From every angle, news media and its future is being questioned. From the media owners themselves: is the financial model sustainable in the long term? From their advertisers: will we ever have a modicum of transparency around where our money is going? And now, more recently, from consumers: How do I know what I’m reading is real? Which sources can I trust? To paraphrase the 45th President of the United States: FAKE NEWS. Sad! With all these questions swirling around the media industry like Storm Doris on steroids, Newswork’s annual Shift Conference promised to be a valuable chance to listen to some of the industry’s leading figures discuss how to tackle the pressing issues of contemporary media. For anyone who missed it, here’s a recap of what was talked about.
One of the key issues discussed was, of course, digital, which Newsworks chief executive Vanessa Clifford, in her opening remarks, claimed to offer ‘the illusion of precision’. Illusion is the key word; digital is supposed to offer the zenith of targeting and measurement and yet approaching programmatic can still feel like a visit to Little Britain hypnotist Kenny Craig (catchphrase: Look into my eyes, look into the eyes, not around the eyes, don’t look around the eyes, look into my eyes…you’re under!)
Most critical of the digital supply chain was Professor Paddy Barwise of London Business School, who reported a survey finding that even banking musters greater public trust than advertising, and referred to a test from the Guardian which saw it buy some of its own advertising; 70 per cent of which disappeared into the ether. Shots were fired at Facebook and Google as Barwise expressed his outrage that both are still ‘marking their own homework’. His advice to media owners: get your agencies and clients to support P&G’s Marc Pritchard, who last month issued a rallying call to demand that Facebook and Google agree to external auditing.
Strategy was also debated that morning, more specifically how far ahead marketers and agencies should be planning. Here there was a subtle discrepancy between some of the speeches. Paddy Barwise advised to push back against short-termism, which he argued digital can encourage through the quick hits of click-through rates, shares and likes. ‘You maximise reach by spreading your investment across media’, Barwise added. Sam Wise, head of planning at Saatchi & Saatchi, also criticised what he perceives to be a glut of tactical ads borne of short term thinking and others designed to break conventional formats simply for the sake of it (here he referenced the Metro’s scratch cover for the Aladdin musical). Barwise took aim at wraparounds specifically (‘crap-laden wraparounds’ were his actual words), as examples of activities that destroy long-term value.
Speaking from the client-side was Vodafone marketer Katrina Lowes. She didn’t challenge the value of long-term thinking, but Lowes did provide some insight into the way that a marketer at a public limited company needs to work. Having to report to the City every 12 weeks, Lowes needs to deliver tangible results and data on a frequent basis. So while a long term plan is clearly integral to long term growth, that doesn’t mean that marketers at PLCs can call off the hunt for immediate results. In short, a long-term vision facilitated by tactics that work towards and not away from that vision is surely the way to go.
Another aspect of Lowes’ challenge to deliver concrete results every 12 weeks is that she needs to report the truth. To this end, whenever she’s talking to her agencies she asks the following three questions: Who are we targeting? What do we want them to do? How will we measure the impact? In an age where there is more data to devour than ever before, it’s easy to get lost in metrics and lose sight of which ones actually reflect meaningful engagement; an exasperating condition suffered by modern-day marketers which Lowes referred to as digital overload. Barwise similarly warned against running after ‘shiny new things’. If you’re thinking of filming a livestream, why are you thinking of filming a livestream? Is it on-brand and can you trust the glittery viewing metrics presented to you by the tech giants hosting them?
The final speaker of the morning was the Daily Mail’s Isabel Oakeshott and the central message was that newsbrands are thriving. Newspapers have declined, yes, but newsbrands are reaching more people than ever before and their power to influence news and public discourse is as potent now as it has ever been. To illustrate her point, Oakeshott referred to the fallout from her 2015 biography of David Cameron; an incident that quickly became known as #Piggate. Oakeshott’s point was that the Daily Mail had taken two or three relatively insignificant sentences buried deep in a serious piece of work and put them on the front page. Social media erupted and other traditional news sources jumped onto the story and, in doing so, the power of newsbrands was proven. Whether or not you find Oakeshott’s surprise at the way #Piggate unfolded a bit naïve, it’s hard to argue that the debacle didn’t demonstrate the continuing role and power of newsbrands.
But let's look at Oakeshott's main point that newsbrands are thriving. Are they? In terms of reach, certainly, but not financially. There’s still precious little evidence to suggest that the digital advertising model functions sustainably. This isn’t a problem that only faces media companies which formerly sold stories on paper. Buzzfeed missed 2015 revenue targets by $80m and slashed targets for last year. Snapchat has never made a profit and, incredibly, neither has Twitter. Recently, the New Internationalist announced it was turning to crowdfunding. Does all this indicate a viable future without meaningful changes to the digital model?
In the near future, at least, the speaker most damning of the contemporary media landscape is confident that 2017 will be a year of great improvement. Professor Paddy Barwise believes that fraud will be addressed ‘much more vigorously’ this year on the back of Pritchard’s seminal speech on the subject. Let’s hope he’s right.