Performance Vs. Performative, Working Media Vs. Ad Tech

I'm looking forward to Sparks & Honey's culture briefing midday on Thursday, and it's not just because of its provocative title -- "Brand Performance vs Performative" -- but because it's an idea I've been thinking about for some time.

Specifically, are brands leaning into important social themes like DEI, social justice, the climate crisis, etc., just because they make them look good, or because they earnestly improve results for the brand?

"In what ways can companies build branding for a better performance vs for the trend of blackness?" the briefing's promo asks, indicating that Sparks & Honey will dig into the push for Black culture representation and whether some are just using it as a "performative action."

In either case, I do feel like big brands seem compelled to follow the pack, and that lends itself to an even bigger dilemma in the ongoing performance vs. branding debate: regression to the mean.

And by that I mean that if everyone does the same thing over time, it will become harder and harder for any individual brand to stand out. You know, differentiate -- which is one of the fundamental principles of branding.



In other words, you can be as culturally relevant as you want, but if you're doing the same thing everyone else is, well, you're gong to end up with a trend of blandness.

On the other side of the spectrum, I have also been thinking about how the increasing importance of ad technology -- and especially the next generations of AI-infused decision-making -- are going to impact the differentiation of brands.

I mean, if everyone is utilizing the same state-of-the-art tools to optimize in real-time, sure they'll all be getting better short-term results, but what about the long-term value to the brand?

In the latest edition of its "Catalyst" insights newsletter, Horizon Media notes that AI already is playing a significant role for many advertisers -- especially in optimizing search, keyword research, coding, content writing, creative development, site development and even creative analysis.

"Search behavior could see a significant shift to conversational search as chatbots are capable of understanding users speaking in a natural conversational manner," Horizon notes, adding: "This could bypass the need to go to multiple sites/search results.

Image search could also shift to AI-generated images to get the exact result a user is looking for vs searching and seeing if it already exists online."

The ad industry's increasing reliance on technology -- especially automation and optimization -- is also having a profound economic impact, especially given the presumed focus of advertisers on the bottom line in what many expected to be a recession this year.

"The advertising market did manage to effectively talk itself into a weak outcome for the year," now independent analyst Brian Wieser writes in the latest edition of his "Madison and Wall" newsletter, going on to point out that the major publicly traded ad technology players -- The Trade Desk, LiveRamp, Magnite, DoubleVerify, IAS, Pubmatic, Innovid and Viant -- outpaced the growth of the ad industry they serve.

Wieser goes on to point out that "non-working media, including ad tech" is a long-term proposition -- not just one due to economic austerity -- and marketers are increasingly looking to squeeze more performance out of every working dollar they do spend to reach a consumer.

"This last point is potentially quite important," Wieser writes, continuing: "As I noted when I recently wrote about growth trends for agencies, whose businesses also performed strongly last year, it is clear that newer data-driven activities are key areas of focus for the marketers they work with. Despite efforts from some marketers to cut costs which are unrelated to spending with media owners (so-called 'working spend'), growth in ad tech and agency activity may convey that marketers implicitly recognize that incremental spending on so-called 'non-working' spending can actually make the “working” spend and overall marketing activities significantly more efficient."

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