Netflix, Microsoft, Ronseal

Josh Reidy

Brand Strategy Director

You may have seen; Microsoft has been announced as the official ad sales partner for Netflix’s ad-funded service. Cue the internal scraps between AV and digital buying departments up and down the land and the gleeful rubbing hands of marketers who had been quietly but deeply troubled by their diminishing ability to reach a younger audience – with actual adverts – for some time. It may be rubbish for everyone else, but it is wonderful news for advertisers.

A note of caution should be sounded, though.

Now, I don’t doubt the tender process involved considerable discussion around how value is best returned to advertisers and end users, but if the noises coming out of Microsoft that their data and tech offering was what swung it are to be believed (rather than the genuinely fascinating possibilities with Xbox, for example), I, for one, fear they might have missed the point…

When considering advertiser value, do you think Microsoft stopped to consider why everyone knows Ronseal does exactly what it says on the tin? Here’s a clue, it isn’t ITV’s data and tech offering… Sure, saying it without equivocation for 28 years helps, but always saying it on TV may help more. Don’t get me wrong, you can make bad TV ads no one remembers, and you can make good ones for other channels that imprint (we’ll come back to this word) themselves on the cultural consciousness, but no channel does it quite like TV. 

There are lots of competing and complementary theories as to why this is. You might be a fan of the brilliant work of Mike Follet and the team at Lumen, which demonstrates TV commands greater attention than any other channel, particularly when allied to Karen Nelson-Field’s work on how this relates to effectiveness. Perhaps you prefer your advertising theory with a dash more art history meets neuroscience, and you buy into the work of System1, which expounds the virtue of broad beam attention over narrow. Or maybe you’ve read Thinkbox’s excellent ‘Signalling Success’ work and believe that brands do better on TV basically by peacocking. Maybe you don’t care why and you just trust your econometrics.

The rationale I find most compelling, for what it’s worth, is the one with the least evidence. It was a bit of a slow burn, but as Kevin Simler’s ‘Ads Don’t Work that Way’ made its way around agency land a few years ago, things started to fall into place for a lot of planners: advertising works best in public; when you know someone else has had the same experience of a brand as you. It’s why you can turn up to a bbq with a case of Stella Artois safe in the knowledge everyone else knows it’s reassuringly expensive. He termed this effect ‘cultural imprinting’. It’s not a million miles off ‘social proof theory’, popularised by Richard Shotton, but we’ll stick with Simler’s for simplicity.

So no sooner had these planners read it and smiled the brief smile of cognition that they began to panic…

Brands are built in public. TV is great at delivering this, but the way digital inventory is bought and sold means the experience people have of advertising and, by extension, brands is private. So digital is, to date, bad at delivering this: the fetishisation of 1:1 communications over 1:many inhibits building brand.

The fragmented, targeted (in particular, audience-targeted) nature of digital buying necessarily eradicates this public effect unless you buy at such enormous scale that you probably shouldn’t have bothered with targeting to begin with. So Microsoft’s insistence that their use of data will empower their Netflix offering does lead the mind down this path. Now linear TV’s clearly not dead, but the trend line isn’t promising. Even Ebiquity, so often the grown-ups in a room full of broadcast doom-mongers, pencilled in TV’s tipping point for this year.

So, how on earth are we supposed to achieve cultural imprinting outside of OOH? Are we just to accept the decline of brand-building advertising?

This brings us back to Netflix (and Microsoft) and a direct plea to them: you have the opportunity to lead the industry, to change the direction of digital advertising. Take it.

Right now, you have the most premium, most sought-after product in digital advertising and the opportunity to be the most premium adspace in digital full stop. Why cheapen and fragment that? So please, don’t sell all of your inventory through an exchange. Hire some salespeople; make some reservation placements; mimic TV and cinema. As a centre of digital culture, the biggest and the best streaming platform, you are one of the last great hopes of advertising effectiveness. 

How much more effective would it be when Oak Furniture Land sponsor the next series of Bridgerton or Foxtons the next series of Selling Sunset? How much more money will you make like that rather than selling all their inventory at auction (Disney’s reported $9bn haul at the upfronts might provide a clue)? And it needn’t just be sponsorship. Just make it exclusive, sell it as reservation placements, and we’ll have cultural imprinting back (it needn’t be all of it either – I can understand it might be easier to automate the sales of Friends Season 4).

At this point, some will say that the average consumer doesn’t know they’re not watching the same thing as their neighbour. Well, yes and no. It’s subconscious, so no, no one would state that, but the effect is observable. The same logical argument ought to hold for online video from any provider and econometrics, or IPA data will tell you that there is something inherently different in the effect of online vs linear video ads. I choose cultural imprinting to explain this. Whether you believe that rationale or one of the others I’ve listed does not escape the observable fact.

Now, if selling top-tier Netflix adspace on a reservation basis feels a little disappointingly tactical to solve such a vast problem as the decline of cultural imprinting, try to remember we’re just trying to replace a 30” TVC. It was only ever a tactic.

However, it’s a fair point and leads us to a much bigger, more galvanising, even invigorating challenge. Whatever Netflix choose to do, rather than spend our time lamenting the slow erosion of cultural imprinting or broad beam attention and mope about talking wistfully of the golden days of gorillas playing the drums or clowns driving cars, it’s far more effective, far more fun to set ourselves the challenge of how to achieve cultural imprinting in the evolved media landscape; in digital; in platforms.

Because somewhere along the line, digital techniques have obscured the fact that advertising is a creative industry (yes, even the media bit!). We’ve followed the reductive logic where best practice meets optimisation, making it dull. Instead, we ought to spend some time examining where the medium meets the message because that’s where the fun is.

No doubt many minds will wander to the metaverse, and as the broader populace outside of children and sex pests adopt it, that will prove one important route, but that thought process belies a problem at the heart of digital marketing: it is driven by tech. The clue is in the title. To achieve cultural imprinting in digital, we should be targeting how culture manifests in digital, not try to shoehorn digital into the culture. Build for audience and culture: and allow technology to be an output or delivery method. You don’t start with ‘how do we use NFTs?’, but you might get there because the tactic is the answer, not the question. Tech and innovation are sometimes the byproducts of a good strategy, but they are very rarely the start of one. Challenge yourself to access culture and even drive it (and sell things). The method will follow.

The great examples that already exist have been driven by creativity, audience and culture rather than the technology itself: A$AP Rocky in Fortnite; Burger King selling Whoppers in McDonald’s; Burberry’s B-Series drops in WeChat; even the surge of interest in Kate Bush following Stranger Things is evidence of it. And there’s so much untapped because it’s not currently sold by media owners. There’s an effectiveness award waiting for the first advertiser to sponsor Thursday nights in with Deliveroo. Or indeed to recreate Orange Wednesdays for the streaming age with Netflix.

Netflix has a huge opportunity to change the course of advertising for the commercial and entertainment better, but we all have an even bigger one because achieving cultural imprinting in the platform world is a new, exciting, vital challenge and one very few have taken on knowingly. Let’s see if we can’t have some fun with it.