Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Rob Webster: A roadmap for digital media through the pandemic and beyond

Rob Webster is Founder of Canton Marketing Solutions. He’s worked in the adtech industry since 2001 and is NDA’s monthly adtech columnist.

Progressive brands are noticing now more than ever that their marketing division is unable to respond efficiently and effectively to the needs of this pandemic. The extra pressure of the downturn in the economy and the enforced change in working conditions has stretched already fraying marketing practices to breaking point.

The evidence for this is easy to see with so much marketing activity still geared to a pre-coronavirus world. We will all have seen ads that show socialising, travel or sport.

Whilst recording new ads quickly is difficult, similar issues occur with brands pushing the wrong products (in fashion evening wear rather than loungewear for example), media placements (still running a lot of out of home or print) and in digital not looking at suitable content around the pandemic. When you look into the detail of many bands’ plans it is plain to see they have not been sufficiently, if at all, adjusted beyond simple budget scaling. 

The reasons for this are long-held challenges with how marketing operates. As such we are now in a moment in time where poor practices that have lingered too long are exposed. Brands that are able to adapt and solve these issues will be the ones best geared to survive and to prosper in the new world.

For now is the time to act, the first weeks of the crisis have been spent making rapid adjustments to this new world, the unpleasant task of cutting costs, adjusting forecasts and changing supply paths. This means looking at their processes, tools and agency relationships. 

Process & Communication

Consider the usual decision making process flow from a brand through to their marketing activity. 

In simple terms the below happens with information flowing up and down this chain. 

  • A board meeting with the key players including CEO and CMO sets the company goals. 
  • A marketing meeting develops that into their marketing strategy. 
  • A marketing agency or agencies are consulted and ultimately briefed on the strategy. A high level media plan is produced. 
  • Further meetings occur to brief individual specialist teams and individuals. More detailed planning occurs. 
  • Buyers then execute against the plan. 

The house that this process has been built on has always been built on sand, designed as it is for a much slower world when marketing took weeks and months to buy and measure. The pandemic has blown the house down and scattered the remains. 

Consider that in reality the back and forth is much more complex / convoluted. Communication up and down this linear flow is very slow and not sufficiently based on evidence. During the pandemic where effectively everyone is working from home many of the meetings this process requires are at least less efficient and many of them do not happen at all.

End buyers who are often the youngest and most inexperienced team members lack the support of their superiors, the lack of clarity to act as instructed and the lack of authority to make their own decisions.

Expertise & Talent

Traditional agencies have long operated with many junior staff being supported by a few senior stars. That’s not how it appears during the pitch process when the stars are all in show but is the reality of day to day media operations.

As with the decision making process above, the lack of consistent agency expertise has long been an issue but is even more exposed by the pandemic as junior staff don’t get the time and communication they (hopefully) did in the office environment. Companies that were never used to home working have had to embrace it in a hurry.

Simultaneously financial pressures have forced these companies to furlough staff. Since the media still needs to get booked to pay the bills many of the furloughed staff are those that were providing valuable advice and direction.

This is exacerbated by the fact that clients often do not have detailed expertise in online media. 

Measurement & Data

For all the reasons mentioned above communication up and down the process has struggled.  

It is exacerbated in measuring success and communicating that across all stakeholders. Brands have been for too long reliant on their agencies for their media performance figures. Again this is a house of cards that has toppled in the pandemic with brands getting less regular communication with less context provided.

Crucially this measurement often differs from brands’ own measurement of their business performance. The need to connect marketing activity to real world outcomes has never been greater.  

Measurement is just one form of data that brands need to transform. How brands utilise their data more generally also needs rapid attention. Legislation now enforces the need for brands to control their data very carefully and not simply hand it over to marketing partners without the required protection.

A movement to new buying platforms for all forms of media means that that data can be more powerful than ever but only if it is carefully guarded and used in consumer centric fashion. 


As with data many brands’ marketing departments have often relied on their agencies for their technology. Another source of dispute has often arisen between brands’ site and technology teams and their marketing teams not being in alignment.

With the pandemic they are increasingly having to move from bricks and mortar stores to their online multi-platform store. This puts an increasing amount of pressure on the health of a brand’s technology setup. This level of importance and complexity has overrun many traditional agencies’ ability to support and there is a fear that their advice often contains overdue bias.

It’s amazing now how many agencies are designated Google resellers and having the leading media owner also dominating measurement and technology as well as greasing the agency (or consultancy) pockets has clear conflicts of issues.

Brands recognising this have increasingly gone to the technology vendors directly for advice. Whilst brands taking responsibility is to be recommended, they often lack the expertise to make the right decisions and the technology companies’ sales teams often over exaggerate the strengths whilst hiding the weaknesses.

That is all before we get to the question of support with most technology companies being famously poor at supporting their own technology, particularly when it involves integrating with other components of the stack. Technology companies are valued on SAS sales, so service is often an afterthought to the point that many have outsourced this to others. 


The above problems can all be characterised as the inefficiencies of silos. Creativity again has historically happened in agency strategy meetings on a whiteboard. The actual creative produced can take weeks to produce and is signed off by many senior stakeholders. However digital platforms offer the ability for constant feedback.

Whether is understanding the performance of the creative against different demographics or simply seeing whether users are completing a video. Being able to iterate through a campaign is vital and cannot be left to an uplift study 6 months after a campaign.

Brands need to know when to cut their losses or double down on a particular element to get the most out of their activity. Furthermore brands need to have something to say, difficult at this time.

Too many brand messages today simply mirror public health advice without adding any value for the brand. It is likely that such creative strategy talent is spread too thinly at agencies and is not delivering for Brands at this crucial time.

The End of The Traditional Agency Relationship

The traditional marketing model between advertisers and large agencies has been under huge strain for some time. The core reasons to be for many large agencies has been around buying power and the ability to conduct media operations across many publishers. Both of these challenges have been effectively rendered obsolete by technology.

To add to that large agencies are almost hysterically unprepared for the challenge of the modern world that have been brought into focus by the pandemic. Given that they are not able to help brands work with sufficient speed or be able to push the required talent to advertisers but instead leaving under-prepared junior staff at the helm should give all advertisers reason to consider their use.

The fact that legislation and technology changes mean that brands have to invest in their own data skills and technology for marketing mean that for most advertisers change is a must. 

The Solution

The solution which progressive brands have already started is to take control for media strategy and data across a more integrated company structure. Crucial to this is increasing the skills and access to data for key lieutenants in the marketing function and utilising modern tools and techniques to ensure they are adequately informed.

The last mile of media execution can be either run in house or by tightly controlled partners, informed and kept in check by their more empowered media practitioners. 

What advertisers then need is for their partners to evolve too. Most brands are not used to this world and so will need to gather expertise in transformation to be able to do it successfully. There are many reports of in-housing proving un-successful but they are largely examples of how it has been done badly.

Instead advertisers must demand a change in culture from their partners and agencies such that they act more as the coach than the player. In the past agencies acted as if they owned their brands budgets (crucial for buying power) now the culture needs to be much more about respect to the brand’s budgets and business outcomes and how they as media partners can help them better run their marketing function. 

The media partners of the 2020s will all be characterised by a consistency in skills and communication in the areas where in house brands need support.

These will crucially be in the use and installation of marketing and advertising technology, the use of data in a privacy first world , measurement and attribution focussing on incrementality and the best practice use of media buying platforms.