Saturday 21 April 2018

Transplanted ad man wants to steer Irish advertising to a high-tech, data-driven future

Creative agency chief has taken control at a rebranded Irish International as the focus on tech and pace of change in advertising and marketing accelerates, writes Ellie Donnelly

BBDO Dublin chief executive Neal Davies. Photo: Fergal Phillips
BBDO Dublin chief executive Neal Davies. Photo: Fergal Phillips

As interviews go, getting to experience the dangers of using my mobile phone while driving through virtual reality simulation was definitely a first.

I crashed the virtual car. Badly.

The use of virtual reality and 3D are some of the many techniques being used by BBDO Dublin advertising agency, which was formerly known as Irish International.

Fresh from three years working in the New York office of Effie, the global marketing and communication awards body, Neal Davies recently took over at the agency and is ideally placed to deliver an insightful verdict on where the industry is headed.

Founded in 1966, Irish International has worked with the likes of Barry's Tea, Aer Lingus, Guinness, and the Irish Road Safety Authority (RSA).

"The RSA ads' use of 3D and virtual reality is quite amazing," says Davies.

"I can tell you that you need to drive better and that it distracts you from your driving while you have got your phone in your hand. You can either learn the hard way or we can put you in one of the road shows that we do, where you can actually experience what it is like to do that," he says

"This not the work of a traditional big budget TV agency, it's evidence of a company that is thinking about how to best apply technology to the briefs that we have been given by our clients."

According to Davies, a benefit of the company being part of the international organisation that is BBDO is that there is a lot knowledge-sharing.

"There is a resource that we have based in London called BBDO Knows and that's a brilliant resource. For example, when we were pitching for the Lidl account it enabled us to find out what sector information we can find out on retail that were all aggregated centrally ... and that's invaluable."

We turn to the hot topic of digital marketing, on this Davies admits that there is a desire within the industry to focus on 'what's the shiny new thing that we should be doing?' Something he says can be charted back over the last two decades.

"Twenty years ago the shiny new thing was the internet, and then it was 'gotta do something viral', and then it was 'we have to be on Myspace', and then it's Facebook and YouTube and Instagram and Twitter, and 'ooh what about artificial intelligence and what about machine learning?'

"You have this long list of whatever the latest shiny new thing is, which tends to both seduce and deceive at the same time."

However, Davies, the first person with an agency background to lead Effie Worldwide, and with nearly a quarter century of marketing experience with the likes of TBWA, McCann, Naked and Kodak, says the basics are still vital and a holistic approach necessary.

"The right way to play it is the consistent thinking of 'what is the brand's business problem that we need to solve?' Once we understand that, what role does communications as a whole need to play in delivering that? What message and behaviour do we need to get out in front of our potential audiences and, once you have made that decision, what channels are the best ones to help us deliver those things?"

On the subject of 'likes' Davies says that these are not a means to an end, what a business needs to look at is how do they help you get to your business objective rather than the other way around?

"The advertising industry and the marketing industry as a whole has been crying out for directly attributable, measurable results for a long time and that means that sometimes we end up celebrating the wrong measurements.

"For me it is all about answering the questions of 'What did you set out to achieve?' 'What are the sales goals?' and 'What is the return on marketing investment that you can deliver?'

"There are very few instances where something that exists purely in social media will succeed, unless it is surrounded by other channels that are orchestrated by other channels in the right way which can support that message."

Davies acknowledges that digital is no longer the add-on and is "how we do business now" and even if it is not the full answer it has to be part of any solution.

On the matter of television, one of the more tradition methods of advertising, he describes it as "important, but not the most important thing any more".

I raise the issue of possible problems in measuring data from social media. This, he says, goes back to client expectations.

"Each one of those things is a rabbit hole - you end up having conversations about data for data's sake, rather than how does it manage against your business objectives.

"What is important about data is how you use it to optimise your online campaigns.

"The beauty of digital and social is that you can correct as you go along, as opposed to 'we made a TV spot, we just need to keep running it' and that flexibility and nimble approach is very important."

For Davies, the challenge is staying on top of what technology means to the business.

"A lot of activity in the next two years will be around customer experience and data rather than more mainstream elements of advertising ... and in advertising we have always made things for screens, be they TV or paper, but if you look at voice technology, will we even have screens in 10 years' time?

"What will be consistent is saying 'what's the problem, how do we solve it and which touch points are going to be there'?"

The native of Northern England says that he does not think there are any cultural differences between Ireland, the UK, and the US - but there is a large difference is in the scale of the markets,

"I don't mean that to be Ireland is small, what I mean is that America is massive because you are dealing with a continent. Chicago as a city is the third or fourth-biggest advertising market in the world."

In addition, Davies notes that there is a lot more family ownership of brands in Ireland.

"You are actually talking to the person who's name is above the door," he says, adding that there also "seems to be a lot more State and semi-State spend in Ireland".

In terms of how to innovate in the advertising industry he says "that it is not always about bringing people in but it is about empowering people in the right way - nobody works in isolation here".

The conversation turns to where the industry is heading and on this, Davies says he is excited about "the potential of what might come next and experimenting and learning something new".

"You are now able to cut information in a way that allows for more targeted use of information.

"The one-to-one marketing is immensely interesting - the question becomes are we going to have one new advertising model? Or are we going to have a series of different advertising models because there are different types of brands that may require a different model? We might see different disciples emerging.

"Whatever happens in the next two, five, 10, 15 years, I don't know, but what we have witnessed in the past of either resisting change, or pretending change isn't happening, or fluffing change and getting it wrong, isn't going to be the right answer."

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