Don’t Get Addicted to Data: An Industry Veteran’s Take on Digital Advertising Today

“A lot of companies get caught in a cycle of execution, and they don’t think about their strategy.”

It’s 45 minutes into my conversation with Kris Belau, VP of digital marketing at Firewood. We’ve covered a wide range of topics, from his time as a researcher for a startup search platform to the value of branding online. But now it feels like we’ve landed on our thesis.

Kris joined Firewood in 2014, after years of what he calls “trial by fire” executing Google keywords and AdWords campaigns. He recalls his time at the startup mentioned above, where in place of a sound strategy, the game was to wager on multiple keywords and take a shotgun approach to incremental wins. “We spent a ton on keywords for a very broad search for this one product. We shoved as many keywords in as possible,” he says with the knowing smile of someone acknowledging his past naïveté. “I learned a lot about intent from that.”

This idea of intent becomes a recurring theme in our conversation. Keywords have to be highly relevant to the consumer’s search, but that’s just the beginning. They also have to help detect intent: the consumer’s frame of mind when searching, which transcends demographics and product-related attributes. It’s this transient frame of mind that marketers need to tap into to make their campaigns successful. To put it another way, the value of keywords often correlates to their past performance. Intent happens in the present. It’s a real-time indication of consumer motivation.

It was during his tenure at Ebates, whose entire business is based on shopping rewards, that Kris began to refine this theory about intent. “Ebates has a loyalty play, and we had to make that work,” he says. “We went from being tacticians to having the right people defining a good strategy.” That strategy had to evolve with the evolution of Google itself, including the launch of ad relevance status and Display ads. “We were scrambling to figure things out,” remembers Kris.

Eventually Firewood recruited Kris. The interview lasted two hours; Kris and the hiring team ended up solving the client’s challenges. “We geeked out,” he laughs.

This is where the conversation takes an interesting turn. Asked what insights he’s gleaned over more than a decade of digital strategy, Kris says: “I used to tell people that branding didn’t matter, [that] you’re just dumping your money on something that doesn’t make a difference. But over the years, impressions drop off. That’s where branding comes in. It has to be there to capture top of funnel.”

He tells the story of being targeted by a luxury brand’s ad, served by a leading advertising platform, that violated its own brand promise with the poor quality of its creative. “The ad was a skyscraper, but the image didn’t fill the unit—it was like a thumbnail. A tiny image of [a] luxury destination with no information.” The story is relevant, at least to Kris, because it underscores one of the many shortcomings of automated creative. If automation alone could deliver top results, then the end would justify the means. But automation relies on a limited set of human factors, and there are still many aspects of online interaction that we can’t account for. “Even with attribution models, we can’t always figure out why certain ads work,” says Kris. “It goes back to intent.” And intent can be elusive.

For online search, intent is everything, whether someone is looking for a luxury vacation or a video game. And that intent can be played back to the consumer through creative execution. It’s how a brand says “we want you to know we know what you have in mind” beyond the rudimentary matchmaking of keywords. For a luxury brand with a reputation built on exacting attention to detail, the use of automated creative might leave too many details up to chance.

“You can’t solve this through data alone,” says Kris, even as he acknowledges the potential of data-driven advertising. In his experience, lack of strategy is a recurring client complaint. “A lot of companies think online is always measurable, and offline is always not. That’s not the case. That leaves you in a direct-response trap where there’s an overreliance on data.”

Channel strategy is as critical as keywords to campaign success, and video in particular can be a great primer for a campaign—as long as the company can get past the immediate gratification of data. But data too often provides the so-called irrefutable proof that marketers need to get new budgets.

Asked for final words of advice to companies, Kris offers this: “It’s the same advice I’d give to someone starting a business: test and try, put budget behind things you’re not sure about, and be willing to accept failure.” On what makes Firewood a good agency to partner with, Kris says simply, “The main difference is: we bring strategy.”