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Context Reborn: How the Industry has Moved, in Four Stages, from “Contextual” to “Context”

It’s been a tumultuous time for advertisers. Just as new and evolving forms of content are hitting their stride—CTV, OTT, mobile, and more—many of the tried-and-true methods of identifying and reaching consumers through advertising have proven to be either ineffective or out of reach. In particular, for some observers both inside and outside the industry, the slow but imminent death of third-party cookies has created an unsettling level of uncertainty.

In truth, though, while this might seem the worst of times, according to many industry experts, it’s actually the best of times. As Richard Hartell, an independent industry advisor and a former global president of Publicis Media, wrote recently in MediaPost, although the current transformation will “require a significant shift in the way data and technology is set up,” the result will be something that “can be used most strategically by clients and their agencies.”

The Internet: 27 Years On

To understand what’s behind that thinking—and to see how that approach is tied to the rebirth of context in advertising, it’s useful to step back about 27 years and trace the birth and evolution of the internet—and the ways in which its development as an advertising medium has moved the industry from “just selling ads” to a focus on creative execution to people-based marketing tied to cookies and, finally, to “in-the-moment marketing” that is “focused on outcomes,” in the words of Mark Pearlstein, chief revenue officer of 4D, the Context Outcomes Engine at Silverbullet, which defines itself as “a product and services business for the new marketing age.”

In the beginning, Hartell writes, there were “those early innocent days of endless opportunity,” a time during which the internet was seen as just “another channel to be treated like TV or print.” Viewing the internet that way, meant that “many of the norms of other media were imposed on it.”

As a result, Pearlstein says, publishers were simply “moving content online and selling ads against their websites the same way they sold against their magazines.” The idea was, through a contextual approach, to pair “wonderful content” about, say, sports or fashion with the demographic the publishers were reaching. “Content was the first thing you looked at,” he says. “It was in the equation, and it was part of the pitch.”

However, as Hartell notes, “clients and agencies quickly became bored with the static banner format” prevalent on the internet, since it was not as “creatively interesting or flexible as just about anything you could do in any other medium.” And this set the stage for, as Hartell puts it, “breaking out of the banner,” using the “richness that HTML offers to really bring the creative message to life.”

The Creative Revolution

The era this ushered in, Pearlstein recalls, was characterized by “the eye blasters, the eye wonders, and all these new formats. What we started to see was that the creative messaging became more important; it became the focal point.” And with the “battle” waged around “what format do you support,” context faded to the background. “There was lots of money being spent on creative,” Pearlstein says, “because every proprietary ad server had its own formats and creative design.” Faced with this, he says “more and more brands got smart and shrunk down to a single dynamic.”

And that, Hartell writes, exacerbated the problem, since with many media choices “based on whether a site supported one of these new dynamic formats” the creativity that reigned throughout this period ended up being tactical, not strategic.

Enter the era of people-based marketing.

Cookies Become the Coin of the Realm

Although third-party cookies had been around since 1994, it was the convergence of the newly popular programmatic advertising and a focus on using Cookie IDs, as Hartell writes, “to retarget people based on their browsing history” in the mid-2000s that pushed the use of cookies into what he calls “a singular and sometimes completely misguided direction.”

This was facilitated, Pearlstein notes, “by the rise and hypergrowth of the social network that was promising to reach all the best demographic and behavioral data on consumers.” In addition, he says, “companies like BlueKai were saying, ‘We can create these third-party audience segments that will give you the same set of behavioral targeting off the social media platforms.’”

And this meant, Pearlstein says, that the traditional advertising focus on the “right message at the right time” was now all about the person, all about one-to one. Content was barely a force.

What was a force was retargeting—the ability to follow consumers around the internet with messages based on their prior behavior. And this, as advertisers know well, often freaked those consumers out. That led to complaints, and that led to regulations like GDPR and CCPA, which made privacy job one and eventually spelled the end of third-party cookies. And this, as Hartell puts it, pushed the industry to find “a more responsible way forward.”

Growing Up: Context and Outcomes

This responsible way forward is focused not only on protecting consumers and privacy rights but also on benefiting brands by looking more closely at a range of nuanced approaches—moving, for example, from kneejerk brand safety measures, which often miss opportunities by applying definitions that are far too broad, to a more carefully curated focus on brand suitability.


“Contextual is literally words on a page. Context is the environment, all the different variables going on in that moment in addition to the text, the image, or the voice.”


In a sense, notes Hartell, the “last era missed the mark by over-swinging the pendulum in one direction.” While he acknowledges that the behavioral targeting facilitated by third-party cookies “might have been able to find you the right person,” he points out that that was done “at the expense of context, resulting in marketers speaking at people, but often going unheard.”

Now, armed with such tools as AI and machine learning, as well as a number of newly developed unified ID tools, the focus is shifting from click and proxy metrics to outcomes. In order to do that, solutions need to, as Hartell puts it, “identify the moments when consumers are most receptive.”

“It would be a mistake for anybody to think they can replace the cookie,” Pearlstein stresses. Trying to recreate the one-to-one marketing vehicle, he notes “violates what we just legislated out of existence.” And that means “this isn’t about the vehicle used to identify people. This is about the fact you’re identifying people at a people level.”

This requires reembracing the notion of contextual advertising. But there’s a critical difference after all these years—which is why Pearlstein uses the term “context.” Contextual, says Pearlstein, “is literally defined as words on a page.” Context, on the other hand, “is the environment, all of the different variables that are going on in that moment in addition to the text on the page or the image on the video or the voice on the audio.” This could include, he says, “basic things like the weather outside, the location, the time of day—all the things that come together to provide a context and an in-the-moment marketing opportunity.”


“Advertisers need to think about how all of these pieces work together cohesively. That requires thinking, from the start, about the real outcome that’s being sought.”


To think in terms of context—as it’s now defined—means that rather than thinking in “bite-sized chunks,” which was prevalent in the cookie era, when “the person was 80% of the logic behind your strategy,” advertisers now, Pearlstein says, “need to think about how all of these pieces work together cohesively.” And doing that requires thinking, from the start, about the real outcome that’s being sought.

“In the world of programmatic,” says Pearlstein, “back when we were cookie-based and focused on measuring everything instead of measuring the right thing, we got lost in clicks and hovers. Now, as we enter the era of outcomes, of results for brands,” of focusing, once again, on context, there is a whole new set of questions to ask. “It’s asking yourself which of your partners are prepared to help you get there by understanding your results, not by starting from scratch.” he says.  “Who’s here not to necessarily sell me technology, but to understand how to take what I’ve invested in and help me figure out how to navigate to the new?” And critically, adds Hartell, asking “the same fundamental questions that have always proven to drive outcomes,” questions related to relevance, consumer receptivity, and brand enhancement.  

Finding the answer to those questions, according to Hartell, will provide clients with strategic contributions beyond audience targeting, will provide real value for publishers from investments they’ve made in content, and will, 27 years later, fully realize the potential of the internet “as it finally grows up.”

In the next installment of this three-part series, we’ll take a look at how—and why—brand safety has given way to brand suitability and how, with an eye on context, marketers can truly identify the right moment in the right environment for the right message.

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