P&G made headlines earlier this year when it revealed it had cut its digital ad spend by as much as $200 million in 2017, and had done so with no negative effects on its bottom line.

Citing wastage, transparency issues and a “murky digital supply chain”, Marc Pritchard, P&G’s Chief Brand Officer, said that he and other advertisers had “chased the Holy Grail of digital… blinded by shiny objects, overwhelmed by big data, and ceding power to algorithms”.

The world’s largest advertiser had spoken – it had voted with its wallet, pulling digital spend from high-wastage channels and reinvesting it in “better performing vehicles”.

P&G’s decision was heralded as a wake-up call to anyone spending on digital channels, and to many onlookers, reinforced the notion that traditional media is still the way to go if you want proven and reliable delivery. There persists a skepticism and distrust for digital ad/martech, but as I’ll explain, it’s this very technology that is improving the craft of marketing, from efficiency to creativity.


The fearonomics of digital

Health researcher Dr. Sulzhan Bali used the term “Fearonomics” to describe how public fear of Ebola affected Nigeria’s private sector during outbreaks of the virus. Now while online advertising isn’t quite as scary as Ebola, the aura it carries around undoubtedly has an effect on advertisers’ perceptions and decision making when it comes time to plan their media.

Many brands and advertisers see ad tech, automation, machine learning and big data as a black box, cloaked in creepy algorithms and proprietary secrets. And when they hear horror stories like the ones about P&G, this pushes their confidence in digital even further down.

But while these reactions are natural, they are at best unfounded, and at worst actively detrimental. It begs the question: what attribution model did the P&G team use, and why did they choose to KPI their programmatic display against revenue in the first place?

Either way, when Pritchard mentioned re-allocating budgets away from programmatic display to “better performing vehicles”, he wasn’t moving away from digital – he was moving within it. Yes, he talked about TV, but he also talked about e-commerce, brand influencers and performance analytics – all digital. Pritchard wasn’t criticising digital as a whole; he was criticising one specific digital tactic that wasn’t meeting expectations.

The fallout from P&G’s announcement reminds me of a scene in the classic film Dr. Strangelove. When one of his generals goes psychotic and is about to cause a nuclear apocalypse, the US President complains that his psychological screening program has failed. In a moment of masterful understatement, one of his Chiefs of Staff replies, “Well, uh, I don’t think it’s quite fair to condemn a whole program because of a single slip up, sir”.

Should brands have the right to know where their ad spend is going? Of course. Should supply chains be shorter, with more accurate and transparent reporting? Certainly. Does P&G’s decision to cut their programmatic display spend mean that all digital is hocus pocus? Absolutely not.

Digital is not the enemy, and nor are data, AI or automation. We use them every day, whether segmenting audiences in Google Analytics or asking Siri how to get to our next meeting, or for creating more relevant, personalised and enjoyable experiences for consumers who interact with us.


How machines are making marketing more human

Following on from Marc Pritchard’s comments on his digital spend, one senior marketer from Johnson & Johnson spoke of his brand’s shift “from broad reach, channel based approaches to a more customised consumer-centric approach where one size most definitely does not fit all”.

The only way to address consumers with such precision and at such scale is with data, and a lot of help from machines. As Pritchard himself described it, it’s a move from “wasteful mass marketing to mass one-to-one brand building, fuelled by data and digital technology”.

These data and tech are unlocking the door to better relationships between advertisers and audiences. For example, now that we have access to dynamic, personalised creative, we can deliver the optimal message at the optimal time, in the optimal place and format. Whereas creative in the past needed to be broad and universal, it can now address individuals (or small groups thereof).

Personalisation and hypertargeting are not only needed – they’re expected. Because consumers now have all the power, brands must live up to their expectations during (and beyond) every imaginable touchpoint, on demand. This is creating a new advertising, where audiences are able to actively or passively customise nearly every aspect of how brands engage with them. And it’s all driven by data and processed by machines.

If brands want to turn their data into something usable and commercially viable, they need the type of firepower that only machines can deliver. At the most basic level, they need structured processes and policies to clean and prepare your data, machine learning to identify high-value audiences and optimise budgets, AI-empowered attribution modelling to unearth conversion insights, and integrated BI systems to cross-pollinate all this data from the marketing department to other business units.

Our grasp of data has also given us the power to transform marketing from a cost centre into a profit centre; brands’ use and understanding of data can help to not only drive more efficient advertising, but also deliver insights to inform growth and performance in other parts of the business. Ultimately, data becomes a differentiator – the fabric that underpins every decision.


Marketing is the same as it’s always been… but with more data

It’s as if we’ve come full circle. As digital and data have brought us closer and closer to our audiences, we’re rediscovering the fact that marketing is just marketing, digital or otherwise. This was the exact thinking that guided P&G when they cut their spend – they wanted to ensure their messaging was being seen by real people, and digital display just so happened to be channel that wasn’t working. If their data told them that there was a better way of doing things, then they made the right choice, no question.

Some people may still see marketing as a binary split between traditional/digital, above the line/below the line, offline/online… but the basics have never changed. It’s about connecting with consumers, telling stories and creating value. I don’t often quote Mr. Anti-Digital himself, Mark Ritson, but he summed it up perfectly when he said, “There is no such thing as digital, it’s just marketing”.

Craig Gibson

Craig Gibson is Client Strategy Director at iProspect Brisbane. He leads strategy for a number of our key enterprise clients, specialising in solving both client and consumer problems across all touchpoints, from data and insights to strategy and creative.