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Why corporate morality will define the next step in the evolution of digital marketing

Strategy By: James CoulsonJul 9, 2021

Recent history suggests that recessions spur a shift in media investment towards digital channels. For example, the crash of 2008-2009 gave birth to programmatic media investment – a big bang in digital advertising automation.

So, what will happen off the back of the COVID recession – the worst drop-in economic activity and advertising spend in modern history?

James Coulson, Managing Partner, Strategy at Infectious Media, recently shared his thoughts in a piece published on WARC. He argues that over the next five years or so, we will see ethics, sustainability, and the morality of media investment become an increasingly important aspect of media decision-making.

With digital media now counting for so much of brands marketing activity - whether that’s sales, other aspects of performance or brand awareness - the choices brands make about advertising investment have huge potential to affect people’s affinity with a brand, and its social reputation in different markets and consequently, its commercial performance.

The ethics of digital marketing is an issue with many dimensions and over the last decade they have begun to snowball and gain traction as significant business issues.

James argues that the digital media landscape is now fraught with concerns – with debates around data privacy, measurement, and trading transparency burgeoning into direct action by brands in the form of tech and talent in-housing. At the same time issues relating to the tech giants such as taxation, regulation, data usage, power and control and their impact on the wider digital ecosystem have blossomed within the digital industry and beyond.

Then there is the social and political impact of fake news, toxic content, trolling and anti-social behaviour.

These interconnected trends will have a major impact on how brands invest in media moving forward.

“Rather than a shift in patterns of media channel investment, the big change will not be about volume in any direction, but the quality of investment defined by ethical brand policy,” James says in his WARC article.

He argues that being investment neutral when it comes to Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple – and having the power to work with all four equally well – will become increasingly important.

Likewise, replacing cookies with a similar mechanic does nothing to address the fundamental privacy point at the core of the issue. Instead, James explains how the demise of the cookie is in fact an opportunity for marketers to hit the reset button between data privacy and marketing and bake ethics into everything they do. They should take a long-term view based not just on performance but customer experience and brand’s own interests such as first party data creation, curation, and optimisation.

Alongside that, he argues inappropriate or contextually irrelevant digital marketing, such as running ads alongside YouTube content that shouldn’t have been published, diminishes an appreciation of a brand at a time when consumers are increasingly sensitive to the quality of digital customer experiences.

There are high profile instances in the past where brands have taken action against technology partners, but it is likely that decision-making based on the standards tech partners adhere to, will become systematic within brands.

If a brand chooses to, there are very few barriers that can prevent it from seeing and controlling exactly how its media investment is done, measured, and reported. Many brands now understand that transparency is really all about choice and having complete visibility will enable them to enforce ethical policies and reflect the values and reputational standards set by those who are in-charge of the brand.

He concludes: “The structure of the media and technology industry has become political, and it is something few major brands can ignore. As marketers start looking to 2022’s budgets, look out for the evolution of brand purpose into brand action reaching into and influencing the realm of media investment.”

Read James’ full article for WARC here.

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