Monday 24 June 2019

Steve Dempsey: 'Back to the future for ad sector'

The idea is to bring listeners to Formula One venues and the set of Game of Thrones, pictured, to create entertaining radio programming.
The idea is to bring listeners to Formula One venues and the set of Game of Thrones, pictured, to create entertaining radio programming.
Steve Dempsey

Steve Dempsey

Advertising has gotten itself a bad name. So much so that the calling card for Chris Evans's new radio show with Virgin Radio is that it will be completely ad-free. But hey, this is commercial radio, so the show will be sponsored by Sky, with Evans promoting Sky's channels organically throughout the show. The idea is to bring listeners to Formula One venues and the set of Game of Thrones to create entertaining radio programming.

"So many people advertise everywhere," Evans said. "You turn your phone on and there's an advert. There are so many of them now that we sort of become anaesthetised to them, and so if you actually turn your commercial partner into a storyteller... we're trying this thing, it's never been done before, it's quite ground breaking."

Evans is right about one thing. Ads are everywhere. And the ubiquity of invasive and targeted digital ads seems to be having a negative effect on the perception of ads in other media for audiences and advertisers alike.

One problem is scarcity. There's none left. As a result, it's hard to put a value on the attention garnered by advertising.

Research from a few years back showed that the average American consumer was exposed to anywhere from 4,000 to 10,000 ads every day. This is a stunning number. If absence makes the heart grow fonder, of course we're going to grow to detest ads.

Marketing, as a discipline, dashed headlong into the digital era without pausing to wonder if this was a smart move.

As a result strategic thinking and creative execution were jettisoned in favour of tracking and attribution at scale. Modern advertising is less about imparting information and more about gathering it. Less like WPP, more like the KGB.

There's one other problem: the reductionist attitude in what advertising is and how it functions. Good advertising is more than just a message served up to the largest number of likely consumers at a minimal cost. In many ways, advertising builds a relationship with consumers precisely because it is perceived to be costly and wasteful. A brand buying billboards proclaims that it is worthy of notice to society in general, not just worthy of a few pixels in your newsfeed.

So what can be done? And could advertising possibly save some face in 2019?

Well hopefully GDPR and the ongoing PR disaster around Facebook and other technology companies' approach to privacy will force advertisers to focus less on practices that may amount to infringing on users' privacy rights. So what should they focus on instead? Funnily enough, perhaps Chris Evans has the answer: brands need to rediscover what it means to be storytellers and to use their stories to forge meaningful relationships with consumers.

The best TV campaigns have never lost sight of this basic principle. But it's easier to make an emotional connection on TV. Much harder online, outdoor in print, right? Maybe not. Look at the growth of the direct-to-consumer brands like Dollar Shave Club that have used smart digital advertising to build their business. How have they done it? A clear proposition to the consumer, great creative execution and an awareness that perceived costliness varies depending on the brand in question. Online activity can effectively build brands for smaller start-ups and can fulfil tactical needs, but there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach to advertising.

While brevity will always be the soul of wit, sometimes storytelling takes time. Ads that tell a story that resonates, create intrigue or humour have often been longer or copy heavier than is currently fashionable. The long-form, print-heavy ad has a long heritage. Remember David Ogilvy's man in the Hathaway shirt ad? Sure, the eyepatch-wearing David Niven knock-off screamed intrigue, but the copy drove sales. The call to action is delightfully antiquated, though: "If you want the name of the nearest store where you can buy a Hathaway shirt, send a card to CF Hathaway, Waterville, Maine."

Cadbury showed how this approach still had legs when it came to relaunching the Wispa in 2007. "From a time when…" ran the headline. The body copy was long, but delivered a full page of short bursts of humour and nostalgia. "Ads looked like this. You had big hair. Philip Schofield had brown hair. Your mum wore shoulder pads. Your dad wore Speedos. You had to fight for your right to party." And so it went for a full page, culminating in the message that Wispas were back from the '80s. Maybe the advertising industry needs to do something similar - go back to the past to figure out its future.

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