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Is Attribution still dead?

April 05, 2023

All good thought leadership articles should start with an amazing quote. So I started with the classic, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half,” and attribute it to David Ogilvy.  Alas, I have already arrived at my point: that we, as marketers, must evolve from the attribution mindset to the contribution mindset.

In a previous article a few years ago, I pondered the death of attribution: Is attribution dead? The answer is yes and noI came to the conclusion that geographic attribution and sales attribution were alive and well, but multi-touch attribution was always challenged.

Les Binet recently sat down for an interview last month with the Drum titled, Digital attribution is dead! Les Binet tells us why marketers need econometrics in 2023.  His interview made me want to revisit the topic.

Just to set a baseline, multi-touch attribution is the method of measuring the impact of different marketing channels and touchpoints on customer behavior and outcomes. It assigns credit to each interaction that influenced a conversion, such as a click, view, download, or purchase. The aim of multi-touch attribution is to help marketers understand how campaigns work together to drive a business outcome, sale, or conversion.

In Les Binet’s interview with the Drum, he highlights that the models have several fallacies that make them inaccurate: Immediacy, Last-touch, First-touch and Technology.  The Drum article also highlights that digital attribution, the backbone of multi-touch models, misattributes human behavior when baselined to customer interviews. And those more recent insights reinforce the seminal research 15 years ago from Comscore, that clicks do not correlate with conversions.

So what does a marketer do?  Get a better, more robust model!  Econometric-based models can adapt to all media activity and marketing models: Paid, Owned, Earned, Digital & Traditional, Brand & Performance, or Omnichannel lead generation.  Better measurement is now possible with the advent of citizen data science: a robust data cloud with centralized sanitized data and accessible machine learning algorithms like Bayesian or ANN models that can now be applied at the atomic level, the most granular levels of marketing exposure.  Actionable insights are now achievable within weeks of exposure, not months.  More meaningful metrics are unlocked like incrementality and media contribution to sales, which provide CFO-worthy fiscal benchmarks. 

So to resolve the quote attribution: while David Ogilvy referenced the quote in his seminal book 1963 book Confessions of an Advertising Man,  it is also misattributed to Philadelphia retailer John Wanamaker and William Hesketh Lever, founder of Unilever.  Thanks to Jeremy Bullmore from the 2013 WPP Annual report and Timothy Taylor from the Conversable Economist in 2018 for shedding light on this Heuristic. 

While we cannot resolve the attribution of a famous quote, we can resolve that multi-touch attribution should be upgraded to a more precise, more balanced econometric and incremental based model.