FreeWheel’s James Rothwell on the Potent Combination of Linear TV and Digital

By Comcast Advertising InSites Archives
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James Rothwell, Vice President, Global Agency, Brand & Industry Relations at Comcast Advertising, can be considered a television evangelist.  He currently handles responsibilities across FreeWheel and Spotlight, which means he manages both the sell and buy side of the business.  “Four years ago, I actually wrote my own job description, pitching to the FreeWheel CEO at the time that we needed to push our thought leadership out there, sharing the story about premium video and why TV is important to buyers,” he explained.  "It was a time when digital video was gaining a lot of traction in the marketplace.”

FreeWheel Council for Premium Video

It is vitally important to Rothwell (pictured at top) to support clients by “banging the drum” to highlight TV’s unique contributions to the advertising mix.  This philosophy resulted in the creation of the FreeWheel Council for Premium Video.  The group advocates on behalf of all FreeWheel clients on the publishing side -- meeting on a regular basis to discuss important topics of the day, including how to move the industry forward and research, data and thought leadership on the value of premium video, especially targeted at the buy side.

Since the council started, and three years into his leadership, Rothwell reflected that, at the time, “digital was the new kid on the block, getting all of the headlines and gaining the mindshare of advertisers and the press.”  But the landscape is shifting.  “Over the years, we have seen brand safety challenges and issues that have been happening on the digital side that have called the value proposition into question," he said.  "We have been trying to focus our efforts on making sure that message is not lost.  The TV ecosystem is superior in terms of the value it can generate for marketers with none of the risk.”

Fragmentation and Its Impact

But, let’s face it, TV audiences have been fragmenting and this is causing a shift in advertiser perceptions and in the marketplace in general.  I asked Rothwell how this TV viewership fragmentation is impacting advertisers’ ability to reach their target audience.  He conceded that “people are watching TV wherever and whenever they want on whatever device they choose.  As a result, companies have had to adapt and change their outlook, as well as the way they manage their businesses and the value propositions and solutions they offer to advertisers.”  The goal is to make it as easy as possible to transact and ultimately re-aggregate those audiences.  Rothwell focuses on that convergence and the idea that linear TV and digital needs to be as seamless as possible from offering to execution to measurement.

To Rothwell, with the fragmenting media landscape, advertisers are now trying to “find unique audiences and unique individuals within those audiences, as well as be able to manage the exposure of their advertising message across all of these different environments.”  In planning, he noted that there is an understanding of where that audience is.  But from a buying, executing and measurement perspective, there is a challenge because each of those different environments treats the delivery of those audiences separately.  This becomes cumbersome for advertisers to get a true sense of the total audience and manage the way they expose messages.  Synergies need to be established to move the business forward.

Measurement continues to be an issue and “has not caught up to audiences yet,” Rothwell noted.  "[Although we are] chipping away at it every year, it still has a long way to go.”  And as audiences are split across different screens, the advertising experience, “which isn’t consistent across those screens, is something that continues to be refined.”  He pointed out that there is a lot of testing going on in the industry, from ad length to formats, ensuring that the consumer gets the best experience and advertisers get the best value.

Challenges In Optimal Reach

For Rothwell, in addition to fragmentation, another challenge that prevents advertisers from attaining optimal reach is audience duplication.  “If we think about those audiences across television and digital screens, they are not mutually exclusive and many heavy streamers still consume hours of linear TV across multiple publishers," he said.  "I watch linear and OTT, and on my mobile device.”  He added that many heavy streamers also consume hours of linear TV across multiple publishers.

Complete audience de-duplication is also a challenge.  “Today, programmers and operators are increasingly able to de-duplicate their own audiences, but an advertiser needs to be able to manage reach across all channels, platforms and publishers," he asserted.  "It’s a big challenge."  This is important for monitoring ad exposures and fatigue.  “While TV viewers are scattered across the multitude of channels, digital video is even more fragmented than linear is with different streaming services, platforms and devices,” which adds to the complexity, he said.  Finally, up to a certain point, “linear TV can be very efficient in terms of target reach, but beyond that the cost of incremental reach percentage points climbs exponentially.”

Achieving Optimal Reach

Citing an example of incremental reach in the marketplace, Rothwell took a look at some of the Comcast data and FreeWheel campaigns running on their platform and saw what the audience overlap looked like when the campaigns ran on both digital and linear.  “What was really interesting was when we had large linear TV buys, the incremental reach opportunity on digital was good but didn’t blow us away," he said.  "When the buys were more evenly spread across linear and digital, digital was able to drive a huge amount of incremental reach and incremental audience for that particular brand.  That was interesting to us to see how digital can support linear, especially when investment in linear was lower.”  They also conducted research on reaching the right audiences with the right number of exposures across a combination of both linear and digital, introducing the concept of effective incremental reach, including optimal frequency.

“This is a huge opportunity for the TV business to create reach efficiencies across the different channels and across the different consumption patterns," he explained.  "It is a very complex problem to solve, but as data becomes more sophisticated and is liberated from its legacy silos, the promise of incremental reach will become a reality.  The value for a brand to be able to understand and control that messaging to different audiences in different engaging environments is phenomenal.”

For a more in-depth look at the FreeWheel Council’s work on incremental reach, click here.

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