Local media isn’t about lowest CPMs, it’s about quality connections: Dentsu

For some time now, Dentsu Media Canada president Sarah Thompson has championed advertising in local media, not only because it’s a bulwark against misinformation and disinformation, but also because it plays a vital role in everything from civic discourse to public safety.

She points to the recent wildfires raging in parts of Canada an an example. The only reason local radio stations in those communities are able to broadcast an evacuation warning to people in the path of a fire is because advertising dollars help keep them on the air.

But while it’s easy to find a moral imperative for supporting local media, Thompson realized it’s also incumbent on local media’s champions to demonstrate its ability to provide media buyers and their clients with the requisite return on investment.

Dentsu this week released the “Canadian Attention Study,” a partnership with global advertising platform Teads created to demonstrate local media’s efficacy in helping advertisers achieve key business objectives such as aided awareness, ad recall, brand favourability, and purchase intent, versus global sites.

“A big part of this is a hard reset on [the tendency] to just focus on clicks, thinking they are tangibly always tied to a business outcome, and we’re ignoring whether or not an ad was seen and digested in the first place,” said Thompson of the impetus for the study.

The industry has become almost singularly focused on both getting the lowest possible CPM, and performance metrics like CTRs as a barometer of effectiveness, she said. Not enough attention is being paid to where the ads appear, and the audience they’re reaching.

“If you think about click performance at 0.03% if not worse depending on where you’re advertising, or it’s not even a human being clicking on it, it starts to beg the question, ‘Can advertising do more than just chase performance metrics, and do what it was actually ended to do, which is persuasion?” she said.

“We need to start challenging our assumptions, because at the end of the day we’re stewards of our clients’ dollars, and I want to put them in the place where it’s the most profitable for them, not just the place where it’s a click. A click is not a business outcome.”

The study findings are based on a 15-minute online survey with 300 Anglophone Canadians who read articles on their phone, with Lumen software used to track eye movements. The Q1 study measured a total of 18 campaigns (including six from Dentsu clients) and 41 million impressions.

It found that local media sites deliver higher levels of ad viewability (91% versus 80% for global sites), view rate (76% versus 69%), view time (3.9 seconds versus 3.1 seconds), and overall attention (2.95 seconds versus 2.15 seconds).

The study also found that local sites focusing on news and sports achieved more attention than entertainment and automotive categories, which Thompson said is reflective of the Canadian media landscape as a whole.

“It speaks to what is missing in our media environment,” she said. “We now have Rotten Tomatoes doing our movie reviews, we look to global articles for things like car reviews, and gossip is basically an engine unto itself typically driven by Instagram and other channels, so of course it makes sense.”

The findings also demonstrated that ads on local sites generated stronger performance across the purchase funnel. While aided awareness was essentially the same for local and global sites, local sites boasted better ad recall (+2%), brand favourability (+7%) and purchase intent (+6%).

Thompson believes the research is capable of starting a conversation about the relevance of local media when it comes to a media plan, and helping clients and agencies realize that they’ve “over-pivoted” towards brand safety. Keyword blocking has removed news from the equation, and it’s time to put it back on the roster because it’s trusted, and has dwell times, she said.

“None of those news outlets want to be a charity… they want [advertisers] to demonstrate they got a business outcome,” she said. “But if we’re still using the metrics of clicks and the cheapest CPMs, we land in a place where we’re not thinking about quality.”

The new study arrives against a backdrop of continued economic pressure and uncertainty for the local media industry. Canadian media outlets have been disappearing at an alarming rate in recent years, as advertiser investment in the Google and Facebook duopoly—which accounts for about four of every five digital ad dollars—has starved it of crucial revenue.

According to the most recent data from the Local News Research Project, a total of 473 local news operations in 335 communities across Canada were shuttered between 2008 and April 1 this year, leading to a growing number of “news deserts.” Community newspapers are the most vulnerable, accounting for 76% of those closures.

The sobering reality is that advertising is a vital—but increasingly unreliable—revenue source for local media. An August 2022 report from J-source.ca said that local news faces significant challenges as Covid subsidies dry up and advertising’s future as a source of funding for news remains “uncertain.”

Part of the CMDC’s “Media Manifesto” is to repatriate 25% of the country’s digital ad spend away from foreign media and towards Canadian companies.

According to Thompson, one of the challenges of achieving that goal is that the media industry has been sped up—from brief to media plan (about 15 days). That is not conducive to the discovery of business opportunities and communities, or thinking about audiences in different ways, she said.

“The reason I raise that point is not because we’re not good at being fast, but we want to move media from being a transaction… to starting to have the conversation of ‘Are there business opportunities that we’re missing on behalf of our clients in these locations that require us to be even more thoughtful.'”

The goal for media agencies, she said, is to avoid becoming “robo-advisors,” and to instead become “high net worth advisors” seeking out business opportunities for clients that take them beyond the brief.

Chris Powell