Where We’ve Gone Wrong: An Illustrated History

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 we’ve historically been reasonably liked. Ad people tend to be curious, interesting, 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 used to hang on to a survey finding from (I think) the Advertising Association claiming that 51% of people preferred TV ads to the programmes 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.

But over the last ten years or so we seem to have gone wrong. The advertising we produce, as numerous studies (including work from the Advertising Association) testifies is not trusted. Ad people are vying for bottom place with estate agents 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 / adidas / Guinness / Audi ad last evening?’) to a footnote (‘I can’t remember any ads I’ve seen’).

People still remember ‘Coke’s Hilltop’. That was 1971. And the Hovis Hill (1973), Guinness Surfer (1999), or 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 last 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 is structural. Full-service ad agencies forced a degree of inter-departmental 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 Mr Leo Burnett said: ‘No one of us is as good as all of us.’ Leo had never heard of social media where it’s more ‘No-one knows as much as me.’

Some is societal. We live in a social media age of bubbles and echo chambers. We’ve convinced ourselves that personalisation and addressability are the cures to all our ills – whereas in fact consumers find an excessive or over-obvious amount of over-personal contact from advertisers ‘creepy’.

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

In a nutshell, we’ve turned what was a skilful business that mixed art and science into an exercise in mass-optimisation. 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, selling in data solutions the details of which they don’t really understand, and 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 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 supersite on the Cromwell Road.

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 judgement 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 centre stage. Well, we have been there for a while now and I think it’s fair to say that having the industry lead by the buyers and sellers of media hasn’t been an unqualified success.

But – there is hope. The next Cog Blog will explain.

  1. I couldn’t have put it better!

  2. How kind (how belatedly!). Thanks Julian.

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