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Personalization isn’t the fate of advertising

The hyper personalization of communications might play an important part in transforming our industry, but it can’t (and shouldn’t) be our only way forward, writes Shann Biglione, EVP head of strategy for Zenith New York.

Which marketer would look down on the promise to deliver more relevant communications in more precise and efficient ways? In an industry that is constantly asked to deliver more for less, data-driven personalization can only tickle our collective libido. It is the perfect dating platform for CMOs and CFOs, it activates enough parts of the organization to make it a transformational agenda, and it is championed by the almighty tech pageants of the industry. Only King Canute would try to stop the personalization tide from taking over our industry.

But as is often the case with new promises, while the semantics are sassy the limits are rarely understood and the implications often romanticized. Yes, personalization can bring benefits both to brands and consumers. But it cannot be the alpha nor the omega of the ad industry, and expecting all we do to be precision driven is not just foolish, but dangerous.

First of all, we can repeat the word 'machine learning' all we want, the practical limitations are still sobering. Very few ad platforms are truly ready to deliver personalization at scale. Most are basic segmentation tools, closer to matching a few creatives to loosely defined segments than delivering true personalized solutions. Overlaps between audiences are still hard to prioritize and optimize, while most data signals are siloed and rarely sync up to give a proper, personal view of the end consumer. Caught in the muddy trenches, precision specialists often have to ask marketers whether the juice is really worth the squeeze.

Then we have the legal question, a house of cards that inevitably (and increasingly) draws attention from citizens, and therefore lawmakers. What happens when society decides that advertising is not a worthwhile enough endeavor to let us access the data required to bear personalized fruits? And even if governments do not act, what do we do when the private sector sees a competitive advantage in locking our browsers and operating systems? Blinded by a focus on what all this means for our quarterly results, we fail to grasp the bigger societal questions behind what is required for personalization to genuinely take hold at scale. As a sign of things to come, Google is already going on conference stages telling us what to do when we can’t access personal data anymore.

The role of personalization within brand

But the most important question of all is whether the levels of 1:1 personalization we’re talking about really benefit our work. Despite what some in our industry like to profess, branding is far from dead; it’s even making a comeback lately thanks to a welcome (if late) obsession with effectiveness. And to make the most of it, we need to realize that personalization is first and foremost the product’s game, much more than the brand’s. It answers individual needs and contexts better served by a rational conclusion. It delivers brilliantly once a decision needs to be made and a near immediate purchase intent needs to be lifted. We know personalization is fantastic for short term behavioral and cognitive responses, but it remains to be seen whether it can speak to longer-term brand building’s need for affective response. That’s why brands operate in a much more universal, emotionally loaded dimension. Their power is not to speak to individual segments but to unite them. They thrive on cultural insights and human truths that transcend many, if not all of us. The hunger that makes us angry, the cleanliness that makes us question if we’re not all inside an ad, the cost of beliefs and sacrifice to achieve greatness. Big, successful brands understand that they exist because of their collective impact.

Making a brand completely personal is an oxymoron. It defeats the value of its signal if it becomes fully personal. And while personalization might occasionally play a role in helping us tell these stories, it cannot by any means become the alpha and omega of our industry. If personalization really was the ultimate destination for creativity and storytelling, choose your own adventure books should be at the top of the charts. Even videogames have demonstrated time-and time-again the persistent desire for shared stories and experiences. And Netflix can personalize your homepage all they want, the most likely suggestions will still be the Marvels and Star Wars that resonate with the widest audiences.

The state of play

We are living in a world of abundance, overwhelmed with options, living in a constant state of hyper-availability with millions of products accessible at the tap of a finger. Whatever we need, there will usually be many solutions. In this saturated world, our deficit as brands is not relevance, but attention. And as Martin Weigel famously said, “you can be relevant as hell, but still boring as fuck”.

Personal relevance is good, but it’s an extremely short-lived competitive advantage, especially when most brands share very similar data platforms. And so, while we discover and master these promising new personalized tools, we need to ask ourselves whether they really have the power to make us this much more interesting. If not, they will be wonderful operational instruments that optimize the edges, but they will still lack the power to truly elevate your brand.

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