The UK’s burgeoning digital advertising industry is at a crucial juncture

Tim Elkington

At the IAB UK’s inaugural Leadership Summit in St Albans, a chorus of influential voices from the UK digital advertising industry spoke of the need for collaboration and self-regulation, to better guide this thriving industry of which we are rightly proud in this country.

As an open forum for bold ideas away from the constraints of the office, Chatham House ruled, but to round up, a handful of voices were happy to be quoted.

It was said, for instance, that mobile is in its ‘troubled teenage years’. But the fact is that the entire sector is facing significant growing pains and finds itself at a critical moment in its development.

Keith Weed, CMO of Unilever, kicked off proceedings by highlighting the business case for sustainability – both in the FMCG giant’s portfolio and the ad industry at large.

“What’s the business case for the alternative?” he rightly asked – drawing attention to the short-sighted nature of any initiatives focused solely on short-term gain. He was, in this instance, referring to questions he often receives around Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan – but the link between longevity in the wider media ecosystem didn’t go unnoticed.

“The thing that makes the most difference in any media is quality,” he warned later, referring to the danger of short-termism within the wider advertising ecosystem more generally.

Certainly it’s true that while digital is by far the biggest advertising medium in the UK - and remains a fantastic way to reach and to amaze customers - its relative youth and innate complexity ensure a steady of stream of challenges – whether that’s around viewability, attribution or ad blocking.

If there was agreement about anything, it was that to face up to such challenges all players within the ecosystem must collaborate.

“We’re inventing, and the world is watching … we are at a very important tipping point,” pointed out Douglas McCabe, CEO of Enders Analysis.

McCabe also said that, while digital display advertising has ‘barely got started’, there is a fundamental disconnect between brands and agencies. Certainly, it’s true that we need to ensure there is no gap between the promise and the reality of effective digital marketing.

But whilst the IAB has been working hard to set standards in a number of areas, it cannot do this alone. And, at the heart of all of this, the most important stakeholder is the consumer.

Consumers don’t install ad blockers simply because the tech enables them to. Nor do they stand outside the cinema until the trailers have finished. But they do want advertising that’s fun, that’s useful, that’s informative or stimulating – or ideally all of the above. If we don’t ensure the online experience is engaging, our growth will be built on unsustainable - and unstable - foundations.

In the words of Roisin Donnelly, brand director, Northern Europe P&G, “Digital gives you permission to jump further.

“Today, I’d fire somebody who wasn’t failing,” she said. And she wasn’t joking.

From this, let’s take heart. The fact the industry isn’t always getting it right is not a problem. Change is accelerating all the time. That makes our jobs more challenging but more interesting than ever before. Future generations will be looking at our brands through connected cars, perhaps even chips in their brains - but to handle the future we will we need to ensure we have mastered the basics. What looks complicated now, may look alarmingly simple in years to come.

A creativity call-to-arms is a very important part of all of this. If you are creating something brilliant, people want to collaborate. Creative bravery motivates consumers and employees and is required for survival of our industry. After all, if your ad is boring, viewability is irrelevant. 

So, as the largest internet advertising market in Europe, let’s ensure the UK is also ahead in self-regulation. Let’s establish systems to keep ourselves in check. This involves up-skilling, looking out as well as in, and keeping the consumer in mind at all times.

We might not get it right first time. And that’s fine. We are working in an era of experimentation and correction. We’re a live experiment, learning as we grow.

Written by

Tim Elkington


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