There is Hope

I’ve always been something of an optimist. Even though last week’s Cog Blog post was full of doom and gloom (although you have to admit there were some great ads) I like to think that lessons have been learned and that the ad business is, finally, coming to terms with the world as it is today.

It’s commonly said that advertisers get the advertising they deserve. Engage in the process with an open mind and with enthusiasm and you’re likely to see better results than the guy who sees advertising expenditure as a cost that needs to be reduced.

Over the years I’ve come across loads of examples of both and I can assure you that the aphorism holds good.

The first green shoot is the re-emergence of the involved advertiser. This creature has been in hiding, delegating responsibilities to a toxic mix of huge platforms with something to sell, unheard of quantities of data to support virtually any theory and justify any results, and media agencies whose focus has (shall we say) been on the negotiation end of the task.

It’s well-known that advertisers have not always been that engaged with the media end of the business, but that’s changed, or at the very least is changing. You can take your pick as to whether Jon Mandel, Marc Pritchard, the WFA, the ANA or ISBA can take the credit but that doesn’t really matter.

When online anything was still very new, I remember David Pattison, the ‘P’ in the media agency network PHD and the first media guy to be President of our agency trade body the IPA, making a typically wise remark. Would online change media, he was asked. No, he said, online would change everything.

And so it has. The marketing and indeed the agency intakes at the time have grown up online. Today, that cohort is in and around boardrooms. The days of the CEO who prided himself in not being able to turn on a computer are gone.

As the online natives move up, so business’ approach to all aspects of the connected world will evolve. It’s easy to mock the disconnected nature of much of what we do but this is all a bit harder than switching on a light; habits and practices take time to change.

The second green shoot is to be seen in the behaviour of media agencies.

The networks (and of course they’re not the only ones; just the biggest) have learned the hard way that trust has a value, and that the malpractices exposed by Mandel need to be driven out of the system.

Buying media is still a critical part of the agency’s role and will continue to be so, but the emergence of planning as a specialist skill as opposed to a catch-all generalist phrase is essential.

If agencies are to regain trust in the era of the informed advertiser it’s going to be through planning.

And as trust has a value, the agencies need to elevate their planning skills to a point where they can legitimately charge.

After all, if one revenue stream has hit the buffers it needs to be replaced by another.

Then there’s the positive brought about by the ‘in plain sight’ nature of fake news and ad fraud. When news was news, it was not always easy to tell what was true and what wasn’t.

When no-one except a few geeks knew about ad fraud, it was easy to dismiss it as not really a problem. Indeed as recently as 5 years ago, The Cog Blog quoted Aegis’ Louisa Wong as suggesting in a public speech (not a direct quote): ‘Online fraud is no big deal. The digital industry is … spreading un-necessary doom and gloom amongst the advertiser community who really shouldn’t worry.’

Today we are all aware of ‘fake news’. Those who peddle what is truly fake, as opposed to just being something they may not like or agree with are being called out. Sales of quality newspapers are up in the USA, and even if the UK has the least trusted newspapers in Europe (according to regular EBU studies) at least the worst of the untruths are starting to be checked and the truth is slowly emerging.

We may not all be fully aware of ad fraud’s reach and volume but even non-geeks like me know that it’s very big and a huge problem.

Advertisers are increasingly taking into account where their ads appear and are coming to terms with the fact that an impression is not an impression is not an impression.

Finally, we are all starting to understand more about what works and what doesn’t. Creative standards may have slipped; one-size-fits-all-media solutions are at long last being exposed; advertising may (as a result) be less effective than it once was but if the best way through a problem starts with recognising the problem we are it seems on our way.

More engaged advertisers, boardrooms recognising online, media agencies refocussing on planning, an acceptance that there are bad actors, and a realisation that what we’ve been doing isn’t working.

In there somewhere lies hope.

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