Daily Archives: 1 May, 2009

Is digital in the USA more advanced than the UK?

Just back from a trip stateside (bimonthly visit to our New York office) and while crunched up in my economy seat I began to ponder over the transfer of skills between the US and UK, which has always been a hot topic for me. While reflecting on the debate about whether the two markets were ready to benefit from each other’s styles, particularly within e-commerce I concluded that the big difference is that Americans generally think differently and expect a different type of advertising and marketing to Europeans and this is apparent in their respective approaches to digital. The most obvious driver for this is the sheer size and disparate nature of America, which goes some way to explaining the brash nature – at least by European standards – of their marketing style.

This difference in styles – the real difference in terms of skills, is that the US suffers from a shortage of what I believe is good creative talent whereas the UK has fewer outstanding digital strategists, marketers, optimisers, researchers or analysts. It is common knowledge that the US is at least a year or so ahead in these areas and much more advanced in techniques such as multi-variant testing, data analytics, information mining and ECRM – all things your average ecommerce marketing director barely implements in the UK.

On top of this, Americans in general have a much more “online” mentality, they are far more plugged in to technology and proud of it, and this tends to be reflected in the fact that their technical development skill sets are much more advanced than ours. Many of the cutting-edge concepts like Web 2.0 and Web 3.0 were born in the US. Indeed the current thought is that the future of the web will be about apps living online, and the US is way ahead in this area. Their skills base (in terms of creating user interfaces that cross from desktop to online and working in environments such as Adobe Air & Flex) are beyond anything we are producing in Europe.

I think it’s time to admit that we can learn a lot from our cousins Stateside (and vice versa), specifically within the ecommerce arena, and start pooling our resources. Now’s not the time for being coy.

Please behave

A few weeks ago I highlighted the need for both the consumer and the advertising industry to embrace behavioural targeting – in a climate where both consumers and advertisers are becoming increasingly frugal and many want to see more with less it really does have a future.

The challenge to this is that the general perception of behavioural targeting technology is a negative one and there is one party in particular that has done an awful lot in recent months lead to a negative perception of the use of technology in advertising.  Ask most people how they would feel about a TV that only showed them advertising for car insurance at times when they have a car with a policy that was coming up for renewal and they would understandably think this a good thing, yet if you asked if they would opt-in to behaviourally targeting to receive car insurance adverts at a more relevant time there is a good chance they’d walk over hot coals rather than grant permission.

If, ultimately, behavioural targeting is about receiving less ads but them being more relevant why are consumers and the media so against them?  After all, behavioural targeting is obviously good for the advertisers (less ads doing the job of more) yet it is good for the consumer too (less ads and more content) and let’s not forget – the media, who are often quick to judge the technology, do still rely on advertising (and ultimately its effectiveness) in order to pay the bills.

The reason for the resistance is ultimately quite simple.  It comes down to trust.  Consumers can’t be expected to know the specific details for how every single piece of advertising technology works – all they require is some transparency and some honesty.  And it is in the areas of transparency and honesty that advertisers, media owners and third parties succeed or fail.

Of all the news stories within this area none has hung around like a bad smell quite like that of Phorm, which partners with ISPs to provide a level of insight and targeting that doesn’t rely on cookie data and extends beyond the walled garden of sites with advertising on.  In some ways Phorm is no different to any other behavioural targeting technology – the data is anonymous so there are no personal details attached and users can opt-in and out when they want.

So why the problem?  Why the negative press?  Sadly it comes down to a case of once bitten, twice shy.  The legality is still being debated, although many believe there is little doubt that laws were broken, but rather than trialling on users that had opted in Phorm instead ran an initial test of the technology in partnership with BT but without notify or seeking permission from the individuals’ whose behaviour was being tracked.

It’s a mistake that has haunted Phorm since ever since.  I recently saw Phorm present at the Festival of Media and the presentation did a good job of demonstrating the product – unfortunately much of any potential goodwill was undermined by the fact the presenter felt the need to ban all questions.  Behaviour that doesn’t exactly exude confidence.

In response to the criticism Phorm have launched StopPhoulPlay.com, a site which attempts to quash the rumours and speculation by discussing the facts.  It actually puts forward some strong arguments in places but sadly the message gets drowned out by the angry paranoid tone in which the site has been written, and the very fact they feel the need to create a site that responds to the criticism speaks volumes.  The launch of this site has understandably generated negative, not positive, PR and this has been compounded by the recent allegations of collusion between Phorm and the Home Office to the point where many are calling time on the technology provider.

If you play nice then the outcome can be vastly different.  Google recently announced the introduction of behavioural targeting on their massive display network (the UK’s biggest in terms of impressions served).  As is often the case there was some mild initial criticism but this soon died down – the targeting is now live and in use.  The point of difference is that, as part of the press release, Google also announced an area that explains the new targeting to consumers and enables them to manage the data held on their advertising cookie, giving users the ability to not only choose what types of content they are actually interested in but also to opt-out completely if they choose.  It was a first for the industry to give users this level of control and is likely to be a sign of things to come if technology providers and publishers want to avoid the controversy that dogs Phorm.

Bristol street art

Hats off to Justin Staple who has just launched a fantastic new website showcasing Bristol’s street artists www.bristol-street-art.co.uk


If you’ve got a spare 5 minutes I thoroughly recommend you take a look. Justin’s done a great job – the Google maps integration is a particularly nice touch.


Justin has sent me some background on what inspired him to go to all this effort:


“Just over 2 years ago I arrived in Bristol to work as a graphic designer. During my early explorations of the city I was struck by the amazing array of street art, sometimes lurking in dark corners, sometimes as prominent features. I was soon following my other passion, photography, and photographing them whenever possible. Over time I began to notice how pieces of street art were changing, often they were being scribbled over or even removed by the council, in other cases they would be completely painted over with a new piece of artwork. It became clear to me that it was important to keep some kind of record of these pieces as they could disappear from one day to the next. So the natural follow on for me was to develop a website to display these photos.”


Good work Justin!