Here’s what marketers are wishing for this holiday season

This editorial series examines industry trends across the media, media buying and marketing sectors as 2023 closes and the new year begins. More from the series →

This year gifted the industry a boom in generative artificial intelligence, the proverbial death of Elon Musk’s X and another year of delay in Google’s crumbling third-party cookie. But if marketers had it their way, they’d ask for ways to standardize everything from data measurement to content management (in addition to more money, of course).

Marketers may not be sending letters to the North Pole to make their requests of Santa Claus, but Digiday talked to seven agency executives to find out just what’s on their holiday wishlist.

One platform to rule them all

At this point, the list of everything that is or can be an ad network is growing. More retailers are rolling out media networks and streaming services are adding ad-supported tiers. There’s in-app ads, in-flight ads and in-store ads. The possibilities are limitless when it comes to where to place an ad, and perhaps that’s the problem, from marketers’ point of view.

“There are 15,000 different market platforms around. And that’s just what we keep track of,” said John Geletka, founder and chief experience officer at Geletka+, an independent ad agency. “And then there’s the new ones coming out of the innovators and startups.”

With so many media channels and platforms, marketers are tasked with managing and measuring across each individual channel, which often comes with its own attribution, measurement and metrics. It can be a juggling act to learn, manage, train staff and build the right marketing mix on those platforms and then extract data, according to execs. With that said, this year, marketers said they’re asking Santa to bring them one platform to rule them all. 

“I feel like Smeagol [the Lord Of The Rings character] like, ‘My precious.’ They just want the one ring. Just give them the one ring. Not the five golden rings of Christmas, just the one,” said Kaleeta McDade, chief experience design officer at VMLY&R.

Data standardization

If not one platform as the be-all and end-all for all platforms, marketers said they’ll settle for data standardization, especially across walled gardens like Meta, Amazon and Google. 

“It would make our lives a lot easier because our personal conversations with clients every day are, ‘Why doesn’t my Google Analytics match to my Shopify match to my Meta match to my Google dashboards?’” said Boris Litvinov, president of media at ad agency Left Off Madison. 

There’s an art and science to working across various platforms and then normalizing the data in a way that it’s useful for a marketer or agency client, execs said. Marketing data platforms exist, but agency execs said they still find themselves doing the bulk of building individual dashboards for metric and measurement reporting.

“There’s everything from basic correlation to detailed mix channel attribution. I just need some standards of data in one place to look at them,” said Geletka. 

For example, the rise of retail media networks alone has left marketers grappling with the lack of standardization given each network comes with its own set of rules, often making comparison an apples to oranges situation. Across the greater ad landscape, execs said there aren’t many viable ways to genuinely compare performance on one platform versus another — at least not without a deep dive into measurement, which could slow down marketing initiatives and the reporting process.

“We all get to a point where we agree that this is the way we should measure, this is how these platforms are going to interact,” said Greg Wolny, chief activation officer of Code3. “I would love to see something around cross-channel measurement and management just generally that everybody agrees on.”

It’s a pipe dream, he said, adding that the walled gardens are what keeps competition among the platforms in the marketplace. Still, this holiday season, marketers said they’d wish for more openness among the platforms, shared measurement strategies and common language in terms of buying and audiences. 

“If Santa can bring me more openness between people who are stated enemies, or stated frenemies, that would be great,” said Nitin Sinha, head of paid media at Laundry Service. 

AI’s next steps

Last month, OpenAI’s ChatGPT turned a year old, marking a major milestone for generative AI. It’s been a big talking point in the industry with brands incorporating generative AI into social content creation, optimization and data processing. However, agency execs said with all of the hubbub, there’s a lot left to be desired with AI capabilities. 

For the most part, generative AI is still in its infancy. It offers some reprieve, but it can be a lot of work to set up, execs said. Marketers said in 2024, they’d like to see AI go from a talking point to drum up press coverage and headlines to become more useful in terms of ad data dashboard analysis or what to expect from a campaign six months into the future. 

Budgets remain under scrutiny. That means marketers want the same level of output, but at a lower investment, according to agency execs, “which means it’s up to us to bring innovation that pushes for efficiency and business growth versus shiny objects,” Steve Nishimura, chief digital officer at ad agency INNOCEAN, said in an email. “AI growth, of course, could be a factor that helps us get there in the near future.”

With that said, there has been progress made in the space as AI is being used to streamline more mundane tasks like bill invoicing, deck building and web crawling. It helps keep creative costs low without cutting human jobs — at least that was the sense based on what was overheard at the latest Digiday Programmatic Marketing Summit. (Read everything else that was overheard here.)

But for McDade at VMLY&R, the push for AI next steps stems from fatigue. When ChatGPT launched and competitors followed, the hype cycle reached a fever pitch. At this year’s Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity, it was agreed that AI will have a profound impact on the industry, but what form it would take at agencies was yet to be determined. Since then, conversations have continued to bubble up, expanding to talk of data standardization in the age of AI.

“We’re at the top of the hype cycle, but this one’s gonna last just because it’s just so pervasive,” McDade said. “Most marketers want to get back to that simplicity, because now we’re serving everyone and everything all the time, that [marketing] lost some of that personal touch.”

A return to creativity

Again, budgets are under more scrutiny and agencies are under more pressure to ensure every client ad dollar spent shows a return on investment, execs said. But that pressure leaves little room for creativity and experimentation. So, last on marketers’ wishlist this holiday season is a return to creativity. 

“If advertisers had more fun with that and were less focused on trying to automate everything or make everything just about the numbers, we would all benefit,” said Sinha at Laundry Service. More people would be willing to sit through an ad if it were engaging, meaning less skipped ads and less wasted ad spend, he said. 

McDade seconded Sinha’s thoughts on the push for performance, measurement, targeting and the like. “Some of the bravery is lost. Everyone’s trying to perform and have performance metrics, but no one’s being brave. I’d wish for that bravery back,” she said.

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