Why Attention is the Business We’re In

graphic of audience

By Steven Piluso, EVP, Managing Director, Strategy, OMD USA

If you work in a media agency, you’ve probably gotten this question from friends or family:  “So, what is it that you do exactly?” The next time they ask, instead of trying to explain that, no, your job isn’t like Don Draper’s – is anyone’s?  –  give them this answer:  I’m an Attention Engineer

Think about it: finding building, and managing attention, from a specific group of people, and knowing the point where their attention will either turn into an action or tune-out, is the essence of what we do.  You might know this by another term – reach and frequency.  The hard part is balancing how many people we reach and how many times we need to reach them to tip the scales toward action.

Too geekish for you?

How about this one – Empathy Architect.  You might not recognize the title, but you certainly know the skills required:  constructing a general understanding of consumers’ unmet desires and needs when moving through the world and encountering content, and then applying that understanding to make marketing messages more of an additive experience to their day.  At OMD, we refer to this as “empathy” –   and it’s how we design experiences for consumers that will find, create and hold consumer attention.


So that pretty much covers everything, right? Not quite.

Finding, creating and holding attention isn’t the goal. The goal is it turn attention into action, to have a consumer choose your client’s brand, over and over again, in any situation where they have a choice between that brand and the competition. That’s called Mental Availability – owning the “front of mind” space where brand choice becomes an automatic reflex.  And it’s the outcome when Attention Engineers and Empathy Architects come together to so effectively capture the moment that attention either turns to action or inattention that the choice becomes internalized, requiring fewer reminders, and less defense against competitive assaults on their attention.

So how do we find that moment?

Through research conducted over the past year with Amplified Intelligence – global leaders in attention research –   OMD can now identify where and when consumer attention is at its highest for any specific   content and placement.   With these findings, we are creating a database grounded in gaze tracking across different media channels and target cohorts.  This allows us to get away from “what content is on in front of them” to “what are they actually paying attention to?” With dual screen usage, are they looking at mobile devices during commercial pods (and if so, what content), or are they looking up from their small screens and watching / hearing advertising content?.

Understanding consumer ATTENTION vs. consumer PRESENCE brings us three sea-changes in how we work as a media agency:

  1. It takes us one large step closer to understanding in which content consumers are more interested and leverage that interest or ATTENTION to make smarter, more effective placements
  2. Smarter, more effective placements make for a more efficient investment in the Reach / Frequency balance with lower, higher quality exposures allowing investment to be rebalanced into capturing more audience
  3. By knowing which channels and contexts are of the most interest, to which our targets are most ATTENTIVE, ATTENTION can become a TRADING CURRENCY, allowing our planning and investment teams to come together to surgically pinpoint media that we know will be the most effective for our clients, and optimize our media plans based on any shifts we might see in Attentiveness.

Off and running, OMD has already piloted Attention Planning and Attention Trading with several clients across multiple categories.  In every case, the learnings were invaluable: Attention Planning had a direct correlation to improved KPIs, whether sales, store traffic, etc because:

  1. Attention data employed to optimize channel mix leveraged audience interest, affecting mental availability and making those brands the top of mind, most considered brands when consumers were in the buying window
  2. Attention Trading gave the agency the intelligence to tailor buys that, to anyone else would appear to contain inventory of equal quality, but contained inventory where key audiences were far more attentive
  3. Gaze tracking led to invaluable data for creative agencies in terms of how fast you need to grab a consumer to hold attention or lose them.

Sometimes our business comes down to very simple concepts – like it’s better to create an ad that will grab a consumer’s attention, and then put it where that consumer pays the most attention. But even – and perhaps especially – for so obvious a concept, having the data to back it up makes it actionable, helping our clients and people make better decisions, faster, to drive better business outcomes.

And that’s the best way of all to describe the business we’re in.