Initiative Canada's CEO on earning consumers' attention

Helen Galanis says brands need to build relevance: ‘The biggest fundamental shift is we’re no longer operating in that space of paid disruption’

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Like their partners in the Canadian news industry, the country’s media agencies are undergoing unprecedented transformation. The National Post is holding conversations with leaders of Canada’s largest agencies on the fast-changing fundamentals. This week, Helen Galanis, CEO of Initiative Canada, speaks to writer Rebecca Harris.

How have the fundamentals of media planning and buying changed in the last few years?

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There’s always been a fundamental truth to advertising, and that is people mostly hate advertising. It’s the uncomfortable truth we start a lot of our new business pitches off with, which is an interesting tone. But I think that’s always been true. We’ve moved away from a world where media was about tolerated interruptions. In pursuit of entertainment or news content, you would tolerate a media interruption. Now, the problem is you mostly won’t. This notion of interruptions is a bit antiquated and (advertisers) need to earn that attention and find a way to build relevance because there are just so many ways for people to avoid ads… And so, the biggest fundamental shift is we’re no longer operating in that space of paid disruption.

How can brands earn that attention now?

It starts with understanding media and what frame of mind consumers are in when they’re consuming media… For (Initiative), it’s about harnessing data in increasingly smarter ways so (we can gain) that understanding. It’s also investing in people who can help uncover those consumer insights and help marketers build strategies that are not media specific. We think of communications more broadly now. We need to work hand in hand with our creative agency and our PR agency friends if we’re going to build communications that resonate… It’s been an age-old challenge for marketers to get their agencies to work together, but it’s more critical now than it’s ever been because we’re not just making a 30-second TV spot and buying GRPs (gross ratings points). We are having to orchestrate a whole narrative and think about where brands show up, how they gain influence and how they build trust.

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What are some other big consumer shifts you’re seeing?

The first is fragmentation of where consumers are spending their time. (Advertisers) used to have a couple of major media (channels) and could reach people there… But now, it’s so fragmented and so personalized. Not only do you have many more options, a lot of those options are also not advertising-supported… Even when there are ads, people are in a number of different places, sometimes concurrently. And within those platforms, they’re having unique experiences. So, it’s not enough to know that somebody is on a given channel. You need to know what they’re doing there. What’s their mindset? Are they in a leisure state or an information state? What’s the role of marketing on that platform? Just because consumers are there doesn’t mean you can intrude your way in, in that old-school way… Often, we try to take a legacy approach to a new channel: ‘Everybody is on this channel now, let me buy an ad.’ (But) people don’t like to see paid ads on that channel; you have to figure out a smarter way.

What are marketers most challenged with today?

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I think it’s tough to be experimental when you’re a marketer. We talk a lot about testing and learning and failing fast and learning quickly. But the reality is most businesses have a low tolerance for failure. And so, you’re a marketer in a very new world and you need to be able to experiment and it needs to be OK to be wrong. But it rarely is when you look at how marketers are incentivized and measured. The scorecards look the same as they did 10 years ago. We talk a good game about accepting experimentation and failure, but I see few examples of that really being embraced, especially by bigger brands, because it’s hard. We’re all accountable to somebody and you need to show results and show growth.

Is the concept of brand safety still a worry or a challenge for marketers?

Absolutely. Brands have to be very conscious of where they show up. It’s different now… Brand safety used to be about (not being) adjacent to unsavory content. Or maybe you pause (advertising) on a platform if you don’t like what they’re doing, or if they’re in the midst of a scandal. But now it’s bigger than that. I think consumers judge brands based on the choices they make… and you get judged on where you choose to put your money. (Brand safety is) less about (being) next to content that is offensive. It’s more about: ‘Are you investing in platforms that align with my values?’ It’s a much bigger conversation and a bigger consideration for brands.

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Can you share a prediction on what’s next for the industry?

There’s been a proliferation of content and content sources. We’re not waiting for big studios to make content that we can advertise in anymore; individuals are making content that potentially has more trust and more persuasion with consumers… Add AI and machines to that equation and there’s no shortage of places for consumers to get their entertainment, news and information. And so, the menu just got very long for marketers who want to harness that content (and) find a space for their brand. It’s exciting… but it’s also a bit daunting. There’s a lot to consider and there are more options than ever.

Read the rest of the series of conversations with leaders of Canada’s largest media agencies on where the business is going next:

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