Why relevance is key to effective advertising

7 September 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.

For Mike Law, business is personal. Growing up, the president of dentsu’s Amplifi US expected he’d be a maths teacher who coached baseball. Though coaching is indeed a thread running through his career, he took a business class while he was a student at Providence College and discovered that he loved marketing.

Still in college, he’d say, “Wouldn't it be cool to work for Coke, and tell them where to put their ads?” And then someone told him, “You know that's an industry, right?”

He got his first break as a network TV buyer, and now more than 20 years later – including an opportunity working on the client side at Pfizer – his passion for advertising remains undiminished. In large part, because to him the industry remains about people.

“Quite simply,” he says, “I truly believe that people love brands. I see my teenage kids, and they’re so engaged with their favourite brands, and I think that connection will always be important.”

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

I’ve been given a myriad of good advice along the way, including a lot of tactical insights around media and negotiations. But I think the fundamental advice, or the values that I live, came from my parents, and in particular, my dad, who taught me to focus on the simple things, like how to present yourself at work. Be respectful, get to work before your boss, and leave after your boss – some of those old-school fundamental principles.

I sometimes joke that I've only gotten mad at work four times in my career. And in all four instances, it was when somebody questioned the integrity of someone on my team. To me, in business, it’s our relationships that are going to live on.

So, from a leadership standpoint, the best advice I ever received was: “You have to coach the player.” You've got to give the team a goal, but you have to look at every individual on their own. Some people need to be pushed; some people need a hug. But you have to think about every individual. What are they going through? How do you relate to them? And that’s how I approach my team and my clients.

How does that approach shape the way you think about relevance in advertising?

We live in really personalised worlds. And as we talk about media – if we can reach the right person, but we tell them the wrong thing, that's highly ineffective, right? So, in a way that engagement has to be authentic, and it has to create a connection that consumers feel for the brand.

I think one challenge for brands today is that customers are expecting a lot more from them. For example, “I want an ad experience that's for me, but I don't want it to be too much about me.” It’s a matter of finding that delicate balance, and that is redefining the industry today. It’s inspiring us to go back to some of those fundamental questions: What is advertising anyway?

If you go back to the beginning of this industry, we created ads so that people could get free content. Content and ads come together. So, if we can remind customers that advertising is helping to make the content they love possible, then the ads are helping to create a better relationship between consumers and brands.

So, as a media buyer, we have to think about consumers first and last. We can't just define them as a number and then talk to them like a number. We have to remember that they're human beings, and they've got things that they have to think about, as well.

What is the difference between efficiency and effectiveness?

We want to be relevant to the largest audiences possible, of course. We all say, “you have to send the right message, to the right audience, at the right time.” And the closer you can bring together reach, relevance and measurement, the better.

I think often we view measurement purely through the lens of: Did we reach a lot of consumers? But the far more important question is: Did you reach them relevantly? And did they take an action? And that’s where we start to talk about efficiency versus effectiveness.

Just driving to a low CPM and buying quote-unquote, “cheap, efficient media”, may not be as effective as reaching fewer people, more relevantly, who are actually going to take an action. Today, we have the capability to reach more audiences at scale with the right message. In national television, for example, you can serve versioned ads to a full footprint of the US. As a viewer, we may be watching the same show, but we’re getting different ad experiences based on what’s more relevant to us. That has the ability to be far more effective.

quoteUpThe closer you can bring together reach, relevance and measurement, the better.quoteDown
– Mike Law, president, dentsu’s Amplifi

Have industry trends elevated the importance of effectiveness in advertising?

I was kind of joking that the luxury of branding last year went away, because you couldn't just spend money to be the cool, relevant brand. For many businesses, they needed to make sure that every dollar they were spending was invested back in their business and growing their business, so they can get people back to work, so that they could get their stores open, so that they could grow their businesses. Where in the past, I think we were doing that, but we were also creating brand image and all of that at the same time. So, certainly, the trends that accelerated because of the pandemic were already happening, and I think it opened up a lot of clients’, and brands’, and agencies’ minds to: “Okay, there are other ways to do things.”

If you just use connected TV (CTV) and linear TV as an example, we knew that people were moving to CTV. But when push came to shove for consumers last year, and they were stuck at home, and they said, “Well, I really want to watch something. I'm kind of out of things to watch on linear TV, or I don't like the experience. And for just a few dollars, I can go get this better experience. I can be in control of my content.”

I think it showed that the consumers are ultimately in control of that experience. And they want a better ad model. They want more choice and control, because they've been given that by media companies. Whether it's audio or out-of-home, any approach to advertising that is cluttered or isn't creating a great user experience is more likely to frustrate consumers. And I think that's why on-demand content, audio and video have become so powerful. Because people are saying, “I know what I want, and I can go find it. So when I get there, don't make it a messy user experience.” So I think now we’re also redefining that value exchange between content and advertising in a more positive way.

So yes, last year was monumental, and I think we will feel the ripple effects of it for the next couple of years. I think mid- and long-term, it has accelerated change rapidly. What would have taken eight to ten years is now going to happen in two to three years.

Amid so much shift in the advertising landscape, what hasn’t changed?

I love the constant change that comes along with this business. And the people that I work with every day, to see how equally passionate they are about what they do, is amazing. I think we’re in this awesome moment in time, where technology and content are all coming together, and I love this industry's ability to impact real change in the world, beyond just advertising.

We have the ability to drive change around economic inclusion, to drive change around ensuring that there's more representation in leadership and businesses. We can help disadvantaged groups or young people, or help fight diseases. And when there's a rallying cry for something, this industry steps up, at a personal level, on a national level and a global level.

So that's why I love advertising. I love that it always changes, which keeps you motivated. And I love the way this industry reacts to societal issues and takes a stance to make things better.