March 11, 2020

Advertising has never been a particularly admired profession. Indeed, some would say it isn't a profession at all. We're not doctors or teachers; we're not even lawyers or accountants. We don't make or do anything of any great practical use to humanity. We help people sell stuff.

But that having been said, historically, we've been reasonably liked. Ad people tend to be curious, interesting, and outgoing. We may not save the world, but at least we add to the gaiety of nations.

What we produce has been, at worst, tolerated and, at best, enjoyed. (For years, I hung onto a survey finding from an advertising association claiming that 51 percent of people preferred TV ads to the programs surrounding them.) Maybe what we produce is not as universally loved and revered as we might like to think, but the best entertains and endures. And it sells stuff.

Over the past 10 years or so, however, we seem to have gone wrong. The advertising we produce, as numerous studies testify, is not trusted. Ad people are vying for bottom place along with lawyers and journalists in the league table of trusted professions.

We've gone from being a part of the national water-cooler conversation ("Did you see the new Nike/Guinness/Audi ad last night?") to a footnote ("I can't remember any ads I've seen").

People still remember Coke's "Hilltop" ad. That was 1971. And the Hovis "Boy on the Bike" ad (1973), Guinness Surfer (1999), and the whole raft of Nike "Just Do It" ads dating back to Walt Stack in 1988. Some even found their way into comedy sketches (best to watch the Hovis ad first).

Of course, there are ads and campaigns from the past decade that will endure. And, of course, I'm (to be polite) of a certain vintage. But those that endure are — I'm prepared to bet — rarer than they used to be.

What's gone wrong?

Some of this is down to technology. We all know the story: not as many mass viewing experiences, smaller audiences to even the largest TV shows, the ability to skip the ads, and so on.

Some aspects are structural. Full-service ad agencies forced a degree of interdepartmental collaboration through proximity. No, not every media guy walked up the corridor to talk to a creative, but it was easier when there was only a corridor between you. Today, many media people don't know the creators of the ads they're placing. Many of them don't even know the ad.

As Leo Burnett once said: "No one of us is as good as all of us." Burnett had never heard of social media, where it's more, "No one knows as much as me."

Some parts are societal. We live in a social media age of bubbles and echo chambers. We've convinced ourselves that personalization and addressability are the cures to all our ills; whereas, consumers find an excessive amount of over-personal contact from advertisers "creepy."

Yes, it's acknowledged as useful that Google Maps knows where you are. Whether that acknowledgment of usefulness extends to someone pestering you to buy a pair of shoes on the basis that you bought a pair 10 minutes ago is debatable.

In a nutshell, we've turned what was a skillful business that mixed art and science into an exercise in mass-optimization. We've confused media targeting with creative relevance.

As a result, the media guys (remember I am one) have been running around convincing advertisers of the benefits of this, that, or the other acronym and selling data solutions, the details of which they don't really understand — all to convince some auditor that the CPM has gone down.

Who cares about the appeal of the ad (sorry, the content)? Who cares if we are adding apples and pears when it comes to viewing data? Stop getting all technical.

The creative fraternity must shoulder some of the blame. Many creative people were slow in coming to grips with these new media forms. They didn't understand them, seeing them as little more than the modern-day equivalent of a new magazine format or TV slot.

Consequently, they applied the techniques they had learned on old media; the early results worked about as well as placing a long copy press ad on a highway billboard.

Clients, meanwhile, have been asleep at the wheel. It is far easier to understand that 100 million impressions is bigger than 10 million than it is to make a judgment on an ad's creativity and likely effectiveness.

Whether the 100 million means anything, is accurate, or even truthful has become almost beside the point.

The media guys — we — wanted to be center stage. Well, we've been there for a while now and I think it's fair to say that having the industry led by the buyers and sellers of media hasn't been an unqualified success.

But there is hope.

About Author

Brian Jacobs spent more than 35 years in advertising, media, and research agencies, including spells at Leo Burnett (UK, EMEA, International media director), Carat International (managing director), Universal McCann (EMEA director) and Millward Brown

Appeared first in MediaVillage


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