What’s Next For Brand Advertising In An Era Of Social, Mobile And Native Ads


Hof, Robert

June 4, 2013

To hear many people in online advertising talk about display ads, you’d think these ubiquitous pictorial and video ads on most websites are dead.

That is surely premature at best, especially given the success of automated ad serving for direct marketers. But it’s also clear that marketers, agencies, and publishers alike are casting about for alternatives to the lowly banner ad, whether it’s social ads like Facebook‘s sponsored stories, native ads like Twitter’s promoted tweets, mobile ads, or entirely new formats. Today at an annual meeting Google is holding for the next two days for customers and partners of its DoubleClick display ad service, a bunch of leaders in online advertising discussed what might crack the $200 billion opportunity to bring more brand advertising online. (At the event, Google also introduced a raft of new products (and promises), which you can read about here, but suffice to say that capturing more brand ad dollars is critical for Google to maintain its growth now that it has pretty much wrapped up the search ad market.

Michael Learmonth, deputy managing editor at Advertising Age, talked about the prospects for changing the marketing mix online with Lorraine Twohill, VP of global marketing at Google, and Jonathan Nelson, CEO of agency Omnicom Digital.

Twohill said the technology that has dominated online advertising so far has made people lose sight of the need for marketers to tell stories. So much of our work starts with a great idea that starts with the Web but can go elsewhere as well.

Learmonth wondered if this means there will be a shift in ad budgets away from TV to digital channels. “You’re seeing a shift away from traditional television,” Nelson said. “We all carry televisions in our pockets.” So we’re watching the shift and moving ad spend, really changing how we approach the consumer, he added. TV is really video, not just the box in the living room.

Part of the reason for the shift, Learmonth noted, is that it’s becoming as fragmented in terms of reaching audiences as online channels. “We follow the audience,” said Twohill, not because it’s TV but because it’s content people are watching wherever they are. Indeed, she said that Google, which to many people’s surprise has run a couple of SuperBowl ads, doesn’t think of TV advertising as so different from online advertising. It’s all marketing, and it needs to be across many channels. “I don’t see it as TV, I see it as video and great content,” she said. “It’s really about getting the right message out at the right time.”

Marketing is also going real-time. The implications are massive, Nelson said, so Omnicom is trying to speed up all of its 257 (!) companies. Some of it is Twitter, but it’s also programmatic (automated) buying. But the bigger key is adding real-time relevance for each consumer.

But are brands OK with making mistakes, as seems inevitable with spur-of-the-moment messaging? Learmonth wonders. “Well, we have a movie [about Google] coming out Friday,” smiled Twohill. “You don’t really own your brand anymore. The smart brands embrace that. Lots of people playing with your brand is a good thing.” Nelson noted that this kind of activity creates a lot of “earned” marketing that the brands don’t pay for directly but that they can benefit from enormously.

Native advertising, or ad formats that fit a little more naturally into the particular activities on content on a website, is another opportunity (and a challenge to display advertising) that provoked a lot of discussion, starting with what it really means. “I have no idea what they are,” Twohill said. “They’re just great content.”

Is “native” just a hustle? Learmonth wondered, asking a common question about it? “It’s just people trying to break out of the box of a 30-second spot or whatever,” Nelson said. “Great content works,” whatever you call it. It’s a good thing that traditional ad formats are evolving along with new devices like the tablet, Twohill said. “It’s a journey we’re all one,” she said.

But can native scale across a lot of online publishers, or even channels? “You have to,” Twohill said. “It’s your day job.”

Native ads came in for a closer look from Randall Rothenberg, president and CEO of the trade group Interactive Advertising Bureau. He has raised the concern that unique native ads for each site can’t scale up very well. But some, such as Forbes Media, claim they have. Meredith Kopit Levien, chief revenue officer at Forbes Media (publisher of this blog, obviously), said Forbes’ BrandVoice native format have become a significant portion of the company’s revenues. But native formats will work only if they meet the needs not only of advertisers but publishers and consumers too.

Rothenberg wondered, however, if this kind of thing will work for consumer marketing in addition to business-to-business marketing. Levien said she thinks so, maybe even more so. One campaign with Cartier worked, she said, as well as those from several financial services firms. But what about packaged goods, the largest ad category? Probably, Levien said, maybe not BrandVoice but another format that better fits the products.

The more you customize something, the bigger the hit you take to margins, Rothenberg said, so how do you ensure that BrandVoice doesn’t just eat into more scalable advertising? Levien said the monthly site license Forbes charges brands seeks to solve that, but Forbes is still working on it.

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