nuances and, in many ways, requires a different skill set than buying and planning for traditional media, it’s really only “complicated” if they get caught up in all the hype.

Consider this: Marketers could execute all of their media buys programmatically by using one platform and only buying media from deals with known publishers via private marketplaces. And while I don’t think that’s a good idea, it definitely removes the complexity from their buying strategy and decision-making. Conversely, they could decide to simultaneously test four to five buying platforms against each other (I’ve seen this done), splitting their audiences among each one and designing multiple A/B and incrementality tests among each type of buy, audience and platform.

I don’t think this idea is much better than the first, but the point is that brands call the shots. It’s their budget, strategy and approval that makes the whole thing work. If media has gotten too complicated, we have a very effective way to remove the complexity: Stop putting dollars into the machine.

By that, I don’t mean we should stop transacting programmatically or stop buying digital media. Instead, let’s be more insistent about playing by our rules and on our own terms.

This has been especially highlighted by the swell of articles around supply-path optimization, “shadow” first-price auctions and the new supply-side platform (SSP) rush to make their auction mechanics more transparent, even if marketers will never be able to read or take action on that information. There will always be a new thing – whether it’s a scandal or innovation – that has the potential to take our focus from actual marketing strategy, adding to the narrative of how complicated and unwieldy the industry has become.

Under the guise of removing this complexity, companies and platforms have run our wallets by selling us tools like auto-optimizers and giving us bid guidance and broad match abilities to help us win more impressions without getting into the weeds of how it all works. There are social platforms out there that won’t even disclose how they choose the winner of an auction. “It’s a mix of relevance and bid and audience and performance and content and …” What!?

We are creating entire false economies by ascribing value to the act of acquiring inventory, as opposed to generating value by building lasting relationships with consumers. Funnily enough, much of the former has prevented us from achieving the latter. There are people in “digital marketing” who have made entire well-paid careers out of always being ahead of the “next thing” who don’t even know what the four Ps are.

So what’s the answer? How do we get ourselves off of this hamster wheel?

This all comes back to goal setting, ascribing the right KPIs and setting up proper measurement. That starts with working your way from the top – your business or revenue objectives – and measuring how much your media activities are contributing to that goal. While very few brands can do this perfectly, having an understanding or hypothesis about which type of actions contribute to sales can be a powerful proxy.

During Advertising Week last year, there was a great presentation by Fiat Chrysler’s Amy McNeil about measurement. Amy described how her team fixed its broken media model, which was built on driving lower-funnel actions, such as consumer interactions with dealer locaters or sign-ups to receive vehicle information. Amy’s team eventually realized these lower-funnel actions were not contributing to top-line growth, so they worked with Google to understand more about the typical digital journey for someone in the market for a car.

By applying a consumer-focused lens, the company was able to define points of the research and purchase processes where it was important for Fiat Chrysler to be present. Instead of narrowly targeting lower-funnel actions, Amy’s team was able to place a value on things like showing up in the top position for search or marketing against specific research-related content on YouTube. While I doubt that her team came up with a precise ROI for each of these channels, testing these strategies and observing changes in revenue, brand health or other business objectives proved useful. The company moved away from incessantly optimizing to specific website actions and started focusing on brand and marketing strategy and creating value in meaningful ways.

That’s powerful. We should all feel emboldened knowing that, no matter how confusing, complex or opaque we feel the industry has become, we still have the power to define and measure what really matters to our brands. It’s as simple or as complex as we want it to be.

Follow Belinda J. Smith (@BJStech), Electronic Arts (@EA) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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