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Media Buying Briefing: Synthetic experiences outgrow their novelty status as they attract more brands

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It’s almost trite at this point to note the decade-worth of digital and e-commerce transformation that’s enveloped the marketing world over the last 16 months since the pandemic started. Within that transformation, time spent in virtual video game environments has exploded at a faster clip since the invention of Pong back in 1972. Limelight Networks’ most recent State of Online Gaming study showed that gamers spent just under eight-and-a-half hours a week playing games, a 14 percent increase over its 2020 survey.

Jeff Roach, president and chief strategy officer at SCS, a Los Angeles-based hybrid media and creative agency, believes that video games have actually become the primary expression of teenage cultural identity — taking over music — which has been the primary youth culture touchstone since the 1950s. That sea change has ushered in an era of “synthetic experiences” that’s attracting young, hard-to-reach consumers who are spending more and more time in online or virtual environments, courtesy of video game platforms such as Roblox, Fortnite, Minecraft, Animal Crossing, Pokémon Go and others.

And where growing numbers of young consumers are, brands are never far behind. Roach shared his curated list of the best synthetic experiences of the last year or so, as he does his homework to find the right opportunities for SCS’ clients like Míele appliances or Vans sneakers. They include:

  • Joe Biden’s presidential campaign immersed itself into Animal Crossing in 2020, creating a virtual headquarters on an island with prompts to help the campaign, get Biden T-shirts for your avatar to wear, and Biden’s avatar walking around shouting “No malarkey!” every once in a while. “It’s the perfect example of what normally may have been an event or experiential that became synthetic in Animal Crossing,” said Roach.
  • The North Face and Gucci collaborated on Pokémon Go, with users finding branded items from the collection — T-shirts, backpacks and hats — for their avatars at more than 100 locations across the world. “You wouldn’t think luxury brands that sell on Rodeo Drive would be considering video games as an [ad] platform, but they are,” said Roach.
  • Again, Gucci introduced a Gucci bag on Roblox, which sold for $4,115, more than the tangible purse, which retails for $3,400. “Most people think of Roblox as a store for young children to play in as a creative experience, but it actually has a ton of creators who are older who love creating in the space,” he said.
  • In the dating space, hot app Bumble partnered with travel app Airbnb, creating virtual dating experiences across the globe, from New York to Italy to New Zealand.

Roach cited other examples of the brands themselves creating immersive online environments that help them grow and reach new audiences, from Peloton’s virtual workouts to Fortnite hosting concerts featuring real artists, including Travis Scott and Steve Aoki performing via avatars. But he also points out that most of the above examples are of high-profile brands — and the industry needs to figure out how this can be used with lower-visibility brands. “Research shows that if you can move the needle on your share of search — meaning your organic search volume goes up because of some activity you’re doing — it directly translates to sales and share,” said Roach. “What we’re looking at as an agency for our clients, is how do you use this for low-interest brands or CPG brands that just want to sell at retail? We’re seeing some e-commerce opportunity but at the least the chance to attract some attention.”

GroupM and MAGNA hike up ad forecasts for 2021

Both WPP’s GroupM and IPG’s MAGNA raised their global ad revenue forecasts for 2021, citing strong ad demand across most digital and video channels.

GroupM expects 2021 growth to hit 19 percent over 2020, (excluding U.S. political advertising), and more importantly, 15 percent higher ad revenue than 2019. The main drivers include 26 percent growth in pure-play digital, which GroupM had predicted back in December 2020 would grow 15 percent; and video, which GroupM expects to grow by 9.3 percent in 2021, from 7.8 percent last December, mainly on the expansion of connected TV advertising. Auto advertising is one ad category spending more than GroupM had forecast, although it is not expected to reach 2019 levels.

MAGNA’s revised forecast predicts global ad spending will grow 14 percent to $657 billion, fueled mainly by increased spending from automotive, travel, entertainment and restaurant advertisers. The U.S. market is predicted to grow 15 percent to $259 billion, up 9 points over MAGNA’s December 2020 forecast, with digital ad sales up 20 percent and non-political linear ad sales up 4 percent.

GroupM’s report noted that concentration within the industry has increased over time: in 2020, the top 25 media companies represented 67 percent of total advertising revenue, up from 42 percent in 2016. MAGNA’s report seems to confirm that trend, predicting that the industry should expect more consolidation along the lines of the recent Warner Bros. Discovery merger.

Color by numbers

With linear TV ratings continuing to shrink, the Global Video Measurement Alliance is going on the offensive to convince media buyers and brands that social video is a legitimate alternative for their ad dollars. Using data compiled by Tubular Labs, GVMA’s June report points out content genres where social video has comparable reach to linear TV, and genres where it out delivers linear. Some highlights of reach among persons 13-plus:

  • News and politics: linear TV: 54%; social video: 48%
  • Sports: linear TV: 52%; social video: 37%
  • Entertainment: linear TV: 62%; social video: 62%
  • Kids entertainment and animation: social video: 57%; linear TV: 16%
  • Music and dance: social video: 52%; linear TV: 14%
  • Food and drink: social video: 44%; linear TV: 15%
  • Home and DIY: social video: 41%; linear TV: 14%

Takeoff & landing

  • Publicis Media underwent another management shakeup last week, hiring Michael Epstein away from Dentsu (where he had been CEO of media brands and product) to become CEO of Starcom U.S. Chris Boothe, who only a month ago slid into the Starcom CEO role from running Spark Foundry, moved up again to become COO of Publicis Media U.S. Going along with him as chief client officer for Publicis Media is Danielle Gonzalez, from the same position at Starcom. Finally, Sarah Kramer replaces Boothe at Spark Foundry as U.S. CEO.
  • Horizon Media’s Night Market unit plans to hold its second eCommFronts, a two-day event June 22-23 to generate awareness and revenue around the burgeoning e-commerce sector. Though it has opened up the event to other agencies and non-Horizon clients, to date no other agencies are taking part. Executives from Kroger Precision Marketing, TikTok and Instacart will present.  

Direct quote

“There’s an inherent bias in every data set. The first step in eliminating bias is being aware of it, and our product and tech teams are super-aware of that. We have manual checks that look into the biases … No one has perfected the process, but being aware and addressing them head-on and constantly optimizing and re-training to make sure the machine is learning is the best way we can do it now. It’s at the forefront of our product roadmap. Our tech team’s motto is ‘machine learning but human insight.’”

— LAIA PESCETTO, VP OF MARKETING, HELIXA AI, ON REDUCING BIAS IN MACHINE LEARNING

Speed reading

  • Digiday senior marketing editor Kristina Monllos, with assists from senior news editor Seb Joseph and myself, gauged the reaction from agencies and advertisers to Carolyn Everson’s surprise departure from Facebook.  
  • Separately, Joseph assessed how marketers are reacting to Apple’s increasingly tough privacy safeguards announced at its Worldwide Developers Conference.
  • Axios takes a look into Netflix’s plans to expand into other businesses, including an online merchandising store, as a means to stay ahead of increasing competition in the streaming space.

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