With more ad spend going to digital media platforms, it’s crucial for marketers to develop a more holistic view of the media landscape. ‘Traditional’ media still plays a pivotal role in building shared understanding and cultural significance, writes Ian Murray, co-founder of Burst Your Bubble.

I like January. All the end of year reviews and predictions are done. It’s now time to find out if the new marketing year turns out anything like the industry thought it would. If you want to burst some industry bubbles, a great place to start is exploring our industry’s view of what happens next.

With this in mind, a couple of things caught my eye in ‘Voice of the Marketer 2024’, WARC’s latest survey of how marketers see the year ahead:

  • Brand investment remains ‘under pressure’.

    For the past three years, the WARC Marketer’s Toolkit has tracked an increased focus on brand investment. At first glance, it appears that years of exemplary thought leadership from the likes of Peter Field and Les Binet are beginning to hit home. But in 2024 the balance of marketers’ sentiment still tips in favour of performance over brand.

    Figure 1: Predicted investment in brand vs. performance marketing

  • The rush to digital media continues.

    In 2024 marketers are strongly focused on online video (+66% net sentiment with the biggest winners being YouTube and TikTok), social media (+59%), and mobile (+51%), with spend expected to decrease in print (-41%), TV (-16%), and cinema (-13%).

Figure 2: Predicted investment in digital platforms

Of course, few will be surprised by these statistics. They represent a continuation down the digitally enabled, hyper-personalised path that the industry has been on for some time. But digital is hardly the panacea that these data suggest.

Another inconvenient truth

This week BYB launch a new study with Richard Kirk from EssenceMediacom. It is an update of the award-winning ‘Signalling Success’ study that I conducted with Thinkbox and Yonder Data Solutions in 2020. It offers a powerful counterpoint to the ‘declinism’ in the industry around traditional media.

The study explores three key principles for how media choice contributes to brand building:

  • The message myth: A challenge to the idea that ad effectiveness depends on explicit and personally relevant messaging. Everything a brand does implicitly communicates something. And it is impossible not to communicate (see Paul Feldwick).
  • The evolutionary principle of costly signalling: The cost of media investment conveys a brand’s quality and fitness to the audience via signals of financial strength, confidence, etc., and the scale of its public promises (see Rory Sutherland’s 5th rule of alchemy).
  • Cultural imprinting: Building ‘common knowledge’ is key to brand building. This requires a focus on people’s social intelligence rather than hyper-individualistic modes of communication, i.e. ‘it is not about what I know about the brand, it’s about what I know other people know’ (see Kevin Simler or Bob Hoffman).

We explored the signalling strength of an expanded range of channels including so-called ‘legacy’ media like TV and cinema, and the shiny newer stuff like video sharing sites (YouTube and TikTok), podcasts and influencer marketing where marketers predict they will be increasing their spend in 2024.

The inconvenient truth for all tech evangelists is that being seen in TV and cinema continues to provide the strongest signals for your brand; outperforming all other channels on much neglected but vital fitness signals (e.g. quality, reliability, etc.) and the social signals (e.g. fame, common knowledge, etc.) that drive the shared cultural meaning that’s at the top of every marketer’s wish list. And this holds for younger audiences too. Usage patterns may change. But a shared understanding of the meaning and cultural significance of ‘traditional’ channels endures.

Figure 3: Signalling Strength of Media Channels

Figure 4: Signalling Strength of Media Channels

Taking our place in culture?

WARC’s 2024 Marketer’s Toolkit also points to the growing focus on cultural strategy in marketing. Back in the summer at Cannes, the world’s leading CMOs had a similar narrative focused on brands ‘taking their place in culture’.

CMOs at Cannes enthused about the role of digitally enabled ‘personalisation at scale’ in driving cultural relevance. But the case studies for achieving this remained firmly rooted in ‘traditional’ mass media aligned with mass mainstream events like the 2023 World Cup and Champions League.

As our whitepaper with NBC Universal highlighted, there is often a disconnect between marketers’ desire to be part of the next big thing and the more mundane, tried and tested stuff they rely on to build brands in the real world.

Efficiency and techno-optimism: Marketing’s biggest bubbles?

At the launch of the 2020 version of ‘Signalling Success’, I invoked Rory Sutherland’s ‘Alchemy’ to caution marketers from being distracted from their goals (e.g. cultural relevance) by the ‘narrow logic’ of efficiency and personalisation. The media landscape continues to fragment, and marketers’ options continue to proliferate. Three years on, our latest evidence on media signalling powerfully reinforces the pitfalls of narrow logic and its promise of digitally enabled panacea.

‘Culture’ is not an aggregate of atomised impressions. It is a system of shared experiences and meanings. Cultural relevance is not about efficiency. It depends on effective communication that helps people understand what is acceptable and valued by other people. So, if brands want to be part of culture, they need to be in channels that create powerful universal signals (fitness and social). Addressable media simply isn’t very good at this. Marketers need to develop a more holistic view of the media landscape and how new and old work together.

There’s plenty more detail in Richard’s article.