Online vs Offline: How media agencies manage mixing channels

There have never been more avenues for brands and products to reach their audience. With TV, radio and outdoor dominating offline channels and online channels continuing to explode, agencies are working smarter to provide the right mix of both. We talk to industry heavyweights about how they strike the right balance.

Selecting the right channels for a campaign is always dependent on the brief, client and product at stake, but Hearts & Science Managing Director Rebekah Gierlinska says finding the balance starts with the core purpose: audience.

“You have to understand where the audience is and what kind of journey you want to influence,” she says. “Most of the time we will use more than one channel and a mix of online and offline because we use an audience-led approach. We work with our audience in the moments of the journey we can have the most impact.”

Hearts & Science recently onboarded Animates as a client, and while the pet supplies store has largely retail and performance-led requirements, it also wants to cement itself as a brand that cares for all your pet’s needs.

There are different challenges for a brand like this depending on the channel — while in store they can offer every animal a treat, Hearts & Science has been working to replicate that same ‘above and beyond’ approach to the online channels.

Gierlinska says they’re looking at ways to replicate the customer emotional response to in-store activations in online channels, trialling different content executions to ‘make customers’ smile’, using tools like reward programmes or discount codes.

“There’s so much data now and there are so many different connection points for an audience. We need to make sure we’re being respectful of their time and space and not bombard people,” she says.

“Sometimes we forget there’s a person at the other end and we’re trying to get them to do something. For us, it’s about being more contextual and understanding about how channels can work together.”

EightyOne’s Head of Media Grant Maxwell says they similarly don’t focus on online vs offline channels, but rather determine the mix based on the need. For example, early in a customer pathway when they are seeking to generate awareness, the focus will be on channels that can deliver that level of storytelling.

Where possible Maxwell says it is beneficial to include multiple channels in a campaign, because when done right, more ‘voices’ add to credibility.

“The example I like to give is if a friend tells me 10 times that I should go and see the latest Mission Impossible movie, then I’ll think they have an unhealthy fixation on Tom Cruise. But if 10 different people recommend it to me, then I’ll feel like I better get there,” he says.

“It’s the same number of impacts, but far more compelling. Whether there is a mix of channels or not is driven by practicalities like budget, creative assets and target audience.”

Monitoring the results of the channels used and demonstrating success has changed in recent years. Over a decade ago when the possibilities of digital measurability were top-of-mind, Maxwell says a ‘competitiveness’ was created between how measurable each channel was.

This method pointed to the deficiencies of some of the long-held metrics, including ‘opportunity to see’, and attribution was the flavour of the month despite the fact that accurately measuring the success of a single channel is neither possible nor useful, he says.

“The good news is, that like the kid in the lolly shop who’s eaten one of everything on show and doesn’t much want any more, the leaders are moving back to holistic campaign measurement. People are returning to Media Mix Modelling, or ‘econometrics’ to understand how an overall campaign is working based on the mix of channels being used.”

The success of the combination of channels used, of course, depends on the product, how well the audience has been targeted, how compelling the offer is and how relevant the creative is for each channel. Not whether it’s an online or offline channel — in fact Maxwell says it’s unhelpful to categorise channels based on whether they’re digital or not.

It is also difficult to separate out the parts and attribute success to a particular channel in isolation.

“The success of these all depend on how well each channel is used and having clear and complementary roles that collectively add up to a synchronised and cohesive experience for the audience,” he says.

“Anyone who says they know in advance what the optimal channel mix for a given campaign will be, is either making it up or they’ve transported into the future to see the outcome and then popped back to tell us all. Probably not the later.”

Analytics Partners Genome suggests the combination of TV, digital and out-of-home is the most effective combination of channels, with the more channels used tending to result in better business effects — however this is always dependent on the brief.

EightyOne’s Head of Strategy Brendan Sturrock agrees there is accepted evidence to show that multi-channel campaigns are more effective and that combining complementary off- and online channels will increase reach and ROI.

“The right selection of channels comes back to clearly defining the problem to solve and objectives to attain,” Sturrock says. “There’s also a growing understanding that successful brands balance creating future brand demand with converting demand to sales in the short term.”

Typically, digital channels have been seen as a more ‘short-term’ option, while offline is seen to offer more longer-term brand building results. Sturrock says nowadays, it’s more important to think about the nature of each channel. A visual storytelling medium like online video can be just as effective as a TVC for brand-building, for example.

“Outdoor, radio and even print can be effective conversation channels. Social, with a range of platforms and types of communications on offer, can be a ‘one-stop-shop’ to go very quickly from awareness right through to purchase,” he says.

For Thompson Spencer’s Head of Media Nick Fleming, the mix of channels depends on multiple factors including type of business and what the advertising budget is — but when working for large businesses it’s clear a mix is necessary.

“Because we deal with a particular size business with larger than usual advertising budgets, it’s important to diversify your channel mix to achieve the outcome required. And from analysis, we see a better result using both online and offline,” he says.

“There isn’t a common channel mix which is proven for success. I would recommend testing different mixes if you’re unsure, trying to uncover those pockets of success through a different medium and turning them into ‘business as usual channels’.”

With salience such an important metric for brand awareness, Fleming says making sure the message in the market is consistent across all channels is paramount to a successful campaign. Thompson Spencer is currently working with a client on the launch of a new product, and using both online and offline channels to achieve the goal of brand awareness and sales.

“The creative has been considered for each channel, which is not only important for consistency but also efficiency of buying the media. Having creative fit-for-purpose within the channel helps with its effectiveness.”

While still a little way off full integration, Fleming predicts the Metaverse and Web3 will one day become part of the channel mix brands will use to get their messages out to consumers.

Stanley St Chief Media Officer Emily Scovell says the media strategy is always defined first when working with clients. Channels are then assessed against criteria that are bespoke to each brief.

“A favourite method of mine that we use here at Stanley St a lot is a simple traffic light system in order to show how each channel would perform against each defined criteria. We then take our clients through the journey with us. It is as important to justify why certain channels are not right and won’t be used, as it is to justify what is right and will be on the plan.”

Scovell says the media landscape is exciting for the way it is constantly shapeshifting, and she’s looking forward to seeing more channels evolve to data lead, signals powered and shoppable.

“This means many of the tactics that have been reserved for online are now realisable offline too. A messier, less binary world, but one far more interesting to plan for an experiment and optimise in.”

Scovell is particularly fond of using out-of-home (OOH) as part of a broader mix of channels, because it has a wide-reaching impact and how it plays an important role in generating top-of-mind awareness. The channel itself continues to evolve, as it becomes more digital and becomes a more practical option for all types of brands.

OOH can take the best of programmatic trading principles of flexibility — broad access to sites and advanced audience data and trigger-based activation — and sync it all up with online efforts such as specific search keywords aligned to OOH creative or geo-fencing OOH locations with mobile activity.

“This means we are finding more and more opportunities to bring the best of old-world mass reach with online capability for added personalisation, relevance and actionable real-time results,” she says.

PHD Media GM Planning James Davidson says PHD takes a ‘channel agnostic’ approach to media buying strategy because people don’t consume media in silos so campaigns shouldn’t be planned in silos.

“We’ve moved away from briefs where we’re being asked for digital or social-led responses, because we know once we start with the channel or tactic, it limits the potential of the campaign.”

People are now more likely than ever to consume multiple channels simultaneously — it’s now common practice to scroll Instagram while watching YouTube through a Smart TV. At the same time, people’s expectations about those channels are higher than ever — the customer journey needs to be seamless to retain customer respect and brand integrity.

Davidson says Media Mix Modelling (MMM) is the best way to monitor the results of a campaign regardless of channel, although this can be challenging depending on a client’s budget, resource, availability of data and optimisation cadence.

When MMM is not an option, he says it’s important to trust what the key effectiveness drivers are at the planning stage and how the different levers work together.

“We know there’s an incredibly strong correlation between mental availability and business growth, for example, so we can be confident in setting marketing KPIs around MA or salience,” he says.

“We also know there’s a strong correlation between attention-adjusted reach and MA so we can be confident in setting media KPIs around maximising attention-adjusted reach. We can then work through the information we have on attention levels and decay rates by media platform and formats to optimise our channel mix depending on the job we need to do.”

Davidson believes better measurement frameworks and developments in lowering barriers to measurement approaches like MMM, and increased knowledge on things like attention are helping to solve the challenge of siloed and channel-led thinking.

“Hopefully over the coming years additional research and application will continue to develop which will lead to more effective outcomes for marketers and business,” he says.

At the end of the day, it is clear there is no single factor that will decide a campaign’s channel mix or how to manage it. EightyOne’s Maxwell predicts that multiple trends in the industry will collide to create new opportunities for channel mix decisions.

These range from developments in the science behind measurement, the eventual deprecation of the cookie, the continued privacy issues surrounding social and finally how climate change will affect channel planning.

“Within a couple of years, we will see the industry take a giant leap to self-awareness in the carbon generation space. Media will be required to present their carbon credentials and advertisers will include carbon implications as a key consideration in campaign design,” Maxwell says.

“And it can’t come too soon.”

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