During IBM’s heyday, there was a popular saying that no IT manager ever got fired for buying from Big Blue. In the corporate world, spending millions of dollars with the biggest tech company in the world was viewed as an entirely uncontroversial decision, if not applauded by the higher ups.

Whether IBM provided the best product wasn’t important. It appeared true and that was sufficient.

media-byline2The names may have changed in the intervening three decades, but the mindset remains the same when it comes to spending in digital media. These days, no brand manager is going to get fired for buying Facebook or Google. And while those channels should rightfully take the bulk of digital ad budgets, brands should still look to other opportunities to gain an edge.

Unfortunately, too often CPGs make media choices that owe more to habit than to common sense. They insist on buying low cost inventory at mass scale. And in doing so, they ignore higher-touch media that, while usually more expensive, is also more effective at attracting attention during the point of conversion. Simply said, delivering higher ROI.

In this sense, in spite of all of our advances in technology and attribution, media buyers still find themselves grappling with the same issues that troubled John Wanamaker a century ago when he proclaimed: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted. The trouble is, I don’t know which half.”

When it comes to working media, how much is moving the needle and how far? Maybe it is working for you — but you still don’t know how to judge it.

A big part of the reason for this fogginess is that many advertisers still use antiquated tools to judge working media’s effectiveness, tools that often don’t take account of everything happening in the space. An advertiser using last touch attribution, for example, is simply rewarding a publisher who grabbed a cookie and then hit a customer before their click on that ad. That may demonstrate advanced technology, but it’s not necessarily smart marketing.

Technology has also led to a Cambrian explosion in marketing channels. In the old days, there was print, out-of-home, TV and radio. Now, of course, there’s all of the above plus the myriad ways that brands can reach customers digitally — SEO, SEM, email campaigns, banner ads, podcasts, and a dozen or so different social channels that don’t start with “F.” Finding the thread of the customer’s path to purchase amidst that maze makes the challenge bigger than ever.

That’s why we need to be a lot smarter than to simply cling to a last touch attribution model. By focusing on the last touch, brands reward retargeting agencies for business that is often not theirs to claim. They may not have done much to merit that influence.

The Web, of course, has given rise to scores of successful publishers that wield influence among specific, valuable audiences. Evidence is everywhere – travel sites, auto review sites, home-buying sites, and, yes, our company’s key consumer property, Coupons.com.

Publishers in such verticals often know details about their audience that make reaching a brand’s goals easier than relying on retargeting, or even search or social. We know, for instance, which retailers our shoppers regularly visit. We know that shoppers typically engage with promotions, or a digital form of the store circular, for grocery and household items 48 hours before they go to a store and buy them. We even know what items our shoppers buy, down to the SKU, along with which digital touchpoint drove them to purchase.

And we’re quickly getting more sophisticated. Quotient now powers loyalty programs for many of the grocery stores in the country, as well as for mass, drug and club retailers. As such, our software is often connected directly into point-of-sale systems. This allows us to deliver personalized digital coupons at the right time, for example, or to generate digital receipts in a flash. Customers today expect such features.

But that’s just the start. Because of these retailer partnerships, our attribution insights are becoming powerful enough for brands to optimize marketing campaigns on the fly, within 48 hours of running a digital ad spot. And in any given market, Quotient will help them run A/B tests to see which kinds of ads drive in-store sales most efficiently, so that brands can focus resources on the most effective creative.

Armed with such information, we help brands reach the right shoppers with the right messages, at the right time, and even on the right device.

The lesson here is that in spite of a century of seeming progress, marketers still routinely fall prey to Wanamaker’s dilemma. But they don’t have to. By choosing the right tools, marketers have a chance to achieve a level of visibility of which Wanamaker could have never dreamed.

Steven Boal is CEO and Founder of Quotient.