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Big advertisers wake up to perils of digital and data – well, some of them do

Advertisers don’t have to agree about everything of course but the groovy new digital world seems to have them in a spin.

Procter & Gamble has just finished a major restructuring : getting rid of 100 brands it deems non-essential both for itself and consumers; cutting the number of agencies and returning, it seems, to good old mass market TV advertising. All that targeting through digital media doesn’t just not work but it’s more expensive to boot.


Apparently P&G brand managers have been saying this for years but the penny’s just dropped at HQ. On the face of it this looks like a kick in the pants for our old frenemy Big Data.

Meanwhile, back in the UK, Bank of Scotland is reviewing its account at RKCR/Y&R (which is repitching) saying that it’s looking for a “digitally focused” agency, which Y&R is presumably trying hard to be. No doubt it has such abilities but what it’s best at is good old advertising. As instanced in its farewell Christmas campaign for Marks & Spencer, the one featuring classy Janet McTeer as Mrs Claus.

So have advertisers been led up the garden path (or led themselves up it) these past few years? If the former, who’s been leading them?

Some fingers point at big media agencies which are understandably keen to persuade their clients to go digital and hence buy their programmatic packages. They make more money out of this than planning and buying TV.

I heard this week about one quite big advertiser who discovered that the fancy digital media strategy it had been pursuing actually meant that each customer contact – not sale – had cost it £3000 or so once you stripped out the contacts that had come from routine Google searches. And the media agency in question had the cheek to defend the plan.

There’s an ancient game in advertising called “confuse-the-client.” This was invented by creative agencies as a way of conning the client into accepting good work. They’d never do this wittingly because research would tell them it wouldn’t be accepted because it was new and fresh and therefore risky. But, lo and behold, it usually worked.

Account planning at its birth at BMP and JWT in London was, to some extent, a process of post-rationalisation. John Webster at BMP would open his magic box and some clever graduate would then have to explain the science behind it. Although there wasn’t any – Webster was as near to being a genius as adfolk ever are and he followed his highly trustworthy instincts.

That was in the days before the media department was unleashed, eventually to become media independents and then massive holding company-owned global outfits, employing far more people than work in creative agencies.

Justin Tindall, now CCO at M&C Saatchi, complained a while back that “we spend the majority of our time filling buckets. Media is still largely bought by big clients and we’re given a procession of buckets to fill. That’s still prevalent in creative agencies A lot of what lands in our desk is pre-bought spaces that need to be filled with deadlines.”

Which doesn’t sound very sensible or productive but it’s one of the factors behind the so-called content boom. As the buckets proliferate so does the content but the more of it there is, the worse it gets. Producing it cheaply becomes the overriding priority.

Maybe P&G’s chief brand officer Marc Pritchard has realised this. At the same time, though, Omnicom’s new DDB-flavoured We Are Unlimited, which has won McDonald’s in the US, is promising more content for more digital locations more quickly and cheaper.

They can’t both be right.

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