Skip to main content




ALF Insights

20 Jul 2023

ALF’s key insights from MAD//Fest 2023

Natalie Fedden

ALF was proud to sponsor this year’s MAD//Fest marketing festival. It was a great opportunity to meet new faces and spread the word on how ALF can help agencies, media owners and marketing services providers, including martech and adtech brands, connect with the UK’s top brands.

In between the demos at our picnic table, entries to our ‘Sweets in a Jar’ guessing game, and running our Networker Challenge, we were able to catch some of the great content across the event. Here we have rounded up a few key takeaways from the talks, insights which we hope will help inform decision-making at your business in 2023 and beyond.

If you want to work with the UK’s leading brands, let us show you how ALF can help.

The overall theme of this year’s event was ‘Riders of the Storm’ assessing how the industry can address the challenges, but also make the most of the opportunities, presented by the current difficult economic situation.

Sir Martin Sorrell - Chairman of the Board of Directors of S4 Capital shared his observations and predictions for 2024.


  • Cannes has become a tech event.
  • Big cats (these companies are vital for the industry and will grow for the below reasons): Amazon, Alibaba, TikTok (a force), Apple (AI), Microsoft (big ambitions with gaming), Snap, Twitter, Meta.
  • Tech requires a lot of investment.
  • Tech players are vital and over-regulating them is to shoot yourself in the foot.
  • The scale and applications of AI will revolutionise media buying/planning, personalisation etc.
  • Big cats will be forced to grow organically.


  • Priorities for CEOs will be performance measurement and ROI, and diversity/sustainability will take a bit of a back seat due to economic pressures.

Our world

  • 2023 is not a great year, and 2024 will be another tough year. Things might change after the US elections.
  • More geo fragmentation - India, Asian countries, Middle East will become more important.


Michael Gillane - Marketing Director of Heineken UK, shared how Heineken is performing in the current economic climate, the importance of marketing and innovation, Heineken’s in-housing strategy, and its focus for the future.

  • Like all businesses it has faced the headwinds of Covid-19 and now the inflation situation.
  • Heineken operates in a sector that was heavily impacted by Covid as the hospitality industry shut down. As “a very labour intensive business and a very energy intensive business” also highly impacted by inflation crisis.
  • Is broadly back to the revenue levels of 2019 but the challenge is the volumes.
  • Pricing and premiumisation looked at - which never stopped.
  • The bottom line is still very difficult because Heineken cannot pass on all of its cost inflation in pricing so that has affected its margin.

Guidance on marketing strategy during a crisis or downturn

  • Review strategy before making any actions or interventions. This provides an anchor or orientation point for choices and trade-offs. Remind yourself about the long game and what the big prize is.
  • Make commitments such as Heineken having put in place red lines so that it emerges stronger in terms of brand marketing. Has pledged not to go below a certain threshold with marketing investment as a percentage of revenue.
  • Have some perspective around the context. There will be some people who tend towards catastrophising and, as a marketer, particularly when representing the consumer category, need to stress that the category (beer and cider) is an affordable luxury and premium has endured previous crises.

On importance of marketing

  • Over the last eight years, Heineken has built a broader culture of marketing, not as the ‘colouring in department’ but as the growth engine.
  • CEO of three years Dolf van den Brink is “an incredible brand advocate”. Its regional presidents for Europe and Asia also come from brand marketing background. – Better endorsement and buy-in from senior management.

Innovation & marketing in a downturn

  • Innovation and expansion can still happen in a downturn.
  • Invested in digital and loyalty during Covid, and expanded with the acquisition of Beavertown and Brixton Brewery between 2020 and 2022.
  • Benefits of that innovation and expansion is paying off now.
  • Important to have the right pack sizes to hit the right price points.
  • Has been handed a certain level of investment, and with the flexibility for a further 20% if revenue goes up.
  • “Every brand in the portfolio has a base investment level, which we will not go below, and then we have a Plan B where we top it up by 20%. Every plan will have a plus 20% plan so I’ve got two parallel media tracks. From an emotional point of view it helps for people to feel they’re being topped up rather than having the rug pulled from under them.”


  • Heineken took decision in 2018/19 to take more responsibility for media and data as these elements became more strategic. Therefore in-housed a significant proportion of media, with team increased from two to 14.
  • “We have in-housed media strategy and digital planning and buying, and that has made a big difference in terms of our agility and planning, the learning agenda and the time the brand teams get to sit with the media team.”
  • Has also in-housed data science, which sits within finance department.
  • “We still have Dentsu as an important partner agency but we’re able to turn round plans of greater quality in a faster time as well as learn at a much faster cycle.”
  • Heineken does not intend to in-house creative and activation ideas as not something in which it has competence or would attract the right people.

What’s next for Heineken? A focus on premiumisation and winning over Gen Z

  • Focus on premium beers because “even in a tough situation economically premium beer and cider is a relatively affordable luxury.”
  • Good pubs always do good business, even in difficult times.
  • Young people are drinking less, some do not drink at all but those that do are drinking quite a bit less – which is a challenge.
  • However, when they do drink, they drink more premium and spend more.
  • Focus on winning Gen Z over to beer and cider, but also beyond.
  • Taking inspiration from adjacent categories and expanding footprint.


In a live episode of the Uncensored CMO Podcast hosted by Jon Evans, Alex Rogerson, Marketing Communications Director, Morrisons; Adam Zavalis, Former CMO, Aldi; Peter Markey, Chief Marketing Officer, Boots UK & ROI, and Jessica Myers, CMO, The Very Group gave an insight into what is on the mind of the UK’s top retailers. A running theme was the important of evidence, insights and data in their decision-making.

  • Research around the cost of living crisis on Very’s customers helped the business define the Very shopper and think about what the retailer could offer ‘her’ - she is the one that provides for the family, has a passion for fashion, and appreciates flexible ways to pay - introduced its everyday range, and ways to style one thing multiple ways.
  • Boots will celebrate its 175th anniversary next year. It stressed that stores are a lot more about experience. It is important to create events and moments to give people a reason to go.
  • Boots also highlighted the importance of its Advantage card data. Its campaign on this last year was very effective in reinventing the loyalty scheme and growing its Advantage Card customers – it ran a TV campaign for its loyalty scheme for the first time in many years. Boots is also a media owner so that customer data is extremely valuable.
  • Aldi faced the challenge of ensuring customers know there is a difference between cheap and bad quality. It also needed to show how the Germany company was a supporter of British produce. Brand communication was key is overcoming those challenges around perception. Evidence, testing and showing the impact on the bottom line was key to getting buy-in from senior management.
  • Aldi spoke about the success of its Kevin the Carrot Christmas campaign and how it has been able to evolve over the years and tells different stories. Worked with System 1 to find out what customers thought of campaign as it was developed. Aldi had its best ever Christmases as a result of the Kevin campaign. With its CMO recently departed, will anything change this festive season?
  • Morrisons spoke about bringing back its ‘More reasons to shop’ campaign based on marketing science. Conducted a brand asset audit. Tested brand lines in the marketplace and the ‘More reason to shop’ line had great brand equity.
  • Morrisons is focused on making its customers proud of the brand that they shop with – every penny counts.

Gary Neville – Entrepreneur, Investor, Dragon spoke about:

  • the importance of micro-influencers in achieving better engagement, not just reach.
  • finding the diamonds within your business who understand your business better than the owner.
  • how agencies should integrate as part of your business.
  • the importance of being adaptable and flexible during these turbulent times.
  • Communication between agencies and brands is crucial. A message for agencies – to better understand the brand’s business’ goals. A message for brands – the more information you give to the agency or provider, the better job they will do for you.
  • Turning customers into ‘fans’ - building community.


Swagat Choudhury, Global Head of Digital Products, Diageo + Steve King, Dragonfly AI discussed how to best introduce a new digital tool (for example an AI tool) at a brand. Swagat had the following tips, martech and adtech providers take note -

  • Start with problem, then introduce the tool – do not just add tools and the find problems that they solve.
  • Figure out what is the business outcome that tool will provide?
  • When testing the tool, do a small test first.
  • Look at how tools work complementary with other tools to solve a problem.

Lee Houston, Marketing Director at PepsiCo, stressed the importance of human insight, creativity, data and partnerships.

  • Last few years characterised by three waves of crisis - physical health crisis, cost of living crisis and mental health crisis and still feeling the effects of all these waves.
  • When there is so much disruption and change how do you find the balance between answering fundamental needs and knowing some of those needs will fundamentally shift?

Ask three questions -

Am I rowing in the right direction? - The importance of getting closer to consumers.

  • “You’ve got to get inside their heads and try to understand their drivers and motivations. As you see the disruption and the opportunity that comes with it, you’ll be able to make the connections that matter.”
  • PepsiCo has moved away from consumer insight to human insight as “people don’t just exist to consume stuff” so you can’t just slice and segment parts of their lives and expect to understand.
  • PepsiCo uses ‘The Always On Engine’ to bring together major data sources into one place where they can be curated, mined and enable a multi-faceted insight that delivers greater richness and meaning.
  • Multi-source data informed the #CrispIn #CrispOut campaign to add to the debate of whether crisps should go in a sandwich. This campaign is now in its third year, showing the value of consistency in difficult times.

Is the boat strong enough? - Use of focus, creativity and data.

  • PepsiCo has a mantra of ‘Fewer, Bigger, Better’ which it uses to inform its marketing strategy, in three notable areas.
  • Focus - In current situation need to focus energies on what you can control, not just in marketing but throughout the value chain. “Pick your big bets and really line up your organisation behind it.”
  • Creativity - no longer the preserve of the marketing department, as it helps to drive media ROI and effectiveness. “In times of uncertainty, creativity will drive your ROI.”
  • Data – How you use it to enhance and how you use it to strengthen. PepsiCo takes consumer data and applies it to media audiences, to get 360-degree profiles of its consumers.
  • “It means we can sharpen our activation, whether it’s digital activation, media buying, even in-store experience, because it’s not just about reaching the right person, it’s about the right person in the right place with the right message. It’s not about mass broadcasts anymore.”
  • “It’s simply how can you use data to offer a better, more tailored consumer experience because by doing that you will get the ROI. When we activate to these audiences, we see a much greater uplift than we do against traditional audiences.”

Who’s in my crew? - The value of partnerships.

  • Importance of brand partnerships, which are an interesting tool at a time of disruption.
  • For consumers when there is change and upheaval, they crave the familiar. Equally in an environment like this you can’t rest on your laurels, you have to be disruptive. “Do brand partnership right and you can get this potent value of familiarity with disruption.”
  • Not talking about the traditional model of brand sponsorship, more “mutual value creation” where brands can create mutual value for each other and for consumers.
  • Gives example of PepsiCo’s global partnership with the UEFA Champions League, which is not just about logos in venues.
  • “Obviously there’s huge value we get in the media inventory with UEFA but it’s more than that. The UEFA Champions League is the biggest value sporting event in the world. Through it we get to connect with consumers through a passion point. Our products have a critical role to play in people enjoying a game on their own or with their friends and family.”
  • Can also use the data from this partnership to offer tailored and more compelling consumer experiences. UEFA, for its part, can unlock expertise from PepsiCo with events such as the Pepsi Kick Off Show (before Champions League final), circular economy practices at the Women’s Champions League final and development projects through initiatives such as UEFA Foundation for Children.
  • Doritos and Burger King partnerships - particularly successful in the UK. Doritos has launched Flame Grilled Whopper flavour and Burger King launched Chilli Heatwave Chicken Fries, and Doritos bags have come with free Whopper offers.
  • “It sounds simple but at these times consumers want value. It’s very tangible value for them, and Burger King gets huge media value and footfall in restaurants through placement on packs.”


Aparna Sundaresh, Global Chief Marketing + Digital Officer, LIPTON Teas and Infusions, introduced her concept of ‘Groove to grow’ to help organizations weather the storm. She advised -

  • In conversations around keeping marketing budget – present long term trends that look back over years not just months.
  • Reinvention is important – Ask what kind of brand are you? Has it changed? Is there opportunity in rebrand to different category?
  • Pukka Herbs repositioning from a tea brand to a wellbeing product, particularly around the time of the pandemic when people were looking for healthy solutions and vitamins.


Pete Harbour - CMO of European ice cream at Unilever stressed the need to remember qualitative data and human behaviour in a world more and more dominated by quantitative and predictive data.

  • Quant data is not the enemy and at a time when AI is getting increasingly powerful who knows how far it can go. But nor is it the sole answer.
  • As the saying goes, ‘there’s nowt so queer as folk’. Human behaviour is sometimes hard to predict and so it is important to combine it with quant data.
  • The richest insights are often staring us in the face.


Chris Felton, Director of Data + Insights, JCDecaux UK, Sonya Mooney, Marketing Communications Lead, Specsavers + Andrew Tindall, Creative + Media Partnership Director, System1 Group presented their insights on how to create the perfect poster and the valuable insights from testing their ad. They found that -

  • The colour yellow had a positive impact on attention, compared to Specsavers’ usual green assets.
  • The logo placed at the top of a post was more impactful than at the bottom, where most logos tend to get pushed to.
  • The snappier the better when it comes to CTAs, less than 10 words is ideal.
  • The nine guidelines provided were – Demand attention, Be brand bold, Drive familiarity, Deploy fluent devices, Showcase faces, Expand product images, Shorten copy, Shout your CTA, and Sell, Sell, Sell.


Scott Friesen, Partner Manager, Privacy + Chrome, Google; Luke Fisher, Head of Performance Marketing, CV-Library; Billy Walsh, EMEA Media Director, Assembly Global; Neha Iyer, Client Partner, RTB House + Andrew Howe, VP of Operations UK, RTB House discussed how to ride the wave of cookieless change:

  • Third-party cookies are to go as part of the revised GDPR legislation, which means everyone will have to rely on first party data.
  • From mid-2024 there will be no more third-party cookies on Google Chrome. Instead, they will provide an interest-based API (no personal data will be provided) and RTP (topics API).
  • Solutions are being worked on to keep targeting performance and campaigns optimisation at same level (I.e.: Privacy Sandbox)

Three main things to consider:

  • how to profile users
  • buy users at auction (= purchasing power)
  • how to serve personalised ads

Media agencies should start having conversations now around:

  • data modelling for first party data/tagging changes will be required – there will be a more direct relationship between brands and consumers.
  • data gathering to ensure they gather the right level of consent/ importance of on-going communication with market.
  • Many solutions are already available out there.


In Mars’ Brand Challenge, six startups pitched for a £20k contract with Mars. Digin was ultimately crowned the winner. The contenders were -

  • Dotter - digital purchase points aggregator
    • Track customer engagement/use tags/ anticipate shoppers' needs /plugged that data into CRMs/provide insights/combine data with competitors' data/use genuine customer interactions.
  • Iota-ML –
    • turn CRM data into insight using machine learning and AI to become hyper personalisation (performance).
  • Digin – under-25 market (students)
    • Work with UK universities. Each student gets a box with product samples from brand /Freshers draw via the Digin. app = survey tool (opinions - 110 data points) /do experiential on campuses.
  • - open research platform
    • People record videos which can be used in presentations etc./28 languages, so global/very targeted audiences/extract insight from these videos and package this into interactive infographics.
  • BaseCase - data driven engagement tool
    • They simplify data to insights processes in 3 easy steps/reduce content development costs/want to go into consumer.
  • MedialakeAI
    • Centralise all data, manage data, use AI, create efficiencies/connect all the dots.


In ‘Advertisers Watching Ads’ hosted by Tom Ollerton, Founder, Automated Creative, Joe Harper, Global Head of Content, Diageo; Alex Taborda, Senior Media Manager, L'Oréal; and Nikita Longdon Senior Creative Project Manager, Expedia, watched three ads from Maybelline, Heaven Fish and Ebay and gave their thoughts.

All three adverts had an element of social responsibility tied in, but Maybelline’s ad was ultimately crowned the winner.

  • Maybelline’s ad highlighted the abuse female gamers receive, by showing an experiment when male gamers were given a female voice and online identity and the resulting abuse from other male gamers was recorded. The ad was effective is raising awareness of an issue people from outside the gaming world might not be aware of, and praised for its high production values.
  • Regal Springs’ ‘Heaven Fish’ campaign showed how fish fall from the sky is a strange phenomenon in Yoro, Honduras. Heaven Fish partnered with a large fish wholesaler to help collect the falling fish to be sold on in stores and restaurants. The initiative helped the people of Yoro increase their daily wage by 400%. The ad was praised for its quirkiness, and the initiative for making something positive out of a natural phenomenon. Questioned what the brand would do beyond that campaign to help support workers in that area.
  • Ebay’s campaign aimed to tackle the issue of people buying rare trainers and selling them for extremely high prices, just to make money, rather than them being sold to genuine fans of sneakers. Ebay came up with the ‘Wear ‘Em Out’ store concept which meant people who bought trainers had to walk through different terrains before leaving the store, ensuring the trainers were worn rather than ready to sell on. The campaign was praised as a good PR concept, however questioned the alignment with the brand, since eBay is arguably one of the brands that perpetuates the very reselling that puts collector items out of the price range for sneakerheads. There was also a disconnect between the physical store concept and eBay as an online retailer.

How can ALF help you?

As well as Industry Insights, ALF provides key insights to transform your new business strategy.

Access the full breakdown of brands and agencies' media spend, latest news and job moves, key decision-maker contact details and so much more. Contact our sales team today to arrange a demo!

Or, are you already using the platform and in need of an ALF refresher? Call us on +44 (0) 208 102 0907 or email our Customer Success Team, who can show you how to get the most out of ALF.

View all Blog