The case for bringing balance back to the marketing ecosystem

Consumers want it free. They want it now. They want it to be relevant. They want it personalized.

What is “it”? It’s whatever you’re selling—toothbrushes, hotel rooms, movies—“it” is everything.

At Epsilon, we continue to see that consumers are discerning in all their interactions with brands. They understand that providing information on what they like or don’t like, what they have or have not purchased, and what they have or have not engaged with is a value exchange that builds a better experience for them.

But the ability to personalize every interaction is based on your ability to access and action data. With that, there’s been an evolution in privacy regulations and a lot of discussion about future regulations. But it’s the large consumer platforms, known to many marketers as walled gardens, that have unquestionably used data to shift marketing’s center of gravity in their favor. So, how badly is the system out of balance and what can be done to restore harmony?

Where is the most gravitational force in the system?

If you look at marketing today, brands have three main options to deliver on personalization and performance. First, solution providers such as systems integrators and consultancies. Second, software platforms, which include technology point solutions or cloud services. And third, large consumer platforms.

If you were to measure where the gravitational force lies in the advertising ecosystem based on who gets the most budget, the large consumer platforms pull the most weight. The more brands spend on advertising within those platforms, the more powerful they become, increasing their gravitational pull. In conversations with clients, many say they spend with these platforms because they’re a necessary channel for marketing—not because they see them as the best platform for performance.

And this plays out in the numbers. The internet has largely become advertising-funded, meaning that most advertisers (read: brands) are footing the bill for much of the mainstream internet today. But the growth in market cap of the world’s biggest advertisers isn’t commensurate with the growth in market cap of the biggest tech platforms, whose business models and viability are dependent on those advertisers. In fact, as of September 2019, the consumer platforms’ market cap was twice that of the top advertisers.

If advertisers are paying the bill, you’d have to draw the conclusion that they’re coming up short.

The advertiser has spent years (decades in some cases) building brands, developing products, building defensible R&D, merchandising and marketing. They’ve earned the right to have a relationship with the consumer based on a mutual value exchange—e.g. if you opt in, accept cookies, complete your profile, join a loyalty program, etc., you will receive more relevant communications from that brand.

But when it comes to the large consumer platforms, the data that’s interacting with the consumer accrues on the platform—not with the brands. In these situations, the brand doesn’t have visibility into the relationship with the consumer—the platform does.

The promise of one-to-one

That lack of visibility should raise concerns for many brands. If you miss a step along the road, you can’t personalize the full journey.

Without question, the industry has been marching towards the promise of one-to-one marketing. If someone takes an action, the marketer can study and understand that signal and optimize marketing to serve the next best message for that specific individual, resulting in a purchase, loyalty and increased value.

And as marketers deliver more relevance for the consumer, they stop delivering irrelevant experiences that result in wasted marketing spend and start increasing the efficiency of their budgets. This ability to draw a clear line from your marketing investments to tangible business results is of more importance than ever.

But that isn’t possible without three key areas. First, continuous identity and knowledge to anticipate what the consumer will do. Second, the ability to activate across the customer journey. And last but not least, performance transparency to actually prove outcomes.

By nature of the gravitational imbalance in the space, others are pulling the industry back to contextual advertising where measurement is a cohort-based ratio of people to message. Although it’s pretty granular, it’s not one-to-one marketing. In a cohort that’s limited to 50 people, you still have 50 different individuals. 

More recent announcements in privacy controls—though seemingly well-intentioned—exacerbate the issue. For example, in January, Google announced they would deprecate third-party cookies by 2022Forrester analyst Joanna O’Connell summed up the industry’s surprise saying, “I don’t think I anticipated that they would do something that feels so obviously beneficial to Google.” To add insult to injury, Apple announced in June it would require apps to ask users for permission before they can use IDFA identifiers for tracking.

As the industry moves toward data deprecation, it becomes clear that we’re moving in opposite directions.

Balancing the system

With personalization and privacy being so important, is that reflective of the marketing ecosystem available to us today? I don’t think so—not as long as the decisions of a few players shift everyone’s opportunity for balance.

And it’s not about getting rid of the big consumer platforms or not spending with them. They have unique products and offerings, and they deserve to be rewarded for that. It’s more about brands advocating for and delivering against a balanced investment that allows them to regain control of their customer relationships. The world of marketing is not one-sided, and I believe in the value exchange between brands, platforms and consumers. True success is shared.

Time is of the essence to reformulate the ecosystem to prioritize a brand’s relationship with the consumer above all else. Because without this balance, brands can’t build deeper relationships with their customers and we all ultimately lose.

**This article was originally published on Adweek, July 2020.