Global Trends 2020

The Battle for Attention (a digital reality check)

Globally, the time we spend looking at media is increasing and fragmenting simultaneously. Six out of ten people in major economies say they are constantly looking at screens even higher among 16-24 year olds and high income households and higher still in some markets like China (74%).

As a result, ad spend is moving where the people are spending more of their time – online. On YouTube alone almost 400 hours of content are uploaded every minute.34 Indeed, our survey shows over half (55%) of people globally claim to use mobile devices at least daily while watching TV (higher among females, younger generations and those with children).

All of this may make you think digital is the best place to spend your advertising money. In theory digital advertising offers data-driven targeting to precisely identify the right person, with the right message, at the right time. With some 50% of money spent on digital set to be bought via programmatic trading by 201935 (estimated rising to $37 billion up from $14 billion in 2015), surely digital’s compelling purpose to deliver cost efficient and real time targeting and thus ultimately better return on investment will become ever more appealing? The problem is that consumers feel overwhelmed and are often resorting to ad blocking and disengaging.

Hard questions and more realistic expectations

Our latest survey coincides with some real questioning of the digital promise by marketers who are now challenging whether the digital dream represents the digital reality. As Mark Pritchard, Chief Brand Officer at P&G says, “The days of giving Digital a pass are over. It’s time to grow up, it’s time for action.” Given the fact that digital advertising is now 30 years old (or at least banner ads are)36, perhaps it is unsurprising that digital is being expected to grow up.

There are five core areas that are driving the re-evaluation of digital’s value.

  1. Concerns with ‘viewability’ abound, focusing on the application of arbitrary and inconsistently applied thresholds (i.e. how long someone watched for). Of course, this is allied to the perceived proliferation of ad fraud, where data on audiences turned out to be very misleading.
  2. There is a desire for wide ‘reach’ as opposed to granular targeting of core audiences. At times, it can feel that people are nostalgically harking back to the days of four or five channels on TV and a more or less captive audience. Linear TV viewing is STILL the most common way people watch. The desire for reach is driven by the fact that to grow FMCG sales businesses need to grow penetration and get infrequent users to buy more often.
  3. Another factor in the re-evaluation of digital’s value is the proliferation of behavioural measures used to optimise and judge its effectiveness, when click-through rates on ads have no relation to sales. But with so many measures to choose from, it can be difficult for anyone – even the experts – to navigate.
  4. We also see declining creative effectiveness. Peter Field in Selling Creativity Short used data from the IPA Effectiveness Awards and The Gunn report (a ranking of creative advertising) – to demonstrate how creative effectiveness is weakening. This seems largely to be due to focus on short-term results and pressure on budgets. Interestingly, digital communications tend to emphasise these two factors. What’s clear now is that there is a simultaneous demand for more creatively effective advertising and for faster, cheaper advertising – two demands that are often in conflict.
  5. Perhaps it is not surprising therefore that people exhibit distaste for online advertising (in Britain 52% dislike ads on computers; 55% on mobiles; 46% on tablets). But let’s not forget advertising in general isn’t always popular (35% of Britons dislike ads on TV too). By comparison, the figures are similarly negative amongst the global audience: 40% on mobiles, 34% on computers, 33% on tablets, and 26% TV. No one dislikes online adverts more than the Swedish (56% on computers, 53% on tablets, 58% on mobile).
  6. Finally, there is the challenge that digital advertising, due to a combination of the other four factors, has ultimately lower observed ROI compared to other channels like TV – although within that there is a very wide range. This is not helped by the current high cost of digital video relative to TV and the huge number of intermediaries in the programmatic buying process resulting in a significant loss of working media spend.

We could get better ROI in digital if we listened to people who are experiencing it too.

By taking some of these factors and turning them on their heads, we start to see how digital can become more effective. Where the industry has the most control is creative effectiveness. As we’ve seen, people in general don’t like advertising via any channel. In Britain, cinema ads are the only types of ads that are more liked than disliked (but still only 29% vs 25%). Globally people are also more favourable than unfavourable to TV (38% favourable vs. 26% unfavourable), print (32% vs. 18%), outdoor (29% vs. 20%) and radio (29% vs. 25%). This is why brands need brilliant creative to move, inspire or help them so that they stop and give it the time of day.

Online (mobile, computer and tablet) ads are the least liked, and there is unprecedented antipathy towards particular digital formats. In fact, no digital format is more liked than disliked and many are disliked by over two-thirds of people, especially in European countries like Britain, Sweden and Germany. The most disliked formats globally are unskippable videos (69%), pop-up ads (67%) and texts or messages from brands (58%).

Many of these are disruptive formats. We should not be surprised. Why would anyone appreciate anything that keeps you waiting for the experience you want, or interrupts the seamlessness of the experience you want in a way that TV, print, poster or cinema have never been guilty of? So, it’s no wonder that consumers feel so overwhelmed that they’re actively starting to find ways to block ads altogether, as we cover overleaf.

This means that we have to do better and work harder when it comes to digital communications. All the principles that apply to creating great creative work have to be adhered to. Consistent, relevant, clear and simple messages that prompt an emotional response will still deliver.

16-24 YEAR OLDS SEEM TO BE LESS NEGATIVE ABOUT ONLINE ADSBut we have to adapt and optimise to the context with digital too, accepting that on different platforms there are only a few seconds to have an impact, often without sound.

But optimising to context is more than just about maximising the impact of the creative. It’s about stepping back and thinking about the overall experience. Do people want loads of poor quality, irrelevant ads bombarding their screens? Or fewer, more relevant, better quality ads that respect that they are looking for information or entertaining content and works with rather than against their receptivity context? We have a choice and need to act if this is going to get better the next time we ask. It surely cannot get any worse!

There is hope too, because so many are asking these questions, and the right people – from platforms to creative agencies to brands themselves – are not only asking them but working on solutions. If people don’t yet feel that it’s getting better – 29% globally say internet ads are getting less entertaining vs. 28% more entertaining; 20% less in Britain vs. 14% more – then at least the disparity is not so wide and on a par with TV. What’s more, 16-24 year olds are less negative (although still more negative than positive) about all varieties of digital ads. So, maybe some lessons are being learned.


We at Ipsos are optimists. As the battle for attention continues to rage, we can see signs advertisers and communicators are learning and can adapt all of the channels’ strengths, including digital. As we learn more about how people respond and engage with brands on digital media, and as technology becomes more intelligent, we believe the potential for digital marketing to drive greater effectiveness for brands and better experiences for consumers
can be made reality.

This is all part of the growing up process and digital is just finding for itself a place and role in the media ecosystem. Digital has a unique role to play in the pantheon of advertising alternatives and it would be foolish to ignore its power, for all of the challenges it’s had recently.

Playing to its strengths offers great benefits for communicators and advertisers. If you care about reach, then it can do a great job of extending that amongst difficult to find audiences like young men. There is also plenty of evidence that digital platforms are making TV more effective by providing a range of opportunities to activate a response alongside the more brand building goals
of that channel.37

There is still a role for a media that excels at maximising conversion at point of purchase.  We have to get to those people in the moments that matter, as well as thinking about brand building too.

We know the problems, we know the opportunities, we know what works and how to judge success too … if publishers, advertisers and agencies take notice then the battle for attention should start to turn for the better. It needs to!


Jon Harper
Head of Client Offer, Ipsos Connect | @IpsosMORI

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