Digital in-housing trend persists after 2020 spike

New research from Ipsos also finds privacy and brand safety concerns have not impacted social investment.

After a difficult 2020 that resulted in more marketers in-housing capabilities amid greater scrutiny of marketing budgets, there’s no sign that the trend is abating. In fact, more marketers are in-housing digital marketing activities in 2021 than they were last year – which itself saw more dollars brought in-house than any other year in the last decade.

That’s according to this year’s Digital Marketing Pulse Survey, conducted by Ipsos Canada in partnership with the Canadian Marketing Association (CMA) and strategy magazine. Now in its fifteenth year, the research is based on two surveys: one of CMA members and strategy subscribers between Aug. 5 and Sept. 7 and one of Canadian consumers between Aug. 20 and 30. Its findings were presented during a CMA virtual event on Tuesday, with a full report to follow next month.

The survey aims to assess the digital marketing landscape, measure current levels of familiarity and usage of different digital marketing tactics among marketers and agencies and gauge sentiment on the current and future state of digital marketing.

Over the last ten years, marketers’ reliance on their agencies has been acting to a pendulum – swinging back and forth every three or four years, said Steve Levy, chief operating officer at Ipsos. In 2019, the agency business “looked pretty good,” he said, with an increased number of marketers saying they were increasing their reliance on their agencies. However, COVID-19 had a “dramatic impact” on that trend in 2020.

This year’s research shows agencies have not yet fully recovered. This year, only 25% of marketers report using agencies more, down from 28% last year. Meanwhile, 18% are using them less, compared to 25% in 2020 – which may suggest the pendulum is levelling off.

“It’s tough business to be in the agency business,” said Levy. “That’s true whether or not we’re looking at media agencies, or indeed, creative agencies – it’s the same play.”

Looking at digital marketing tactics – fifteen of which are defined and examined in the report – 86% of marketers report using email marketing always or often, up from 81% last year. Those who identify as being “very familiar” with the tactic also rose, from 79% last year to 89% in 2021. “For those people who think that email marketing is a thing of the past and that it may be dying – you’re absolutely wrong. That’s absolutely not the case,” said Levy.

Digital signage is another tactic that has grown in familiarity and frequent use among marketers over the last twelve months – though use among agencies has fallen, suggesting there may be a trend towards in-housing the capability, said Levy. This follows a significant dip in 2020.

“Increasingly, the public is back out there, they’re getting back to something that pseudo resembles normal. And so we see a bounce back for marketers,” he said. “Part of the story behind the growth of digital signage relates to the way that some organizations are using it – as they prepare for a kind of a back in the store experience…. They’re using this opportunity to, in some respects, retool and reinvent their brick-and-mortar experience, making it perhaps better but certainly different than it was in the past.”

Levy also said the research reveals that “marketers and the public continue to be addicted to social – that’s not going to change.”

Whatever debate there may be about trust in social media, and to whatever degree social buys have become more expensive, these factors do not appear to be having any impact on marketer and agency familiarity and use of the tactic, he said.

Social media has been effective at driving results, with many saying it has increased awareness (77%), generated engagement (76%) and helped acquire new customers (75%). And few appear concerned about brand safety and community policy: only 9% said it has caused them to reduce their spend on the tactic.

That may be because, while many Canadians express privacy concerns, more than two-third of Canadians have not changed their social media habits as a result of those fears. Only one in 10 have stopped using social media altogether because they don’t trust what’s being done with their information, Levy said. “You quickly come to realize that the public’s not doing anything about [their concern]. They’re not acting on it. And so one can only understand even better why it is that the marketing community isn’t either.”

As in past years, the report notes that marketers have been in-housing  “mature” capabilities that are core to the business, such as email marketing, website building, SEM and social media, to a greater and faster degree than other tactics. “The things that are new and different, innovative and require expertise that doesn’t exist in house – the shiny objects – that’s where agencies are being utilized for sure,” he said.