Practical steps marketers can take to put trust back into marketing communications

By Alex Tait. Originally published in The Drum.

Trust has been high on the wider media agenda for some time. This year in particular, however, it is increasingly being talked about in connection with marketing communications. 

My former employer Unilever has been the most vocal big brand this week threatening to withdraw its advertising from such online platforms as Facebook and Google if they fail to eradicate items which “create division in society and promote anger and hate”.

The topic of trust has in any case been ratcheting up over the last few months in such diverse areas as the PR around the Edelman trust barometer and ex-Havas chief executive Paul Framp’s vlog a few weeks back.

I’m a big advocate of marketers individually and collectively keeping trust high on their agenda. To have a brand that is trusted obviously makes the best commercial sense – ‘honesty is (still) the best policy’ – but I would argue that maximising trust in marketing communications calls for differentiated approaches depending on which stakeholders we are addressing.

I believe there are three main groups. Unilever turned the spotlight on media and platforms’ impact on society this week. Second is the issue of how we restore trust within the industry. Thirdly, there is the question of how marketing communications itself is viewed and, accordingly, treated within organisations.

I’ll keep this column short by focusing on just the latter two groups, and hope also to make some practical suggestions about actions we might take. The impact on society of media and social platforms has had numerous column inches devoted to it already this year, from keynotes at Davos to the IAB speech this week. Then there have been plenty of obvious political examples.

The dictionary definition of trust is ‘firm belief in the reliability or truth of someone or something’. That helps us focus on the problem we are looking to solve collectively.

Ad verification (brand safety, fraud and viewability tracking and optimisation) is a hygiene factor for the marketing industry that has been well discussed so I won’t rake over it here, except to say that two key levers for increasing viewability levels for brand spend are, firstly, getting the industry to agree to raise the viewability standard and, secondly, achieving widespread adoption of a viewability trading model. The guidelines we developed with ISBA at the end of last year to enable viewability trading are intended to be a catalyst to accelerate adoption of this approach across the industry. We need more brands to take these principles on board in 2018 to achieve a major advance in respect of viewability levels.

The other key debate relating to trust concerns the issue of non-transparent agency-client relationships. Again we’ve a good part of the solution already available in the form of the ISBA media services contract, something all advertisers should be familiarising themselves with. The contract provides protection against various issues in respect of transparency, data ownership and rebates. It has already been adopted by a significant proportion of their members and the rate of takeup is increasing. We need to deliver a fully transparent trading ecosystem for brands and this contract should be part of its foundation.

The law is of course integral to ensuring that the marketing ecosystem works in your interests, and there is probably no better example of this than the impending GDPR legislation. The well reported and much predicted realignment of the ad tech ecosystem as a result of this legislation can only help to consolidate trust on the part of the citizen and consumer.

The law and regulation can, however, take us only so far. Trust has to be earned and depends largely on how the people in a relationship actually behave. We need to establish and police an expectation of behaviour in our industry that all participants in a brand’s marketing ecosystem will work in a transparent way that is in the interests of the brand. I suppose that is not so dissimilar from the way an organisation lays out its expectations of behaviour, from anti-corruption to, now, GDPR compliance, in the course of its training programmes.

Brands need to have the right capability and subject expertise to be able to work effectively with the industry and trade bodies to understand and police these and other complex areas. But of course, from an internal brand perspective, having the right capability is crucial if well-founded advice is to be given to the board and other stakeholders. Assessing this is often difficult for an organisation owing to limited resources, headcount restrictions, and the need to navigate through the barrage of external messaging motivated by vested interests or sales agendas that gets fed into an organisation.

Addressing this problem of capability is, I believe, one of the key issues facing modern marketing. Boards need to be confident that marketing spend is driving growth and business outcomes: it should not just be viewed as a cost. For many brand marketers this is precisely the problem. Marketing spend is not being planned or measured optimally or, in many cases, explained effectively to the board.

Many – I would go so far as to say most – of the middle-sized to large organisations I speak to are rightly in the process of re-evaluating their marketing model to some extent and, often, wholesale – right across the issues of in-house vs agency management of technology, digital supply chain vendors, processes and resourcing. Much of this appetite is being driven by the industry issues mentioned above.

The point and call I want to make is that it isn’t only the biggest advertisers and trade bodies who should be emphasising the importance of trust, ‘belief in the reliability’ of marketing communications. Marketers too should be moving right to the top of our day-to-day agendas the question of how we can maximise trust among our key stakeholder groups.

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