Digital media’s grand promises have not been fulfilled. Instead targeting fails, context blindness and a fundamental disrespect for people’s attention are jeopardising both brand growth and the social contract advertising has been built on. We need to remember some timeless principles and experiment with the new if we are to improve, writes Thomas Wagner, Planning Director at BBH Singapore.

The digital media conversation is exhausting. On one side, the ongoing ‘social media backlash’ ignores the fact that the swiss army knife that is ‘digital’ can, of course, be effective in achieving marketing objectives. On the other, easily excitable marketers and advertisers are quick to jump on ever accelerating bandwagons, happily declaring the end of advertising.

Truth is, it is hard not to get both excited about, and frustrated by the promise of digital media.



Creative sequencing.


Conversion optimisation.

Attribution modelling.

The promises are alluring.

Who wouldn’t want potentially larger effects at potentially lower costs? Who would’t agree with the basic argument, ‘reach the right people at the right time with the right creative’?

The reality, however, is often frustrating. If there wasn’t already an #AdvertisingFails hashtag we might have to create a new one just for poorly targeted ads. #ThisAdsNotForMe? We are open for suggestions. A quick call amongst friends and look around the internet revealed a huge number across all major platforms within one week. Here are the best / worst:

A friend of a friend had his proposal plans ruined because his girlfriend was re-targeted engagement rings he researched.

A female colleague was researching a kinky toy for a bachelorette party. Now all platforms think she’s in desperate need of a sex toy. And so do her clients after her presenting on a big screen.

Our very own Tom Roach has been getting so many identical promo tweets by The Economist, he started to have a bit of fun with them.

And in ironic turn of events, as this article was in draft, Coke advertised to Prof Byron Sharp … in Spanish.

Add to this countless stories of ads in wrong languages, already purchased items, wrong gender, life stage or placements that would have gotten both clients and media buyers fired in the age of print. This is not to say that there aren’t good examples. This is to say, compared to the rosy promises, it’s all a bit of a mess, really.

So, where to, from here?

As an industry, we have a habit of getting excited about new things, it is part of our job. These glossy promises are not new, we had a decade full of ‘years of mobile’ before mobile became remotely useful to businesses. Personalisation, attribution and efficiency have been hailed as the killer feature of digital media before Facebook opened their doors. But will they ever be fulfilled? Should they?

Recently the IPA sounded the alarm about declining advertising effectiveness. Similarly, Enders Analysis has published a report on the mounting risks to marketing effectiveness.

“A partial — if seductively persuasive and impressive — data framework for online advertising combined with short- term incentives have encouraged a dramatic shift in the ratio of brand to activation advertising from 60:40 to 50:50, depressing the pricing of display media.

Mounting evidence suggests a focus on quick returns and cheap media at all costs is hurting marketing effectiveness, measured in long-term Return-on-Investment, brand equity and consumer satisfaction. Guarding against this risk requires brand-focused advertisers to create more space for long-term judgement for CMOs, and to refocus agency remuneration towards planning and creative work”

Not only do we drive more and more people to block ads – undermining the social contract advertising has been built on, they also seem to lead to a decline in marketing effectiveness. This tension between the promise and the reality of digital media is fascinating.

So what do we do about it? What can one do about it?

First of all, we acknowledge the problem:

People hate being advertised to like this. They hate seeing their attention being disrespected. Advertising, in whatever shape or form has to provide some form of value. Be useful, be entertaining or get out of the way. This is as true for 6 second bumpers, whose only job is to remind people of that wonderful product benefit of yours, as much as it is for good old 60s TV and even promo tweets that try to sell Tom The Economist.


Influence both the purchases furthest ahead – what people love to call ‘wastage’ – with brand building at scale; and the ones closer to actually buying the category. So, of course, we make brands easy to buy for those who might want to buy them. Heck, our Stockholm team can help you configure and order your car right on your mobile. Yes, also, to showing people who are looking for bedroom furniture beautifully designed bedroom furniture. To finding clever media connections and efficiencies but not exclusively and disrespectfully of people’s attention and certainly not at the cost of what is proven make more money in the long-run. Incidentally, this also seems to be perfectly clear to the many ‘new economy’ brands who sell their own products quite ‘traditionally’.

The rules of thumb of the seminal “The Long and Short of It” and of Byron Sharp provide great guidelines. If you’re not reaching everyone who could buy your product with well branded and cut-through publicity, you’re probably going about it the wrong way. The challenge is to match more detailed tasks for every brand, against time, channels, formats and budgets and more, in a world where everyone who promises to have cracked cross-channel attribution is either deluding themselves or selling attribution models. This entails working with media partners and platforms against cookie cutter media plans, and experiments that take the above in mind.

But while the details and nuances haven’t been cracked, and might not be cracked perfectly anytime soon, we recognise that for the foreseeable future, fame makes for marketing effectiveness, and difference makes for fame: They don’t make ad blockers for a tabloid / BuzzFeed headline or a chatty taxi driver.

So, whether it’s dropping a street-block-size LED running track in the heart of Manila, teaching parents how to perform CPR on a baby bib or spot fraud, getting everyone’s favourite Kristian Nairn to sell chicken in a way only he could, hiding easter eggs for gaming enthusiasts, or inspiring Singapore’s Prime Minister to take part in a campaign, this is what we aim for.

What else is there to do than experiment, one eye on future, one eye on the now, ever on the lookout for the elusive power of difference to make a difference?