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How 2022 has been hard for marketers so far

Instead of bringing a fresh chapter for brand-building following two years of false starts, the first half of 2022 ultimately threw marketers into another holding pattern – Ukraine and inflation as well as the once-promising crypto crash are to blame. 

For marketers so far this year, rather than pushing the envelope forward, the overriding theme has been playing it safe, which might provide stability in the short term but could prove problematic as loyalty is tested in a quickly souring economy.

Another cause of stress and uncertainty is the (bloody) metaverse. The crypto sector crashed hard in the second quarter, leaving a void of marketing activity in its wake, while auto manufacturers have been hesitant to hawk cars that won’t be available on the lot. The metaverse is a great idea, in theory, but remains far from realisation beyond light gaming experiments. Even its most ardent evangelists are tightening their investments to direct more energy to existing business fundamentals that are being tested in a shifting privacy landscape.

Meanwhile, media spending and CMO budgets have been sturdy in a broad sense, raising the question of where, exactly, brands are allocating their resources.

“We’ve definitely seen a shift from brands that historically would be heavier in the traditional tentpole activations leaning more on programmatic, flexible investments,” said Leslie Lee, senior vice president of marketing at Vistar Media, a software company focused on digital out of home media. “There is a move away from these one-off, very flashy activations.”

However, it isn’t all bad news. After all, global advertising revenues are expected to grow 9% year-on-year this year to $816 billion, according to the most recent forecast from Magna. That’s a downgrade from a prior target of 12% growth but hardly a mega disaster. Other media agencies, including GroupM and Zenith, have made similar adjustments to their full-year projections.

Furthemore, monetary figures aren’t everything. A handful of anthemic campaigns — especially from the cryptocurrency and Web3 worlds — garnered online chatter and accolades, but have ultimately fallen victim to the economic rout and lack of genuine consumer interest.

Areas like retail media continue to boom as marketers try to prove their efforts can be tied to results. Gartner’s latest survey of chief marketers found that the proportion of budgets that go to brand versus performance is a roughly 50/50 split. That might make sense from a dollars-and-cents perspective, but doesn’t lead to a lot of eye-catching marketing that lingers in the imagination.

As mentioned, if a single category embodied the odd twists and turns of the first half it was crypto. Rewinding to early February, the budding financial services segment was on top of the world. Super Bowl LVI was dubbed the “Crypto Bowl” by media watchers as an influx of brands, including STX, Crypto.com, Coinbase and eToro, sought to use TV’s most coveted event as a ticket to the mainstream. Some of the commercials achieved the type of water-cooler chatter and online engagement that enshrine big game ads with a legendary status.

It’s unclear how much any of that matters since the cryptocurrency market entered its downward spiral in the spring since the crash, seeing far less engagement and fewer NFT collections being minted and bought. The follies of crypto are extreme — a company paying $7 million for 30 seconds of TV airtime one month only to see its core business model face an existential crisis the next — but could help explain a broader hesitation among marketers to make ambitious leaps in the current environment, when an opportunity can turn into a stumbling block seemingly overnight.

Crypto’s failures are also attributable to misaligned strategies specific to the category. Many crypto wallets, coins and trading platforms are not household names and do not have the types of established followings that can help companies weather tough times. Assuming a traditional media play like a Super Bowl campaign would fast-track a firm to that level of recognition seems a mistake in retrospect and strongly echoes the Dot-Com Super Bowl phenomenon which the Crypto Bowl moniker draws on.

Ad spending from cryptocurrency marketers was up 94% in the first quarter over the prior period, but two-thirds of that activity occurred in February around the Super Bowl, MediaRadar estimates found. Monthly spending from crypto brands fell to $20 million in March and then $10 million in April, while ads have virtually disappeared today as companies scramble to right their ships and make steep cutbacks.

Crypto is just one of many fields that could grow quieter as the pinch on consumer wallets continues and a creeping bear market takes shape. Many executives hoped that inflation would be a short-term problem, but that hasn’t been the case and the ramifications on marketing could become more pointed in the year’s back half.

If there’s anything to hold onto in hoping for a busier H2 is the third-party cookie. The ad-targeting tool, a bedrock of digital strategies to date, is set to be phased out next year, giving marketers a limited window before they’re forced to switch up their tactics. Still, a final cookie free-for-all in Q4 might simply mask bigger problems that could come home to roost in the drier January period.v

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