As you may have read this morning, IAB Europe, the region's internet advertising trade body, released its 2012 digital adspend figures at its Interact event in Barcelona yesterday. And the headline data from the AdEx report tell a familiar success story. Despite the tough economy, the sector grew by 11.5% year on year, with digital taking a 25% share of Europe's all-media adspend. Over the next few years, it's a safe bet that online advertising will overtake TV, which took a 28% share in 2012, to become the region's single biggest adspend channel.
But dig a little deeper, and it's not all good news. While online is still vastly outperforming the traditional media, adspend for which contracted by -4% in Europe in 2012, the way digital budgets are being allocated should cause concern. One of the big themes of day one of Interact was advertisers' tendency to use digital for direct response rather than for branding. The 2012 data bear this out: search ads remain by far the biggest online category, up +15.5%, while display rose by +9.1%. And one euro in two spent on digital over the year was spent on search. In other words, while TV's dominance over digital is under threat in absolute adspend terms, its role as the biggest brand-building channel is considerably more secure.
Speaking to me yesterday, IAB Europe president Alain Heureux said that, looked at in this way, the figures were something of a "wake up call" to digital marketers. To him, the fragmentary nature of the market is a major block on online branding, meaning that greater standardisation of units and more cross-media buys across desktop, tablet and smartphone should be top of media planners' wish lists. "What TV did great is that they agreed on a way of measuring - that was easy to buy and easy to sell - within a couple of years," he said. "We still haven't cracked that. When we do, then you will see the branding revenues come in quickly."
Meanwhile, Daniel Knapp, Director of Advertising Research at IHS Electronics and Media and the AdEx report's author, raised concerns about the seemingly unstoppable rise of programmatic buying: that immensely complex, fast-evolving ecosystem of demand- and supply-side platforms and systems that allow advertisers to bid on online inventory in real time. It remains unresolved as to whether such systems will ultimately boost or depress prices, but Knapp challenged the common stereotype that it is most suitable to the "remnant" inventory a human sales team can't shift. Instead, he argued, proper use of the technology, and a "leap of faith" for publishers to make big investments with a trusted tech partner, could prove to have uplifting effects for online adspend over the long term.
"All this data processing power has previously been skewed heavily towards the demand side - the supply side, the publishers, have been lagging behind," he added. "This is changing - and could shift power back to the publishers. But this all depends how willing they are - and whether they can take the plunge."
Of course, taken as a whole the report as a whole is far from gloomy. In a world of deeply uncertain economic and media trends, marketers should celebrate revenue growth where they can find it. And the IAB Europe data has some very bright spots: online video - a branding medium - experienced super-fast growth of over 50%, and now takes a double-digit share of the overall display market in Europe for the first time. Mobile is also benefiting from aggressive investment, and rose 78.3% to €392m. While this is a small fraction of the €24.3bn spent on online as a whole over the year, it could certainly be argued that a fast-growth mobile sector is a very hopeful sign for the future; after all, these hand-held, tactile, location-aware, super-personalised devices naturally lend themselves to long-term brand-building.
There's still another day of Interact to go, and we'll be rounding up all the highlights in our Event Report section for subscribers early next week.