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How Marketing Will Build Back Better

As many governments around the world are trying to look beyond the urgent to focus on the important, many are encouraging business to ‘Build Back Better’.


Nice alliteration, but what does it mean for marketers and their brands? The COVID wrecking ball has already done untold, sometimes irreparable damage and for businesses still standing, the rebuilding may be daunting.


Foundations exist though, if you look hard enough. Marketers’ first priority will be how they connect better with their customers, post-pandemic. Predicting consumer behaviour isn’t easy at the best of times, never mind after a global trauma like this one, but it’s safe to say the surge in time spent online is one genie that isn’t getting back in the bottle. The numbers speak for themselves: across the US and UK, 80% of us are consuming more online content since the outbreak began – with the digital dose for 18-to-24s up by almost an hour a day.


This shift in audience habits would be seismic enough, but it’s even more profound for brands whose business model has pivoted to online. Successive lockdowns have stimulated an e-commerce boom that’s also here to stay – 17% of global retail sales were already online in 2020, but we’re anticipating a rise to some 24% by 2024. The corollary is much greater emphasis on digital advertising, because it connects directly to buying online.


Digital advertising had already seen nearly a decade of double-digit growth before the events of 2020, but last year’s systemic shifts have placed it at the heart of marketing plans – some 61% of all ad spend in 2021 will be with pure-play digital media owners. This presents those ‘building back better’ with opportunity and challenge: bigger audiences providing more data across more online channels offers greater opportunity to reach customers and new paths back to growth; but the battle for attention is even more bloody online, so making yourself heard is a huge challenge for already overstretched marketing resources.


Rising pressure to promote brands through all kinds of smart targeted online content, across all sorts of digital platforms, creates a genuine conundrum for marketers:


‘In the world of online content, how do I square the creative excellence, intelligent personalisation, organizational agility and sheer volume – formats, versions, adaptations – of content I need, with a marketing budget that’s being squeezed for every last drop of efficiency?’


The answer will be structural, technological and ultimately attitudinal.


Structural, because to operate successfully in this world, client and agency teams must be more fluid. There’s no time for silos and baton-passes, monthly tracking studies and quarterly sales reports. Content creators should team with the people who produce and distribute and measure that same content, as well as the clients who brief and fund and approve it. Until recently we would have advocated for that team to share a workspace, but if COVID has proven one thing, it’s that teams like these can work remotely and there are real advantages in linking geographies and time zones.


Technological, because these teams are built around joined-up data solutions. Modern brands will reasonably expect agency partners to help them to not just align customer and prospect data, but pinpoint those online audiences who offer most potential for growth and optimise their communication to achieve short- and long-term effects.
Bringing us to attitudinal, because the world of online content requires a whole new mindset. Practitioners need to be relentless in their pursuit of growth, inventing, experimenting, agitating, refining. They must seek cultural resonance, using their creativity to chime with our accelerating times; and personal relevance, making intelligent use of the facility to address prospects 1-2-1.


I’ve seen these changes play out from two perspectives. As founder of a global content marketing network that has incorporated these structural, technological and attitudinal changes over the last ten years, I like to think the culmination of this work is how well our clients withstood the turbulence of the last 12 months. Synthesising data to help Toyota precisely target barriers to hybrid engine adoption and achieve their highest ever European market share. Crafting online content to best engage prospects for The Times and The Wall Street Journal, leading to record digital subscriptions. Deploying everything from vet advice films to user-generated pet ‘celebrations’, to drive unprecedented levels of web visits and app downloads for Pets At Home. All have used our new agency model to lean into digital transformation in 2020 and stood out as a result.


The success of brands – large and small – who have seized the online content opportunity, is now leading more and more businesses to look to this model of working. Midway through lockdown last year, Mars, always among the leading lights of progressive marketing thinking, appointed The&Partnership to be their global digital content partner, with a similar brief: creating a global network to service all of its vertical business units, creating highly engaging, fast-turnaround digital content across more than 80 markets worldwide.


Nobody underestimates the challenge of ‘building back better’, but the brands who recognise 2020 as a watershed moment in which to recalibrate the way they connect with audiences online and who embrace the entirely new modus operandi it demands, will be the brands with the strongest foundations in place.

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