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Personalisation is a tactic, relevance is the strategy

Personalisation is a tactic, relevance is the strategy

MediaCom’s head of planning states the case for relevance as an antidote for the debate around the benefits of personalisation.


To personalise, or not to personalise, that is the question.

Or is it?  

Those in favour of personalisation believe customers now demand it, as advertisers are competing in a world where Netflix, Spotify and Amazon’s algorithms can serve up personal recommendations for the next best series for you to binge, tracks to discover and products to buy.

As a result, expectations have never been higher, and with time finite, brands are implored to use it wisely to be noticed amongst the sea of advertising sameness that people are exposed to every day.  

Those against personalisation will often respond provocatively that’s not how advertising even works.

For them, adverts need to help brands appeal universally, evoke emotions and make them famous, as these are proven levers of growth, and you will struggle to achieve any of these by fragmentating the media plan with data-driven personalised messages.

Meanwhile, even if you were foolish enough to try and personalise, the data underpinning the whole operation is either highly inaccurate (third party), unscalable (first party) or unethical (both) in the modern media world.

So, how do we resolve this debate?

Well, we start by taking a step back and acknowledging that personalisation is merely a tactic, not the strategy. In fact, it is just one lever you can choose to pull to deliver the more important goal of relevance. 

People have and will always respond to things they find relevant.  

Sometimes it’s personalised, sometimes not.

However, achieving relevance has its challenges, best surmised by Martin Weigel’s warning: “the fact is you can be relevant as hell but still as boring as fuck”. 

So, here is both the argument for relevance, and more importantly, how you can also avoid being boring as fuck: 

Relevance cuts through communities and culture

For any brand to cut through, gain attention or become famous it needs to bring something to the party: relevance. Aiming for relevance means you are less likely to be ignored, clumsily crash or even get you chucked out of the party, community or culture you are entering. Indeed, a brand’s cultural involvement makes up a quarter of a consumer’s purchase decision 

eBay has recognised this and worked relentlessly in every campaign to be relevant in each category it shows up in.

From partnering with the EFL to hand football sponsorships back over to the grassroots via Small Business United, to challenging fast fashion with preloved fashion as a partner of ITV’s Love Island, to most recently giving Comic Con fans their own collectable cards. Over the last year, eBay’s strategic drive for relevance has moved its YouGov Buzz score up by 10%.

As the nation continues to diversify on multiple lines of identity (age, gender, ethnicity and religion) across an atomised media landscape, understanding what relevance means by different cultures, communities and platforms will be essential for future effectiveness. 

Relevance works with and without data

A strategy should be judged on its scalability and flexibility. The value of relevance is that it can be applied at every part of the plan from broad awareness to precise performance. But crucially, it also does not live or die by the application of data. 

For instance, with the deprecation of third-party cookies the power of contextual targeting is back in vogue, especially amongst digital publishers and tech providers.

However, contextual targeting is simply another lever of relevance by offering relevant copy to the media moment. Simple signals such as day of week, time of day, location, weather and the content you are consuming all can help create relevance at scale without the use of any personal data or identifiers. 

Google achieved this recently with a pioneering new Essence tool, Pegasus, which created dynamic ad copy to the specific content the audience was consuming online. Using AI language and image recognition to power creative copy writing leading to a 5% increase in both purchase consideration and category understanding.

Of course, if you are lucky enough to have a large first-party data set then this is where the tactic of  personalisation can play a role, especially within owned and operated channels, such as app, website and CRM. But the utility of this data within paid media is already being capped by the market, legal and ethical permissions, so its impact will remain small here.

Ultimately, relevance does not necessarily need your customer data to be effective.

Relevance supercharges creativity in a platform dominated world

The role of creativity in driving effectiveness is undeniable. Creatively awarded campaigns can be up to x12 more effective. Yet in a platform-dominated world the need for relevance is far greater than ever before, as brands have to work harder to understand the codes, trends and quirks of these nascent, emerging and established platforms.

In this ever-changing world, eight out of 10 brands could disappear and no one would care.

A recent brilliant example of a brand understanding this is can be found in how Tesco stepped into TikTok for the very first time with the #VoiceoftheCheckout competition.

Rather than kicking off its TikTok career with communications to ‘fit’ the platform, it instead went much further and designed communications ‘for’ the platform. It invented with unpolished and native creativity rather than just distributing professionally produced assets.

This approach led to an impressive 43 million views, with almost 3,000 people entering the competition and a ton of of earned media.

Brands that recognise this switch of power from ad-first to people-first will be the ones that flourish. 

Relevance is the strategic imperative for 2023, so let’s waste less energy debating tactics, such as personalisation.

James Parnum is managing partner head of planning UK at MediaCom.

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Ron Taylor, Editor, Harpendia.com, on 19 Jan 2023
“So the Tesco campaign generated an impressive 43 million views (really) yet only a paltry 3k competition entries. A conversion rate of 0.00007%. Wonderful!”

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