Takeaways from 4A’s Decisions 2021 Conference

Last week, the 4A’s hosted its Decisions 2021 Conference for the first time virtually. The two-day event was packed with panel discussions, fireside chats, and case studies with thought leaders and top executives from all facets of the advertising industry.

At the forefront of the conversation was what the future holds with increasing data privacy restrictions and the impact this will have on the digital landscape.

Brand marketers also addressed the challenges and successes they’ve had navigating the COVID-19 pandemic and how agency leaders are doubling down on talent growth and D&I initiatives. While there was plenty to talk about, we narrowed it down to five quick highlights!

1. The future of digital and retail

In the wake of a global pandemic, the media world is evolving as consumer behaviors are shifting. From entertainment to retail, nearly every industry is experiencing this adjustment in real time and finding ways to adapt to new consumer desires.

In one of 4A’s Decisions seminars, “The Future of Entertainment: Moving at the Speed of Culture,” the speaker recommended providing entertainment and value in ads. This would allow brands to truly connect with consumers first and focus on sales second.

Many brands like Xbox and TikTok feel strongly about providing experiences that fulfill the human need for in-person contact through gaming and general entertainment. They have found ways to augment face-to-face interaction within their platforms in an effort to maintain and build networks.

Both brands took the time to establish a strong connection with their user base and created a collaborative, safe environment that focused on “we” as opposed to “me.” This approach is more of a “soft-sell” but has been impactful for both companies as they continue to thrive.

Another shift within the COVID-19 world was outlined in the “Retail in the Age of COVID: The New Normal” seminar. With an increase in media consumption and online tactics, retail advertisers and brands are finding new ways to adapt the “digital shelf” by learning and acting in real time.

These adaptations range from tactic expansions (exploring additional social placements) to shifting placements to engage with consumers in different ways. Across the panel, it was clear that lower brand loyalty was a growing problem as more consumers focused on getting a specific item (cleaning supplies, toilet paper, canned goods, etc.) rather than a specific brand.

Consumers are also looking for a one-stop-shop experience to minimize exposure to the virus and are spending most of their time within stores in the grocery vertical.

Campbell Soup specifically took advantage of that insight ahead of the holiday season to expand their media mix into Pinterest. They wanted to lean into recipes and cooking (a highly engaged topic within the platform) to stay top of mind for users creating new traditions while stuck at home.

The pandemic has forced brands to break down silos and plan in new ways. It’s now vital for brand managers to understand their supply chain and work with trade teams to maximize the value of brick-and-mortar locations in a future of decreased foot traffic. The speaker shared,

“Retail is no longer just lower-funnel. It can also be upper-funnel. There is a massive confluence of money between media and trade in the CPG space.”

As marketers better organize their data and develop new learnings over time, they will create a better, personalized experience for the consumer based on their wants and needs.

2. Diversity, equity, and inclusion

The issues surrounding diversity and inclusion are not new, especially in advertising. In 1963, the New York Urban League released a report on a three-year study of the hiring practices of the 10 largest New York advertising agencies. While there has been notable progress since 1963, including Omnicom’s firm commitment to equality, there is still work to be done as an industry and as a country.

The panel discussion “Diversity, Equity & Inclusion: It’s More than a Talent and Recruiting Strategy” talked about the events of Black Lives Matter over the past seven months and the need to keep the momentum going.

Certain individuals and industries «woke up» as a result. Tiffany R. Warren, EVP, chief diversity and inclusion officer, Sony Music Group encouraged, “Let’s push that 7 months to 700 months, or 70 months.”

The events transformed or, to some, reignited our commitment to equality. Kirk McDonald, CEO of GroupM reflects, “The question is how long will our memory last.”

Companies that simply jump on board with a «compliance» approach won’t last. Communities of color are demanding permanent change and transparency and are holding companies accountable for their support and dollars.

Silence is no longer an option.

Agencies need to be innovative and proactive. The antiquated approach of waiting for clients to tell us to do something is over. Social justice and equality have a responsibility that overrides that «wait-and-see» thinking.

One of the first questions prospective clients ask is, “What’s the diversity makeup of your agency?” Diversity, equity, and inclusion are the responsibility of everyone. In order to be competitive, agencies must make diversity a business imperative, not a bolt-on.

3. Agency transformation and talent development

The role of the media agency has expanded greatly as data, technology, and content have converged. Bill Koenigsberg, CEO and founder of Horizon Media, shares,

“We have become less siloed & more integrated. We now provide one expert team rather than many teams of experts.”

Marketers no longer own their brands—consumers are now in control, and they can build something up or tear it down in the blink of an eye. We see a similar trend within organizations themselves. While employees used to be accountable to the CEO, it is now the CEO that is held accountable by their employees.

In a fireside chat with Rishad Tobaccowala, chief growth officer at Publicis Groupe, we heard him say, “Almost every company’s #1 product is its people. While most people believe M&A, new strategy, or reorganization are the best ways to change a company, companies become leading companies when they explain why changes are good for the people. What are the incentives for change? How will you provide me with sustained training?”

“Change is about the people and not the strategy. The only thing more powerful than what a consumer says about a brand is what an employee says about a brand.”

In an agency, talent growth needs to improve and be prioritized or agencies will just be a revolving door. Agencies should strive for always-on management, mentoring, and training and not just line management.

Employee skill sets continue to become more of a differentiator as agency recruitment looks to minimize duplication and bring in diverse and unique perspectives and experiences.

As Hearts executives have said in the past, the agency model is changing to meet unique client needs. One advertiser may lean in for tech stack consolidation and management, while another wants traditional TV buying power, and a third wants an integrated creative and media team.

This creates a need for more fluidity across talent. Cross-training can help a media planner seamlessly transition to creative strategy or client services. Agencies need to structure to make a full-service integrated solution easier for advertisers to take advantage of but also remain flexible to the specific needs of each client partner.

4. The new age of measurement

With a cookie-less future barreling toward us, everyone wants to know how they are going to continue reaching audiences that matter to them.

In “So Now What? The Publisher Plight and the Cookie Conundrum,” Rich LaBarca, VP of product management at Oracle, emphasized the importance of diversifying our approach to data-driven targeting. He suggested not relying on a silver bullet solution, even with promising cookie substitutes like FLoC (Federated Learning of Cohorts) emerging.

Advertisers need to focus on internal metrics that matter, creating systems that work for your specific needs. It takes a foundation of quality first-party data with consent to move beyond personal identifiers and be agile for years to come.

To build that foundation, advertisers are going to have to do better—better at explaining the value of personalized ads, better at creating content that users care about, and better at building trust with their users. Travis Clinger, SVP at LiveRamp, advises,

“It’s not a technology solution we need here. What we have to do is restore the trust of the consumer. It’s about a clear and transparent value exchange to the consumer.”

Advertisers and marketers will have to be smarter at using the data their users willingly give them and use it to maximize their greatest asset—their relationship with their customers.

5. Data privacy, transparency, and brand safety

Data privacy and transparency were major topics throughout the conference. The session “Data Privacy: Maximizing Advertising Effectiveness While Respecting The Consumer” touched on the sensitivity around data and the approach the industry needs to take in order to calm users’ fears.

Data-driven advertising is an important marketing tool and vital service we provide to our clients, but the current climate surrounding privacy has led to some expected criticism.

Misinformation and misuse of data, public awareness, media coverage on data collection, government regulations, privacy activists, and the overall complexity of the data ecosystem are just some of the contributing factors to the backlash.

Regaining consumer trust needs to be a top priority, and marketers have found that users don’t mind personalized advertising on their favorite websites if they understand how their data was collected and used.

It is harmful for a brand not to leverage data to serve consumers, just as much as it is to be careless with the data that is collected. As we begin to see more privacy regulations, there needs to be accountability across the board for anyone who touches and uses data in order to provide a sense of security for users.

Now is the time to act

Industry leaders hammered home the point that the future is here and the time to act is now. If you’re a brand that isn’t testing, learning, and adapting as rapidly as the marketplace evolves, then your brand is unlikely to find long-term success.

We are at an inflection point in the advertising industry—a time of constant change, technological advancement, unforeseen turbulence, and cultural movements.

All companies need to take a hard look at their values and ensure that they are adhering to the promises they make to the employees, customers, and communities they serve in everything that they do. They need to create value for their consumers, and they need to be agile and willing to admit their mistakes in order to gain respect and trust.

Authors and attendees: Jared Day, Haley Eivers, Vanessa Vining, Evan Kelly, and Anthony Diaz