The History Boy

It’s a curious thing that whereas many media people of my generation find it essential to learn as much as we can about the digital world, many digital natives currently populating the media world do not seem to consider it in any way relevant to learn anything from or about the past.

Every so often I feel the need to remind you why this is called The Cog Blog. Although I do use cogs on this site as an illustration of what happens when you ‘join the dots’ in thinking, more relevantly perhaps Cog stands for Cynical Old Git; and it’s certainly true that over the years I have become more cynical than I used to be about the advertising and media businesses. It’s also true that I’m getting pretty old – at least by the standards of the advertising and media businesses.

The major benefit my advanced years brings (beyond increasingly finding carpet slippers and a pipe strangely attractive items) is experience; the sense that many of the concepts, the issues, the debates that occupy the pages of the trade press these days have indeed been there before.

It’s easy to say that each generation finds the past an irrelevance – but actually it isn’t true. When I was learning my trade in the old full service ad agencies I could have bored for England with my knowledge of the great men of the industry and the issues of the day. I could have told you all about Bill Bernbach and Rosser Reeves, David Ogilvy and Leo Burnett. I made it my business to understand what USP’s were all about, and I did my best to understand the theories of Simon Broadbent and John Philip Jones. Being interested in stuff outside of your particular job function wasn’t particularly unusual – there were groups to go to and conferences to attend. Nowadays too many groups and conferences are excuses for sales pitches by sponsors – which is why I generally don’t bother going.

Does this lack of interest in the past, this narrowness in thinking only about the immediate present matter? Well, when it comes to the core theories on how advertising works I think it does.

Nowadays there is an understandable interest in short-term advertising effects. Fair enough; times are hard, Boards demand results, and the digitisation of media channels means that it is more possible than ever before to track results. Attention spans are short (and I’m talking about professional attention spans, not just how long the average consumer can focus on one thing before casting around for something on which to multi-task), and so as a result we expect the model to be spend the money, count the return.

But as those who’ve been around a bit know, brands aren’t built like that. Brands are built over time; in Jeremy Bullmore’s words, “people build brands as birds build nests, from scraps and straws we chance upon”. Some of those scraps are of course via short-term activities such as what used to be referred to as direct response ads, but to stretch Jeremy’s analogy to breaking point, it would be a pretty poor nest built only out of one size or one type of scrap.

Many people in advertising agencies understand this well, and are well-versed in communicating the benefits to a business of long-term brand building. Yet it is fairly unusual to come across digital media agency managers well informed as to how different media strategies can help build healthy brands.

Certainly they can explain very well how digital works and what programmatic buying means (actually that’s a lie, no one can explain what ‘programmatic’ means as it mutates to mean whatever the speaker wants it to mean). But they often struggle to understand the role that their particular specialism plays within what used to be called ‘the marketing mix’.

Many commentators, including this one have pointed out that what consumers do, and have always done is use a variety of channels and devices to fulfil different needs. So it is with communication planning – advertisers need and use a variety of channels and techniques to build their brands.

It would be smart of the digital generation to understand that this isn’t about throwing rocks at each other (‘my channel’s bigger than your channel’) but rather it’s about collaborating and combining to meet the advertiser’s strategic objectives. And an understanding and appreciation of where we’ve come from can help when it comes to deciding where to go.

  1. And there was I thinking that COG stood for “Completely Omniscient Guru…

  2. Hear Hear. I think I am a COG too………….

  3. I did once consider forming an organistion called JICGRUMP but by cynicism overtook me.
    However, to be serious, isn’t one of the problems that advertisers struggle with articulating what their ‘strategic objectives’ are? Maybe they have been lost in the tactical jungle of short-termism that that the Old Git alludes to in the blog? Staggering from short term target to short term target has become the norm because it has become measureable by ‘big data’ which seems to have the current ‘momentum’. Beware momentum – lemmings have it.

  4. Love Bullmore’s quote!

  5. So very well put Brian. As a bit of an analogy, just look at today’s youth, who are extremely adept at texting but won’t…or can’t….carry on a narrative phone conversation.

  6. Well said indeed Brian. Apart from anything else, working lives are more interesting and more enjoyable when the broader view is embraced, imho.

  7. I just spent 30 mins explaining that fequency capping was invented 30+ years ago and that programmatic media types need to build in algorithms that reflect JPJ work. NOt ignore it.

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