Opinion

What ‘owned audiences’ can offer publishers and agencies

Buzzfeed watermelon videoThe opportunities to ignore advertising haven’t just increased – they’re overpowering opportunities to advertise at all. That’s why, says Henry Innis, a future of ‘owned audiences’ could be the way forward.

You’ve probably heard the term ‘native content’ over the past year or so. It’s one of the critical hot topics as audiences rather than advertising space becomes the battle-ground for marketing dollars.

Agencies grew in a time when they were tasked with building deliverables and, by extension, capabilities. A client had a specific piece of ad space or a website or a social media page and the agency had a job to deliver the best messaging for the client possible.

They used their capabilities and process around ‘delivery’ to make that process balance efficiency (of managing client budget) and effectiveness (of making something people didn’t hate).

That ‘space’ is quickly evaporating. People are now able to switch between screens during a TV ad break. They can install ad-blockers on their browser. The opportunities to ignore advertising haven’t just increased – they’re overpowering the opportunities to advertise at all.

That creates a conundrum for agencies who are used to either building something that people already are coming to or using creativity to make the ‘interruption’ to someone’s desired content as enjoyable as possible.

People are wising up – rather than letting someone interrupt in the first place, they’re equipping themselves with the filters to get rid of the ads.

It’s a model that is geared towards servicing what the client thinks audiences want, rather than the audience itself. And in the age of data-driven measurement that isn’t enough; advertisers may not realise where to start in engaging audiences in the first place.

Yes, some agencies are an exception to this but arguably they behave more as consultancies in this role – guiding clients to a capability-agnostic solution. What digital agency has ever recommended a TV ad buy?)

Saying agencies can’t create engaging content isn’t quite fair, but there’s a problematic tension in the way they work. Their ostensible master is the audience/consumer, but the real master of the process is the client.

The client traditionally bought audience attention and so, realistically, this process has been fairly effective at servicing their needs for a number of years now. But as we spoke about before, that’s changed.

The model is now about attracting audiences. It’s often publishers, who’s master day-to-day is their audience, who are best placed to do that. They’re constantly experimenting to create content that engages with their audiences so when a client asks them to produce something, the publisher knows what the audience will respond to.

Here’s a neat way to think of it. Most agencies are [capability] agencies. For example, one might be a digital agency or a creative agency. But most publishers are still agencies – just of a different kind. They capture a certain type of attention via content. They’re [audience] agencies.

Buzzfeed's popular viral watermelon video

Buzzfeed’s popular viral watermelon video

Buzzfeed has had success in native content for that very reason. They’ve been able to capture a disproportionate amount of audience attention, but more importantly, understand that their product is being able to communicate to that audience.

They’re dominating the space because publishers are audience agencies. They’re not selling corporations an ad space, but a marketing solution for their audience.

Sorrell says Singo and Tate rewriting history

Martin Sorrell has long pushed technology, content and data as the hallmarks of his company. It’s increasingly clear that compelling content comes from people who understand audiences first over client deliverables and speak to that.

That’s easier for publishers or consultancies rather than for pure-play capability agencies.

That’s why it’s interesting to think about the future of holding company acquisitions: which are likely to include some publishers. Why? Publishers are struggling to embed the necessary marketing skills inside their organisations, despite understanding how to build and retain audiences.

And advertising organisations are having the same problem, but reversed. They’ve got marketing skills but no ability to retain audiences. They’re still generating significant cash – even if their results are increasingly in question.

viceland tv channel

Of course, there are signs this is happening. WPP invested in leading online business Vice media.

In his rationale for the deal, Sorrell spoke about content reaching an audience: “WPP is investing in Vice to further develop our content capabilities, particularly in new media and amongst the youth consumer segments.

“Vice has been extremely successful in developing and repositioning major brands in these areas. It’s also an opportunity to work closely with Tom Freston and Ari Emanuel and his WME talent agency.”

Going forward, you can see now this might work. Imagine the marketing and strategic smarts of Ogilvy using the content and audience smarts of a News Corp. Many of the struggling media companies of today are going to be the ‘owned audiences’ of advertising holding companies tomorrow.

With the IP and smarts of how holding companies can deploy technology and data across networks and properties, we may see them able to reinvigorate the commercial side of publishing.

Whilst it will be hard to enforce integrity in media (and arguably, it may be hard to keep) it’s also clear that holding companies should see a huge opportunity in acquiring audiences, rather than capabilities, in the future.

Henry Innis works in strategy at B.B.E.

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