Advertising anywhere vs. advertising somewhere

Great Britain is an island divided. The division does not depend on the usual differentiators. It is not a matter of age; it is not a matter of class. It is not a matter of the old political conflicts of Left and Right.

If you work in marketing, if your job in any way involves understanding or targeting audiences based on their distinguishing characteristics, by this point your ears will have pricked up.

The above idea is borrowed (and with apologies slightly adapted) from David Goodhart, whose new book The Road To Somewhere sets out to describe the state of a nation in 2017.

Goodhart divides British society into two main groups. On the one hand, there are people who come from 'Anywhere'. On the other, there are people who come from 'Somewhere'*.

Broadly speaking, Anywheres can be defined as those who are socially liberal and geographically mobile. Their value system is one of progressive individualism. They are comfortable with change. Somewheres, meanwhile, are more socially conservative (small c) and community-oriented in their outlook.

They are rooted in a more specific place or community, and are uneasy about globalisation. 'Anywheres' comprise about 25% of the GB population. The majority, some 50%, are 'Somewheres'.

For what follows, it's worth reiterating that this Anywhere/Somewhere division doesn't split neatly along age, socio-economic or party political lines. A Somewhere could be a twenty-something in the Birmingham area, a wealthy shopkeeper in Leicester, a housewife in Surrey.

Goodhart is here talking about large political issues - about Brexit and devolution, about voter distrust and disenchantment. As marketers our canvas is far smaller. Nevertheless, Goodhart's definitions may help to give us a fresh perspective on a contentious and much-discussed issue of our own.

The issue to which I refer is the value of context in advertising. The arguments have gathered momentum over recent weeks following news of apparent gaps between the promises and practices of ad tech companies. Let's re-examine this context debate, starting with the terms.

Firstly, the debate is not - or shouldn't be - about brand safety. Let's just agree now that 'brand safety' is a minimum requirement (and that advertisers may choose to take their money elsewhere until the matter is addressed).

Secondly, the debate is not about programmatic advertising per se. After all consumers notice where ads appear; they care little how they end up there.

Rather, at its core the debate is about the relative merits of 'context-agnostic' versus 'context-oriented' advertising - especially as it pertains to the value of trusted premium environments.

By 'context-oriented', I mean advertising that reaches its target audience on a specific, known website (or defined number of sites) deemed to be trusted by and relevant to that audience.

The buy may be made directly or programmatically: it doesn't matter.

By 'context-agnostic', I mean advertising directed at an often highly specific target audience. Crucially, this strategy gives scant regard to where ads are placed, beyond a set of minimum requirements such as brand safety and in-target guarantees. As long as these requirements are met (whether they are or not is a separate debate), the theory goes that it doesn't really matter where the ads appear.

So which strategy has most merit, 'context-agnostic' or 'context-oriented'?

The question is of course absurd. Each has its strengths, and what balance is best on a media plan will depend on the objectives and target audience(s) of the campaign.

A 'context-agnostic' approach is widely agreed to be good for delivering cheap incremental reach and, providing you measure and optimise correctly, can be a powerful direct response driver. But it may be less good for some types of communications (those that depend on tone or brand resonance, for instance, or that seek to be especially memorable or convey complex ideas).

'Context-oriented' advertising offers a trusted, familiar, relevant and valued environment that can confer additional benefits on a brand to reinforce and enhance the advertising message. It is often a strong reach and brand metric driver, and can also deliver against performance metrics.

It is important to note that both advertising strategies rely on different assumptions about the consumer. Consider 'context-agnostic' advertising. For this strategy really to work, you need a consumer who doesn't require a trusted, familiar or necessarily relevant context to find meaning in what they encounter. Simplistically, environment is seen as unnecessary to land the advertising message. One thinks of an omnivorous, happily footloose individual who skips easily from place to place.

Now here's the thing. Is it by chance that this view of the consumer recalls Goodhart's description of Anywheres? Anywheres can be said to arrive at their attitudes and identity by their own making, based on their educational and professional endeavours, rather than from the immediate environment within which they operate. By contrast, Somewheres draw deeply on what's around them - their surroundings, people and things they trust and respect - to inform their choices and shape their outlook.

The next bit of Goodhart's argument is also thought provoking. I have already mentioned that Somewheres outnumber Anywheres in the population by two to one. But it is Anywheres who today hold the reins of power and make the decisions. In their leadership role, Goodhart argues, Anywheres have favoured strategies that reflect their world view and have failed to take sufficient account of Somewheres.

Goodhart is talking about political leaders. But what if the same is true in the realm of advertising?

It cannot have escaped your notice that the description of Anywheres also sounds a lot like media professionals. And that 'context-agnostic' advertising sounds like the sort of thing Anywheres might more readily advocate, a solution that chimes with their (our) thinking.

Of course these likenesses may be nothing. But what if in tipping the balance towards 'context-agnostic' advertising we are unconsciously designing ad campaigns in our own image?

Whether or not you see validity in these arguments, this article should serve as a reminder that we need always to interrogate why and how we put together media plans in the way we do. We must do the necessary thinking to ensure that campaigns work for their target audiences, who may look at the world differently.

Other voices across the industry have made a similar point - Newsworks’ 2016 ‘Sample of One’ study, which explored how the media habits of London-based planners differ from the rest of the country, is a good example. The point is also one for market researchers to note, as they seek always to stay attuned to the changing face of British society.

Above all, though, this article adds more grist to the mill in the great context debate - hopefully providing a new spin on a by now familiar subject.

The existence of Somewheres as the majority audience in Britain suggests that we might do well to reconsider the importance of context. Premium publishers must continue to state and refine their arguments.

And beyond digital, long-established locally activated media such as regional radio, press and OOH should explore the opportunity to restate their case.

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