The growing case for contextual, over personal targeting in advertising



“As an industry we went down the path of targeting a specific audience too far, to the detriment of the environment in which the ad is delivered... I would argue we [as an industry] have moved too far away from contextual— so I welcome people talking about this resurgence.”

— Robin O’Neill, MD of digital trading, Group M, as quoted in Digiday


The overriding trend in media over the past five years has been the marriage of advertising and technology. But after a beautiful honeymoon, things have gone decidedly sour. Some people in the industry are even calling for an outright divorce.

Advertising leaders like P&G are already on their second major round of cuts to digital spend, and that was even before the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica data fiasco, or GDPR coming into force. Where did everything all go so wrong?

Our obsessive over-focus on segmenting users, and personal targeting is one place to start.

If we are indeed seeing a loss of faith in segmentation, the question remains - does the application of data and science to media necessarily have to lead us down this path?

And as Digiday has suggested, especially in the wake of GDPR, could attention be shifting to contextual solutions instead?


The Case For

As media consumption splits between more different sized screens, not to mention diverging entertainment and reading schedules, a focus on audience over context has for a while been considered a given. But even here we are now starting to see cracks appear. Specifically, there’s growing uncertainty that segmenting and targeting individuals cross-platform on its own holds the key to advertising effectiveness.

Is it really a surprise that if everyone is using the same tool, it gets blunted? What started as the marketer’s dream – combining apparently verifiable 3rd party data sets, based on historical actions, device matching, ‘lookalike’ modelling and uncapped retargeting – quickly lost its edge, just as the number of middlemen offering such services rose.

Long story short, what was once the gospel approach to scaling digital campaigns is losing believers by the day.

At this point, if you want to stay small and have a conversation with a dwindling group, it might still work.

But the underlying problem is that your segments are also being bought by everyone else in market. And the true effect on the user of being in so many players’ cross-hairs is still largely unexamined. And that is not to even consider the potential impact of GDPR, and the requirement for freely given, informed consent here.

Many brands will profit far more from a more expansive approach. Of course, there's wastage, but right now, the approach promising right message to right person at right time wastes far more. And, as some have discovered, it can take more damaging forms, from fraud to fake news. Often, it has meant clients paying for something that simply doesn't work.



“The answer is contextual. But not just the old definition... Rather, it is contextual with the advances of programmatic built in.”


Against Segmentation

If anything changes in media, it usually starts with the client. And the past year has seen unprecedented statements from major advertisers around brand safety, and increasing calls for 3rd party monitoring. Some are calling for an even more radical shift – hence the popularity in certain quarters of the teachings of Byron Sharp and his seven principles.

Sharp’s thesis is a step back from an overt focus on personal data, and segmentation in particular. He claims that brands and marketers would benefit more from focusing on the big picture – being recognisable and making an emotional connection with consumers.

Of course, you can see the argument from both sides. It seems obvious advertisers will lose out if they focus exclusively on targeting, without the heft and reach of big ticket branding campaigns. Equally, it’s hard to deny data-driven success when you see the evidence. Take Eurostar for example, who have the numbers to prove success in shifting their focus to a more personalised, targeted approach.


False Doctrine

That said, perhaps there is a way to embrace Sharp’s doctrine, without abandoning all we’ve gained from the marriage of advertising and tech. Certainly, he suggests a step back from purely cookie-based targeting – an over-reliance on historic 3rd party data segments, for instance. But what if there were a way to run smart digital campaigns without an overriding focus on personal data, segmenting users and micro-targeting?

The answer is contextual. But not just the old definition - targeting properties by subject or vertical. Rather, it is contextual with the advances of programmatic built in. Finding, and then continually optimising the right context for a campaign, in real-time.

If advertising and technology can still recover where they left off on honeymoon, both sides have to first admit their faults. To understand they’re both still in the grip of a false doctrine.

Building effective, scalable online campaigns doesn’t have to mean personal data.

Only to an industry so over-focused on a single tactic could that sound controversial. Indeed, it's still unclear, when the dust settles post-GDPR whether personal targeting will ever be the same again.

As this Digiday piece clearly shows, it's not just ourselves, but an increasing number of leading voices who seem to share this view.

Case closed. illuma uncovers relevant audiences and new prospects, without personal data – get in touch for more info, or to set up a product trial.