AdAsia 2019 was the best Pakistani marketing conference I have attended in recent times. Apart from the fact that it was held in Lahore, where the gastronomic possibilities alone were endless, the calibre of some of the speakers was at par with any such international gathering; a rare event for Pakistan. As a born-again digital evangelist, the line-up was particularly exciting, as was the fact that my marketing hero, Sir Martin Sorrell, was the first speaker to start off the business part of the Congress.
I have looked up to Sir Martin ever since I started my career at Interflow in 1995 (the agency was still an affiliate of Ogilvy at the time). Sir Martin took a company called WPP (Wire and Plastic Products), which was in the business of manufacturing wire baskets (of all things) and turned it into a global communications giant through intelligent acquisition after acquisition. At the height of their business, WPP had 130,000 employees worldwide and were the number one communications group by such a margin that no one came close to them.
This man, who built the legacy model for his communication empire, was then forced out because his vision for the future did not align with the system he had created. To carry forward his new mission, he has now laid the foundation of a digital empire in a world where he believes WPP will eventually have to adapt to or become a dinosaur.
Between Sir Martin’s conversation with Richard Quest, the mesmerising presentation by Fernando Machado (Global CMO, Burger King) and many other speakers, the future was very clear... it is going to be digital. In fact, Sir Martin made it a point to correct Quest, by saying that digital is not the future; it is the present!
Here are 10 things I learned as a digital citizen at AdAsia 2019.
1. Digital is the present, not the future
Globally, the digital budget for an average company has touched 40% and is growing every quarter (it is 69% in China and 20% in India). In the US, digital has overtaken TV ($83 billion for digital versus $71.65 billion for TV). Therefore, the people preparing for digital as the future are already dinosaurs; the digital train arrived (even in Pakistan), five years ago.
2. An ‘always on’ model
Audiences are no longer prepared to view content at the convenience of media channels, but when they want to, it could be any time and anywhere – and this includes a chunk of Pakistani audiences who watch their favourite drama serials and news content on digital. This is bad news for traditional media, which can only hope to do this by migrating to digital. As a result, streaming services like Netflix and Disney Plus will start to dominate our market as they win the battle for share of eyeballs. A month ago, I was talking to a senior media executive (living in his own twilight zone), who said that digital is far away and we are going to make people stick to TV by using certain tactics. To me, this is beyond idiotic that instead of embracing the future, such people are still resisting. My prediction is that media channels will become content providers as they produce and sell content to the likes of Netflix and Disney Plus; furthermore, Pakistani media owners simply do not have the agility or the resources to prepare for this invasion.
3. The biggest hurdles are the brand management teams
This, surprisingly, did not come from the agency people but from delegates on the client side. They reasoned (logically) that the paymasters always drive the agenda and that clients today are asking for the wrong services from their agencies that lean too much towards non-digital solutions. Sir Martin gave the example of a CEO hired to help his company migrate to the next level. He fired the entire management team, bringing onboard people who were pro-digital, because he believed the biggest hurdle was old-fashioned management who resisted change. Not surprisingly, the company not only arrested its decline in share, it started winning it back.
4. Seventy percent of brand managers lack an integrated content strategy
Even in the West, the majority of brand managers lack an integrated content strategy. This means that content for traditional media and for digital are developed in silos and that even if there is an attempt at integration, what really happens is that traditional media is simply adapted for digital media. In other words, rather than develop an integrated campaign to drive engagement on digital, brand teams ask digital agencies to run a three-minute adaptation of a TV ad on their social feeds. This is not only counterintuitive but a waste of a great opportunity.
5. Digital will lead the communication strategy
Communication strategies are usually built for TV and adapted for other touchpoints. There is a huge flaw in this because the brand strategy is adapted to a model made for one-way communication. This will change in the next three years (even in Pakistan). Campaigns will be built for digital and adapted to other media as a means to simply deliver a message and increase recall. As a result, brands will, for the first time, be empowered to get closer to their audience in a meaningful way by ‘communicating to’ them rather than ‘informing’ them.
6. Legacy agencies will fail to deliver digital
The traditional agency model is not designed to deliver at a pace required for digital. In the old days, brands conducted research, discussed the results with their agencies, which then suggested strategies. These strategies were converted to ads, which were tested, made and aired, then tested again for feedback. This process usually took a quarter of a year if everyone worked at optimal efficiency. The challenge clients face now is that the minute they release a campaign, the feedback is instant and they have to react in real time, with no time to even call their agency. The requirement now is to put content up every day and the engagement needs to be addressed for every piece of content. As a result, clients are either migrating to in-house digital setups or a hybrid system were the agency’s digital teams are housed within the client’s premises.
7. Data drives creativity
Almost every single creative says data has killed creativity. Total rubbish. Previously, campaigns were developed to pick up creative awards until clients started to ask questions about the bottom line. The truth is that some creatives don’t give a toss if the product sells. They just want a pat on the back and a creative trophy to display. This twilight period of advertising is over. In the digital age, as soon as creative work goes up, it is judged for effectiveness. Did people like it or not? Did they tune out within 1.7 seconds of the video starting because it did not grab their attention? This accountability of creativity is scary for most creatives. Yet, for those who are good at what they do, this is a huge opportunity. In future, data will drive creativity and show what worked and what did not on a daily basis. Data will not destroy creativity; it will ‘inform’ it and make it more effective.
8. The major agency pillar for brand communication is content
If you have the right content and the ability to show it to the right person at the right time, you have solved almost all your marketing problems. Almost 90% of digital content created today is a failure. The average time a person watches a YouTube video is 1.7 seconds. This means that if you do not hold their interest in the first two seconds, you have lost your audience. The science is very different from making a 30-second TV ad.
9. The second major pillar will be programmatic
Now it is no longer about a neat SEC segment watching a time slot. We can micro-fine tune to the point where we can catch a person who recently searched for coffee houses online and show him an ad for a doughnuts and coffee deal. It is almost insane and hugely complex and it is the future, because brands are no longer willing to settle for: “We will run your ad on TV and hope at least 50% of the people are watching it.”
10. Influencers will become even more important
At the moment, it may seem that bloggers are a dime a dozen and are no longer so effective. Yet, in the near future, they will have more power than celebrities. The amateur bloggers of today will soon figure out how to turn themselves into influencers by becoming more selective about the brands they work with and create more organic content to win viewers. Influencers will have more power than celebrities who will be seen as paid spokespeople for brands. The difference will be that influencers will specialise in their field and become powerhouses of opinion. For example, an influencer who focuses on makeup and has genuine organic content focused on the subject will be more effective than a random celebrity trying to sell the same brand, because influencers connect and engage with their audiences on the same subject regularly in a way that is meaningful to them.
AdAsia 2019 was a mixed bag. Most of the key speakers were world-class, some were average and a couple were a complete waste of time. A case in point would be Fawad Khan and Atiqa Odho who spent the greater part of an hour singing each other’s praises, leaving an audience of top marketers from Pakistan and elsewhere wondering why they were part of the Congress programme. Having said this, the investment in AdAsia 2019 was worth every penny and more of the steep fees. What I learned from these visionaries is that we need to buckle up and put our VR headsets on. It is going to be a bumpy but amazing ride.
Syed Amir Haleem is CEO, Kueball and Skale Media, and admin of Khalid Alvi Marketing Next (KAMN) – Pakistan’s largest online marketing forum.