If you work in media or advertising the thing you need to pay most attention to this year is attention itself – and the concepts of Dirty-Attention & Diamond-Attention within that. Paying closer attention to where your ads are running and what your media is & isn't funding doesn't just give you an advantage over your competitors, it also makes a positive impact on wider society itself. This however goes beyond basic viewability or even attention metrics, this is a real evaluation of the true context that surrounds our ads and the impact they have on the media landscape around us.

Step back to the good old days and we used to care a lot about this. There'd be vigorous negotiations around exactly which page in the magazine or which spot in the break your advert would appear in. If you work with luxury brands you're probably still having these conversations right now. Intrinsically we knew that context was king - at times hyper relevant editorial, but at the very least content of a meaningful quality & authenticity that you'd want some degree of association with it.

The world of digital marketing has largely reset or erased this paradigm. As long as you’re getting ‘the right audience, in the right place, at the right time’ nothing else matters too much – and by right place people often mean anywhere where your audience happens to be.

The simplest analogy of this is if you were looking to sell luxury handbags at a high end shopping mall. In theory wherever in the mall you set up a stall you’d be able to reach the same audience at roughly the same time, but it’s a world of difference to try and sell them at a concession within a stylish boutique than if you just set up a stall down in the toilets.

Thankfully over the last couple of years most marketers, and especially media people, have come to rethink this a little. It started with the rise of viewability & ad verification which pushed to make sure that your advert was at least definitely visible to consumers and not secretly tucked away in some corner.

Over the last couple of years ‘Attention’ has become a much louder conversation – this goes a step further in looking to calculate the true quality of exposure by factoring in screen real estate, actual time on screen, audio levels, and perhaps even some degree of weighting for different media formats.

Both are positive steps to push the industry forward, though both followed blindly aren’t quite the solve they at first appear to be. Highly credible & valuable sites can have relatively low on paper viewability if their positive user experience allows consumers to quickly skip or scroll past adverts. Conversely a site that gets the strongest attention could be doing so through a messy combination of click bait and deliberately poor user experience. The front page of the Wall Street Journal is likely to score worse on these sorts of measures than a low quality ‘Made For Advertising’ (MFA) celebrity plastic surgery slideshow. Where does your brand really want to be?

Putting in place measurement & optimisation around these metrics, with a sensible degree of human oversight and site list checking, is a good step, but the real leap is to realise that not all attention is created equally, even if it is traded as such.

The programmatic machines placing your adverts may well be factoring in viewability, maybe even attention, but most likely they cannot really discern between the absolute best media environments where you can shine, or the more questionable ones where you might not.

That’s also where things get dark, because in the battle to compete for advertisers some media owners go down the avenue of ‘Dirty-Attention’. This is leaning into hate speech, culture wars, misinformation & other click-bait ways of sucking users in, which in themselves are fuelling a negative spiral and division in society.

I first saw the term used by Outvertising co-CEO 🏳️⚧️Marty Davies who pointed out that appearing alongside this content often puts advertisers in a position where they are funding causes directly at odds to their own stated values. It also puts their adverts in a low-quality environment where they’re much less likely to have positive business impact.

Always an optimist I like to think that great media plans aren’t just about avoiding ‘Dirty-Attention’, they’re also about deliberately chasing ‘Diamond-Attention’. The diamonds (sometimes in the rough) of really quality media where it’s most valuable for your brand to appear – this could be about campaign or brand relevance (eg alcohol brands appearing in a cocktail recipe cocktail) or really just about recognising the fundamental value of some higher quality environments, even if on paper they look the same to your ad server. It can also mean funding critically important voices, inclusion and maximising sustainability or carbon impact.

The great news is that seizing a competitive advantage out of the dirty/diamond attention economy starts just by paying attention to it. If your competitors are blindly bidding & trading on audiences you can push to optimise your own plans around that. Have a serious conversation around the diamonds or dirt that most matters to your business and ensure your bidding strategy and inclusion/exclusion keywords are setup accordingly. Other companies which don’t take these steps can blindly chase after the environments you ignore – let them have them and see the impact it has on your own effectiveness.

Don’t blindly rely on technology but carry out manual spot checks on your site lists and ad placements. If your campaign is running on 10,000s of placements then you can be sure some of them are murky if not downright dirty. Listen to experts in this space like the Conscious Advertising Network or Stop Funding Hate – even many of the bigger news organisations can easily slip into fuelling dirty culture wars.

Take steps not to crush diversity in doing this. It can be hugely rewarding for your brand to be around positive content in some of these spaces. Whilst programmatic advertising has its place many advertisers are finding that going back to closer direct partnerships with key media owners not only swerves much of this issue, it can also unlock lots more media or creative value by swerving the middle men. This is especially true if you find the real diamonds that grab the right audience, context and quality your brand deserves.

I collaborated with Isabel Massey from Diageo on the WFA’s guide to DEI in the media planning & buying process, and more recently on the Responsibility & Society section of the WFA’s new Global Media Charter.

One of the specific asks of the charter is for the industry to develop and trade on true quality & contextual signals which take all this into account, but until they do (which doesn’t seem like any time soon) you can carve out this advantage by shaping your own.

Exert from WFA Media Charter 2023

Diageo themselves have spoken about their own journey from launching a preferred ‘Trusted Marketplace’ of assured vendors, through to doubling down on diverse & inclusive media owners as part of their mix. It wasn’t always immediately successful but as they’ve learnt & optimised it’s become one of the best performing parts of their media mix.

2024 isn’t just the year that the cookie might finally die or that Spatial Computing might finally launch – it’s also the year of US/UK elections and nearly half the world going to the ballot box. Depressingly enough that does mean it’s likely to be a year of culture wars & division too – perhaps the final motivation to get out of the dirt and find yourself some media diamonds.

That’s exactly why ‘Dirty-Attention’ and ‘Diamond-Attention’ are my media words of the year, and something that all brands should be asking their agencies about as we get down to business again.