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AdTech Reboot

The great marketing scorecard: Top 6 digital marketing winners and losers in 2021

Picture of Judy Shapiro

Judy Shapiro

Editor-in-Chief at The Trust Web Times
Picture of Judy Shapiro

Judy Shapiro

Editor-in-Chief at The Trust Web Times

Nothing prepared marketers for what happened in 2020 when we were challenged to rethink everything. In the process, everything about AdTech is being re-evaluated by marketers using a new scorecard.

2020 was a year where trust, or lack thereof, became a defining topic. We questioned almost everything we used to trust unthinkingly.

Now we question whether to trust elections.   

Now we doubt whether our national health institutions can protect us from illness.   

Now we wonder what happened to the shared stories and truths that used to unify all Americans.

Amidst this sea of questioning, AdTech doesn’t come away without scrutiny. We can’t ignore anymore AdTech’s massive culpability in the debasement of trust in digital marketing among all stakeholder groups – advertisers, agencies, publishers and consumers.

Now, we have to question the basic tenents of AdTech:

  • Is “scale” the right model for digital media when it is unclear how many impressions represent real people?
  • Is targeting data up to the task of targeting real time intent audiences without violating user privacy?
  • Can AI really drive efficiency into the unpredictable marketing process when it seems more probable that AI is just degrading the user journey with misplaced automation touchpoints? 
  • Can social platforms ever reconcile the tensions between being an agnostic content distribution platform and a safe space where violence isn’t given a platform to amplify violent rhetoric?   

These questions were not even pondered five years ago as the a priori assumption is that AdTech was a net gain for advertisers. In 2020, we learned our unquestioning faith in AdTech was a case of misplaced trust.

2021 will be a watershed year for marketing technology.

In contrast to 2020, next year will be the moment of renewal because we are free to question the basic premise of how we want technology to work within the very human-driven business of marketing. The coming challenges in 2021 are unlike anything we have experienced over the last 10 years, opening the door for true innovation that would have seemed impossible in “normal” times:

  • The cookie will crumble changing how digital targeting data is created and deployed
  • Online commerce will continue to dominate putting new pressure on brick & mortar establishments
  • The workforce is changing radically affecting what and how we market to these customers
  • Marketers know they can never trust Facebook to change and the impact of this in brand reputation risks
  • Digital media’s murky supply chain is not sustainable or brand safe
  • Newer privacy legislation (like in California) change the very nature of how to advertise on the “Free Internet.”
  • Perhaps most profoundly, the wealth redistribution of the last 12 months will significantly change the demo make-up of this country thus impacting every downstream marketing effort from here on out.  

These are weighty issues – not just for sociologists and philosophers but for marketers too as all this has a profound impact in how marketers think about their 2021 plans. Amidst all this trauma and transformation, only now do we fully appreciate that AdTech has no clear vision of the role of trust, technologically speaking, in marketing.

It’s becoming plain that this trust gap is profoundly dangerous as Ex-Googler Tim Hwang explains in his book In Subprime Attention Crisis. He feels that AdTech is ready for a collapse like the real estate crisis of 2008 where blind real estate trusts hid a lot of bad debt. Likewise, AdTech obscures the nature of “bad publishers” who are running advertising undermining the overall performance of these AdTech systems.

This then, is the moment to think about the marketing losers and winners in 2021 and plan accordingly.

The Losers:

1) All things AI.

The promises of AI in marketing were so seductive because they promised some predictability in the very unpredictable business of marketing. This proved to be an over-promise that further fueled marketers’ distrust of digital marketing. Now, AI powered anything is just noise in the sales pitch. It shouldn’t determine anymore why a marketer uses any AdTech platform.

2) Programmatic media.

The issues of programmatic media’s murky supply chain have created a backlash of anger and a mountain of distrust. Despite all the verification technologies, advertisers can’t really verify what they are getting and Agencies are bound to the major buying platforms they use. Even publishers lose since they are significantly under-compensated for their content product.

Advertisers are realizing that “scale” can’t be trusted to deliver real-time intent audiences and are looking at new scale plays with direct buys or B2B media.   

3) Data aggregators.

This is gonna be a tricky ride for the data players in 2021.  The universal chase for a universal ID that doesn’t include cookies is shaping up to be tough. It takes some imagination to come up with an honorable solution to target audiences while also respecting the fact that people don’t want to be tracked.

So far the industry is failing the imagination test. The main approach that the industry is moving towards is around an “opt-in via login credentials” paradigm – whether you are logged into Google or other large publisher networks that are forming. This convoluted “opt-in” approach which clearly skirts the real intent speaks to the bankrupt nature of today’s data providers to come up with something that is both effective and honorable.

This veneer of opt-in credentials is not the best we can do and we all know it.

4) Facebook.

There is so much in store for Facebook in 2021 as they are likely to have to navigate a perfect storm of politics, policy, privacy and advertiser performance challenges – all at once. Undoubtedly this will change it forever and IMHO Facebook won’t come out on the other end of 2021 as large as it entered the year.  

5) Events – digital and live.

It is hard to say this but I believe that events will never go back to the old normal. Too many people realize that the cost in travel and time for live events will be hard to justify in future. On the other hand, there are simply too many digital events for any of them to really break out. Plus, let’s face it – no one is excited about attending a 2-day digital event. No one.

Some events will continue but the many of the events that punctuated our business lives will never appear again.

6) Personalization.

Of all the promises of AdTech, this one probably is the biggest disappointment to marketers. There is simply too much evidence that even the most sophisticated platform cannot predict the real time intent moment of any user to make any personalization efforts relevant or welcome. Let’s at least start with being honest about that. Gartner is far more pessimistic about this category: “Gartner Predicts 80% of Marketers Will Abandon Personalization Efforts by 2025” – (Source:–of-marketers-will-abandon-person). The business of personalization has been a black hole of cost with scant ROI to show for all the effort.  

The Winners:

1) B2B media and niche, topics-based publishers

Small is the new big as advertisers are searching for real audiences who they know are engaged.

While the “scale” publications have been all the programmatic rage, now the full impact of the murky supply chain is clear and advertisers know too much of their ad budgets are not reaching real people. This is why some of the largest publishers like BuzzFeed and Huffpo are merging as a ‘defensive horizontal merger’ (Source: Adweek) to mitigate the downside of the dramatic pendulum swing from “scale” and towards “small but engaged.” 

The shift to small publishers is not just a counter reaction to scale media but it is in recognition of the fact that small publishers’ super power is their ability to aggregate real, topic engaged audiences. Unlike demo-driven audiences that dominate scale media, topics connect disparate audiences better than any look-a-like targeting profile. Topic targeting is the “new contextual media” of human-sized scale buys.

2) Content marketing

This never went out of style but it continues to become even more important in proportion to the increasing amount of fraud and privacy issues pervade digital media. This $400Billion category (by 2023) shows all signs of continuing to increase as advertisers deal with the inherent waste of large, demo-centric programmatic media.

Key content marketing areas that are going to rise include; contextual targeting data and NOT the current keyword matching or interest classification targeting that fails today; topic data so brands understand what content they should invest in and; attribution modeling based on a content journey to conversion – not on targeting “people”

3) PPC

Related to content marketing, PPC is, at its core, a topic-based technology. It never went out of style but it is did suffer from an “inferiority complex” losing prestige to sexy AdTech targeting plays. As the bloom comes off the AdTech rose, PPC is basking in the light of its ability to deliver ROI to those with the muscle to extract it efficiently out of the PPC machinery.  

No small task when Google’s monetization machine relies on inexperienced advertisers who, like Las Vegas gamblers, don’t fully understand that the “House” usually wins.

To win at PPC game requires not playing it the Google way but with a modern approach that transforms keywords into affinity topics. This approach prevents advertisers from getting killed in the bloody PPC bidding wars while monetizing “topic concepts” people are searching for but don’t attract a lot of competitive action. Most importantly, topic data helps advertisers understand the ROI ceiling for PPC is so they don’t waste money on PPC when no further ROI can be extracted from the platform.

4) Direct mail

Hear me out on this one. I know this category’s glory days are gone. I know that the cost, time and effort to launch a direct mail campaigns makes it anachronistic to the “agile digital” marketing world we live in. Yet, if one steps back, you realize the macro trends driving this and many other of these “winners” is the concept of going back to basics to connect with real audiences in a real way. AdTech was too quick to throw out the real-world baby with the digital bathwater. Sometimes, things that were considered outdated are making a strong comeback because there is a real-world dimension that tech can’t duplicate (anyone who bought vinyl records in the last 2 years knows what I am talking about here).

5) 1st party data

For too long, marketers relied on 3rd party data to make their lives easier. Unfortunately, the 3rd party data party is over. You can debate whether the new Universal ID architecture the industry is pivoting towards is satisfactory to meet user privacy restrictions, but what is clear is that companies need to develop their own data strategies including compliance, provenance and access standards. This mission critical function is a boon to any services firm that understands 1st party data – inside and out.

6) Attribution Modeling technology

There is virtually not a single marketer who does not understand why this is needed but it is equally true that there is virtually not a single marketer who doesn’t struggle with attribution modeling. The complexity and/ or cost of today’s attribution models leave many with no clear way to understand how well their marketing efforts are delivering. Today’s attribution platforms fall into two camps – Free (via Google) but confusing and inadequate or; well-engineered attribution model but well in excess of the budget and tech resources of many many marketers. This “famine or feast mentality” is giving way to a more economical approaches that allows many more companies to understand their marketing spend results. The key is to understand that you may only get to 80% attribution accuracy and that is perfectly OK versus the 80% confusion that the free attribution delivers. 

Here’s the “so what” of this.  

The experiences of 2020 allowed us a moment for a complete relook at all things digital. Amidst the transformation changing everything, we can make real progress towards a technology landscape that can be trusted because it works in the real-world.

1) The trust chasm between marketing technology and marketers continues to widen encouraging marketers to choose trust innovations in digital marketing.

Marketing is a multi-disciplined business function yet AdTech is a brutish machine capable of pushing impressions or automated touchpoints even if it is unclear if any of these actions are creating delightful customer journeys.

Today, AdTech makes no attempt for a midcourse correction. Instead it continues to tinker around the same AdTech sandbox of automation platforms, DSPs, SSP, Demo profiling and data supermarkets continuing to ignore the huge trust gaps before us. The reason is clear. If AdTech became more trustworthy through transparency, a lot of AdTech would not survive the scrutiny. This does not bode well for any real progress on fraud or privacy protection or brand safe digital advertising.    

Yet despite the uphill battle, outlier companies are innovating around “trust technologies” as a repeatable business operation. It is covering a wide swath of marketing functions; new types of topic targeting data that is high quality and ensures audience privacy; better approaches from firms like Check My Ads to ensure ads are not placed on hate content; new ways for users to be in control of their digital information in practical ways; better ways for quality publishers to become networks, like the BPA Exchange, so they can reap the rewards of their quality product within a verifiable digital ad supply that is sustainable.

Putting it all together – this is the concept we call The Trust Web. A market-driven set of marketing technologies and principles that are meant to fill the trust gap between advertisers, media and agencies.

2) Overall ad spend will rebound but in unexpected ways.  

It’s back to basics time. If a tech promise sounds like it is a silver bullet, prepare to be disappointed. AdTech has over-promised and under-delivered for a decade now. For instance, marketers have had a lot of tech options for omni channel media buying yet all the fraud, privacy and brand safety issues continue to vex marketers large and small. More and more, marketers will favor “old fashioned” marketing basics like local marketing and even, gasp, direct mail. Getting back to the real world is how marketing get real again.

3) Agile marketing is a concept that requires leadership courage to look at technological trust in a new way.  

The idea of “agile marketing” was tied up with digital transformation since it offered the promise to be able to nimbly adapt and pivot as market conditions required. This concept sounded good but often fell short of the mark because while marketing leaders often vocally supported experimentation, they then back peddled by demanding a read-out on how each specific channel performed.

An agile organization is an attitude to use technology to facilitate the agile organization. This means that, for instance, data is unleashed from the functional silo’s it is trapped in today and applied everyday by everyone in the organization:

  • It uses data in attribution modeling to understand users’ conversion journey based on topic journeys not just behavioral data stored in a CMS system.
  • It uses topic intelligence data to create unified content marketing programs instead of demo/ look-a-like targeting data that lives in the DSP
  • It re-engineers the data in automation platforms so that a user journey is filled with magical moments of connections that reflect the nuances of trust building communications  

Agile marketing requires a new set of trusted metrics that changes the conversation. Pivot from channel metrics to acquisition metrics. Shift from behavior tracking to campaign tracking where tactics can be ramped up or down based on a holistic view of a campaign’s performance.

4) Making human connections is now more important than scale or speed-to-market or efficiency.

A new sentiment is taking hold that is about sourcing technology from providers with an ethically designed supply chain. It is about the trust arises when what’s promised is what’s delivered and messaging is shifting from “cool” to values. Perhaps the trickiest evolution marketers must make is to accept the limits of what AdTech can do and where people have to be in charge. For over 10 years, AdTech seemed to have no limits. Now we understand we can’t trust AdTech to create great marketing. Only people can do that.  

We are all ready to say goodbye to 2020 and welcome in 2021. Let’s make this year count in terms of positive progress in direct proportion to how awful 2020 really was.

Joy to all for a happy 2021.