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Tangled Web: A View From the7stars On The PWC ISBA Report

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Summary of the Report;

  • ISBA commissioned PWC to audit the programmatic supply chain – the study took 2 years to complete.
  • It included 15 advertisers, across premium publishers with 267million impressions.
  • PWC concluded the supply chain is very complex with many parts.
  • Many of these parts do not currently link up in an auditable way.
  • This means at least 15% of an advertiser’s budget is unaccounted for.
  • On average 51% of this budget reaches the publisher – only 7% to the agency, the other 42% mostly going on tech and data costs.
  • The report had two critical conclusions; (i) standardisation is urgently required to allow data sharing; and (ii) our industry should collaborate to further investigate the unattributable costs.

Programmatic has become a word with a myriad of meanings for different people. Some positive and some not, dependant on point of view and business model. For the7stars, programmatic is using technology in the planning and buying of media for the benefit of our clients, providing full clarity on tech and costs with zero-mark ups.

We also believe an agency’s role is to show our clients that when done properly, media bought via technology is brilliantly effective. Just think how much more effective it could be once we iron out which bits add value and which bits don’t. That’s the market opportunity. And that’s where agencies can regain their vigor.

There is a paradox though; programmatic techniques allow easy access to thousands of sites and placements – volume can be the enemy of quality, but this is also its potential weakness; especially if it isn’t managed properly. As evidenced in the report, control on where ads run is a key requirement. But the answer isn’t as black and white as ‘lots of sites are bad and premium is best’. It depends on the reason for the media investment, i.e. how it was planned and activated.

The more tech you use, the more resource, time and talent you need. It’s a constant balancing act. As PWC have noted, the talent pools across agencies in this space varies a lot. Clients should demand they have competent people on their business. That includes things like: running content verification tools properly, that tagging is data compliant and up to date, that those tech partners and publishers who are more open and are DTSG (Digital Trading Standards Group) compliant get the bigger share of budgets… and so on. We feel now is the time for advertisers to reassess their tech plumbing, tech set up and their media supply end to end.

The level of detail programmatic media produces has never previously existed in media – we’re clearly all still learning what to do with it. When the companies built their tech there wasn’t an agreed standard way, for example, a time and date stamp with each ad (think how many different ways you can show a date in Excel). This means it’s extremely difficult to line up media from one platform to another. This isn’t somebody trying to willfully hide revenue.

This report has put the spotlight and focus on two areas; the link between buy tech and supply tech, and the supply tech and the publishers.

This could favour those who are ‘media owners’ like the Guardian who have worthwhile inventory, but crucially also the right tech, talent and resource to make the most of their inventory.  Certainly, some of the best media inventory, with say some of the best content and journalism isn’t supported by the best media tech plumbing or teams. Conversely, some media perceived to have less value can be bought via really clever tech with fast clued-up supply-side teams.

We also suggest that publishers re-look at their relationships with their supply side: modernise the way information can be shared, and ask where their inventory really is being made available – certainly we’ll be looking at this with fresh eyes.

We also see a future of buying not just audience but audience enhanced by environment – the best of a multiplier effect and associational value. Those on the supply side that can offer both, will be part of the7stars plans. Plans where premium isn’t defined by the cost per thousand but the ability of that publisher to package, deliver and verify the media, content and audience they say they can. What’s premium for one of our clients isn’t premium for another.

This ultimately means the art of media planning in a modern way, and that’s where agencies can remind the market of their real value.

Part of that is obviously recommending, buying and checking where clients’ money is invested. That includes an ongoing sometimes fluid investment into tech, data and media. Most media plans will have these three aspects, and it’s the agency’s job to get this right. Getting the balance of investment into these three parts isn’t fixed, will vary by client and vary by supply side, publisher and media owner. This means the split of an advertiser’s budget to reach the publisher will vary; there is no one ‘correct’ percentage. Agencies’ ability to do this across a range of clients, tech partners and publishers means they are in a unique space to be the most advanced source of best practice.

Some of the tech investment isn’t optional like adserving, or verification tech. When done right this tech can give insights to drive uplifts in performance above its costs, and crucially helps build feedback loops which can influence and shape how all media is planned – media as an intelligence engine.

So What Now?

We’ve made big gains since members from the IPA, IAB, AOP, ISBA were in a room at the IAB several years ago and created the DTSG cross industry initiative around brand safety – then followed by viewability and fraud reduction. We could only do that by interrogating where ads ran. It’s taken a long time, it’s clearly not finished by any means, but many lessons have been learned. It has been a big team effort.

We obviously can’t have a supply chain where 15% isn’t accounted for. Evolving where we’re at isn’t going to happen on an agency-by-agency basis, or by any one advertiser saying so at ISBA’s annual event, without cross industry support.

This is why the7stars supports the work of JICWEBS and, for example, the DLT study commissioned earlier this year. A focus of these efforts we think will be the maturing of the permissioning within the data stream and consistency of naming conventions.

In the meantime, the7stars will continue to take the best of programmatic, and the best of the publishers, and the best of media and tech within the most advanced media ecosystem that’s ever existed, to drive business results explicitly for the benefits of our clients

The High Street Unlocked

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The COVID-19 crisis has hit the retail sector hard. And it will continue to as we find our way through the weeks and months to come. Whilst it would be naïve to suggest that everything will be rosy, there are reasons to be cheerful – not least an opportunity to re-evaluate what ‘bricks and mortar’ stores are for.

Lockdown has shown that people have really missed popping to the shops. Brits value the experience in a way that online shopping can’t replace. It’s more than just the products that people take home – it’s also the act of shopping in itself that people enjoy. The High Street is a destination, a community hub, a social occasion, and a form of entertainment in its own right.

The essential retail experience during lockdown tells us that people will make fewer shopping trips and spend more per trip than pre-crisis. With this in mind, the winners in the months to come will be retailers who have the strongest brands, clear promotions, a community presence, and those who understand the importance of the shop as a destination.

So, what to do? Firstly, in addition to always-important national campaigns – brand and activation, don’t lurch too hard into short-term trading. Retailers should also look to take a store-by-store local marketing approach too, across traditional and digital channels.

Secondly, as stores have reopened, provision for social distancing has forced retailers to reconsider the shop floor. This is likely to be the ‘new normal’ for some time, so while things are a little skew-whiff, it also makes sense to consider how to deliver an experience beyond convenience. In a recent survey by Raydiant, 85% of retailers say that creating in-store experiences will be critical to their success in reopening. This is where national chains can learn from independents and mirror their skill at curating places where people want to spend a bit of time.

Whether it’s independent bike shops with their espresso machines, or vintage clothing stores where the act of browsing is part of the fun, understanding that people often want more than just a product in their hand is going to be key.

LGBT+ Engagement

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The majority of the focus of diversity and representation in advertising tends to be focused on creative execution.   This makes sense as from a consumer perspective, this is the biggest signal of what the brand stands for.  Brands don’t exist in a bubble, they exist in culture, so advertising communications can play a major role in bringing diverse voices to the table.

However, there is a second element which consumers don’t see, and which tends to be overlooked in the conversation.  These are the decisions taken at the level of media planning, including the contexts and places the ads will be seen in, as well as who they are targeted towards.

Brands seeking to include LGBT+ audiences need to consider the full picture, including the paid for media approach by appearing in high quality, relevant spaces and ensuring brand safety measures aren’t excluding diverse voices.

Appear in high-quality, relevant spaces.

Brands that target high-quality LGBT+ media environments will guarantee your reach of an audience actively interested in LGBT+ issues, while positively signalling your own commitment and interest in the community.

While it is advantageous to reach the LGBT+ community through print, radio, out-of-home, or even TV programming – you can also find diversity within diversity, with many titles dedicated to specific audiences across the spectrum. It is also possible to amplify your representative creative to a broad audience, through wider mass-reach media.

If you are using a ‘site list’ approach to brand safety, ensure you include a range of LGBT+ media platforms within it, and deliberately look and plan for online and offline media opportunities tailored to this audience. Working closely with these partners can be a great way of securing guaranteed reach and media value while working together on shaping content.

Avoid excluding LGBT+ audiences through brand safety measures.

While it’s essential to use brand safety settings to limit the funding of hate – if used bluntly, these tools can accidentally end up excluding minority audiences.

This not only limits your reach to these valuable consumer groups but it also directly cuts off the funding of reporting and content relating to LGBT+ issues and makes it less likely these publications will continue to exist.

A study by Vice found that generic words like ‘lesbian’ and ‘Muslim were appearing more frequently on brand’s key-word blocklists than ‘murder’ and ‘rape’.

Adtech platform Cheq found that 73% of positive or neutral LGBT+ content was being misclassified and potentially blocked. Some of the real experts in this field are the diverse publishers themselves who deal with this issue, and safe ways to get around it. Consider working with one not just on their own inventory but as a means to improve your overall approach. Avoid generic keyword blocking in your brand safety approach, and ensure that minority titles are being broadly blocked.

The Rise Of Gaming In Lockdown

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Gaming – ‘the action or practice of playing video games’ – has long held a difficult position in British society. To some it is celebrated as a means of improving dexterity, encouraging and developing the imagination, and helping to improve communication skills through connected play. To its detractors, gaming is an iconoclastic presence that isolates individuals, engenders sedentary lifestyles, and promotes an unrealistic and unhealthy perspective on human behaviour.

As an individual who sees gaming as a source of good, it lifts my spirits to know that the three months of lockdown have delivered nothing but positive vibes for the gaming industry. In fact, during a time where self-isolation has kept us all physically apart, gaming has kept us all connected. Whether it has been playing online with friends, consuming a non-stop diet of live streams on Twitch, or sourcing the latest Triple A titles through digital download transactions, the whole category has seen its figures soar in recent months.

The numbers are fairly staggering: Sony recently reported that ‘PlayStation Now’ – a subscription service that gives the user access to a library of over 700 games – doubled its audience when compared to last year (1m to 2.2m).

Mobile gaming has also benefited from this sudden increase in active players with the number of installs to smart devices increasing by 84 percent during the Coronavirus crisis.

While it is clear that the daily number of active gamers has increased as people turned to new activities to kill time during lockdown, there are other behavioural and psychological reasons behind these figures.

According to Dr Dayna Galloway, the Head of Gaming and Arts at Abertay University, online gameplay is a vehicle for “communication and collaboration”, and can readily “replace some of the activities that are no longer feasible due to social distancing”.

It is this ability to reach out and socialise with friends and family – albeit virtually – which drove Nintendo’s ‘Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ to the top of the gaming charts and led to its coronation as the official ‘game of lockdown’. Many players have credited Animal Crossing with “providing a lifeline during lockdown”, courtesy of its fantasy world where building accommodation, catching butterflies, and the price of turnips has offered respite from the daily Covid press briefing and the tragic updates it delivered.

With lockdown now easing and our freedom of movement becoming more expansive the challenge for gaming is how to maintain the impressive increases in numbers across the last few months.

‘Traditional gamers’ have plenty to look forward to with the next-gen PS5 and Xbox Series X being released later this year. However, for gaming to continue to grow it needs to retain the casual gamers acquired during lockdown. To achieve this, publishers should double down on the features that proved successful over the last few months. Namely, a focus on online play, community, wholesomeness, and an ’everyone can play’ ethos should be the starting point for moving a pandemic behaviour into the mainstream.

Nudge Theory

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Last week we tuned into Nudgestock, the annual behavioural economics festival, which reminded us of just how important behavioural science could be as we come out the other side of the pandemic.

In its simplest form, behavioural economics suggests that we make decisions according to the context in which we find ourselves, and by changing that context through subtle nudges we can change behaviour.

COVID-19 has completely disrupted the contexts in which our lives play out. But unlike the drastic, sudden changes of the crisis, Rory Sutherland argues that businesses will need to focus on behavioural economics, and the subtle nudges it teaches more than ever as we emerge out of lockdown.

Here are three of the ways we can put this into practice:

Context is king, and now more so than ever.

An often overlooked ticket to good media planning, context is king as we emerge from lockdown. Ensuring your brand is visible in the moments when context changes post-lockdown is one way to bounce back more quickly. Reviewing the basics, whether that’s changing context like time of day or the new context of category behaviours like the weekly shop, is a good place to start.

Create positive feedback loops.

For businesses that haven’t been able to viably adapt to lockdown (think cinemas or live music) there’s urgency to return to pre-lockdown habits, but snapping back feels optimistic. Dan Ariely, a key player in behavioural economics, talked about the importance of closing the gap between fear and reality through positive feedback loops.

For things like commuting this will happen quicker, but for activities like going to a concert or to the cinema the gap will remain wider so long as we are not exposed to a positive experience. By creating “intermediary institutions” that get people used to the halfway house – e.g. smaller gigs or exclusive cinema experiences – brands can nudge back to pre-lockdown behaviours.

Get back to the “real why”.

We should all be questioning ‘the real why’ people buy our products and services, and whether that’s changed in the context of COVID-19.

During lockdown we’ve seen brands quick to find a new “real why” – services like Oddbox have seen an uptick in some customers subscribing as much for reliable delivery as for the contents themselves. As Rory Sutherland suggests, “the real why” is one of the last competitive advantages that brands have and something we should all be reviewing as post-lockdown contexts change.

Nudgestock has nudged us back into thinking about behavioural economics. Context has never been so important, and as we start to regain control of the contexts in which our brands and communications are encountered, we could all learn a thing or two from Rory and co.

Ready When You Are

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Although it’s only been two months of lockdown, the Coronavirus rollercoaster has had more twists and turns than what many experience during the course of a year. To monitor this pace of change, the7stars has been making the most of our proprietary mobile panels Lightbox Pulse and AtoGenZ, enabling us to guide brands through the unknown to deliver relevant and customer- centric recommendations as each day unfolds.

After a tough April, consumers felt glimmers of hope in May; a month that presented us with greater choice in how we spend our time. May was a month for positively adapting, not wallowing, with over half of Brits admitting they were coping with this new normal better than expected (54%). So much so, only 13% of us said the Spring bank holiday was ‘much worse’ than previous years, perhaps due to fewer restrictions in place.

When lockdown regulations were eased, 23% of us planned to visit a friend or family outside, with a similar proportion intending on going outdoors to exercise more frequently. However, whilst many started to make the most of this almost-freedom pass, 45% of Brits decided they won’t be taking advantage of the new guidelines, rising to 50% among those over 45 years old.

Despite restrictions looking to ease further into June, it appears the home economy will continue to boom into the Summer. 1 in 5 spent the long weekend speaking to family and friends on the phone / video call, compared to just 1 in 10 meeting up in person.

Further, despite being given the green light to go outside to our heart’s desires, only a quarter of people got out to walk or sunbathe, compared to the 40% who decided to stay at home to cook or enjoy some DIY activities, rising to 50% among the over 55 cohort.

Although the devastation of the past couple of months should not be underestimated, our choice to stay at home reflects some positivity that lockdown has brought to us.

So much so, 3 in 4 of Brits want to keep at least some of our newly formed behaviours in the long term – Londoners are the most likely to want to keep all aspects of their new lifestyle post- Coronavirus (7% total vs 14% in London.) New habits that we’re keen to hold onto, although simplistic, are incredibly heart-warming, like cherishing time with loved ones more, putting a greater emphasis on health and well-being and spending more time outdoors.

Whilst the jury’s still out on which new habits will stick, and which will wash away, consumers will only move when they’re ready to – not when they’re told to, and brands who understand this and adapt accordingly are likely to resonate.

Further, whilst empathy shouldn’t be overlooked, now is the time for brands to start communicating more positively – we are no longer looking for sympathy and know that this too, shall pass…


Lightbox Pulse and A to Gen Z, May 2020