Back in December, I was lucky enough to be able to speak at an event called "War of the Words" sponsored by Campaign Magazine. The event asked various speakers under 30 from four disciplines (media, planning, creative and brands) to address how their area was the best positioned to fix declining trust in advertising and generally be the future of the industry. While I didn't win, I did get to spend the day listening to some incredibly brilliant people and had a great time. Afterwards, I found this long-form version of my presentation and thought that it might be a good blog post to discuss with a wider audience. With that in mind, below is my rationale why Media (not in isolation but moreso than the other disciplines) is the future of advertising.
Predicting the future of advertising is pretty complex thing for multiple reasons. Uncertainty around consumer and business trends, technological innovation, economic fluctuations and new products are all things that add to the variability in assuming where we will be as an industry in 1,2 or 5 years.
Before I started to form my prediction though, I did some research. Now assuming this is a media-centric presentation, you may assume that the next few pages are going to be filled with TGI statements such as “I heavily consume period dramas on VOD” or “Drinking 6 pints in one sitting makes you a man – Strongly Agree” (*one of these isn’t an actual word for word statement), but instead I went out amongst the internet for answers. I asked a simple question (“In a few words, what is the future of advertising?”) at a sample of the places one might go for opinions on the internet: Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo! Answers, Quora and 4Chan.
The quality of the answers varied predictably by the source, but several similar themes emerged. Answers such as: “NFC”, “Social Search” & “Micropayments” showed the optimism that technology will move advertising forward. “Personalization”, “Benefitting Customers”, “Crowdsourcing” & “More relevant content” indicated that an increased, or re-established, focus on consumer value would be the key to the future of advertising. “Press Inserts”, “Second-Screen viewing”, “Traditional Media Resurgence”, “VOD” & “Mobile” all showed that certain people believe the future is here in some way already. “Brands as Content Curators”, “Media Agencies as Media Owners”, “Creative Technology” & “Dynamic Creative” all indicated that the future lies within content or creative for some. Finally answers like “Ninjas”, “Medical Marijuana” and various others showed that you probably shouldn’t ask the internet anything serious.
However, out of all the answers given to me on the future of advertising, one really stood out. It came from 4Chan’s “/ad v – Advice board” and simply said, “What the ******** kind of question is that?” Given that there was some other marketing related commentary under it, I think it was serious and this got me thinking, “What kind of question is it?” The future of advertising can mean many things and even though I’ve been charged with saying media will restore trust in advertising and drive the industry into the future, isn’t the question larger than that?
To clarify how big of a concept this is, it’s worth thinking about how advertising works now, but also how it did 100 years ago. Back then, Dr. Walter Dill-Scott wrote a succinctly titled opus simply named, “The Psychology of Advertising: A Simple Exposition of the Principles of Psychology in Their Relation to Successful Advertising”. Now if you dig through the interesting syntax, some questionable publishing production values and a small bit of casual racism in some of the ad examples, you find that the way Dr. Scott envisioned principles to successful advertising isn’t too different than today. While parts of our industry have rapidly upgraded in technical values, the overall objective and framework remains the same.
If this story is delivered well, we drive the consumer towards “action”. This action could be a variety of things: purchase, engagement or advocacy amongst others. All of it boils down to the power of the story to persuade the consumer to exchange something, be it time, social capital or resource.
Creating the “Spectacle”
However, the entire process cannot begin without the consumer’s attention, which is where the “spectacle” comes in. The “spectacle” is the cut-through, the attention grabbing mechanism and the story’s context. It is the reason we as people and consumers would stop, transfer our precious attention to something and consume the story. Without spectacle, as marketers, we are simply unnoticed raconteurs, standing on the street corner holding a placard with an interesting, but unengaged story on it.
This metaphor brings me to another story about spectacle and moves us forward to the 1960’s. In 1969, Dr. Stanley Milgram, of the famous electric shock obedience experiments (which would struggle to get through a uni’s research board without some persuasion today), conducted an experiment that proved generating a spectacle is less about a raconteur and more about 5 people. Now, this isn’t any 5 people specifically, but just 5 normal people and they provide a clear example of how media and advertising must operate.
Dr. Milgram placed 5 people on a random US city street corner, looking up silently at an unremarkable sky scraper. Without any extra interaction from the 5, he measured how many people would stop and join the group, in essence giving their attention to an otherwise unremarkable spectacle in their lives. He replicated the experiment with less and more people, finding that 5 generated a more significant response than smaller or larger groups up to 15 people; thus proving that if you want to market products OOH with random university students, 5 is your optimum number to bribe for the duration of the campaign with beer.
However, the experiment also stands as a great metaphor for the modern landscape of advertising and as an indicator of how consumers allocate their interest. As we all know, the lone consumer wandering through his daily existence isn’t just confronted with one group of 5 people creating a possible spectacle, but millions, which he engages with in a sometimes seemingly random manner. Dr. Milgram would be hard pressed to replicate the significant results he received from his experiment in the same landscape we exist in as advertisers.
So how do we cut through this diaspora of distraction? The answer still lies in our original and basic model. If we put spectacle against the four categories on debate: “creative”, “brands”, “planning” and “media”, we see that each has clear and important roles in success. Creative must tell the story in a way that builds on the generated spectacle and motivate the consumer to action. Brands must foster a clear image; deliver products that protect consumer trust and behave in a manner comparable to the story and spectacle that is created. Planning must deliver clear and actionable insight into the marketing story, coordinating the moving parts and marrying the interesting story with the context around it. Finally media must create and deliver the story through spectacle, generating a context that primes the consumer to act and engage with a similar story next time. If done correctly, these parts come together to create unified messaging to the consumer, coming across as one whole piece of communication.
The difficulty of creating this communication in our modern landscape isn’t without opportunity though. The metaphorical man on the street has provided us with more data about him or her than we have ever had in the history of marketing. Through digital and social media, we are sitting on a veritable glut of information, with Facebook alone serving as one of the most robust sociological databases and experiments in the history of man. With this information, we should be able to drill down to the mythical 1 to 1 marketing level; however, on the whole, we haven’t gotten close.
This is because the data itself isn’t straight forward or easily sortable. We have hundreds of data sources telling us different things about the same person. This shouldn’t entirely be a surprise though. If we look at the way consumers behave online, we know that even they don’t portray themselves in a uniform way. While consumers are providing us with the data itself to understand them, they aren’t making it easy.
A consumer’s behaviour is best described like an online dating profile, possibly the modern day pinnacle of personal marketing and information. A consumer’s real self juxtaposes his perceived self in situations like this. Going to the gym 5 times a week and enjoying museums may be what an individual states that he enjoys online, but this is only because bi-weekly jogging and Rambo 2 on DVD doesn’t mesh with his personal view of himself. Now given enough time, this perceived view will come crashing back to his real self, not from marketing in this situation, but from a conversation with interested women (who apparently can’t appreciate the sophistication of Stallone at his best).
This example shows the need to sort and vet the data provided by consumers to gain true value from it. To continue the metaphor, in 2006 on April Fool’s Day, Google claimed to launch “Google Romance” a solution to the “search problem that is dating”. This is pretty funny, until we consider that Google has probably had the best success at sorting out what we say and what we actually do online. You may say that you enjoy regular gym sessions, but I imagine by now the search engine has indexed your gym records at least a few times.
Why is consumer trust in advertising declining?
So how does this bring us into the situation facing the advertising industry today? Declining trust in advertising is a symptom of the consumer data exchange. Consumers have given us an opportunity in the form of their data and we have yet to do all we can with it. Consumer data exchange isn’t just an issue of privacy; it’s an issue of value as well.
Advertising hasn’t lived up to the data given to us, in the way we either create spectacle or tell the story to generate consumer value. Advances in consumer technology have driven the “action” part of our model (social media, mobile) but we have yet to marry these up to the rest of what tells a unified story. The unified communication model has not stayed ahead of the technological curve. We are beholden to external innovators (hardware and software manufacturers) focused on completely different objectives, instead of using our role as the consumer storyteller to drive technical adoption forward and refine the efficiency of how we advertise.
In order to close this gap, we must utilize consumer data in ways we have yet to consider fully, overcoming problems in sorting and analysis. We must tie together the advances in the “action” part of our model to create a more refined “spectacle” and a better, more relevant “story”. We must drive innovation forward where necessary and bring the consumer along with us, filling holes in innovation and delivering the unified communication experience of the future.
Media is the best placed area to move the advertising industry forward and fix the gap between what we are currently delivering and what consumers expect. Media can provide the personalized context that consumers want for the value exchange with their data. Media can drive the greatest relevance a brand’s story and help to create personalized stories. Media is increasingly able to generate additional sources of data about the consumer simply by being utilized. Media holds the largest role in generating engagement and action.
Consider this; the personalized OOH promised by so much in pop culture (such as in the much bandied example of Minority Report) is imminently achievable today. Combining Facebook photos, an OOH media owner with camera enabled digital screens and an API to encode photos with identity is all you need to roll out a wide spreading solution to personalized OOH. Technologically, we can leverage the personalization of online channels in traditional mediums today, all that holds us back is consumer acceptance to do so. While consumers want the future of advertising, we must gain the trust to deliver it and take them on a journey towards it. Media is the only one of the four sections considered that can generate a context that does this. Media is the main point of exposure for advertising and therefore the most powerful to take consumers on a journey towards a richer experience. Creative, Brands and Planning all benefit from greater consumer data personalization to drive better performance, but they cannot manage or generate the data in the way that media can.
How do we do this?
So how does Media take the lead on this? In short, we must behave more like a “tech startup”, harnessing an entrepreneurial spirit, technical expertise and true data specialisms to create the insights and abilities consumers already expect us to have. This doesn’t mean utilizing innovative technology for advertising that only speaks to the early adopters, but instead taking innovation and integrating it in advertising in a way that makes it accessible, relevant and personalized.
Media agencies and agencies must move more into areas of innovation thought previously off limits. Agencies must begin to question the way we create “spectacle”, driving thinking forward through employee or even company acquisition in the technical sector. We must take those that innovate further up the stream and bring them down to focus on the messaging possibilities for consumers, as well as the use. Media owners must continue to innovate their formats, but they must do this at a faster rate. They must also ensure that the experience provided by new media technologies is a complete and simple one.
QR codes serve as a technology that proves where we are lagging behind as an industry. While we currently find these embedded in all manner of creative and media, the experience of engaging with them doesn’t offer a level of personalization or even ease of interaction that drives the value we deliver forward. QR reader’s possibilities are vast and not integrated into most consumer technology in a standard way. The key point for unlocking the basic interaction QR codes offer is lost if the reader penetration doesn’t deliver on its end. The experience itself is contingent on fast mobile internet, something that only recently has media owners begun to ensure through wi-fi and other connectivity around enabled formats. QR has grown to a quasi-viable format in recent years, but in the time it’s taken to do this, new technology stands poised to make it obsolete. NFC’s emergence will make the QR code nothing more than a missed opportunity to deliver greater messaging to consumers years earlier. QR codes would have benefitted from media owners and agencies working with hardware and technical firms to standardize the way consumers engage with it. Once we ensured the greatest level of adoption possible for the technology, we could have moved forward to test what possibilities existed for leveraging online consumer data through traditional formats enabled with the technology. Instead, we are faced with a stretch of possibility, as some consumers look to engage with QR, while others ignore it and early adopters may soon be better contacted through NFC enabled media. An aggressive stance towards tech innovation from the media industry can consolidate these groups of consumers, creating a standardized but innovative media and advertising experience.
To achieve a scale that avoids this problem, we must drive a technical innovation mentality through all parts of the media industry, from big agencies to small. No longer should we think that cutting edge digital innovation is purview of specialist agencies. We must bring that focus across the agency and marry it with a consumer focus and insight. We can no longer afford to be “digital” or “traditional” agencies, we must be committed to doing both in an aggressive way in both media and across advertising. We must pursue getting the best coding and technological talent into agencies that wouldn’t have recruited this role before. We must move towards driving an MIT media lab mentality in each of our commercial enterprises. The Future of Advertising and Media will only be realized when marketing & technology lives in agencies all over London, just as much as the Silicon Roundabout (or other aptly named areas).