Revolution and Redemption

Revolutions very rarely happen in a neat, organised fashion, much though the trade press would like that to be the case.

Instead change comes slowly, messily and often in an entirely random fashion.

This has been an interesting week for reflection, and considering what the heck’s going on in the advertising industry.

First, there was a most moving, and appropriate memorial service for Richard Wheatly, the ex-Chairman of Leo Burnett, and the godfather of Jazz FM, a UK radio station who died suddenly earlier this year.  

Alongside many Leo Burnett alumni, Sir John Hegarty (the founder of BBH) attended, and spoke warmly of Richard, and of an industry changed out of all recognition from the old full-service days.

At the Leo Burnett lunch afterwards (there’s always a lunch, Richard would have approved) I found myself talking to several ex-colleagues about today’s world, of adtech, adblockers, fraud, bots and the rest. One, Mark Heaton a supreme account man of his day asked a very pertinent question, a question Hegarty had touched on too.

 Surely, Mark said all these wizzy new media forms are but a delivery mechanism. You still need great ideas; and these great ideas still need exposure, engagement and involvement from those at whom they’re aimed.

 And yet we seem to have become obsessed with the delivery systems, at the expense of the idea. The algorithm trumps the creativity, far too often.

 The result is that digital advertising is in a huge hole, created by over-enthusiastic media agencies many of whom have forgotten that the best media buy in the world is worthless if there is no engaging idea at the end of it, and by middlemen who add little if any value to the advertising process.

 The result of this mess suddenly came swimming into sharp focus when consumers decided they had had enough and started voting with their adblockers.

 Only a couple of weeks ago, the head of online advertising’s trade body, the IAB’s President and CEO Randall Rothenberg was ranting against adblockers. He described them as: ‘unethical technology companies seeking to divert ad spending into their own pockets’. There was talk of legal action.

 It didn’t it seems occur to him that consumers are choosing to use blockers in large part because of the excesses of the online ad business – excesses that have led to volume of delivery being placed well above the value, quality and relevance of ideas.

Then, hallelujah, yesterday the IAB apparently saw the light. Their SVP of Technology and Ad Operations, Scott Cunningham said: ‘We messed up….As technologists, tasked with delivering content and services to users, we lost track of the user experience’. Adblocking is the inevitable consequence of the industry screwing up.

 The IAB has decided to address the issue through a set of principles called LEAN (Light, Encrypted, Ad Choice Supported and Non-Invasive) that will ‘help guide the next phase of advertising technical standards for the global digital advertising supply chain’.

 Recognising the error of your ways is a good first step along the path to redemption.

 We’ll forgive them the terrible acronym, and language that bears only a passing resemblance to English if the online ad industry as a whole can start to behave as an integral part of the advertising business, a business where ideas are still paramount.



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