Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Reflections on My Next Decade in Advertising

Last year, I wrote two posts about the state of the advertising industry, and why I felt like it might be a good time to get out of it. At the time, I was moving to Google, and wondered if and when I would ever haunt the halls of an ad agency again.

It didn't take very long. I'm now back at my old agency, and as I reread those two posts this morning, I started thinking about what was right and wrong about my not-so-old take on the business. So I wanted to take the time to revisit those ideas, and sketch out why I think advertising has a bright future.

First, a note for those of you who think that advertising as a business is going to be dismantled by tech companies like Google: you are missing out on amazing opportunities to build brands and do more meaningful work because you're in love with old, unaccountable media. Right now, media supply is the constraining factor for most marketers, meaning you have to spend a lot to connect with the right people. With the improvements in targeting (which moving into the offline world as well) along with the explosion of engaging content, it will be increasingly possible to spend less in reaching your audience. With less money going into buying your reach, it leaves more to create content your audience might actually enjoy, even seek out. This should be a great thing for advertising agencies. (And if you don't believe this is possible at mass audience scale, don't believe me, believe P&G, which has already moved pretty far down this path.)

Second, a little bit of self-criticism. Last year, I wrote:
What do I mean about 'relationships before reach'? Simply put, that the number of people who saw your ad is no longer the standard for evaluating success. A campaign should be winning over converts, true believers who will help advocate for your brand. If you have a great product, this is very doable. Just create the story of why your product can improve your customers' lives, put the product in their hands, and watch the fireworks. (Easier said than done, I know.)
This now strikes me as a bit of digital magical thinking (and there's a lot of that out there) that isn't supported by the way we actually live. For example, I'm a big fan of Narragansett Beer. I follow them on Facebook, read their blog, and ask for my wife to go out-of-state to buy me some as a Christmas present. I am as much of an advocate as they can reasonably hope for, and yet as far as I can tell I haven't influenced anyone to go out and buy the stuff. Now, I'm sure they have other advocates who do drive sales for them, but activating your true believers is not often going to be enough to build your brand in a competitive marketplace unless your product is truly extraordinary. Like, "This pill made me grow five inches, cleared my skin, boosted my IQ and healed my broken leg," extraordinary. Otherwise, you're still going to want to get your message out their to a lot of people who have never heard of you before, which means reach still matters. A lot.

So what is the next decade going to hold? Well, last year I wrote: "What is this illness [in the advertising industry]? In short, it is a business model that is predicated on gaining efficiencies through scale, when that scale is likely to prove inefficient for the indefinite future."Advertising folks have made a lot of money because they could navigate the complexities of the 20th century communications world and get a message out there. As I wrote then, there is going to be pain as the models built up over decades collapse. But we can now reach consumers more efficiently, though the path to do so is often even more complex than the old model. So, I anticipate spending the next chunk of my career answering two questions:
  1. How do we reach the right people at the moments when they're receptive to what we have to say?
  2. How do we delight them once they've given us their attention?
A few people have started to figure this out. But there's lots of room for innovation, and the only sure way to fail at it is not to try, while the path to success probably involves failing fast. (By the way, I predict "fail fast" will become the new "think outside the box" in the next few years.)

My bedrock belief is that audience attention has replaced media spend as the limiting factor on advertising's success. So our starting question has to evolve from, "What do I want to say and where can I tell it to my audience?" to, "What does my audience care about and how can my brand connect with that?" That shifted focus will cause a cascade of other changes in the business, but ultimately make advertising more enjoyable to make and to consume.

But I'm still thinking all this through, people, so feel free to try and change my mind. Where is advertising going, and how do we get there?

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