Digital Advertising – the Never-Ending Arms Race?

I was at a recent event in Hong Kong where I moderated three tables of senior regional e-marketers from 20 different B2C and B2B companies on the topic of digital advertising. The format of the program was punishing – marketers were forced to be very transparent and unpack their digital marketing weaponary with peers from non-competing industries.

What struck me as I talked to three tables of marketers was how much, as marketers in Asia, we were so focused on driving down the cost of traffic or conversion and looking for the next lowest cost channel. Maybe it was the Hong Kong setting but it seemed like we approached digital advertising like a commodities trader.

At one point in that seemingly endless morning session, I began projecting myself into the future and wondering how long this could go on and where it would end. If this was truly the framework we are using in our day-to-day work then we had some of the brightest minds in digital marketing putting the full force of their intellect behind what could become an endless arms race, with budgets pushed to the max and the real winners of the game being the arms dealers (the ad networks, agencies, and search engines).

By lunchtime I was becoming quite despondent and wondered whether in five years time we would again be having discussions framed in the same way, but hope came when someone opened a bottle of vodka at networking drinks. Fueled by vodka, in a backroom bar, reflecting over the events of the day, we floated this idea: rather than this commodities trader approach to digital, how about using some of your digital ad budget to build content assets so that we could build an audience and advertise to them (isn’t this actually what we already do in email marketing)? Why weren’t the digital advertising experts in the room using this approach instead?

Let’s look at this with an example. Say you are a mid-sized hotel company with a major focus on digital because you do not have big money to splash around in other media. You are bidding competitively in search, display, doing Facebook community management, and finding that your competitors have exactly the same weapons as you (the only difference being the combination of weapons and how fast your team is executing). You begin to wonder after five years whether there is a better way because what you are doing is simply not giving yourself a sustainable edge and every time you go on holiday your competitor catches up with you.

How about you take a step back and look at a content strategy (owned media) that could keep people coming back to your brand and remove the need to keep buying that audience from an ad network or search engine – in other words a sustainable content pull strategy. In this way, some of your digital ad budget goes into building an audience, that with the right content, can be retained over a long period of time.

What content could you do for a mid-sized hotel company? One approach would be to provoke some of the most primal pre-existing emotions in the workplace setting with a microsite (let’s call it and build an audience of people who love small poignant weekday city escapes that would come back over and over again because of the witty or insightful content that makes a difference. Pepper this with a few well-timed deals and you could have yourself a win-win.

While none of these ideas are groundbreaking in themselves, it’s really interesting how we fall into the trap of a framework that compared the ROI of paid media in silo without looking at the integrated whole, something that seems quite easy to do in our field.

In short, I think that the conclusion we reached was that we have to approach digital advertising in a new way in order to change the game and it is about time we do that.

Image on home page via Shutterstock.

Related reading

Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.