Reckitt Benckiser ("RB") made ad trade headlines last week when it announced a record-setting $40 million web video buy for 2010. What shocked everyone wasn't the dollar amount but rather that the company pretty much doesn't care where the ads run.
"This kind of strategy echoes planning/buying 101 back in 1970," said a comment on the news article in Advertising Age, "It's a senseless approach that abandons all facets of leveraging for optimization and efficiency." Spoken like a true technonut, I say. At risk of overly analyzing the move I wonder if it heralds a realistic approach to web advertising.
Say hello to mass media 2.0?
RB isn't a household name but Lysol, Woolite, Clearasil and many of its other consumer products are well-known. These are "low involvement brands," which means that consumers aren't necessarily looking to have conversations or meaningful relationships with them. They're also low cost, high frequency purchases because most of them get used often and need to be replenished.
RB is in the business of selling lots of bottles of French's mustard and Air Wick freshener sticks.
So it's not wholly surprising that it has rejected the conventional wisdom that drives most Internet marketing, which dictates that technology enables brands to target consumers with laser-like focus...and then requires companies to talk with those consumers incessantly. Experts are shocked that RB isn't interested in appearing before the high-quality eyeballs that watch videos on high-quality web sites, like Hulu, and instead is willing to put its spots just about anywhere. We're talking a difference in cost of $40/thousand pairs of eyeballs reached (or "CPMs") and $2.
RB's media buying company will have its hands full avoiding joke videos in Esperanto and snuff films with that low a placement threshold.
Worse for the new media lobby is that RB will measure ad efficacy by using reach, frequency, and gross-ratings points just like it would a TV buy. "We very much look at this as TV advertising, just on another screen," explains a company spokesman, risking excommunication from his favorite web gurus' RSS feeds.
Ad views or impressions have always been imprecise metrics; you could buy a demographic for your TV spot and presume you knew who was behind those eyeballs to witness your brilliance, but it never took into account the context that influenced that consumption:
- What else is going on in the room, on the airplane, or along the street on which the consumer you’ve paid to reach is living.
- Where else that consumer just came from/is going, which has significant impacts on how and what gets experienced when you've paid for the privilege to participate in it.
The web ad model has never really challenged this worldview even though the influences on consumption have gotten infinitely more numerous and varied. Instead, it has evolved comfortably with the presumption that some sites should charge more for reaching eyeballs that are in some way better than others. RB isn't buying this rationale and instead just wants eyeballs. Lots of them.
I don't think it evidences any return of mass media advertising as much as it's proof that it never really went away. We just started calling it something different.
Large audiences matter, at least somewhat irrespective of demographics. That's what drove TV advertising for most of the last century; it was fine-tuned and otherwise confused by claims of slicing-and-dicing which eyeballs watched what programs, yet those viewers swore undying allegiance to their favorite programs compared to the fickle and fractured commitments of online consumers. RB is betting that its target consumers will likely visit a variety of sites and that it'll catch them at one or another.
This mass media approach has always lurked behind the measurements offered up by web sites daring to aspire to profitability, and it's why the trades have said that RB's approach "...breaks the backs of publishers with onerous terms."
My opinion is that it's just further proof that mass media deserves more credit. I'm not surprised by this week's news that the TV upfronts could be very healthy. For a dinosaur the beast still seems to have a lot of kick left in it.
A couple of other quick observations about RB"s announcement:
- It's elevating the importance of content by being so broad in its buying purview; since it won't be catering to the presumed proclivities of individual site viewers (and thus engaged in creating gigantic insider jokes, which is what qualifies much of online content today) it'll have to find messages that are more fundamentally memorable and compelling. A mass media approach isn't as easy or lazy as it might seem, at least from a creative perspective.
- It'll be more interactive. It has to be. So Spot X runs on fishmatingcalls.com and there are two visitors who might be Calgon water softener customers on any given day. The execution has to be something utterly motivating...vote, register, do something that matters...or it risks getting missed altogether. Maybe this mass media approach yields lots of more meaningful direct-to-consumer dialogues? RB says that it'll look to measure interactivity as part of its buy, which means it recognizes how crucial it will be.
- It doesn't challenge the alternate model for buying space online, which is all about addressing spots to particular customers at unique moments in time with special content customized exclusively to them. Phew. This web marketing wet dream is still very valid, but when it comes to low involvement brands I still don't get how it amounts to anything more than distributing discount coupons.
So forget Mass Media 2.0. I think RB is simply saying hello to reality, and it's doing what it can to sell stuff. After all, that's probably the best metric for web advertising.
Image source: mararie