OPINION: The ghost of Christmas future

Nick Keenan
By Nick Keenan | 20 December 2012

I wonder how many media agencies this year are being haunted by their own greed when it comes to the digital departments they eagerly built without really thinking about their clients' digital needs. In the current gold rush of digital dots and spots both media vendors and agencies have set up traditional ad buying/selling models that they surgically removed and transplanted from that unwilling donor 'traditional media'.

In doing so it has created unsustainable business models, blinded by growth that through its own incautious speed has produced some really crappy work. Little wonder a lot of publishers are pissed, and who can blame them when a lot of the migrating dollars that have shifted over have been so obviously wasted.

Given the November SMI market data has recently seen digital reach the number two mantel within the media mix I think as we finish the year and we reflect back on 2012 we should not make the mistake of focusing only on the remarkable growth of digital. For me this misses the point, as what is really interesting is the change bubbling beneath the surface, that display advertising's growth is beginning to saturate, and it is doing so for good reason.

Clients' digital needs are far more sophisticated than just paid eyeballs. Both media vendors and agencies alike need to dream Ebenezer’s nightmare and take a good hard look of what their current digital teams will be doing next year, and the year after that. In doing so it should convince our industry to give up its blatant mediocre and avaricious ways and focus on what the client really needs in digital. That need specifically is digital content management, and a gardening like approach to our client’s digital ecosystem. Without this all the paid eyeballs won’t amount to much other than a short term margin.

We are all guilty of it to some degree, so I am not expecting a show of hands in the commentary below and undoubtedly there will be some good anonymous finger pointing, but wow, as an industry we must have more to offer than whole departments set up to the continuation of digital churn. Let’s face it, what has emerged is not inspiring, there are now a lot of digital buying factories that are completely obsessed with the purchase of MRECs, banners and buttons while eagerly funnelling more and more TV dollars into video. Don’t get me wrong I know how hard it is to push against the tide, and I know most good agencies continue to try as we have, as we aim to structure a business that focuses a client on their own digital content management, digital creative production, and the all-important digital ecosystem.

First and foremost we all know that all three should be designed for an audience that is 'earned', before we go for the audience that is bought. So when many marketing departments feel compelled to just increase their spend in digital regardless of how healthy their own digital footprint has become, we should be structured in a way that confidently rejects churning out a run of the mill digital media plan.

Primarily because there is a different future that is emerging (perhaps due to threat of Scrooge like heavy chains) led by our clients who are increasingly more focused on earning the attention of their customers digitally, instead of aggressively interrupting them.  This is quickly changing how clients are briefing their agencies to invest their digital dollar. Good thing it’s finally happening too, and while this is not a new topic by any stretch, I do think all the attention around the traditional advertising model that exists is set to decline. No sooner have these departments been greedily set up, ready and waiting to count the cash and prepare for another year of substantial growth, the game has changed direction again.

As a result a relatively new business model focused on digital ad units that are already flattening out is set to miss its target and in turn weigh those agencies down leaving them short of people and skills for where it is really set to grow.

And there is no doubt that proportionately digital will continue to grow, but as mentioned the area of digital attention for clients is now on creative production, search, and managing content. The attention in these three areas is for good reason as this is the real battle ground for brands and their marketing strategies as they need to be transfixed on establishing positive digital ecosystems that have many moving parts. Therefore an agency needs the right digital model, the right balance of both specialists and traditional media minds to adequately service a client’s future digital needs in order to get it right.

It was disappointing to see some of the recent commentary by some prominent figures in our industry in response to the skills shortage that currently exists, as it suggests that the digital change taking place has completely gone over their head. Some figures like Henry Tajer have asked 'What digital skills shortage'? Well maybe if you think it’s all just about finding a resource to service an ad model like the buying of banners, MRECs, buttons, or just shoving clients cash into mobile because it’s the latest thing. But resourcing that kind of digital model is just about servicing the traditional transplant. Digital is not traditional media, even if it does converge and cross over all media, so the transplant will not take, and its new host will not survive.

Those agencies, industry leaders, and media vendors alike who have banked on the digital display model continuing with the double digit increases should heed the warning signs of a Christmas yet to come, because if they do not recognise their shortcomings in digital skill today, their next Christmas will be a lean one.

Nick Keenan
Department Head (MLB), Implementation Planning and Investment
MediaCom

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