The Importance of Context in Digital Marketing

In the early days of digital, context was paramount. Web 1.0 was like a digital newsstand and digital media plans weren’t far off those put together by press teams. The digital bit was around ad serving, site tracking and reporting.  

Context was then ignored during the programmatic Klondike. A time when everyone turned to audience targeting and context targeting was seen as old school.

Nowadays brands need to take a context + audience approach to win attention, which is something I’ve been thinking about recently, so here are my scribbled thoughts in 3 parts based on some of my experiences over the years…

 1: Context

The final interview question that got me into digital media was one of context. It was in 2000 and I was going for a job at Zenith Interactive Solutions. After explaining what an ad impression and a banner was; the interviewer asked where I’d put banners to reach people interested in new and used BMWs. I answered FT, Economist, Sunday Times & Autotrader.

 The interviewer (a balding fella who since ended up at Spotify) liked my answer and then explained how it was also possible to show banner ads to people searching for BMWs and competitor brands on sites like Ask Jeeves and Excite – my mind was blown – and I got the job.

The UK digital ad industry was worth less than £100m annually back then and agencies like Zenith had invested heavily into Interactive Strategists and grads like me which meant we had a lot of time to craft and book our campaigns (we even optimised them).

 A step in the BMW media plan approval process was to go through it in detail with WCRS to ensure the sites, sections, and pages were on brand and that each banner would work not only in the context of the site but at page level too. WCRS would tweak imagery, copy and sometimes even the background colours and borders of the ads to ensure an aesthetic fit.

 The sites and sections we planned were proxies for the audiences we wanted to reach; no one could argue that the 7 Series belonged contextually in or in Sky Golf rather than Football.  The closest we could get to targeting people in the car buying mindset was through sites like AutoTrader or the magical keyword triggered banners on Ask Jeeves.

 2: Audience

A few years after leaving Zenith I saw a BMW ad on the Yahoo homepage, and it annoyed me. I would have been shot for even proposing that spot; the craft in the job had definitely gone downhill. It was obviously one of those behavioural banner buys Yahoo was peddling after buying Right Media.

Fast forward to the first programmatic era when everything (outside of B2B) was audience first. Many publishers were caught out at this time; frogs in pots; unaware of the rising temperature. They continued pitching their sites based on qualitative surveys proving the audience was more likely to take holidays off the beaten track or eat a certain type of food.

 Most didn’t grasp that to digital planners, each publication was a proxy for broad audience segments who may be interested in certain products. (e.g. Guardian = Quinoa, The Sun = Fish Fingers)

The moment we could begin to cherry-pick the exact audiences we wanted based on data signals everything changed. Ultimately the pendulum swung too far and we ended up with a murky long tail that got us all into a well-documented mess.

 3: Context + Audience

The most successful piece of work I have been involved in was for The Economist a couple of years ago.  The pitch brief was to make The Economist salient enough to recruit paid subscribers in a world of limitless free online content.

The Economist isn’t only about economics, so we had to communicate the breadth of topics it covered. We had to reach a lot of people we thought would be interested when they were most interested.

The core equation at the heart of our plan was: Data + Programmatic + Content = Smart Content delivered at scale. In plain English, this meant that every ad would be of interest to the person viewing it and be relevant to in the context in which it was viewed.

It was a recycling of the BMW / WCRS approach from my Zenith days, but ad tech now meant we could supercharge it.

Like the old (school) days we worked hand in glove with the creatives (Proximity), but in an entirely new way that allowed us to scale thousands of ads across digital channels. Proximity delivered a stream of brilliantly simple ads that made use of our tech framework. The best bit about this was that the tech set up faded into the background and put the creative at the forefront – all in context. (2 min Case Study Here)

Our job has always been to reach desired audiences with messages, in the right context, at the best time. It isn’t a trade-off between audiences and context. The correct approach is to augment quality thinking with the best technology.

Posted in Digital Media, Programmatic | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ad Blocking can save digital advertising from itself


The first ever banner appeared on HotWired in 1994. It was the only ad on the page & reported that 44% of people who saw it; clicked.

From that moment on display advertising has been in freefall. Brands, Agencies & publishers have battled over price, performance, viewability & ad fraud ever since. This, along with broader long tail competition, agency negotiation, programmatic trading and mobile made it tougher for publishers to monetise their content.

The game was then to generate as many page views as possible leading to click bait and lower quality content. Scores of ads on listicle pages and high yield intrusive, content obscuring ads eating into mobile data plans became the norm.

Then we learned that half the ads bought were not actually seen by anyone. There were many remedies to this problem that looked rather familiar. Scores of ads on listicle pages and high yield intrusive, content obscuring ads eating into mobile data plans proliferated.

Even the IAB was part of the problem; encouraging everyone to run ‘Rising star ads’; inelegant and intrusive monstrosities that harmed the user experience.

With the clamour for cheap, viewable ads we forgot the most important element; the people we were trying to reach. In truth, we forgot they were people long ago and preferred to think of them as users.

We were so caught up in click through rates and proxy results that we forgot advertising is supposed to make people like brands. It is no wonder that people got bored and downloaded Ad Blocking software in their millions.

Some people in our industry see Ad Blocking as a bad thing but there are many who believe Ad Blocking can save digital advertising from itself.

Ad blocking doesn’t drive people to other channels; it just allows them to consume content on sites without the intrusion of advertising. The rise of social, search and video are more to do with societal factors, mobile proliferation, data plans and the access to content.

In the short term publishers lose out as ad blocking effects yield. The smart ones use this time to redesign their sites for an elegant ad experience and then ask people to disable their ad blocker in exchange for content. This quid pro quo will only work if the site (and ad) content is of sufficient quality. This is only good news for premium publishers as the long tail of click bait begins to fade.

The bad practices will be in play as long as there is demand. Strong advertisers need to take a stand and pay for quality, viewable ads that do not annoy people. This will have a knock-on effect for the long tail; click bait brigade and will force many out of business over time.

Search, social, video and email are all important digital channels and play their part alongside quality display and in-feed native placements. If we are to use digital channels to their advantage, we need data to identify people at different stages of their relationship with brands and deliver a relevant and compelling story no matter which channel they are on.

Posted in Digital Media | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Digital Advertising and the Power of Simplicity

My mum doesn’t understand what I do for a living. Until recently she thought I wrote all the ad copy for BMW (I worked on the media account years ago.) The subject came up again over the weekend so I tried to explain it one more time. I could not have done this 5 years ago because she wouldn’t touch a laptop or a PC with a bargepole. She now owns both a tablet and a smartphone so the explanation is easier to give. I had to laugh when the penny finally dropped and she said, “Oh; you put those flashy pop-up things on my tablet?”

If you ask the man on the street what digital advertising is, he will most likely start with the humble banner ad. Like my mum, he will think it an ugly, flashing box jarring with the content it accompanies. Industry people will add poor viewability; content obscuration and page slowdown to their list of crimes. Hardly sophisticated…

Banners, (although growing in share) are not the dominant form of digital advertising. That honour goes to paid search; the foundation on which Google is built. Paid search is native by definition; helpful and additive to the web experience. It fits the medium and from a consumer point of view, it is simple.

It’s an often forgotten fact that simplicity and sophistication go hand in hand. If you have had anything to do with a digital ad campaign, you will have been exposed to unnecessary complexity but regardless, it’s true that many advancements in tech close the gap between the physical and digital worlds and this in turn makes life simpler and easier.

The smartphone has already become an extension of the human body. No device before it has been so personal or all-purpose. However, brands need to earn the right to be on the screen through more helpful and relevant advertising – ads that make it easier and faster for people to find, do, buy, choose, entertain, share and promote.

This will be the model for much of tomorrow’s advertising and here are a couple of ways things may play out.

1. Mobile Messaging Platforms Are The Next Frontier For Digital

…and will make it much easier for people to connect with brands. Soon, a quick message to the bank will return a bank balance or send a payment. A message to Uber as simple as, ‘I need a taxi’ will send a car your way. Smartphones already know your location and your account will be synced for payment. This opens up many possibilities for brands. You can imagine Domino’s taking advantage of this (they’ve already tested ordering a pizza through an Emoji message).

Brands will yield better results by tailoring marketing that is more natural to the environment. However, this doesn’t mean that the only brand engagement space on offer will be a text message. The prototype for messaging is We Chat in China but Facebook are likely to win over the Western World in this space.

2. Virtual Reality Will Be a Driver For Consumer Growth

Another huge area for consumer growth is in VR and Facebook recognised this too with the purchase of Oculus Rift.

VR was the shiny new thing in the ’90s which never took off because the hardware wasn’t ready. The price of Oculus Rift will soon fall so it becomes as ubiquitous as the games console. Google cardboard and the power of the smartphone means anyone can have a decent VR experience with tech they already own. VR is perhaps the best technology at connecting digital with physical. We can be at the event of a big news story; walk around candidate holiday destinations or play the most immersive computer games ever.

In game advertising was another ‘next big thing’ for a while but never truly gained ground for a variety of reasons. The next generation of VR will change that. One thing we did learn from the early days of in game advertising was that consumers liked the addition of things that made the games feel more real. Brands exist in the real world and as such, add credibility to games and are welcomed. The key is not to force the brands in and detract from the experience. Please don’t make users clean under the rim of a toilet with Toilet Duck for extra XP; just put the product on the shelf.

So there are many advances in tech and many more to come that it would have been difficult to predict a decade ago. Of course hardly any of them are designed with advertising specifically in mind but VR, messaging, artificial intelligence, smart devices and sensors will make it simpler for people to understand and interact with the world around them and therefore will be of keen interest for the advertiser. An example of this is eSports (watching people play computer games). This is taking off at a rapid pace and will create many brand opportunities and integrations.

Brands can best capitalise on these developments by creating relevant utilities or experiences. There are many thoughts on what these will and should look like, but it’s clear that focus on simple and non-disruptive communication is a good start.

This post first appeared on The Huffington Post.

Posted in thoughts | Leave a comment


Twitter has been in the doldrums for a while and its share price is at an all-time low. Lots of new features have been rolled out to make the social network more accessible but nothing has worked.

The latest attempt is the launch of a new homepage with curated content. Didn’t the homepage finally die with that leaked New York Times chart a couple of years ago with social referrals cited as the main reason?

Twitter’s homepage will probably be more an FB style newsfeed than the MSN homepage of old but it won’t be enough to raise the share price back up to $70.

Twitter is a great service but when examined on a global scale perhaps it’s always going to be niche.

Posted in thoughts | Leave a comment

How The Guardian is Tackling Viewability

Viewability (1)

If you’ve worked in digital media for 5 minutes since the turn of the year then you will have had a conversation about viewability. A study by Meetrics last week claimed that UK viewability had fallen to 49%; quite a way off Germany (64%) and France (62%). This has been  blamed on the UK’s embrace of programmatic.

The IAB guidelines are that agencies should buy at 70% but this is just a guideline and some media owners are friendly to this than others. Achieving  70% doesn’t solve the problem anyway; publishers just keep serving ads until 70% of the bought number is hit . A short term fix that may work in the summer but won’t be viable for many publishers come Q4.

Occam’s Razor is the philosophical principle that the simplest answer is often the correct one. Thinking along these lines the simplest answer to viewability is for publishers to redesign their sites and/or introduce new visible ad placements. This is exactly what the Guardian has just done and has created a short video to explain the changes.

This is going to cost publishers money but it is the right thing to do. We still won’t get to 100% (mainly because we don’t all use the same tech to measure and there are issues tracking viewability on mobile) but it’s a good start.





Posted in Digital Media, Media Owners, Mobile, Programmatic, thoughts | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Ad blocking is the industry’s fault

ad block

The IAB ad blocking study is interesting but not surprising. Hopefully it will be a catalyst for more digital advertisers to do better work.

In a nutshell, 15% of the online population actively uses ad blocking software. They do it to block all ads and even when told that the ads pay for the ‘free’ content; many don’t care.

Dig deeper & see that the ad blockers over index in the holy ‘Millennial’ age bracket suggesting the 15% will increase over time. The primary motivation is because of interruption & annoyance. More specifically, interruption of content consumption, high frequency, poor build / design, lazy targeting & the creepiness factor.


These reasons seem perfectly justifiable. People turn to digital channels to perform a task, be entertained or find information. The best digital ads are enablers, not inhibitors; precisely why the lion’s share of  digital investment goes to search.

Even so; there are many digital media buyers out there spending money on inhibiting ad units; there is even one called a ‘Page Grabber’ that does exactly what it says on the tin. Rich Media ads like this are sold as being 100% viewable; and in a world where viewability is the north star buyers are falling over themselves for them. These same ads achieve fantastic CTRs because of “the engagement” rather than people just trying to shut them down. Even  pop ups are back in video form and the industry claps. Don’t we learn from the mistakes of the past?

There aren’t many people in our industry stupid enough to realise ads of this ilk (along with all the poorly targeted banners etc) can damage a brand and that the responses aren’t real so why do they buy them? There are a few reasons but a big one is to hit proxy scorecard metrics that don’t really inform much. This is short term thinking and compounds the problem.

How do we get the 15% back on side and stop the rise of ad blockers? The answers seem simple. The most exciting thing happening right now is at the junction between ad technology and media. It is possible to run laser targeted, relevant. dynamic ad campaigns that fit the environment. Be mindful of cross device frequency, test and optimise rigorously to get the mix right and repeat. Never forget the importance of the creative; that sounds so obvious but it happens and is the main reason for ad blocking.

Publishers need to redesign pages with elegant, responsive & viewable ad positions that work across devices. Clients need to stop driving down prices so far that publishers have to sell, and agencies buy; bargain basement or intrusive /interruptive / creepy ads that superficially ‘work’. If everything carries on as it is then expect the 15% to rise considerably year on year.

Posted in Content, Digital Media, Media Owners, Mobile, Programmatic, thoughts | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mobile Ad Blocking


Ad blocking is big news at the moment. According to Business Insider 5% of the total online population employs one and usage grew by 69% YoY in Q2 2014 to 144 million people.

A report in the FT a couple of days ago suggested that European mobile operators are thinking of deploying software by an Israeli startup called Shine to block mobile ads at a network level. This is supposed to save precious bandwidth and stop consumers effectively paying to see ads through their data plans although most doubt this noble excuse.

The biggest adbocker currently in use is called AdBlock Plus. This is used by 2% of the global internet population. The best thing about Adblock plus is that they charge the likes of Google and Microsoft to let their ads slip through. Great news; I’m glad we elected these guys to keep us safe from the ads that no one is supposed to have an opportunity to see anyway.

Publishers are understandably worried by all the noise, ads are the lifeblood of many.

Much of it is just noise though. Content creators, curators and owners hold enough of the cards. Surely people access the web in its various forms for the content in the first place?

Thinking about it for 2 seconds:

1) All ad supported publishers need to do is block their content from anyone using an adblocker and we will see what annoys people most

2) Blocking at a network level will never seriously happen. There may be an opt in but who is going to sign up to a mobile network where they cannot view all of the content they want because of a pre installed ad blocker?

There is some good to come of it all though. Marketing purists will welcome the debate as a chance to move away from the banner dominated mindset; everyone agrees this is not the format of the mobile world.

The problem isn’t ads; it’s shit ads.

Posted in Digital Media, Mobile, thoughts | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What is Online video (OLV)?


Many sources point to the ubiquity of OLV; Cisco believe it will be C. 80% of all internet traffic by 2018. Looking at the headlines alone, marketers could be forgiven for thinking there is an abundance of quality inventory (that looks just like TV) waiting for them to buy.

That’s not quite the case. OLV takes many shapes and sizes & is delivered across a number of screens; not all of it is equal or commercial. When we strip out all of the stuff you can’t buy ads against (e.g. Netflix, iPlayer) or don’t want to (90% of YouTube, Porn) the landscape doesn’t seem that rich; especially when you think of all the other advertisers vying for the quality spots.

So how do we define OLV for an advertiser?

The old definition was easy. OLV had to be user initiated and run prior to a piece of video content. This meant 4OD and iTV Player worked well. We had question marks over audience but it looked like TV & it was safe. Autoplay video squeezed into MPUs were always at the other end of the spectrum. This is still true but ‘autoplay’ isn’t the dirty word it once was.

For many media is consumed mainly through a number of mobile feeds; skewing considerably for millennial audiences. A feed is a stream and the best digital advertising does not interrupt the flow.

This leads to a question: If media is different; should OLV have to look like TV? The answer is no; but it does need to fit the environment to hand.

Here’s a quick checklist for what I consider is / isn’t OLV.

  • Autoplay video MPU is NOT OLV
    • A user will be on the page to consume something other than the ad position and likely the autoplay ad won’t be visible on the screen. This is just squeezing advertising somewhere because a person happens to be there too.
  • In Read article video is NOT OLV 
    • This is the 2015 video version of the pop up and will regarded as such in the future. A person will usually be reading a page; the content being consumed will be split in half and a piece of video will play. From my own experience the content often has little relevance to the context of the page and is really annoying
  • Pre roll is OLV
    • Needs no introduction. This is the most similar to TV and what most clients think they are buying when they buy OLV
  • YouTube Skippable is OLV
    • User is in control; native to its environment. Google has the scale to make these ads work and there are many targeting levers agencies can pull to reach the right people.
  • Facebook News Feed video is OLV
    • I don’t think it’s controversial to call Facebook the ultimate feed where people go to be entertained. Facebook have also launched the new gold standard for mobile video viewability. A person has to stop scrolling and watch for 3 seconds before the ad impression is counted. This is actually a long period of time. Attention! We’ve all read the headlines of FB taking on YouTube in a big way

That’s quite a long winded way of saying that OLV is video content appearing in a place where a consumer expects a video experience. This can be a pre-roll or an autoplay that’s only counted after a specific length of time.

Posted in thoughts | Leave a comment



A nice app called Meerkat was launched a couple of weeks ago. It very simply allows people to live stream video from their phone on Twitter. I’ve tried it once & like the few before me I just wandered around the office doing a tour. I didn’t really expect much to happen but an ex colleague who lives in the US started watching. I encouraged few of the team to wave hello and he was able to tweet a few hello’s back.  For a minute or so a large chunk of the office were pulling silly faces and waving to a guy they hadn’t seen in a while.

The serendipitous experience delivered a small moment of magic; a big reason why so many of us love technology.

I guess the early days of Meerkat will be geeks and kids not doing much of any note at all but it’s not much of a leap to expect brands sponsoring ‘Meerkats’ (if that’s what the bite sized streams are called) at sports or entertainment events.

Social apps spring up all of the time but this one feels a bit special.




Posted in thoughts | Leave a comment




I’m fascinated by the Thomas Heatherwick London buses. As a child I caught the Number 8 route master from Bow to Bethnal Green every day and it’s great to see a version of them back.

Thomas Heatherwick opened the WIRED conference a few years ago and explained his overall goal; to make the experience of riding a bus dignified again. He wanted to soften the unforgiving fluorescent lighting, banish the nuclear yellow poles, rip out the harsh plastic bucket seats and replace them with comfortable ones similar to those of yesteryear. The bus still gets you from A to B but the experience is more pleasurable; more dignified.

I’m sure the buses were put together by machines in factories in an automated way but they were designed with total care; mindfulness and with a clear goal in mind.

We could all learn from that approach. Too often people aim to get from A to B and lose site of the real goals. The real purpose disappears and box ticking exercises take precedence. Who cares how viewable your ad was if all it did was annoy?

Posted in thoughts | Leave a comment