28 April 2024

Creative Talk with Nick Licence, Director of Attention Applied

Our latest Creative Talk is with Nick Licence, who has had an extensive global career covering media, creative and digital agencies.  Nick has started an agency Attention Applied, to focus on helping brands apply attention-led thinking across their media, creative and retail ecosystems.

Nick, give us the backstory – who are you and what has been your career journey to date?

A Zambian-born Brit, I’ve lived over half my life outside the UK and arrived in NZ from Singapore with my wife and two kids nearly 5 years ago. I started my career in outdoor advertising sales in the UK, and from there moved into the agency world, where I’ve stayed ever since, primarily in strategy roles but veering (careering?!) between media, creative and digital agencies.


When I moved to Asia in 2004 I landed a media strategy role with Universal McCann in Thailand and relished the challenge of understanding and planning for a very different media ecosystem to that in the UK. Whilst I hadn’t planned to move into creative strategy, over time a series of (frankly terrible!) attempts at mocking up creative media ideas during pitches caught the eye of my boss, who offered me the chance to take a creative strategy role for McCann Erikson. I jumped straight in and absolutely loved it, learning so much from the creatives, other strategists and account leads there. Following my stint at McCann I spent a number of years in digital strategy roles at Neo@Ogilvy and Dentsu before moving back again into a creative strategy role for Dentsu Aegis.


After 15 years in Asia, we made the move to New Zealand, where I worked at a great local indie called before rejoining the Holdco world with Group M. Earlier this year I decided to start my own thing (Attention Applied) focused on helping brands apply attention-led thinking across their media, creative and retail ecosystems. As it’s very much a nascent business, in the meantime I’m looking for freelance or contract roles to help support, so if you’re on the lookout for a strategist I’d love a chat!

You have worked with a number of major agencies around the world; what drew you to New Zealand?

The draw was a mix of personal and professional. On the work-front I’d always felt NZ punched well above its weight when it came to creative and strategic thinking, so that was a big attractor for me. What’s great to see is that it continues to do so, consistently delivering winning work that’s strategically smart, really well crafted and often served with a dash of self-effacing, cheeky NZ humour. Since arriving I’ve been lucky enough to work with some pretty awesome people who care deeply about what they do, and also find ways to have fun whilst doing it.


On a personal level, the decision was pretty simple - as a family we’d visited on holiday and fell in love with the place. I love rugby, fishing, wine, lamb and the outdoors so NZ ticked all those boxes pretty well. We also have extended family living here too, which is great. We’re currently in the process of getting our permanent residence approved, and looking forward to eventually becoming a fully fledged kiwi family complete with silver fern passports!

How do you feel the industry has changed since you started your career in planning and strategy?

In such a rapidly evolving business, and with more than a few years under my belt immersed in it, I’ve been lucky enough to experience huge change. The most profound being the rise of digital, the growth of search and social, ubiquitous smartphone usage and the whole shift towards data-driven, programmatic delivery, along with the increased regulation and scrutiny that came with it. It totally altered the landscape and how we plan for it.


More recently the shift towards advanced AI has been (and will be) seismic in effect. With so many potential use cases I’m excited to see how this pans out, particularly in the creative space. I worry that an over reliance on it will just see us generating more digital landfill so I firmly believe we’ll still need humans to add the x-factor. On that note, what hasn’t changed is the continual need for great ideas, crafted and communicated brilliantly.

You have made the move and focus to be on Attention Metrics -  How do you accurately measure ad performance beyond viewability - what does this entail?

The existing tenets of media planning and optimisation (Gross Reach, MRC viewability and view through rates) are currently used to help justify billions of dollars of media investment. The problem with this approach is that viewable does not mean viewed, and gross reach-based planning doesn’t take into account non-attentive impressions. What this means for brands is that the true human ‘attentive reach’ of many campaigns may only be 30% of what they actually paid for.


Some of the pioneering Attention platforms like Lumen and Amplified Intelligence not only use vast human data sets to establish the different levels of human attention paid to multiple media formats, they also highlight some pretty scary truths:


  • Only 30% of online impressions are actually seen by humans (Lumen)
  • Nearly 60% of branded elements in ads have zero active human attention paid to them (Amplified Intelligence)


Given the volume of investment into media and creative, numbers like those above are simply unacceptable when human attention measurement and optimisation can help improve them.


And it’s not just limited to media optimisation. On the creative side, the ability to leverage human data to accurately predict how much attention a specific asset will garner ‘in the wild’ is hugely valuable, particularly when aligned with attention-optimised media. Mars’ approach to attention drove 18% incremental sales lift in 19 markets with $30 million saved in ad optimisations across 18 months via their Agile Creative Expertise platform and it’s these business outcomes that I want to focus on, not viewability.


I’m really looking forward to helping brands discover the attention upside - whilst their current approach is probably working to some degree despite the lack of attention paid to it (otherwise why do it all?), just imagine what a positive shift in attention by 5, 10, 15% would do to their bottom line?

Do you see AI having more of an important factor in the measurement of metrics?

Undoubtedly yes, but ultimately those data sources need to be reliable and truthful (and ideally 1st party human!) otherwise all AI does is provide an ability to rapidly measure rubbish at scale.


That said, the potential for synthetic data to help drive insight is really interesting. When Mark Ritson was over here last year, he showed a couple of amazing slides demonstrating perception mapping research outcomes for car brands. The synthetic data was used to deliver an instant output that was 90% in line with the paid-for research - with zero cost attached I’d suggest that’s an error margin a lot of brands might be willing to work with.

With clients having moved the majority of their spend to digital advertising, the cost of advertising in this space has significantly increased – why?

There’s a finite amount of genuine, quality digital ad space that can be shown to users on a given platform without degrading the user experience. This increased demand for limited inventory supply naturally leads to higher media prices, and when you factor in dynamic programmatic pricing alongside the requisite cost layers of targeting, data, privacy, compliance and brand safety tech, these only generate further pricing pressures.

If a client asked you today ‘where should I advertise’, what would you say?

After first establishing what their objectives are in the first place, the glib answer would probably be, “Wherever works most efficiently and effectively to drive your audience to act in the way you want them to”... However, given the fragmented environment we operate in today, getting to a deployable, ‘final’ answer still requires a lot of hard work to explore audience attitudes, behaviours, media consumption, competitor activity etc.


From an Attention measurement and optimisation perspective, understanding the objective is crucial to providing guidance, some of which might, at first pass, sound counter intuitive... For example, a category leading brand with distinctive assets looking to maintain awareness may not need to garner active attention through high impact / high cost placements. Instead an investment into passive attention placements may serve them better, with their brand assets doing the heavy lifting via higher frequency, lower cost placements to remind the audience they exist.


Conversely a new brand without well-established assets to lean on, wanting to push a time sensitive message, may need to garner more active attention and so a proposed plan for them might look very different in terms of channel and format.

What would be your idealistic item / brand to design and or collaborate with?

Patagonia. As an outdoor apparel brand they’re playing in my personal passion space, they produce some amazing kit and they communicate so authentically.