The Big Digital Debate: how to create value from digital

In the second live debate organised by News International and Haymarket Brand Media, the panel discussed the impact of the digital world on traditional media and advertisers. Though this was a UK-based promotion, we thought the discussions would interest Campaign India’s readers

Jan 03, 2011 06:37:00 PM | Article | Campaign India Team

Now that we are all coming to terms with a digital world where media content is put into a computer file and consumed in many ways and in many places, new questions are starting to emerge. How do we measure the audience? What value is a digital impact? Is a digital subscriber worth more to an advertiser than a digital surfer?

On 19 November, at London’s panoramic Altitude 360, News International Commercial and Haymarket Brand Media brought together people at the forefront of these changes. In front of a handpicked audience drawn from many, many hundreds who registered for the event, the panel thrashed out how the traditional media economy is adapting to a digital world – what has changed and what must change further?

For media owners, top of the agenda is boosting income as payback for their intensive spend on digital content platforms. And if fortune favours the brave in this landscape, then News International may have just won its first medal.

That was the feeling among panelists, four months after NI began its pay-wall project, a move that spurred this debate. All the initial signs are encouraging. "It’s early days, but we’ve proved the value of the paid-for subscriber," Alex Hole, NI’s digital commercial director, said. Response rates are up from the old, free Times website, as are dwell-time and average visits per user.

Though "tipping point" was the most repeated phrase on the day, no-one suggested this involved digital replacing traditional media. Not even Sony Ericsson’s marketing director, David Hilton, who wants digital to be 40 per cent of his budget and whose talk of "traditional digital media" was not as contradictory as it first sounded. "We’ve got to stop talking about iPads and iPhones, because next year there will be so much better technology out there," Hilton said.

The debate consensus was that digital acts as an accelerator, working best in tandem with other channels. Facebook’s UK commercial director, Stephen Haines, proved the point when he said engagement with the channel’s X Factor page "jumps" when the TV show was on. "It sounds as if the real trick is getting old media and new media to work together – that’s how you get engagement with the consumer," the debate chairman and chairman of Media Square, Roger Parry, said.
It emerged that the only certain thing about digital is… uncertainty. Sarah Power, the marketing director of Burger King, summed this up when she admitted to being "confused, as many clients are" about digital. Such uncertainty is not surprising, given digital’s warp-factor pace of change. Haines recounted being asked what the social media site was doing for the 2012 Olympics and replying that he "didn’t know what Facebook was doing next week".

The theme that had the three sides nodding in unison was a feeling that, while digital can now boast its own iconic campaigns, the discipline is not analysed or quantified in the way TV and print have been. Power dismissed standard click-through rate data as mind-boggling and rudimentary. "It’s clear the way that digital is researched and reported back leaves a lot to be desired," Parry concluded.

NI may now know the value of a paying subscriber versus that of a user of free websites, but others must catch up to prove the digital consumer’s value. Vizeum’s managing director, Grant Millar, said his must-have insight would be "actual behavioural data" that Connected TV and other digital media can deliver, while Facebook is partnering with Nielsen to go beyond mere click-through reports.
Digital’s next iteration will be mobiles interacting with TV screens, with apps at the forefront. As ever with opportunities, there are challenges also. Hole said the hurdle to overcome was user resistance to ads on handsets. But, as PHD’s managing director, Daren Rubins, reasoned, hadn’t we encountered such obstacles before with online advertising, only for them to be overcome?

Roger Parry starts the debate by asking each panelist to talk briefly about the effect of digital media on their working life.

Stephen Haines: Most of you who use Facebook will know the platform and product changes most days. So the learning curve is a curse from my point of view. I never sleep that well.

Alex Hole: We are at a very interesting point – whether it’s our pay-wall strategy or what Facebook is doing or the growth of the app economy. From an advertiser’s perspective, it’s how they adapt quickly to calibrate the right models.

Grant Millar: I worked at BT on the pre-launch of broadband ten years ago and knew it would have transformational power. People thought I was mad but here we are and high-speed broadband has transformed every aspect of the industry. We as an agency have completely re-engineered the way we operate – there are no walls or departments. If you don’t operate like that, you won’t survive.

Daren Rubins: The reason people thought you were mad was nothing to do with broadband! The way digital impacts me most is in talent management – in the old days, you were either a planner or a buyer. Now I talk to digital technicians and social media experts.

David Hilton: For someone who sells mobile phone hardware, digital really is at the heart of our business now. Thirty per cent of all mobile users access the mobile internet, so it’s a massive part of what we do. In 2011, we’re planning to put 40 per cent of our media investment into digital.

Sarah Power: Wow! I’m impressed. At Burger King, our number-one aim is to sell more Whoppers. My industry isn’t about digital and my agency Initiative has a hard job trying to sell it to me. Hopefully today I’ll be able to give you an idea of why I am confused, as many clients are.

Vanessa Clifford, head of press, Mindshare, asks: Pound for pound, does digital advertising deliver the same value and measurable impact as print and TV?

DR: It depends on the client brief, on the category, on the complexity of the message and the purchasing funnel you go through. I’d argue that it’s pretty impossible to compare like for like.

GM: Campaigns are rarely planned against a single client KPI. We have to plan holistically and you have to be choosey. We are sponsoring the creation of Touchpoints with the IPA, and tools to help us disseminate between platforms.

DH: Some of our trade customers won’t take your new phones seriously unless we’re spending money on TV. It’s really important that consumers understand what our handsets can offer and digital is the only medium that can do that. I’d love to believe that digital media has a more direct link into sales. But until we can better manage the flow of understanding from offline to online, that’s still a hypothesis.

AH: We need to move the debate on and look at how they complement each other whether I’m on Facebook or on television. Yahoo! did some research where, staggeringly, 29 per cent of people have three screens open at the same time. So it’s a very complex question.

SP: We’ve got 40 franchisees across the country who want to see us on TV. Television is the banker that you have to do, in my industry anyway. Digital stuff engages my youth audience. I don’t think you can do either/or – you’ve got to do both.

SH: I agree with Sarah. The X Factor page on Facebook jumps from an engagement point of view when the TV show comes on. The two are linked, but we need proof. We’re doing global research with Nielsen that doesn’t solve the integrated problem but is the next step on from delivering click data.

DR: We’ve created a new language at PHD called Bonfires and Fireworks – advertising is the firework that attracts a large crowd but it’s expensive and dies out quickly. When you think about bonfires, they draw in communities and they gain momentum. The more bonfires of social media the advertiser creates, the less reliant they will be on traditional advertising and fireworks.

George Nimeh, @iboy, asks: What’s a paying digital subscriber worth as opposed to a free site visitor?

AH: We’re four months into a project of charging the consumer a fair price for the journalism we invest heavily in. The early signs are very encouraging. Response rates, if just measured on clicks, have increased by between 100-180 per cent, depending on the channel. We’ve got advertisers rebooking. Dwell-time has tripled and the average visits per user have gone up three-fold too versus the old, free site. It’s early days, but we’ve proved the value of the paid-for subscriber.

DH: From an advertiser’s point of view, that’s very good news. But it’s about targeting people around relevant context. We’re currently running a campaign around watching free football on your Sony Xperia mobile, so we are looking for football fans. I’m not sure there’s much difference if I put that on The Sun’s site, where it’s free, or on The Times, where it’s paid.

SH: It depends on the business model, the consumer and the service given. Starbucks has 16 million fans on its Facebook page – if you speak to its global marketing team, that’s the single most important channel it has globally.

GM: It’s important to credit NI with trying to find a model that protects quality journalism and content. As planners in media agencies, we don’t discriminate against ITV or Channel 4 or that Sky’s customers have had to pay for that content. We’re much more interested in usability.

Parry asks: How far away are we from an iconic digital campaign?

SP: "Whopper Sacrifice" ran on Facebook, and was a huge success. If you "de-friended" or sacrificed ten friends, you got a free Whopper. It broke all the rules but it hit the sweet spot from a media point of view, in terms of Burger King being an irreverent challenger brand doing things others wouldn’t dare.

GM: Our online campaign for Mini called "Have a word" was a video viral capturing salient data about you from a friend you knew well. It delivered personalised content describing some of your unique characteristics and it really took you by surprise when you opened it up. It had a massive impact.

AH: The T-Mobile flashmob where they took over Liverpool Station spread virally through YouTube, where you then had clusters of fans creating their own content. So the campaign self-propagated.

DH: That ad was somewhat staged, and we all remember it because it was on TV.

GM: So we’re all saying the same thing really – that you can propel an online campaign much more powerfully by using other media around it. Old Spice is the best current example.

Hugo Drayton, chief executive, InSkin Media, asks: Can brand-owned websites and social media pages ever be as effective as paid-for media?

SH: A TV advertiser asked us the same question. No-one was going to their Facebook page and we told them they had to buy advertising to seed the page and let people know it’s there. Every time a fan engages with that page, it sends out a "social impression", which is free and contains social context on what your friends have done. That performs better than paid advertising, but you have to do both.

SP: It depends on your objectives. The best way for me to do online vouchering is with paid-for banners in The Sun, Sky Sports and other third-party websites, but I’ll also put it on our website because we have 300,000-500,000 people going there.

DR: I agree with Stephen that it requires some lubricant at the beginning. The future is integration and being channel neutral. What is a channel anyway? We’re looking at huge convergence.

Parry asks: Alex, are you nervous about the change that digital will bring to traditional media? 

AH: Nervousness doesn’t come into it. It’s about embracing the opportunities that fragmentation presents. Fifteen years ago, when the electronic Telegraph launched, people said it was the death of newspapers – and yet The Sun still sells three million copies every day.

DH: We are working on a plan, which may be naively optimistic, where our earned media through recommendation will increase, so that the amount we spend on media will decline. If we can get people to our branded and social media sites without having to pay, then happy days.

Tim Brooks, marketing director, healthcare, GlaxoSmithKline, asks: How can we get mobile advertising to work in a seamless way?

DH: The challenge is not thinking it’s another media for placing display banners and MPUs, because even on our greatest smartphone they are insignificant and not something that anyone is going to want to click on. A more immersive media with apps is the way to go.

AH: The big issue is user acceptance. Mobile research asked whether you would be willing to accept advertising on your handset and the answer was uniformly "no", but when asked if it was relevant and timely, the response was positive. Very interesting things are happening in this space. If you look at what Apple did with the launch of iAd – it is taking the creative challenge to advertisers.

SH: It makes me laugh all the times I’ve heard "this is the year of mobile". But we are at a point of massive change. Someone asked me the other day what is Facebook doing for the Olympics and I said, I don’t even know what Facebook is doing next week. Technology is driving change. Ten million people use Facebook on their mobiles in the UK, compared with the 28 million that use the site.

DR: I concur that Steve really doesn’t know what’s happening in the future! The challenges facing mobile are very similar to those that online advertising has faced: it’s a very cluttered environment and a very personal space. Location-based advertising will be one of the key drivers and that’s very exciting for advertisers.

GM: Yes, but not yet! The latest Forrester research from the US says that less than 5 per cent of online users use location-based services. There are other barriers: platforms are fragmented and consumer rewards aren’t apparent, but having said that there are some very powerful case studies with high-street retailers.

SP: Five years ago Burger King did a test with mobile phones, which sent consumers offers as they walked by our restaurants. We were inundated with complaints – people didn’t want the offers. Look how much has changed. People are now logging on and giving us their inner leg measurements to get vouchers on their iPads. But the whole geo-location thing will change as soon as Facebook launches Places – so, Stephen, when are you launching it?

SH: It’s being tested as we speak!

Sam D’Amato, board strategy director, M2M UK, asks: What do you think will be the biggest innovation in digital to reach consumers in 2011?

GM: The most exciting opportunity is Connected TV, where you can reach volume audiences with targeted content and create a rich viewer experience through brands. Imagine watching golf and the sponsor is able to provide data on that player, how they’re performing over time and the possibilities are endless.

DR: I hate to agree with Grant but he’s right about Connected TV. If you look where Apple and Google TV are going – the most interesting thing is the relationship between the mobile and the TV screen, both for programme-makers and for advertisers.

Parry asks: What is the potential for the tablet, in terms of the way that media is distributed?

AH: We are the first national newspaper to have launced on the iPad and the experience has been phenomenal. The customer journey through the title is very different to, say, the web experience.

Claire Myerscough, business intelligence director at News International Commercial, asks: What kind of digital research is going to be most relevant? 

GM: I’d like to see the end of proxy data, where we’re making assumptions based on samples. But consumer data direct from media owners – actual behavioural data that sits around Connected TV and most digital media right now, will allow us to be far more targeted, and make communications far more personalised.

SP: I get these weekly reports from my digital guys. Do I take hours to understand the intricacies of them? No, I don’t. I’d rather see more qualitative data, because the problem with digital is that people are reverting to tick-box research that turns into graphs and percentages but doesn’t give you anything about the consumer. And my job is to be the champion of the consumer in the business and if all I’m getting from agencies is graphs and charts and click-through rates… it means nothing.

Victoria Baxter, senior online marketing executive, More Th>n, asks: Could you give clients advice on integrating online and offline?

SH: It’s a tough question for a client. In the States, clients are structuring their internal marketing divisions around social media. When Starbucks in the US posts a message out to its 16 million fans, it actually gets answered by the brand marketing team.

DH: I’ve a team of 11 and don’t have "digital people" because digital is so integrated into what we do. I suggest not having digital as a specialism but make it a core part of what everyone does. Otherwise you’re not going to have integrated campaigns.

Ian Darby, deputy editor, Campaign, asks: Will peer-to-peer recommendation take over from paid-for advertising in strategic importance?

DR: Those clients that embrace peer-to-peer will end up spending less on above the line. This doesn’t diminish the role of media agencies. The Whispa [social media] campaign, which led to it coming back, was a rarity. Whether it would have become the number-one chocolate bar without us supporting it with above the line, I don’t think so.

GM: Peer-to-peer is nothing without it being infused with really compelling consumer insight. Look at Ford and what it does with Mumsnet. Ford recognised that seven-seater cars are not aspirational products, so it put cameras in cars and it generated loads of content for Mumsnet, which, in turn, generated lots of comments.

DH: I’m not sure of whether it’s "when or if" earned media takes over paid – that’s our aspiration. I recruited an editor to manage our social in-house because it’s that important for us to drive social recommendation. Our PR team has been given extra budget to drive the blogosphere as hard as we can.

Parry concludes the debate asking: What are you taking away from today?

GM: We need to stick with consumer insight and be execution neutral.

DR: None of us know what’s coming around the corner. I don’t think it’s going to be advertising or social media – it’s a combination of the two.

DH: We’ve got to stop talking about iPads and iPhones because next year there is will be so much better technology out there.

SP: It’s good there’s so many agencies in the room trying to break down walls and get digital integrated more in agencies. That will make my life easier.

SH: Social isn’t perfect – we’re changing our product each day. The digital sector as a whole needs to do a better job on making the data, insights and research better and clearer for clients.

AH: We are in a challenging environment – we need to embrace that. It’s increasingly becoming more fragmented as consumers have more choice. As media owners, and I’m sure Stephen would agree, we need to listen to challenges that advertisers make and adapt to those.Report by Noelle McElhatton

The panel


Roger Parry is the chairman of Media Square and YouGov, having chaired Johnston Press from 2001 to 2009. Before this, Parry was the chief executive of Clear Channel International for seven years, and spent time as a consultant at McKinsey & Co.


Stephen Haines, UK commercial director, Facebook. In 2007, Haines joined Facebook UK’s first commercial unit. He is responsible for strategic vision and revenue growth in the UK. Haines spent four years at Yahoo! UK & Ireland as head of agency strategy.

David Hilton, marketing director, Sony Ericsson UK & Ireland. Before joining Sony Ericsson, Hilton held various marketingroles at BT, including head of marketing, and was head of VoIP at NTL. At Sony Ericsson he has boosted social media activity in a bid to increase share of the smartphone market.

Alex Hole, digital trading director, News International. Hole joined The Telegraph in 1994. In 2001, he went to Tiscali UK, becoming commercial and media director responsible for its award-winning portal. He has been the digital trading director for News International from 2008.

Grant Millar, managing director, Vizeum. Millar joined Vizeum as its managing director five years ago, integrating 25 digital experts into the agency. In 1998, he became BT’s head of planning and media, where a highlight was overseeing the original marketing launch of broadband into the UK.

Sarah Power, marketing director, Burger King UK & Eire. Power started in FMCG marketing in 1999 at Bewley’s in Dublin. Marketing jobs in Richmond & Porkinsons and Mattesons & Kerry Foods followed before 2006 when Power joined Burger King. As marketing director, she has overseen the launch of the World’s Most Expensive Burger in 2008, and took the brand online in the UK with a growing Facebook following.

Daren Rubins, managing director, PHD. In the past 20 years, Rubins has worked at Carat, MediaCom and MediaVest, spending the last nine years at PHD heading business such as BT, Expedia and the BBC. He was made MD in 2007, where he pioneered integrated teams of on- and offline planners. 

"Digital impacts talent management. In the old days, you were a planner or a buyer. Now I talk to digital technicians" Daren Rubins, PHD 

 "Ten million people use Facebook on their mobiles in the UK, compared with the 28 million using the site" Stephen Haines, Facebook 

"I suggest not having digital as a specialism but make it a core part of what everyone does" David Hilton, Sony Ericsson 

The view from…


Grant Millar, managing director, Vizeum:

"As planners in media agencies, we don’t discriminate against ITV or Channel 4 or that Sky customers have to pay for content. We are much more interested in usability."

Daren Rubins, managing director, PHD:

"The more bonfires of social media that the advertiser creates, the less reliant they will be on the fireworks of traditional advertising."


Alex Hole, digital commercial director, News International:

"We are embracing change – that’s why we’re going down the pay-wall route. Fifteen years ago,when the electronic Telegraph launched, people said it was the death of newspapers – and The Sun still sells three million copies every day."

Stephen Haines, UK commercial director, Facebook:

"Clients who run television campaigns and Facebook at the same time see a bigger jump in terms of engagement and sharing content. The two are linked."


Sarah Power, marketing director,Burger King UK & Ireland:

"The problem with digital is a reliance on tick-box data. We need less graphs and more customer insight."