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Industry Contributor 13 Dec 2021 - 5 min read

Above-the-line, performance and programmatic are deceptive terms: Here's how media agencies and marketers should reclassify media

By James Dixon - Chief Digital Officer, Atomic 212

We're using a term invented 70 years ago to classify brand spend, and countering it with increasingly outdated buckets for the rest – and structuring teams and spend around these outdated notions. If marketers and media agencies want to move the needle, they need to reorganise. Here's how.

What you need to know

  • As media classifications, ATL, performance and programmatic are not fit for purpose
  • Marketers should classify media against long- and short-term objectives
  • Standardised classifications will enable more focus and understanding of media activity

ATL stands for above the line. It came about as a marketing term in the 1950s, as a result of the different ways Procter & Gamble paid agencies for marketing and promotional activities. So we’re using a 70-year-old accounting term for marketing purposes.

James Dixon, Chief Digital Officer, Atomic 212

Our classifications aren’t merely confusing, they are deceptive

As marketers, we are in the business of communication. While we have added layers of complexity to our industry over the years, at the end of the day, our primary role is to disseminate information to an audience in a way that is as easy as possible for them to understand.

Yet somewhere along the way, we seem to have forgotten this simple truth when we’re communicating to clients about our own industry.

Agencies are using outdated classifications that fragment and confuse the understanding of media, and do not serve our stakeholders. 

The failing classifications will be familiar, as they are at the top of the media classifications hierarchy: ATL, performance and programmatic media.

These three terms are so deeply ingrained that they serve as the dividers between media channels, job titles and team structures. 

As for why we have continued to use these titles, the primary reason is simply because “it’s the way it has always been” and to move away from them would require the industry to shift in unison.

Well, regardless of the complexity or effort involved, we’re in dire need of a change, because these titles aren’t merely confusing, they are deceptive.

Where’s the line? Who’s performing? Are you with the program?

Presently, we divide our media with TV, radio and out of home (OOH) in the ATL camp; search and social are in performance; and display is in the programmatic category – but only when bought on a trading platform.

Let’s just take a moment to pull these legacy classifications apart.

ATL stands for above the line – and it’s okay to admit it if you didn’t know that, because why would you? ATL came about as a marketing term in the 1950s, as a result of the different ways Procter & Gamble paid agencies for marketing and promotional activities. So we’re using a 70-year-old accounting term for marketing purposes.

Whilst ATL remains a constant in media conversations, its logical fellow, BTL (below the line), never really caught on, likely due to its inferred inferiority. Because who wants their marketing ‘below’ when it can be ‘above’?

So instead of using BTL we adopted ‘performance’ media and a slew of job titles to match. Search and social are typically put into this performance bucket, and given the prestige of ‘performing’. However, this merely serves to push the initial problem further down the line – just as you’d rather be above than below, so too do clients want to feature on channels that ‘perform’, as the others presumably do not.

Most recently came programmatic, a new classification based on the tech platform as a process of buying the media. Yet while you can buy TV, radio and OOH programmatically, they’re not considered to be programmatic media.

So, to consolidate, we are in a place where we have:

  • ATL media: An accounting term that was never clear on where the ‘line’ is drawn.
  • Performance media: A supercilious term that presumes other media do not perform.
  • Programmatic: A term that describes how some media is trading on a tech platform.

It’s like ordering a coffee at Starbucks, where you’ve got a choice between tall, grande, venti or trenta – because heaven forbid a coffee be acknowledged as small, or even medium – and a first-time customer would be understandably confused that the tall is shorter than most, the grande (Italian for “large”) is substantially smaller than two other options, and the trenta (Italian for “thirty”) holds thirty-one ounces.

In a similar vein, we are not clear on the underlying values or user experiences of media categories. 

As agencies, we experience this incongruence with a confused mix of delivery. Performance teams deliver brand media because they hold the keys to the tech platforms, and ATL teams give bias in planning to ATL when social and programmatic media can also work for brand objectives. 

It is therefore important to rethink our titles with a greater focus on the customer and consumer experience.

I am suggesting options based on three perspectives:

1. Media agency perspective: Biddable vs non-biddable media

A simple method of dividing media based on how it is bought, with the added bonus – from an agency perspective – that it delineates the skillset required.

Biddable media is bought through auction-based tech platforms, which lends itself to the people in your organisation who are more left-brain oriented, with a disposition towards maths and and spreadsheets.

Non-biddable media, by comparison, is bought by human negotiation, which favours those who prefer communication and are more natural when it comes to negotiation.

Sell point: This title delineates the buying processes and skillsets, and does not bias the media planning to brand or acquisition objectives.

2. Marketing team perspective: Online vs offline media

This reflects the way the ultimate end-customer interacts with the media.

Clickable reflects the media appearing in an online environment, where the customer can click through and get more immersed with the advertiser, and gives clear attribution. 

Non-clickable is obviously nigh-on impossible to give the same, granular level of attribution, so the use of media-mix models is going to be required. 

Sell point: The advertiser is clear on the interaction that the consumer can have with the media, i.e. they are able to click through to purchase, or not click through in favour of the brand experience that non-clickable media typical provides.

This gives clarity to the objective and measurement of the media.

3. Strategic perspective: Long-term media vs short-term media

In line with the research and now-established practices of Les Binet and Peter Field, this classification acknowledges that media has two speeds.

Long-term media has the objective to build mental availability (brand), while short-term media drives towards physical availability (or online).

At the moment, a channel such as Facebook is put in the ‘performance’ basket, but it has long-term brand awareness consequences. So to simply say that someone with a particular talent for long-term strategy should steer clear of social media because it’s ‘performance’ ignores the channel’s long-term brand awareness consequences. 

Obviously, the reverse is also true – TV is considered ATL, when it can just as easily drive immediate sales.

Sell point: This classification reminds all stakeholders of the objective and expected outcomes of the media channel and tactic. By aligning the classification to the objectives, the buyers, creatives and marketing teams are clear on their choices and expectations of the media, regardless of how the media is bought. 

These classifications also nudge your CFO that brand awareness takes time. 

So what's the upshot?

We have seen media evolve significantly in the last 10 years but we have not reset the classification system that define our job titles, organisation structures and media planning.

And it’s so important to be cognisant of our industry classifications because we are failing at a fundamental level to classify with clarity.  

Agencies and marketers should align on media classification that supports outcomes and measurement.

In moving to the use of long and short-term media, both sides are clearly stating the purpose of the media and acknowledging the role and objective of the media channel, regardless of how it is bought, or by which team.

By using clearer titles that align the media to the objective, all stakeholders will be clear on the role, KPI and measurement expectations. 

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James Dixon

Chief Digital Officer, Atomic 212

Market Voice

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