How should we rethink the advertising industry?

I enjoy seeing people poke business models, but it’s important that when you look to disrupt a business that you do so without assumptions. The call by Marc Ruxin of Universal McCann to rethink the creative department of ad agencies is a great idea but my sense is that his suggestions still assume the battle is for attention, and that winning that attention and holding it via great content, well presented, is critical to achieving consumer preference.

The noise preventing that, he says, is formidable. Brands are trying to get their messages heard and acted upon in an environment of 150 million tweets a day, 700 billion minutes a month on Facebook, 300 million global players of Zynga games, 200 million Daily Deal subscribers …

I’m far from convinced though that attention and preference are a linear progression. And I think we need to insert at least three further filters into that zig-zag of decision making: notice, consider and purchase. You may gain a consumer’s attention momentarily, but until they choose to escalate that attention and actually take notice of you, there’s no way they’re going to consider you, never mind prefer you – and even then, they may not buy.

It seems to me Mr Ruxin is still trying to run an interruption model based on see, want, get. I feel he still thinks content is the make or break, and he’s now looking to adapt that model to fit the new channels that consumers now occupy their time with. That doesn’t so much require a rethink of the creative department as it requires the creative and media departments to rethink their approach and to adopt new skills. Not quite the same thing.

In his article, the author suggests: “It is a new world: Brands + Skillfully Placed Media Investments + The Right Platforms + The Right Partner + The Right Offer = Creative Success” Two things about that. I don’t think that’s a new world at all. That equation doesn’t look any different from the way it looked when I started in advertising – it’s just that the media, platforms and partners themselves have changed. And there’s no reason to believe that ‘Creative Success’ is the result anyone should be seeking anyway. That’s an agency metric, not a commercial one.

I absolutely agree with Mr Ruxin though that we need to be having this discussion, and I sincerely mean what I say here to be taken as dialogue not refutation. So, rather than just being negative about a call for change, let me give my own perspectives on what needs to run, and I think for the most part is happening, inside the agency world. It’s not a definitive list by any means, but hopefully it hints at where the model might go, philosophically at least:

1. It’s not what brands do for people that matters, it’s what people feel they can do with brands. The dynamics of the brand-consumer relationship have almost completely reversed. Consumers identify with brands because they see them as an expression, and perhaps an extension, of their own views. Tricking the consumer, catching them out, interrupting them … these are all outmoded ideas. Increasingly I think it’s just an expectation on behalf of consumers that brands will be where consumers expect them to be.

2. The creative process is no longer just about what you create, it’s about what you start, inspire and encourage. The creative product itself is only as important as its catalytic effect. If it doesn’t work, it has no value.

3. It’s not just about how much attention you get, it’s about how much uptake you get and how much product you shift – and keep shifting.

4. It’s not about platforms or environments, it’s about encounters, and more particularly it’s about encounters that resonate with people. Resonance, not just presence, generates attention and more importantly, engagement, interest and desire. The platform or environment is the means for that, not the end.

5. Increasingly a communications issue is the flash point for widespread thinking not the defining point for what needs to be considered. I completely agree that a wider range of people need to be involved in the creative process, but I also believe that the creative process needs to extend beyond the realm of preparing and sending messages. If you look at how companies like Ideo, Stone Yamashita or Fahrenheit grapple with a problem, it’s about way more than what is said.

6. Agencies are successfully making the move from advertising to communications to ideas. Now they need to make the radical move to answers. Ideas are wonderful, but that level of involvement alone is increasingly falling short of what’s required. My sense is that agencies need to continue to call on the thinking, disciplines and frameworks of their craft but to apply those to new scenarios. In my own case, whilst I freely admit that I struggle with the technical aspects of social media, for example, many of the ways one might draw on to engage and involve consumers are straight out of the direct marketing playbook – they just need to be adapted for new dynamics and expectations.

Finally, I am optimistic this will happen. Creative agencies have extraordinary experience in building brands. They have hugely talented people capable of achieving great outcomes. They absolutely need to draw on what they know, because there is huge value and insight in that experience – but they need to do so across a changing commercial and social plane. No one conversation will solve this … but at least a whole lot of people are talking. And that can only be a good thing.


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