Atomic On Why 'Frustration' At The State Of Paid Media Led To Launch Of Performance Marketing Arm

We explore the agency's latest commitment to growth with James Shepherd, the co-founder and MD of the specialist media arm Atomic Altitude

By creative salon

Independent creative agency Atomic has launched a specialist media division, Atomic Altitude, in response to marketers wanting radical improvements in their digital media performance.

By putting creativity as the most significant lever for effectiveness, it will combine real-time insights, media-agnostic planning and value-based measurement to transform clients’ media performance.

The agency will be led by co-founder and managing director James Shepherd, previously managing director EMEA at M&C Saatchi Performance, and under the guidance of Atomic CEO Jon Goulding.

The launch of Altitude comes as part of Atomic’s ambition to create a new agency model that builds brands in the age of performance. It complements Supernova, the new social creator business, that Atomic launched last month.

We caught up with Atomic Altitude co-founder and managing director James Shepherd to discuss the launch of the performance marketing division further.

Just because I bought a dehumidifier once, it doesn’t mean I plan to buy them every week for the rest of my life, but those are the ads I’ll see! It’s so lazy.

Atomic Altitude co-founder and managing director James Shepherd

Creative Salon: What has led you to create Atomic Altitude and why is now the right time to launch a specialist media division?

James Shepherd: This is a result of frustration. Frustration at the state of paid media and the way most media agencies approach it. We wanted to create something better.

In the past decade, paid media has experienced a race to the bottom. Media tactics that prioritize price over everything, data availability and use changes, and Facebook and Google dominating ad spend and data collection.

In media, it's almost always about price, quantity, CPM, and impressions. It's always short-term, cost-focused, and rarely about how media will deliver value to brands ... campaigns don't evolve because of this. They rarely focus on long-term growth. With deterministic targeting and the cookie, consumers are stalked around the web and bombarded with ads, rather than targeted effective through the funnel comms. Just because I bought a dehumidifier once, it doesn’t mean I plan to buy them every week for the rest of my life, but those are the ads I’ll see! It’s so lazy.

Media effectiveness is not measured adequately. There’s disparity in metrics for success at different stages of the funnel. Attention isn’t paid to growth or performance throughout the full funnel, and there’s a laziness to upper funnel, which never links back to true value like LTV or CAC. And this detachment leads to so much wasted spend and lost opportunity for brands. To deliver growth and value it’s so important to understand the true value of your media investment, measured in parity rather than vanity metrics and unfairly attributed models.

Nevertheless, the biggest change in media in 10 years has been the dominance of Meta and Google. It presents advertisers with three problems - over competition, limited data visibility, and low media value. Increasing accessibility of advertising has led to more competition. More brands competing for attention in the same place. Their attribution models are biased to drive more spend to their platforms, which is where most spend occurs online. A recent Comscore study found that consumers spend approximately one third of their online time on Google and Meta properties, while they capture almost two thirds of online spend. This disparity causes a media value problem, and the increased cost is borne by the advertiser.

Every brand who invests in paid media online will have felt some or all of this pain. The problem is that most media agencies can’t adapt fast enough to help brands navigate this mess. And it's hard for them to change. This is why we created Atomic Altitude.

CS: How do you think creativity can boost media performance and vice versa?

Shepherd: There is a problem with how creative is used in digital media. Everyone has experienced how advertising can ruin your experience online, particularly on mobile. It turns consumers off, makes them use ad blockers and gives rise to phrases like banner blindness, where people unconsciously tune out from adverts on the website they’re viewing. It damages brands! Ads can be good, provide value to consumers, and keep the web free.

However, we see poor ad formats, unsuitability to channel, unsuitability audience and, most crucially, unsuitability to role. This impacts media performance, but far far worse, it damages brand perception in market. It’s often the first consumer touchpoint for a brand, yet so little attention is paid to doing it right. We put creative at the heart of performance. Creative is the most important performance driver at our disposal, yet it’s also often the most undervalued and underused. Every single creative in our campaigns is delivered with purpose and plays a key role in delivering growth. In terms of how performance can influence creative; the shelf life of an effective ad is so short online. Good performance marketing, with a robust measurement framework in place, helps us quickly understand what’s effective and what’s not.

Atomic is on a journey to build a creatively led, truly unified, modern marketing agency which means you have to have creative experts and channel expertise not just under one roof, but around one table.

Atomic Altitude co-founder and managing director James Shepherd

CS: What are the main services Atomic Altitude will provide marketers with

Shepherd: Alongside Media strategy, Performance Creative Strategy, Data Strategy, Creative Production and Performance Analytics, if it can be bought, tracked, measured, and optimised, it’s a channel to be considered as part of the most effective media mix. We combine real-time insights, a full-funnel, data-driven performance approach, creative excellence, and value-based measurement, to deliver more effective, more valuable media campaigns to grow brands & businesses faster. We identify the best performing media and creative whatever the platform, whatever the channel, and wherever it sits in the funnel. As long as it delivers on our clients’ objectives. And we deliver impact away from the rest of the market to get cut-through. All designed to deliver the maximum growth and value from media investment.

And growth is key. We don’t look at brand or performance. We look at growth. Online everything can be tracked measured and optimised, so everything we do is geared towards growth … regardless of whether it’s last click attribution driving conversion or a sale, or more traditional “brand” media designed to increase awareness. Irrespective of where activity might traditionally sit in the funnel, performance or growth principles apply.

CS: The launch complements Atomic's new social creator business Supernova - How will this new digital media division contribute to the creative agency's offering and future success?

Shepherd: Long gone are the days where performance media sits in glorious isolation at the bottom of the funnel, efficiently converting last clicks into sales. With seismic changes taking place in the world of data privacy, every single media channel now must obsess and fully embrace what we say to people not just how and where we find them. This means creativity has come of age as the key lever for brand performance across the whole customer journey. 

Atomic is on a journey to build a creatively led, truly unified, modern marketing agency which means you have to have creative experts and channel expertise not just under one roof, but around one table. Working out how to use your expertise to transform brand growth for clients and not just working on cracking the latest brief. Altitude is a brilliant injection of skills into the business that has relevance to every shape and size of brand and client.


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