Avis’ Peebles To Marketers: Be More Creative With Your Website, Not Your Ads

AvisJohn Peebles began his presentation at this week’s Advertising Research Foundation Audience 7.0 conference with what sounded like a bit of apostasy: the Avis Budget Group VP of Marketing Strategy & Innovation, started with an admission: he has little use for research. In a conversation with AdExchanger that followed, he also took aim at what has been another favorite topic in online ad industry circles lately: the tension between the web as a cheap, direct response medium or a branding medium. “Why do we have to choose? If it’s done right, ideally an ad should be both.”

That said, Peebles, who has been with the Parsippany, NJ-based rental car company for the better part of a decade, also seemed to suggest — gasp! — that there may be too much emphasis placed on an ad in the first place, when there are so many various touchpoints that influence consumer behavior over time. Still, Peebles would probably suggest that someone should research that to be absolutely sure.

When you began your presentation at the Advertising Research Foundation conference, you said that you felt like a fish out of water because you really never do any research. Were you just being facetious, or do you really eschew research?

Not kidding at all. Certainly, we do a lot of research on the traditional media side. But on the online side, we have actual data. In other words, your customers, your target audience, is showing you who they are every day. We’ve got millions of people coming to Avis.com. That’s a lot of data to mine to get all the possible insights we’d like and that we know exist.

How close do you get to actionable data on the 20 million or so people who visit the site every month?

The process is evolutionary. We get close every year, every few months to clearer, better audience insights. And it comes in the form of better customer relationship management capabilities and mapping it consistently across all channels and then being able to mine the insights that come out of that. All that “big data” stuff that everyone’s talking about is starting to get real.

There are certain advertisers we’re working with that are doing a lot on the backend. They’re coming to us and saying, “Here’s some premium content, go advertise here.” Instead, they’re saying, “I know exactly where people are traveling, if you want to reach people going to Denver next week, I got 230,000 of them.”

In other words, audience buying, not “content as a proxy for consumers,” is where your focus is emphasized. Is that another reason why you don’t need to do research when it comes to placing you advertising?

Increasingly, we’re finding success in making publishers take the risk. In other words, we say, “I don’t really care about research – I’m sure you, as a publisher, need to have the research, but that’s your problem. Use the research to deliver more value to me, that’s fine, that’s perfect. Because if you can show one ad and get me a rental, I’ll pay you X amount of dollars. If it takes you one ad, or two million, I’ll pay you. But the research is not my problem.”

The difference between getting a result from one ad or two million, is, after placement, a question sometimes of proper branding and creative. There’s a lot of agency and brand-minded people who complain about online advertising being focused too much on the science and not enough on the art. Does that conflict mean anything to you?

First of all, where branding happens, it’s much more about the experience on the website than just the ad. You look at the amount of time that someone spends interacting with your brand, and you find that advertising is a small percentage of that. So the function of the ad is to get the process started. After that, you have deliver something of substance on your website.

The brand experience is what the customer comes away with. If you do a lousy job on your website, it doesn’t matter how good the ad is. That’s where branding really happens. A lot of marketers make the mistake in thinking that because they are buying with the intent of branding, the ad is what will make the impact they want.

In terms of the impact Avis’ website has had, you mentioned that first-time Avis car renters who go to the site to initiate a rental are more likely than any other consumer to be a return customer. What do you think the reason for that is?

I don’t know! That’s actually one area where I really could use some research. A lot of times, we know the “what,” but not the “why” when it comes to consumer behavior. But again, that’s more about research into your customer data, as opposed to general research about publisher sites, when it comes to understanding the consumer profile.

You expressed a degree of frustration by all the attention given to “the last click” when it comes to understanding what drives consumers to your site.

Only about half of the users we see a month are attributed to online advertising. A lot of people are going to come to Avis, we’re a well-known brand, of course. We reach people through advertising with retargeting, but they were already looking for us.

So the last click is an arbitrary metric. It’s impossible to know what’s in somebody’s head. But it all goes to doing a better job of mining our data, in order to get a fuller picture of what sorts of decisions and actions consumers who chose us made along the way.

So with all this focus on data, is real-time bidding and use of ad exchanges the primary way you place online ads?

We use those platforms almost exclusively. Everything gets tied to an ROI simply because we can. We know the market is changing and we’ve always made money when things changed. For example, the rise of Facebook created billions of ad impressions that were available very, very cheaply for a while before Facebook started selling them itself. We benefited tremendously from that. But RTB, by its nature also provides a kind of instant research and insight about data that influence our marketing decisions.

-David Kaplan

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