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Broadcasters need to get out of the impressions business and back into the attention business

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Broadcasters need to get out of the impressions business and back into the attention business. That is the view of Joe Marchese, President, Advertising Revenue at Fox Networks Group, which encompasses Fox News Channel, FX Networks, National Geographic and Fox Sports Media Group, among other things. He argues that, given the current definition of what makes an impression, the TV industry cannot hope to lead the market in the number of impressions delivered. Television should differentiate itself based on its ability to command quality attention for the precise duration of time an advertiser needs for each advertisement, whether that is two seconds to top-up brand awareness or 20 seconds to fit in pricing messages.

Addressing American and Canadian broadcasters and advertisers a few months ago, he noted that to ensure attention, you need something that is in-demand. That, in turn, requires brilliant TV storytelling combined with an improved user experience that sees lower ad loads and better predictions of what ads someone will want to see.

Marchese told Future TV Advertising Forum Canada: “Media is supposed to be the business of gathering, pricing and trading attention. That was our job previously. Somewhere along the way we lost that, and now we trade impressions to varying degrees of success. We trade pixels that are loading on pages.”

Television’s ability to compete based on impressions was undermined when the media industry decided that a two-second impression was acceptable. “The problem is that impressions are treated like they are binary. You can see half of an ad [50% of the pixels] for two seconds or half the ad for ten seconds or the whole ad for ten seconds [on a small screen] or the whole ad on full [sized] screen for 30 seconds and they all count as an impression. How can we work in a world where these all count as an impression?”

In the context of an increasingly digital industry, Marchese condemned the focus on the total advertising time that marketers get in front of audiences rather than the real value of the time they purchased. “In digital, we add everything up and you could say, ‘I want 1 trillion seconds of video,’ so I could give you half a trillion two-second video ads to achieve that figure.

“But that figure does not tell the story, because you need to look at the distribution of the impressions. I could show everyone on planet earth the first two seconds of a commercial 100 times and they will never know who endorses the product [because that part of the creative comes later in the advertisement].”

Marchese repeated his assertion that advertising today looks like the sub-prime mortgage crisis [which led to the last financial crash]. “With sub-prime mortgages people said, ‘I want more mortgages because they are incredibly valuable.’ They were asked if they had to be good mortgages and they said, ‘Nope, I don’t care, we will bundle them up and trade them.’ Today advertisers say they need more impressions. ‘Great – do they have to be good impressions?’. The answer is ‘no’. So, everyone says, ‘Great, we’ll bundle them up and trade them programmatically’.”

The answer to all these concerns, he said, “is to pay attention to ‘attention’ rather than pay attention to impressions.” That initiative begins with a focus on the metrics that matter and leads to improvements in the advertising user experience.

Marchese cautioned that the industry should stop focusing on the reach that a platform can deliver when the measure that matters is the reach of your marketing message. Minutes viewed is less important than ad minutes viewed.

Marchese highlighted the value of knowing, with certainty, that a human is in front of a screen. User-initiation – when someone presses play – is one of the best guarantees. As an aside, he said advertisers should be “drooling” over broadcaster VOD for this reason. The video needs to be fully visible with sound-on, of course!

He also proposed that the broadcast industry provides variable length ads that can deliver the different attention levels an advertiser needs, depending on the story they want to tell. This recognises the fact that objectives can vary when advertising products. “You have different needs, like creating awareness and ‘recency’ compared to complex message delivery about features and pricing.”

Fox Networks Group is developing advertising products that let you buy the attention you need. At two seconds [ad length] you can have brand recognition, at 20 seconds you can have pricing and at 30 seconds you have a ‘path to purchase’ with a ‘contact your local dealer’ message, he offered as examples.

Importantly, in the context of his complaints about treating all impressions the same, the value of these ads would be judged by what they can achieve for a marketer. “We need to get away from the idea of a binary measure and onto a sliding scale,” he said about different impression types generally. “I am not saying that a short ad [anywhere] is not worth something, but it is not worth the same as the biggest ad.”

The real measure of value, to the advertiser, is how much attention the broadcast network is gaining them from a single ad unit and the impact of that attention. Once you have a greater choice of impression lengths, priced to match their true value, media planners can mix-and-match what they need for the perfect campaign. Maybe that is a mixture of 30 second, six second and two second spots. Marchese suggested that any additional planning complexity could be re-simplified using machine learning.

Not surprisingly, given that he served as CEO at true[X], a company that developed high-engagement interactive ad formats, and which was acquired by 21st Century Fox (the parent of Fox Networks Group) in 2015, Marchese is very focused on user experience. His attention to ‘attention’ stems from a belief that this is the most valuable commodity on earth, and that consumers increasingly understand the value of it.

As a champion of ad-supported storytelling, he is concerned when people think their valuable time is better spent in ad-free television environments. Apart from delivering great content, the answer, it seems, is to generate high-value attention but sometimes in less time. “I want to reduce ad load because if we do not create a more acceptable viewing experience, people will opt out,” he explained, before noting how you can do a better job with data and ad formats to reduce ad clutter and ad load whilst delivering on broadcaster and marketer objectives.

The true[X] philosophy is one of consumer opt-in. A typical ad placement before an online viewing session could offer the viewer the chance to watch a 30 second interactive ad or see a standard ad break (of 2.5 minutes, for example). In some instances, Fox is looking beyond standard commercial breaks. As an example, it will allow viewers to interact with a single brand at the start of a show and see multiple impressions from that single brand, but not standard commercial breaks. New approaches will be tried in original Fox content.

“That will reduce the total of ad impressions but improve the brand lift for a single sponsor,” Marchese said. “You can have market-leading returns with the best possible viewing experience. We have two missions: make money and make a tolerable viewer experience. Those should not be in conflict.”

This determination to evolve the advertising experience and the way we value impressions is good background to the announcement last month that Fox Networks Group will be the first broadcaster to adopt the Six Second Ad format that YouTube introduced last year. These non-skippable impressions will be used across the group’s digital on-demand properties. Although this is clearly designed with on-the-go viewing in mind, Fox said it will eventually come to [traditional] linear TV.

“One of our biggest priorities at Fox Networks Group is figuring out the best way for a brand to reach a consumer that captures the right kind of attention and serves its precise KPIs,” said David Levy, Executive Vice President of Non-linear Revenue at Fox Networks Group.

Tara Walpert Levy, Vice President of Agency and Media Solutions at Google & YouTube, views ‘Six Second Ad’ as a cross-device format. She says: “Since we piloted this format last fall, we have seen on YouTube that six seconds is both long enough and short enough. It is great for ‘on-the-go’ users who appreciate the succinct message, for creatives who appreciate the constraint, and for brands who value the consistent results.”


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