Purpose-driven advertising and the importance of relevance

August 31, 2021 | By: Brendan Flaherty, Writer, Brand Content

This is ‘My best advice,’ a series that asks advertising experts to share key learnings from their career journeys, the best advice they’ve ever received, and insights to help grow brands and businesses.

Kirk McDonald has long been fascinated by the power of content. Early in his career, he began thinking about how many decisions—major and minor—are influenced by the news, magazine articles, advertising, and everything in between. Pursuing his intellectual curiosity around those topics led him to be an early adopter of all things digital.

“It is your rabid curiosity of any subject matter or discipline that causes you to then become better at it than the rest,” he says. “Everyone asks now: What is your special superpower? Superpowers are not things you're born with. They’re what you've invested the most time and resources and energy into—that becomes your superpower.”

Kirk’s content expertise has served him in a range of roles. He became CEO of GroupM North America in September 2020, and until recently he served as the inaugural CEO of Choreograph, WPP’s global data company. Previously, he was the Chief Business Officer at WarnerMedia’s Xandr, after holding the role there of CMO.

Now, he’s driven to “make advertising work better for people.” By paying close attention to what he’s hearing from clients and the industry at large, he and his team have been able to recognize patterns and emerging trends, which have informed one of GroupM’s key priorities—"responsible investment,” focused on brand safety, data ethics, DEI, responsible journalism, and sustainability.

"Last year reminded us that we can put money and effort towards growth, but it doesn't take that much more energy to make it ‘good growth,’ which is how Mindshare [one of GroupM’s global agencies] uniquely articulates growth with purpose and intention,” he says.

To do that, in part, he remains focused on what he calls the three Cs—content, consumers, and their points of connection.

What is the best business advice you’ve ever received?

My quick answer comes from a great boss of mine years ago, and that is: “Never aspire to be the smartest person in the room.” It’s a quotation you've probably heard many times, but the context can be taken a couple different ways. His point was, no one likes the smartest person in the room, because the smartest person in the room often sounds like they're not listening. And the flip side of that is, if you are the smartest person in the room, then you're probably in the wrong room. So, it’s critical to surround yourself with people you can learn from.

That advice was a turning point for me from a career standpoint, because I then sought rooms, conversations, and other perspectives very actively. And I hope that's a differentiating characteristic of my career—from that moment through now. I don't want to be the smartest person in the room. What I really strive to do is make sure that the room’s really smart, and decisions are made with that collective wisdom.

Why is relevance so important for brands today?

Over the last decade, brands have realized they have to be authentic to specific and unique audiences—not just to the greater group. And that comes down to simple things, right? It's the ‘like’ button; it’s tailored product recommendations. Amazon has been a big part of that customer-centric experience. And consumers have so many customized experiences today, it means that marketers have to apply that to all of their advertising messages and to all of their touchpoints with consumers, in order to be relevant.

But even further now, brands have to be relevant in the context of a moment in time. So, not just at the customer level, but where are your audiences now? What are the things that are happening around them? And then having a social awareness and understanding what other content they’re looking at.

Last year, many marketers who’d built creative messages months before the pandemic with plans to run them in a normal spring season into summer 2020 realized, in early March, that none of those messages were relevant anymore.

Then, the whole country had to become aware of the fact that inequities exist. And not only do they exist, they have far-reaching implications. Because of George Floyd’s murder, for one, there were all of these conversations happening around social justice that we’d just never opened ourselves up to before like that. And now, so much has changed.

So, what should advertisers do now?

quoteUpUnderstand that your customers are operating in the context of a moment in time—shaped, in part, by the other content they're receiving.quoteDown
– Kirk McDonald, CEO, GroupM (North America)

For that to really work, there’s a huge dependency on insights and technology and programmatic software to make the ad say the right thing, at the right time, to the right audience. I think marketers are now fully leaned into that level of addressability to make their stories resonate with consumers in engaging ways.

How can advertisers increase engagement?

Consumers today have a near-infinite amount of options of really cool content to look at. As a brand, you shouldn’t try to bombard them and force interruptions. If you do, the consumers are going to think: “I've got to find a way to get away from you,” and then you have an adversarial relationship with the audience you’re trying to engage.

With robust insights, though, you can have a more interesting conversation and a more thoughtful engagement, because you can share more relevant information. That's what great brands are doing. That's what amazing shopping services are doing. That’s what great content services are doing, when they say: “Look, here's what I think you want to see, or things that could be interesting to you.” And for brands, it’s an act of being considerate of the touchpoint they have with you, and being considerate of your time. By bringing convenience to customers, they make it easier to have an interaction. Convenience and ease are going to cause consumers to become more engaged with certain brands and certain product offerings.

Between all of the streaming services, I can watch what content I want, when I want, and where. I'm carrying around every song I care about and every movie I want to see in my pocket at any given time. If you want to actually get time with those consumers, you've got to do more.

You’ve got to be relevant, as I said, not just to them, but to them in a moment in time—you need contextual relevance. And we need to then be thoughtful about leveraging all of the tools available to us to deliver that.

How do we make advertising work better for people?

As you know, I started in my role in the middle of the pandemic. The thing that attracted me to this opportunity was the fact that GroupM saw and felt a need to say that—given our size, scale, and this bigger mission of WPP of being a creative transformation company—we should take on the responsibility of making advertising work better. And a big part of that was the idea of “responsible media.” Also, last year, we saw the benefits of brands coming out and authentically saying, “we stand with you.” It’s not that we're going to be silently supporting. We’re going to be actively supporting, and we saw brands step up and do that effectively. So, it’s great to be someplace that can be a part of those bigger conversations, and to help amplify that for clients, and help them find the right collaborators. The work we do with Amazon Advertising is an excellent example. And we’re all focused on helping make this work one client at a time, and one touchpoint at a time, to a relevant audience of either existing customers or potential future customers. Doing that requires us to have open conversations.

We hear from thousands of clients, but when many of them start asking the same questions, we need to realize the room is telling us something. And I think that “don't be the smartest person in the room” philosophy applies here too: If all of our initiatives were inspired by our own thoughts alone, we would be assuming that we knew better, and we don't. We just see more, and because we see more, our job is to actually find the patterns. And I believe doing that is helping some of this purpose-driven work grow.

So, I'm humbled that our clients are allowing us to do this work with them. And, hey, let's see if we can actually make advertising work better for people in the future. Let's really try to do that. How amazing to say that, and now let’s go do it.