Sunday 23 October 2016

A clarity of purpose in adland can help stem the sectoral threat posed by ad blocking

Miriam Hughes of DDFH&B, Ireland's largest creative group, tells John McGee that keeping up with change is crucial

Published 08/05/2016 | 02:30

Ads need to be more interesting and engaging, says Miriam Hughes of DDFH&B
Ads need to be more interesting and engaging, says Miriam Hughes of DDFH&B

As Ireland's largest creative services agency group, DDFH&B has consistently been adland's most profitable group in recent years - a considerable feat, given the havoc wreaked on the industry over the last eight years.

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Headed up by CEO Miriam Hughes, the group includes the creative agency DDFH&B; the shopper marketing agency Goosebump; PR firm The Reputations Agency; as well as RMG, its digital arm. In addition, it also owns a 50pc stake in media agency Mindshare.

Including Mindshare, it employs 188 staff at its Christchurch HQ in the heart of Dublin's Liberties and its most recent accounts show that it reported a turnover of €23.8m and profits of €3.2m in 2014. Clients include many household names - such as the National Lottery, Failte Ireland, SuperValu, Irish Life, Liberty Insurance, Irish Distillers and Eircom, to name but a few.

DDFH&B has always been the agency its rivals want to beat, or at least emulate.

While clients come and go all the time in the agency world, it has successfully managed to retain most of its big clients over the past few years.

Complacency in the fast-changing sector is however not a trait anyone would admit to - and certainly not Hughes.

In her world, the only constant is change. And if the industry does not keep up with what is going on in the wider world, particularly when it comes to the business problems and issues clients face, then they run the risk of becoming marginalised and possibly irrelevant.

"If one looks at the level and rate of change in the industry over the last number of years, a lot has happened in terms of consumer behaviour, the increasing prevalence of digital in the advertising mix and the business needs of advertisers and clients - many of which still have cost and budget pressures.

"There is so much more pressure on clients to demonstrate the full extent of the return on investment in advertising and this poses challenges for agencies in their ability to clearly demonstrate the effectiveness of their advertising campaigns," she says.

"Some of them have responded well to changes, others are finding it more difficult. But the most important thing of all is that the industry needs to stay focused on what purpose it serves, to what end is it trying to take consumers on a journey - and most important of all, what are going to be the business impacts for their clients from all of this?"

As a former marketing director with Nestle Ireland and head of marketing communications at Bank of Ireland, Hughes's client-side experience has proved invaluable when it comes to bagging accounts, while also giving her unique insights into some of the issues clients face on a day-to-day basis.

Were she on the other side of the fence today, she says that she would relish the opportunities that have unfolded over the last ten years.

"I would be really excited because the possibilities are greater now than ever before. The industry can do things better, faster, cheaper and be more innovative than in the past.

"But there are challenges - one of which is that the various disciplines within the industry are now less connected. That's a big worry and something that the industry needs to work on," she says.

However full integration - where all the various disciplines come under the one roof - is easier said than done, says Hughes.

"Integration is very difficult because it requires great minded people to sit down around the table and actually work through the challenge the client has, whether it's growing brand love, growing sales or growing brand fame.

"Integration is a term that's used loosely - but for it to genuinely work, you need really good partners who can challenge you, bring clarity to the table and have a real trust in their ability, expertise and honesty.

"Everything from the knowledge, the data and insights and the creative should be brought to the table so that all the partners around that table understand from the outset what needs to be done. Only then will you have the clarity needed to move on and solve the business challenges clients face," she says.

"I also think the biggest cultural challenge agencies face is their inability to keep up with the enormous changes that are taking place within their clients' businesses - but it's incumbent on the industry to keep up with what's going on in the wider business world."

Given the growing importance of digital advertising, many industry onlookers also believe that a lot more needs to be done to stem the rising tide of ad blocking - a problem which threatens to engulf the entire industry. Clients, meanwhile, are beginning to wonder why their digital dreams are turning into nightmares.

"It is worrying because if 70pc of all digital daily interactions are on mobile and people start blocking ads, the access to potential customers is greatly diminished.

"People are blocking ads because a lot of brands are not actually meaningfully engaging with them in that space - while publishers need to look at the frequency of the ads that are being served and the formats they use.

"But the ads also need to be interesting and engaging and the reality is that many advertisers are not being clever enough.

"So the whole industry - from publishers to media and creative agencies and advertisers - is guilty and this needs to change because it will only get worse.

"It's a huge challenge - but the onus is everyone to make it work. Otherwise we are all in trouble," she adds.

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