Nick Manning interview: Time for brands to take control of their data

The Small Data Forum started its side hustle of interviews with industry experts as an experiment almost exactly a year ago, but already we’re onto our sixth.

SDF co-host Sam Knowles spoke on Friday 4 March to Nick Manning, one of the most important, informed, and trenchant figures in media and marketing over the past 30 years. Nick founded the media agency Manning Gottlieb in the early 1990s.

Sam and Nick worked together at Ebiquity in the mid-twenty-teens in various guises, as Nick – and then CEO Mike Greenlees – bought consultancies to expand the capabilities and geographical footprint of the media investment analysis consultancy. Nick now runs his own consultancy, Encyclomedia, and is a regular columnist for Mediatel.

We spoke at the end of the first week of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The complexity of modern marketing

Nick Manning and Sam Knowles
Nick Manning and Sam Knowles talk data and marketing

We start off considering what brands and marketers can do to cope with the ever-increasing complexity of marketing. With almost all marketing now digital, Nick believes that brands need to accelerate the pace with which they’re building their in-house capabilities. This is not – as some thought a few years back – about bringing media in-house, but it’s further upstream than that.

Brands need to take and assert control over all levers of marketing – channels, data, and storage – and rely less on external third parties who make things less than clear with their black boxes.

Sam notes that many Chief Marketing Officers weren’t brought up in digital-first businesses in a digital-first world. He wonders whether, in fact, they’re like a bevy of swans, looking calm on the surface but frantically paddling beneath the water.

He’s perplexed by the way that 61-year-old Marc Pritchard seem to be so on top of things at U.S. consumer goods behemoth, Procter & Gamble. Coincidentally, Nick had attended a keynote given by Pritchard at the U.S. Association of National Advertisers (ANA) earlier in the week we spoke, and P&G’s Chief Brand Officer was as impressive as ever. But Nick observes that saying what you want to do and actually doing it are very different.

CMOs have so much to take care of in today’s market, making the day-to-day incredibly hard; it’s a grind to navigate the ever-growing number of channels, the gigabytes of data, ecommerce and all. Things used to be relatively straightforward, centred on brand communications and advertising campaigns.

In the ever-more complex marketing ecosystem, CMOs need dedicated teams of experts in data, data science, channel execution, all of whom are hard to attract, motivate, and retain, because their services are in such great demand.

Media transparency – and accountability

Nick’s mention of the ANA reminds Sam of the report Nick authored in 2016 on media transparency and he asks if, collectively, the industry has made much progress since those dark days – days in which Pritchard called the ecosystem “murky at best, fraudulent at worst” and his then opposite number at Unilever, Keith Weed, urged Facebook et al. to “drain the swamp”.

Nick believes that some progress has indeed been made on transparency, but that it is an elusive topic because the market is not static.

In 2016, TikTok was but a twinkle in an app developer’s mind, and retailers – such as Target and Wal-Mart – hadn’t become the serious etailers they are today. Brands, Nick believes, need to focus on both accountability and transparency, and keep the keenest of eyes on ad tech companies who have “made hay” since the ANA report.

Growing dominance of walled gardens

Sam notes the recent WARC report which showed that, in the pandemic years, the share of total global advertising controlled by Alphabet, Meta, and Amazon has leapt from 34% in 2019 to more than 46% in 2021. He wonders whether there’s any hope that the walled gardens will become any more transparent in sharing their performance and customer data with brands.

Nick believes that first-party data will be the most important factors in marketing, for targeting consumers one-to-one, and since the Big Three walled-garden operators are built on high-quality, first-party data assets, there’s absolutely no reason to suspect that they’ll suddenly share that with advertisers.

The primacy of first-party data underlines Nick’s central message – that brands must take control of their data and staff up data scientists – not least because there is no ‘interoperability’ (in the jargon) between the platforms and channels.

Google, YouTube, Tik Tok, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest all operate to their own rubrics, and brands need teams to manage, test, and control each one of these, if they are to thrive.

The challenges of programmatic advertising

As discussed in a recent full-fat version of the Small Data Forum podcast, AdContrarian Bob Hoffman has recently pulled together various studies of programmatic advertising from across the industry and consultancy space and created the “programmatic poop funnel” which shows 97% of money invested in programmatic digital advertising is wasted.

The trouble is worse for marketers today than it was for Victorian department store owner John Wanamaker who declared that just 50% of his ad spend was wasted.

Nick enjoyed Hoffman’s hyperbole to make a point and goes on to observe that the truth is, unless you take control of programmatic, you cannot know what your true level of wastage is.

Even then, because of the complexity, black boxes, and deliberate smoke and mirrors of the ad tech market, it’s not even knowable. “It could he between zero and 100%!” he observes.

Also, he points out, industry averages are not helpful, not least because they rest of assumptions that may very well be irrelevant for individual brands.

Russia, Putin, Ukraine

Hoffman recently challenged Unilever to “pull out of Russia” in condemnation of the country’s invasion of Ukraine, given that the company is always “popping off about purpose”.

Sam wonders what Nick would advise brands to do about their operations in Russia.

Nick observes that many multinational companies have large workforces in Russia and suddenly pulling out would remove their livelihoods; corporate response should be less about hurting Russia or the Russian people and more about pressurising the Putin regime.

That said, in the face of the world’s biggest crisis since World War II, if companies take their Environmental, Social, and Governance responsibilities seriously, they can’t just sit back and do nothing.

Nick believes that the way the crisis will end is when Putin is faced by genuine opposition from within his own borders by his own citizens when they can no longer travel overseas, when supermarket shelves are empty, when global financial mechanisms are closed to them – effectively, when pre-1989 USSR deprivation impacts them personally.

There’s only one “F” in Fulham

We conclude our conversation with a look at the implications of the Ukraine crisis on the ownership of British football teams.

With both Sam and Nick Fulham FC fans – the only proper team in London SW6 – it was tempting to dwell on the goal-scoring exploits of star striker, Alexander Mitrovic, already the Championship’s leading all-time scorer for a single season and still 13 games to play. Instead, we look down the Fulham Road to Chelski.

Sam wonders whether this crisis will lead to any fundamental changes to ownership, perhaps drifting towards a model more like the much-vaunted German approach in which fans have (more) control.

Nick would very much like that. He believes the era of governments – in the form of sovereign wealth funds of Gulf states – bankrolling big sides with petrochemical dollars will likely end. “Some individuals and organisations should not be allowed to own football clubs,” he asserts.

The U.K. has, for too long, tolerated the most questionable money in the world – including the billions stolen by oligarchs. The U.K. Tory party has been bankrolled by dirty Russian money, and London has become a global capital of money laundering. This crisis represents a watershed moment. We will see a fundamental-and-forever redefinition of what constitutes a ‘fit and proper person’ to run a football club.

This – Nick believes – is about the only good thing to come out this crisis, bringing to the fore questions and policies that have been ignored for too long by complicit politicians whose nests have been feathered for too long by illicit funds.

Amen to that, and come on you Whites!

Nick Manning in conversation with Sam Knowles:

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Sam’s interview with Nick is the sixth in the series of interviews with experts from diverse fields on the uses and abuses of data big and small in politics, business, and public life.

Previous guests on the SDF podcast have included: campaigner and founder of the new True & Fair political party, Gina Miller; the U.K. CEO of marketing agency Looping Group, Christian Polman; independent media industry analyst, Ian Whittaker; Anne Hardy, the CISO of the American-French data integrity business, Talend; and Bournemouth University Professor, Darren Lilleker.

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