Every once in awhile, it’s interesting to look back at something I wrote years ago to see what I got right and what I got wrong. Here’s an updated version of a blog post that I wrote almost six years ago, in December 2012. My hindsight commentary, based on what I know today, appears in italics.

What are the nine most terrifying words in brand marketing?

“We’re about to make TV perform like the web”.

The web has not been a roaring success for brand marketers. Promising to make TV as effective as the web for brands is like saying to a NASCAR driver “see that busted-up tricycle over there? I can make your car perform like that.”

As Dave Morgan of Simulmedia – one of the smartest guys in digital and now one of the smartest guys in TV – said in Ad Age:

“The book on web banners capturing a significant share of brand ad spend is just about closed. This year, according to IPG’s Magna Global, TV advertising revenue in the U.S. will grow faster than web display, on a base that’s about five times bigger.

2018 hindsight: Dave Morgan remains one of the smartest people in the business. If I was writing this piece today the bigger news would be about the rise of OTT, the increasing power of ad-free options for content, the further fragmentation of mass audiences into a finer and finer mist, and the need for higher quality data that gets at both consumer intent and scale.



Why Is TV Growing While Banner Ads Flatline?

CMOs have made courageous investments in digital – even in tough times, and even when the results from their digital efforts have been vanishingly small.

Every single marketer I know is passionate about digital. Yet TV remains the primary engine of brand marketing.

In my opinion, this is true because:

1. To date, only TV delivers the scale that brand marketers require.

2. Consumer brands tried so hard to “be digital” that they forgot the fundamentals.

Brand marketers who sell through mass retail must drive fast turns at the shelf, or risk losing their biggest outlet for distribution. This makes the scalable reach that TV delivers as essential as oxygen. By contrast, too much ad tech has been anti-scale.

2018 hindsight: TV, which was once the sun, moon, and stars, is quickly becoming “just one more medium” in a way I couldn’t have imagined 6 years ago. Yet the question of scale is as important (maybe more important) than ever. And yes, too much ad tech is still anti-scale. Also, the rise of direct-to-consumer brands and new retail formats from Amazon threaten the primacy of mass retail in ways I didn’t foresee in 2012.



Digital’s Promise of Smallness

Digital promises smallness: “the right ad to the right person at the right moment”. This is in direct conflict with what big brands need: large numbers of new buyers entering the category, becoming aware of the brand, or switching brands.

Big CPG companies have billions of dollars in sales. At that size, efficiency – getting more for the brand’s money – is good. But smallness – many efforts, each too microscopic to move the needle – is not.



The Smallness Trap

Where the storyboard was the primary instrument of analog, the spreadsheet became the primary instrument of digital.

Because digital is so measurable, brands enthusiastically adopted Direct Response metrics. We measured events (CTRs and conversions), ignoring the reality that brand preference is built over time.

We fell into what I call “the smallness trap”.

Our focus shifted from consumers to spreadsheets. We developed disdain for big ideas in favor of optimizing to metrics, like the click through rate, that few still believe in.

As Peter Drucker admonished: “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.”

Keeping digital in perpetual test-and-learn mode was fun. The stakes never got too high. We could always ace our KPIs, because they were always fuzzy measures. The latest buzzword, “engagement”, is wonderfully plastic: since it has no real definition, it can be whatever we need it to be.

But when TV collides with digital, there will be a lot more at stake. We can’t wait on the sidelines and see how things shake out. And it’s unfair to ask agencies to take the lead, because agencies take their signals from marketers.

2018 hindsight: My opinion on this issue hasn’t changed much at all. The “Promise of Smallness” now actually delivers quite well for B2B – one of the reasons I switched from being a B2C marketer to B2B and tech – but it remains crappy for big B2C brands.

If we want our future TV performance to be better than our banner ad performance, now is the time to step up and course-correct. If we don’t, the “smallness trap” will continue taking us in the wrong direction.



Five Imperatives For Brands As Digital And TV Collide

1. Return to fundamental brand metrics. Starting yesterday. DR metrics demand DR creative. This does not build brands, and fails to leverage what makes TV great: sight, sound and motion. We need to let TV be TV. Let’s unshackle digital advertising and let it get creative. Let’s tell stories. Let’s entertain. In fact, let’s demand nothing less.

2. Insist on meaningful scale. Let’s escape “the smallness trap”. Let’s abandon the fantasy that we can squeeze all our darts into the dead center of the tightest ring of the bulls-eye. It’s a big board; we can (and should) score points all over it.

3. Use Big Data the right way. Data, by itself, is a powerful but neutral tool. It’s like electricity. Used correctly, it can provide illumination; used incorrectly, it can kill you. Our algorithms are only as smart as our inputs. Brand marketers know awareness and scale are critically important, and that brands are built over time. Our algorithms and data scientists need to know this, too. Let’s use Big Data and AI to optimize to brand metrics, and to find the right kind of media efficiencies. There is enormous opportunity here, if we do it right.

4. Have a marketing strategy, not a digital strategy. “We’ll do this in paid, we’ll do that in owned, and we’ll do another thing in earned” is not a strategy; it’s a collection of tactics. Let’s go back to fundamentals, and start with the consumer. A clear strategy makes choosing the right tactics easy.

5. Start from opportunity, not fear. TV is incredibly powerful, and now has the potential to be even better and smarter. TV is an entertainment medium. What new capabilities do we have to make advertising more fun and engaging?

2018 hindsight: I think these are still the right five imperatives. What do you think? What have I missed here that would be glaringly obvious if I revisited this post in 2024?

The changes coming to TV are a fresh opportunity to get digital right for our brands, and to reshape our marketing organizations for the next century.

Let’s get to it.



About me

Tom Cunniff is a B2B brand strategy consultant and writer who has worked with companies in IIoT, Data, FinTech, MarTech, BioTech, logistics and more. Tom has worked at J. Walter Thompson, founded and sold a successful early digital agency with clients including Unilever, spent 10 years leading global digital marketing as a client-side marketer, and wrote for the J. Peterman catalog in its Seinfeld-era heyday. He is former Chairman of the Digital Committee for the Association of National Advertisers.