We need a mindset change to address current challenges in media and advertising

By Alex Tait. Originally published in The Drum.

There certainly seems to be a wind of change blowing through advertising at the moment.

I‘m aware that, because at the timing of writing this, I’m just adding my voice to a number of notable contributions to the narrative. These include the proactivity in ISBA’s new manifesto, that provides a high-level roadmap to what some of the change should be, and having been a member of ISBA’s Excom group, feeding into this has been quite energising.

To anyone who was there and recognises some of the arguments, whilst not of course taking any credit for what has happened subsequently, comments I made at the JICWEBS (Joint Industry Committee for Web Standards) Townhall in November last year about the challenges and opportunities in digital seem even more relevant in retrospect. Some of these are included below in my call to action for the industry.

For the uninitiated, JICWEBS state their purpose as being to ensure “independent development of standards for benchmarking best practice for online ad trading”. Issues covered include standards relating to ad verification: making sure your ad is seen (viewability), in the right context (brand safety), and by a human being (ad fraud). These issues have been around for many years, and we might wonder why there haven’t been collective outcomes on these issues sooner.

The reason I was at the JICWEBS Townhall was that it seems a no-brainer that the industry should be supporting digital standards of this kind, as a fundamental activity to strengthen confidence in the digital ecosystem. The fact that it has taken so long to build up a head of steam around an issue so important to the industry seems to me to point to our lack of focus as an industry on driving positive change. This is change that everyone can clearly see we need, but in my view we haven’t managed so far to articulate or deliver sufficiently compelling solutions.

So why is there such a clamour now? It really feels like digital has moved over the last few years from being the untouchable challenger media that financial directors liked due to its accountability (even if more senior marketers didn’t really understand it) to the biggest media, with grown-up problems.

With this coming of age, however, comes greater scrutiny. We do not only have burning platforms, like ad verification, ad blocking and transparency (which is much wider than digital of course). As marketers’ understanding has caught up with the ‘new media’, even the most traditional marketing practitioners and agencies have had to upskill on their knowledge, either personally or through programmes set up in their organisations, and this has shone the spotlight even more searchingly on these areas.

The piece of the puzzle that is often missed in these discussions is, I think, the role we each need to play in driving change. In each of our organisations we are familiar with this, aren’t we? “Everyone needs to embrace innovation…the need for a change mindset embracing connectivity across the organisation.” The fact is that everyone needs to take ownership, but ultimate accountability is driven by the person with the biggest lever to implement change, the head of the organisation or the chief executive.

However, as an industry we seem much more like what social scientists call a ‘self-organising system’, one where we have groups that form some sort of order but where there is no overall chief executive who can wield the stick and carrot to attain specific objectives. There has never been a more fragmented media landscape. Add to this, trade bodies that increasingly have overlapping responsibilities, due partly to the blurring of lines between disciplines, and the lack of cohesion has the potential to worsen significantly. Think five or 10 years from now. There is only one way the complexity of our ecosystem will go.

However, I’d argue we do have agents that can corral that change. These are the advertisers (and potentially agencies and consultancies, depending on the topic) that invest the money into the ecosystem. This is one reason why the clarity of the ISBA manifesto has the potential to be such a powerful and a positive agent of change if we follow through on it.

While it can provide a useful framework, we need more than that to truly implement change. To be fully effective, I’d argue that we need the same collective change mindset and collaborative behaviours in how we engage with the industry that many of our organisations are advocating (within advertisers, agencies, publishers and consultancies). However, it needs everyone in the ecosystem to take personal responsibility for this, and to get much more involved in helping to educate ourselves and ensuring we develop well thought-through solutions. The trade bodies can take this only so far and, to be truly effective at effecting change, they need their members, the practitioners, to drive forward engagement on issues.

We need also to work together to mentor and foster leadership within the industry. It won’t be perfect: change never is. It is also worth being self-aware of the effect changes like this can have on such other parties in the ecosystem as publishers. Brands have alternative ways of connecting with consumers, which can be an uncomfortable truth depending on where you sit in the ecosystem. So to maintain and grow spend, participants in the advertising ecosystem have no choice but to embrace this change, in order to maximise confidence, trust and ultimately effectiveness.

With the turbulence we are all experiencing in a changing landscape, there is collective and also individual opportunity for those who embrace change and look to exploit it.