There is no question that the media industry is experiencing dramatic disruption on many fronts—in the way it creates content, distributes content to consumers, and monetizes audiences. These changes are driven by seismic shifts in consumer behavior and an explosion of both consumer- and B2B-facing technologies. The disruption reveals itself in the fast growth of newer content brands like Refinery29 and Vice, the increased use of technologies like Outbrain and Taboola to drive traffic, and the growth of programmatic approaches to advertising revenue. As we reflect on disruption across the industry there are key strategic questions, all of which fundamentally consider balance:
- What is the right balance between humans and technology across the full media and advertising ecosystem?
- How do we maximize our creativity as an industry while integrating data-driven approaches?
- When and how do we shift our businesses from legacy operating models to ones that better reflect the future?
It is these tensions that now shape the most important considerations for advertisers, their agencies, and the media companies that convene audiences at scale.
Humans and Automation
The tension between human-driven and technology-driven capabilities is often miscast, positioning automation as a threat to the people that drive our industry. However, the more strategic opportunity is to enable humans to do what they do best and leverage technology to drive processes that are best served either by highly repeatable algorithmic tasks or by analytical complexity that surpasses the capacity of the human brain. If we draw the line carefully between these complementary approaches, we can unleash the talent in our organizations and apply humans to areas of growth and competitive differentiation. The grounding principle is: let humans do what humans do best, and let technology do what technology does best.
Approaches to content, distribution, and monetization across the media industry all afford opportunities to explore the nuances of blending people and automation:
Content and creative. In the content arena, long-form, quality journalism depends on the highest-caliber talent in reporting and editing. However, new technologies like CrowdTangle are better suited to spotting trends from social media to inform reporting and to identifying the optimal promotional mix for a news organization. National Public Radio and Upworthy are just two media organizations using CrowdTangle to power fast-moving social media trend analysis and news curation. Advertising also offers opportunities to blend humans and automation. On the one hand, the recent creative from Nike celebrating “losers” could only have come from the raw ideation of the best creative minds, but at the automated end of the spectrum, hyper-targeted 1:1 digital campaigns may not only benefit from precision in finding consumers but perhaps also from dynamic creative strategies matching multiple creative options with precise audience targets, an approach which can only be executed at scale through technology — via tools like CPXi’s AdReady.
Distribution strategies. In traditional marketing communications, a well-informed brief will shape a human-driven strategy and insight-guided planning process. Smart cross-functional teams cull through ideas on the best ways to find and influence consumers to embrace a particular perception or take a specific action. While that human ideation is still critical, the inputs get exponentially richer with the right use of data and technology. The transparency and volume of social media interactions, for example, enable us to look past traditional demographic or psychographic characteristics to find clusters of consumers or conversations that are defined by data science to have mathematical density and importance as real communities. Execution against such sophisticated targeting strategies is guided by human insight but also requires powerful data analysis and technology. In any data- or technology-driven process, if people don’t connect the dots between different parts of the strategy, add judgment and context to analyses, and help frame the questions that data enables us to answer, we will not achieve the right outcome. The balance is subtle and sophisticated.
Monetization. Traditionally, marketplaces for media were largely created by people. Sales people from media companies, agency account teams serving brands, and the clients themselves connected demand with supply. Briefs from clients informed RFPs from agencies, which informed responses and pitches from media companies. Of course, at this moment, particularly for any media that is digital, supply and demand can intersect in real time via bidding in a range of auctions and exchanges. Programmatic technologies allow us to perform a match between placement and price in a highly dynamic, high-volume environment, as a complement to the people-driven processes. To declare that programmatic will become the entire marketplace of the future is too extreme and undervalues the balance between humans and technology. The future demands a balance between big ideas like sponsorships and branded entertainment that can only be developed through conversation and human ideation, and highly efficient media amplification strategies that can best be executed via technology.
The more sophisticated our approach to balancing humans and technology, the more likely that we can simultaneously unleash the creativity and intelligence of our teams, while making them able to get more impact out of the ideas they create through scalable technologies.
Creativity and Data
Creativity sits at the core of brand stewardship, advertising, and content creation. Chief marketing officers and their teams contemplate and shape the brand attributes that best define the relationship between a product or service and its customers. Creative agencies unfurl their best ideas to make advertising memorable while informing or entertaining audiences. And at media companies, journalists, photographers, video producers, and illustrators bring their talent, skills, and experience to shaping stories and features, large and small. But the increased availability of data, and perhaps more importantly, the ability to derive meaningful insights from it, provide new opportunities to inform our creative ideas and to measure their impact.
A willingness to embrace data strategies as part of a creative process can become a point of differentiation and advantage:
Content creation. Whether we are shaping important news stories as journalists or producing award-winning advertising creative, storytelling is the means by which we connect messages to audiences in resonant, meaningful ways. Historically, content creation was an exclusively human process but careful blending of technology into the mix can drive even greater editorial or advertising success. Think of the story-building inspiration of a mood board, which is a collage of visual stimuli that evoke the essence, tone, identity, and intent of a potential advertising campaign hoping to reach a specific target audience. By contrast, contemplate the possibility of monitoring a data-defined cluster of that same target audience to evaluate the visual media (think Instagram, Pinterest, memes) that they might be sharing in real time on Twitter. A world of transparent social media engagement offers powerful new sources of insight into the content that most readily engages communities of customers. This data-driven approach yields a dynamic mood board algorithmically calculated based on tweet and retweet volumes within the target audience cluster (full credit to Scale Model at Betaworks for this concept). Data-driven processes cannot replace human creativity and judgment, but they can be a rich complement.
Marketing strategies. A sharp creative mind can generate ideas to engage audiences by bringing stories to life. Revlon’s Times Square billboard, which projects real-time images of people gathered below on the street over the tagline “Love Is On” (also displayed online), would not have surfaced but for creatives who connected strategy with a means to bring the brand to life. It is one of countless examples where the sheer power of human ideas defines success. But as channels and platforms proliferate, it becomes less feasible to see creativity as the sole factor in deciding how to impact audiences—from media-mix models to precise digital targeting approaches. As the options continue to multiply, data becomes an objective means to evaluate potential strategies across paid, owned, and earned channels. And, instead of traditional demographic breaks dominating the media choices, data reveals more dynamic and meaningful views of audience segmentation to elicit true engagement. Still, while data can offer a starting point for more nuanced views of clustering, human judgment that allows us to discern the data worth a keener focus.
Measurement. Data is used most robustly for measuring the results and impact of engagement strategies. Whether the metric is outcome-based, like sales, leads, and traffic, or more qualitative, like brand perception and lift, data is widely used to understand the effect of campaigns and to develop audience. And yet, measurement is perhaps the arena most challenged on the metrics front. The fragmentation of digital platforms has fostered a lack of consistent standards, and many of the most innovative experiences rely solely on proprietary publisher-owned metrics for reporting. Impact measurement only becomes more complex as ideas are executed across platforms. And most measurement scenarios do not offer a seamless view across paid, owned, and earned data sets. Yet even as better, more consistent measurement emerges, data will only take us so far in the journey to understand impact. Thoughtful analytics are best married to human judgment to derive insight laden with broader context. Ultimately, human judgment is best poised to truly understand the more subtle dimensions of brand equity and influence.
Data enables us to free up time previously deployed against the manual parsing and review of the many marketing, communications, and media options, offering new opportunities to apply human creativity to bigger ideas that capture audiences’ imaginations.
The future requires change on a massive scale for most organizations, and the best approach involves leadership’s embracing the complexity, not only of developing the right strategy but executing it with deep attention to the details that matter. Operating models can shift but require a conscious approach to a range of issues, including organizational structure, workflows, technology platforms and overall change management. The product mix can be re-architected to rely increasingly on newer and high-growth offerings, but not before buyers are ready to embrace the new opportunities beyond experimentation. The challenge is to lead the marketplace and be sure new supply connects with demand in real time. And from a financial perspective, investment decisions and revenue expectations require careful forecasting and pacing against expectations to understand the multifaceted shift from legacy business lines to newer ones.
Disruption of the media industry often feels like a brute force, moving quickly and without discretion. However, the ways we must respond as participants in the ecosystem is quite the opposite, requiring judicious, nuanced approaches. The critical concept is to balance the tensions to drive powerful results.