Digital Publishing Guest Columns
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AOP CRUNCH 3.3: Is purpose beyond profit the answer to a healthier ad industry?

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Before COVID-19, balancing purpose with profit was seen by many as an idealistic but unrealistic goal. Now attitudes are starting to change. Huge cultural upheaval is not only showing that long-established social and working norms can be reconfigured, but also driving consumer expectations of purposeful action. 

Across the digital media space, this sudden shift has sparked rapid development of ethical initiatives. In the space of weeks, Havas Media Group and Mindshare have launched multiple programmatic private marketplaces (PMPs) aimed at increasing the flow of advertising spend to publishers focused on the black, Hispanic, and LGBTQ+ communities.

It seems a new era is dawning. But what does this mean for the future of audience interaction and, crucially, how can we maintain momentum post-pandemic?

These were the key questions at the Association of Online Publishers (AOP) Crunch 3.3 webinar, where leading brands, agencies and content creators explored the impact of recent disruption, and the likely future for meaningful media.

Here are the top takeaways on the rise of purpose and building a healthier digital publishing industry:

Responsible business has become non-negotiable

A few short months have significantly sharpened consumer focus on accountability, and it looks as though purpose will be increasingly crucial to business success. Rising calls for responsible business aren’t new — as highlighted by Accenture’s Digital Marketing Expert, Amir Malik, with a global 2019 study that found 65% of consumers already think brands should take a stand on important issues. However, the pandemic has accelerated progress towards the tipping point where consumers stop solely voting with their wallets and start demanding companies prove their commitment to social, political and environmental causes.

At the same time, mass uncertainty has turned the usual order of consumer priorities upside down. Citing Maslow’s infamous hierarchy of needs, Malik argues the current mood has moved away from loftier self-actualisation and back to the basics of safety and security; meaning digital content must also fix its gaze on “resonating with these key human needs”.

Signs of meaningful evolution are increasing: see, for example, messages celebrating the NHS displayed by digital outdoor platforms such as Clear Channel. At a wider level, the discovery that colossal transformation can be achieved at speed is also driving renewed optimism, as Chris Kenna, CEO and co-founder of Brand Advance notes: “we have realised we can change everything in 24 hours and that is the biggest opportunity.”

But building a better world will also require larger shifts in advertising — specifically, more careful consideration of where brands advertise and which publishers they choose to support.

Money makes the media world go around; let’s redirect it

The attention economy is pivotal to today’s online ecosystem, but current methods of harnessing it bring sizeable challenges that require the collaboration of buyers and sellers to overcome them. In simple terms, attention equals higher profits. The publishers with the highest visitor numbers typically attract the greatest revenue from advertisers. On the advertiser side, delivering messages on popular sites extends their reach and conversions.

This way of working places too little emphasis on quality. When advertising budgets are allocated purely on the basis of attention, there is a high chance they will be locked in what Malik calls a “karmic closed loop”; with investment flowing to poor quality sites and bolstering their growth. This problem is also further compounded by blunt brand safety tools that unnecessarily direct spend away from valuable, trusted, and ethical publishers.

For Dino Myers-Lamptey, founder of The Barber Shop, growing awareness of the link between finances and powering harmful content is positive; especially campaigns such as ‘Stop Hate for Profit’. But enhancing influence for quality content will mean striving harder to do the right thing; a sentiment echoed by Good-Loop founder, Amy Williams, who feels the time has come for brands to step up and “choose their media more consciously.”  

What’s needed is an easier way to positively choose suitable content and stay away from inappropriate content; as Myers-Lamptey points out “part of what makes social media giants so powerful is their data, scale and targeting ability. If quality publishers are to compete, they must come together and share resources.” The industry has the tech required to connect data and establish new key performance indicators for buying safe and ethical content, now it needs to work on putting those abilities to use. As Myers-Lamptey identifies, the success of this is dependent on “alternatives needing to be easy to understand”, which includes being consistent with current buying processes and expectations.

Our collective next step is what really counts

The outlook is bright for greater purpose; not just because it’s vital to maintain consumer favour, but also due to the considerable potential for enhanced profit. Last year, research by  the Harvard Business Review revealed companies with higher levels of purpose outperform the market by up to 7%, and in the era of coronavirus-heightened conscientiousness, it’s safe to assume those figures will only increase.

Industry experts, however, have a few sage words of advice on what should come next. As much as responding to consumer requirements is essential, it will also be critical for brands, agencies, and publishers to be proactive agents of change. Laura Wade, VP of Content and Innovation at Essence sees an opportunity to consistently raise the ethical bar, reminding us that “many of the issues now gaining attention have always been there and action should be about continual progression, not reacting.”

To keep moving, the industry will need to navigate a delicate road to development. On the hazardous side, that will mean avoiding the dangers of ‘ethical washing’ and ensuring efforts are genuinely placed at the heart of business values. For example, Ed Latham — Global Pukka Life Lead at Pukka Herbs — believes we should be seeking to generate more useful content for audiences about how to live better lives and focusing less on pure tech disruption.

As to the positives; taking responsibility has vast potential to be good for everyone. After years of indecision about who should make the first move, Williams feels we may finally be at the end of passing the buck with “change suddenly happening everywhere.”

The prospect of a healthier, fairer and more inclusive future beckons, and the industry must take up the task of driving it forwards.

Richard Reeves
Managing Director, AOP

The UK Association for Online Publishing (AOP) is an industry body representing digital publishing companies that create original, branded, quality content. AOP champions the interests of media owners from diverse backgrounds including newspaper and magazine publishing, TV and radio broadcasting, and pure online media.