Being Beta

Exercises in the higher banter with One of 26. Elsewhere called 'poet of adland'. By a whipple-squeezer. Find out why being beta is the new alpha: betarish at googlemail dot com

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Commercial: Advertising people don't notice

(With apologies if the following reads like this.)

Here's a sentence you won't see in the end of year, end of decade round-ups that will be coming our way very shortly:

“Yes, this was the decade that advertising died. Trouble is, we're still not sure how to revive it.”

What makes me say that?

Let me start by being clear.

I don't mean that marketing's dead. Far from it. There's even more of it than ever. As you've probably been trying to avoid since the moment you got up this morning.

And I don't mean that other disciplines within marketing communications are dead. Not at all.

If anything, the last 10 years have all been about three things: the rise of 'digital' (however you care to define it); the subsequent realisation that PR skills are the basic hygiene ones that are required now; and the cementing of the role of brand as the fulcrum through which all marketing efforts of an organisation are driven. To the point of idiocy, often.

But at least some of the crazy, high-falutin' language has gone.

Still, I would not be surprised if lots of companies and firms out there get by with just a PR agency, a design and/or branding agency and a web agency.

And the daddy of them all, the one that all these myriad of disciplines and sub-disciplines have sprung from; well, that's not very healthy is it?

Seriously, when was the last time that someone from outside of the industry mentioned to you an advert they'd liked? Hell, one they'd even seen? And remembered seeing? Didn't refer to DM as junk mail?

And no, spotting something posted on twitter doesn't count. Actually spent time having a conversation with you, about an ad – why they liked it, why it was memorable.

Thought so. Believe it or not, it did used to happen.

So who's to blame for this current state of woefulness?

You could say the TV industry, for only periodically making programmes that people want to watch, which means that people aren't interesting in advertising in and around them. And then expanding that mistake up to fleets of channels, unknown and unloved at the top of the EPG.

You could say the commercial radio industry, for being more concerned about consolidation than listeners, and for deciding that everyone across the country needed to hear the same things at the same time, with the result that people fled to the BBC's stations.

You could say the newspaper industry, which decided to imitate chickens confronted with an army of cleavers, dash online with commoditised product, not attempt to charge people for it, then wonder where the revenue streams had gone, sans subscriptions and display advertising.

You could say the clients, but that would be too simple and self-serving. We're the ones who've been presenting them with these 'solutions' – and the rise in use of that word, in of itself, says something.

But they do share some of the blame: wedded as the majority of them have been to a notion that only what can be measured is what matters, they demanded more and more spurious data on something which – at its finest – defies measurement.

They bought in to an idea which said that brand is and has to be the holy grail, as it adds so much value, and be damned that that value is mostly intangible.

And hell, they even showed us that – hello Innocent – it was possible to build a brand without any using any advertising whatsoever.

But mostly, we have to blame us.

After all, we're the ones who've been actively working towards the demise of our craft.

Ignoring the brand building lessons that have been coming out from the design sector for the last 15 years or so. Failing to recognise that the provision of utility, organisation of information and the editing of choice will be the three ways that brands will win in the future.

Not the old model of campaign after campaign after campaign absurdio reductum, until agency, client, customer and the wider world all collapse in a bored heap on top of each other.

I'm not alleging that we've done so knowingly. But we have done so unthinkingly. Call it the effect of the law of unintended consequences.

The unintended consequences of our industry-wide rush to embrace online display ads, and Google's text ads by the sides of searches in particular.

Why is this problematic? Isn't this the promise of data finally coming true, with all of us having the chance to experience Ogilvy's tasting of blood, only this time digitally? Targeted advertising, so we can only speak to those people who want to be spoken to and no one else? So we no longer have to be an irritant with a loudhailer, buttonholing you on the street, but instead a confidant whispering in your living room?

As it has turned out, if you only speak to the people who want to be spoken to, you rapidly run out of things to say to them. Or you play to their expectations. Or their prejudices. You don't challenge them. Or surprise them.

You create a messy, grey, indistinct sludge. Multiply that by the exponential increase in the communications that are sent out because digital channels are so cheap to use, and it's no wonder why success rates, ROI rates, whatever measure you choose, are so low.

We have managed to create advertising that people don't notice. Not as by-product. Not as a one-off. As the single core animating function that drives it.

We are spending billions creating advertising for our brands that actually looks like advertising for every other brand. We've embraced global brand management, and the creative flattening that entails without realising that people still shop, and live locally.

We hope that somehow, if we can make Google work for us, we'll square the vicious circle we've made for ourselves, without recognising that all we're doing is collectively building Google's brand.

We have ceded the ground that used to be ours. We've got so paranoid about our cost base, we fight to prove our relevancy, without realising that we still could have the whip hand in proving that no other marketing discipline can create awareness like we can.

But we seem determined to let the social media mavens take that ground from us too.

We have forgotten what John Hegarty said not so long ago, about advertising being about 'interfering in pop culture'.

It's not about targeting the right people. It's about making something so fantastic that people can't help but stop and watch and engage and be moved by it. Entertained by it. And then share it.

Because that way there's more chance they'll remember what we're trying to tell them.

And the ads we have loved this decade – the gorillas, the cakes, the meerkats, the balls – have all done that.

So we need to stop hoping that the fix for our industry, the return to the glory days will come from the engineers who'll tell us how to make algorithms work better, make our similar messages somehow work better than everyone else's similar messages. Or the social scientists that will nudge herds into crowds, and tell us things that deep down we know are common sense.

We need to trust again the eternal verities: find the unique truth, and then dramatise it in the most entertaining way possible.

We need to make advertising that people notice. On the widest possible scale. And back ourselves to the hilt that we will deliver it.



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