I was recently at a digital marketing event and a panellist was discussing trends in marketing and suggested that contextual advertising had “only been around for a few years and was becoming more important”. At which point I almost dropped my coffee in surprise, really? I have spent a long time in this industry and in my experience the best advertising always gets the context right. So this view got me thinking. 

It seems in the last couple decades, advances in technology have meant that to some degree context and attention have been lost as key metrics for advertisers in the digital landscape. With a vast plethora of websites, social media platforms and apps offering advertising, context became a challenge for buyers. 

However, if we think about the origin of the term soap opera which came to existence in the 1930s when soap manufacturers funded and advertised within radio and TV programmes. This demonstrated a keen understanding of the audience the advertisers wanted to engage with, considering the context of the messaging and attention of the audience. This contextual buying of media continued - and still does in offline media - back page of Vogue anyone?

However, with the arrival of the web and the rise of behavioural targeting and data, we have largely moved towards targeting consumers based on data first and context second. As we know this has not worked well - the recent ANA report into Programmatic Advertising has suggested that the system is being exploited by the creation of ‘Made for Advertising’ sites, the antithesis of context. 

But back to our commentator - they were right that context is making a comeback. But in a world where privacy is becoming increasingly important, contextual advertising offers a way to target ads without invading users' privacy. And as AI and mobile advertising continue to grow, the opportunities for contextual targeting will only increase. With the right combination of technology, data, and measurement, contextual advertising can be deployed smartly and drive great results for advertisers. 

At Uber, we’re already doing this. Picture these scenarios, you’re on your way from the airport and in that moment you see an ad promoting a local event or a luxury retailer for the city you are visiting. Or perhaps we’re on your way to the grocery store and on your journey, an FMCG company advertises their latest product to add to your basket. Or you are a music fan and you are nudged via an ad to play a new album from an artist you like while on your ride. Powerful moments for brands to maximise the impact of their messaging. What we have seen is that context matters, when the advertiser understands the consumer's context, the results are better. 

As contextual advertising is back in vogue, more solutions will be created to support this type of buying and with the rise of commerce media where context is king, there will be more opportunities than before.  

It is also likely to become more widely adopted by advertisers as they look for ways to target ads without invading users' privacy. Its adoption also means that the ads are more engaging and effective, and it could also help to improve the user experience.

So yes, I would argue that 2023 is the year we see contextual advertising back on the agenda - did it really go away? In the words of Don Draper “I keep going places and ending up somewhere I’ve already been”.