Advertising Week Briefing: The real reason brand purpose is so hot right now

It seemed inevitable that brand purpose would be a major talking point at Advertising Week this year. On stage and off, brand purpose was held up as an ingredient in many solutions to marketers’ problems. It has become something of both a rallying cry at a time of intense commoditization — and a panacea for a raft of issues.

Brands are trying to rebalance their investment in the platforms; publishers are touting the safety of their real estate and the growing strength of their content studios; and the continued growth of platforms like Instagram have given brands an unprecedented canvas to work on. Now they just have to figure out what to do with it.

There’s a consumer reason to find a purpose too: One stat that got brandished more than any other this week was that Americans feel more loyal to purpose-driven brands, and are more likely to defend them. For some real-life proof of this, all you had to do was open Twitter the week Nike released its Colin Kaepernick ad, or look at what’s happened to its stock price since. If you want to go slightly further back, take a look at some of the anti-Trump ads that brands released the year of his inauguration.

“Companies are doubling down on building and investing in a strong brand identity,” said Steve Rubel, the chief content officer at Edelman.

Of course, there’s a reasonable business goal behind this: “Everyone wants first party data and to reduce their reliance on the platforms,” Rubel said.

Some brands are further along in this process than others. But the scope of some of those ambitions is already impressive. At a Thursday morning panel on branded entertainment, conversation flowed from a short film created by Montefiore Medical System to the five TV series Red Bull has released on Netflix this year.

But it’s unclear whether brands have the discipline or restraint necessary to make something that isn’t just one long sales pitch. “The term branding comes from burning a cow,” said Pelle Sjoenell, worldwide chief creative officer of BBH. “There’s still a lot of brand-ironing going on in branded entertainment these days.”

And even if brands can show some self-control, it’s far from certain that this will actually motivate consumers. “Everyone wants to go direct it feels,” Rubel said. “Whether money moves is still tbd.”

— Max Willens

Advertising Week may (on paper) be all about what’s hot and new in advertising, but one platform that got quite a beating this week was Snapchat. During a Digiday-hosted session Wednesday night on the Foursquare stage, speakers from brands including Equinox and GE said that Snapchat was not a platform they planned to spend any money on any more. Some of it was because both brands find that Snapchat skews increasingly too young for them. But other speakers on the same panel, including Gimlet Media CMO Jenny Wall, said that the platform simply needs to also just do a better job at improving its product and how it communicates to advertisers. “Snapchat is simply not viable for GE any more,” said GE director of innovation Sam Olstein. That’s particularly telling, since GE was one of the earlier brands on Snapchat — one of the first to have an account and using influencers like Jerome Jarr to use it talk about events like the Grammys as far back as 2015.

– Shareen Pathak

Advertising Week Awards

Weirdest party “activation”: Getting haircuts at Xandr’s Chelsea Piers blowout
The Optics Award: PwC for putting on an all-white panel about diversity in advertising
The Michael Kassan Award for Most Panels: Digiday’s Kerry Flynn, who moderated five official panels (plus two offsite)
Best on-site snack: White chocolate-covered pretzels in the speakers’ lounge
New idea that did not work: Outdoor tents to hold meetings
New idea that did not work, part 2: Ushering attendees and speakers outside after panels and forcing them re-enter after getting their bags checked, again
Most, um, noticeable on-site activation: The Drum’s drumline outside the theater

3 Questions with Suzy Deering, CMO of eBay
At Advertising Week this year, eBay ran a full day summit about how marketers can leverage multiple channels to drive commerce with personalized content. We spoke with Deering to learn about eBay’s approach.

As more platforms like Instagram and Snapchat go big on shoppable ad formats, is that a concern or an opportunity for a marketplace like eBay?
We look at it as an opportunity. We feel comfortable in our brand and distributed commerce is something we wholeheartedly believe in and working on expanding. It makes sense for us to put the experience where the customer is. That’s going to give us and our sellers the best win.

What platforms is eBay focusing on to distribute commerce?
A lot of platforms are trying to learn the commerce piece. Pinterest and Instagram, specifically, are trying to figure that out. We have shoppable Instagram posts and Stories, and we are expanding our relationship with Pinterest.

Why those platforms?
We do really well when you come in and hit the eBay search bar and you’re looking for something. We win. Where we are still exploring and expanding is getting to more discovery and exploring. How do we get to unlock some of the richness of our inventory in more unique ways? Pinterest compliments that because people use it for inspiration. Instagram Stories is the same way because it’s using discovery through engaging content and then unlocking the buy. That’s a sweet spot that has been missing. We are looking at ways we can leverage where those initial engagements happen and how we can power each other.

— Ilyse Liffreing

Stories Time
Most of the TV screens — especially in the Hulu lounge — were horizontal at this year’s Advertising Week, but much of the conversation this week was talking about vertical content. While Facebook may be dealing with several scandals, including the departure of Instagram cofounders, the tech giant seems to be the leading the way to publishers and advertisers to embrace the vertical format. Earlier in the week, Facebook’s vp of global marketing solutions Nada Stirratt talked about storytelling being “born on mobile,” aka vertical. “People can’t get enough of Stories,” she said.

Facebook had plenty of stats to boast about the rise of Stories. Facebook’s head of Messenger Stan Chudnovsky revealed during a Wednesday panel that 300 million people are using Stories across Facebook and Messenger every day. Additionally, 400 million people are using Instagram Stories daily — and that includes brands.

Nike was one of several brands this year talking about the dominance of Stories. Nike isn’t forcing all of its creative into vertical formats but instead making related content in ways that don’t necessarily take too much effort, Jackie Titus, Nike’s director of global digital content and head of social strategy, said during her presentation on the main stage with Jim Squires, Instagram’s global head of business and media. “We essentially optimized shoot and content creation by doing it on set and asking the athletes to explain what it felt like to run in the app. That took a lot of conversations internally. We’re typically heavy handed with our athletes, but we wanted them to be talking in their own voice,” Titus said.

— Kerry Flynn & Hilary Milnes

“Do you know any good data scientists?”
Data scientists are in huge demand right now among both marketers and media companies. In fact, the demand is so high that an attendee randomly approached this reporter at the speakers’ lounge and asked for recommendations on “good data scientists.”

Earlier this week, WWE’s co-president Michelle Wilson said the company now employs 60 data scientists that touch on everything from the company’s programming strategy on social platforms, to subscriber acquisition and retention for WWE Network, to commerce and more. Turner, meanwhile, has dozens of data scientists within its data strategy and product innovation group.

Maybe this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Marketers have access to more data on consumer behavior than ever before. Media companies are exploring subscriptions, commerce and other non-advertising revenue streams. Both want to have a better understanding of who the customer is and what they’re doing across all of the different platforms and screens they’re spending time with.

Trouble is that this is not an easy role to fill. For instance, Karima Zmerli, Wavemaker’s chief data sciences officer, told Digiday’s Hilary Milnes that data positions usually stay open for six to nine months before the agency is able to hire the role.

And yet marketers need to push through, said Ross Martin, CEO of Blackbird. “Marketers can’t pretend anymore — there’s no more hiding,” he said. “Either you know data science or you don’t. Either you have a team of world class data scientists around you or you lose.”

— Sahil Patel

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