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Is the new normal actually new? – by DMS’s Daniel Young

'The pandemic brought us accountable freedom and changed the way we work and think. But where does this leave publishers?' writes DMS’s group senior director, Daniel Young

by Daniel Young, group senior director, yield, inventory & programmatic, DMS

The term ‘new normal’ is at risk of becoming as redundant as “the year of mobile”. The problem with terms like this, is that we are typically very much nearing its maturity before anyone realises or acknowledges it. To remedy (and compound) this, let’s instead consider it as our ‘Current New Normal’. What the current new normal possesses, and something that distinguishes itself from many other industry-based projections, is that it was seemingly forced upon us, or accelerated at the very least. There is no denying that Covid-19 brought with it a swath of health, travel, social and economic concerns. It impacted almost every aspect of our daily lives. With it seemingly behind us however, let’s dig into the ‘current new normal’ that we find ourselves in and reveal the possible impact on the media advertising landscape.

Let’s begin with a positive. For many, the thought of remote working or a more flexible and understanding approach to work was a bit of a pipe dream. Reserved only for the self-employed. For much of 2020 however, it was a requirement, with offices closed and stay-at-home mandates in place. Naturally, not everyone was a convert. Focusing with small children running around, balancing the needs of your work and their remote learning could only be difficult at best.

For many others, it was a revelation. Free from the daily commute, released from the confines of an office, and ultimately trusted to deliver without an omnipresent boss, we got something that we never knew we craved so much: accountable freedom. The antiquated approach of physical presence being a precursor to deliverables is something that received a well needed shakeup. It is not perfect, immune to exploitation, or a full-time replacement to interpersonal sessions. It should, however remain as a possibility and opportunity that is seen as a positive.

The appreciation of mental health risks and a general shift to a more conscious work-life balance has been a big plus. Although there needs to be further development, these advancements will be of great value and benefit not only to our industry, but beyond.

Another positive is the heightened thirst for facts and unbiased truths. It is scary to think that this is not simply a norm, but that it requires the adjective ‘new’ in front of it. It is an unfortunate reality, though. The last few have has seen a rise in fake news and opinion being touted as fact. For those who are more aware, exposed or in possession of a strong filter for rubbish, however, it has only cemented the need for well-informed, researched and balanced journalism, not misinformation.

What is strange and alarming when considering this ‘positive’, however, is that it is overshadowed by a closely related negative. A seemingly overwhelming shift from news-based advertising. The topic of brand guidelines is an issue unto itself, not to be critiqued within this article. Nevertheless, it does beg the question: Is advertising’s shunning of news publishers simply an avoidance of reality? After all, in a world of audience-based targeting (another topic not for this article), is a potential client no longer of interest when consuming the hard truths of the world around us? What about sports news, or entertainment? Where is the line?

What this sets up nicely is the consideration of an elephant in the room, potentially one of the biggest losers of the current new normal: publishers. Is there a future for ad-supported publishers? During the last few years, we have witnessed an insurmountable surge towards social media and walled gardens. Like a moth to the flame, brands and agencies gravitated towards the undeniable appeal of cheap scale in a simple one-stop-shop.

There is no denying that these platforms cater for a lot of what is required by many brands. But with apparent double standards, contradictions and voids that are left when publishers come last, is it sustainable?

At times, publishers seem to be held to a higher standard than these giant platforms. They need to bend over backwards on every aspect of the plausible, just to secure a portion of the remaining budgets. With time spent online only increasing, why is it that only about 30 per cent of MENA ad spend (IAB GCC 2020) finds its way to publishers? Is it down to simplicity and reach alone, or are publishers missing something? Is there just a lack of time, resources or motivation to build quality strategies that meet clients’ KPIs within their expectations? Perhaps clients only want to be around ‘happy on the surface’ social zombies, if that is all we are. Obviously, these platforms work (quantity vs. quality is another great discussion topic for later), but why would brands want all their eggs in one basket? Moreover, where is the line between cheap engagements and misinformation? Is there a set of rules for social platforms and another for publishers?

A final aspect of our current new normal is the squeeze on margins. Yes, a marketer needs maximum return on ad spend. But the push to extract every percentage point to an unsustainable level puts immense strain on agencies, and subsequently sellers. Maybe it is society’s need for instant gratification, but blindly pursuing leads, installs or sales is a strategy with an expiry date. Careful consideration and building brand equity, awareness, and health, whilst feeding the funnel at the same time is essential. It is also important to acknowledge that an outcome-only buying model doesn’t remove risk. It simply pushes it to someone else, only serving to compound the pressure in a different spot.

We will always be entering or living in a new normal, to the point where it is simply the norm. With the shift to first-party data and contextual relevance, you could argue that the ‘next new normal’ is actually the old normal. Whatever is on the near horizon, let’s hope it provides balance, consistency and continued room for experimentation and thought-provoking conversation.