Behind the accelerating crisis in advertising lie challenging new rules for building, growing and sustaining brands

While the rosé flowed freely at this year’s Cannes Lions, dark and heavy clouds, that have been threatening on the far horizon, suddenly appeared overhead.

It looks, this time, like a perfect storm.

The Information Commissioner’s Office has, finally, landed a direct hit on adtech in the UK, ruling that it’s operating illegally, on the basis of the abuse of consumers’ data protection rights. While the US remains, for now, relatively adtech-friendly, we’ve seen comparable regulatory instances elsewhere in Europe.

P&G has announced the move of its already diminishing ad budget – last year’s spend was $7.1bn, and the plan is to have shrunk it by a further $2bn within 2 years – away from the large agency networks and towards new, small agencies.

This is, as we know, far from an isolated instance. To the contrary, when the world’s biggest advertisers – conservative spenders every one, whose survival and growth depend entirely on the equity of their huge global brands – cast off from the comfort of such decades-old relationships with their equally sprawling global agency partners, something big is happening.

Or, perhaps, something big has already happened.

Underneath these headlines, the rumbles of discontent about, on one side, consumer dissatisfaction with digital advertising and its associated defensive move, adblocking, and on the other, bot fraud and similar models of large-scale skullduggery, roll on.

Fueled in part by the ease and economies afforded by programmatic technologies, the in-house brand agency continues to win friends and gobble up the budget from both media and creative agencies.

We have, of course, seen a fair bit of this kind of threat over the past 10 years, since Google and Facebook – no coincidence here – have taken up residence on the front page of almost every brand brief.

And during that time, the debate has flip-flopped – in a post-Internet update of that age-old battle for love, between planning and creative – from the merits of targeting, hyper-targeting and retargeting of ads (the “data knows best” argument) to the brand benefits of great creative work. And back again.

For those marketers for whom the digital Kool-aid has worn off, who are able to take a long, strategic step back from these cyclical skirmishes, this is no longer a useful fight.

Clearly, the digital revolution, as it has already done so much and so often, is now overturning the role and the rules of brand building, and at a far deeper level than we have been comfortable admitting.

The context within which advertising has worked so well, one where value between all the key stakeholders – brands, content providers, channels and audiences – has been nicely balanced, has shifted. Moreover, the idea that advertising has some form of “benevolent utility” for its audience – if only in funding, historically, the shows we love to watch – has lost much of its currency.

And yet the fundamental beliefs and philosophies of old-school, pre-Internet advertising remain stubbornly tough to shift.

On the industry side, a number of almost tautological notions have, until now, staunchly and quite effectively defended the ongoing role and value of advertising. Underpinning them all is the long-held ad metric of the impression, the unit of audience attention that tells us that – if only peripherally – a brand message is received.

Surely billions have by now been invested, not without good reason, in the measurement, the weighing up of impressions achieved, and the plotting of future ones. If creative advertising is an art, this has been the science that has underwritten it.

Furthermore, the arrival of interactive – soon to become digital – media, close to 30 years ago, began to put pressure on the supremacy of the impression.

The global consumerization of the personal computer, and now the smartphone, alongside an unstoppable flood of enabling software, have moved our audience sharply forward, from being passive passengers in the back of the media plane to the pilot’s seat in the cockpit. We are – for much of our digital day – actively engaged in managing our experience as highly connected human beings.

Sticking with the flight motif, advertising impressions have had an increasing battle against a headwind of audience attention that is not only quantitatively fragmented across a plethora of channels but also – and this is important to fully grasp – qualitatively thinned by consumer empowerment. Simply put, consumer media behavior and expected value have moved significantly away from passive consumption to what we might call “active co-option”.

We no longer just watch stuff. We do stuff.

The answer to advertising’s conundrum is, as it turns out, right in front of our eyes. Looking at the home screens of our smartphones, the apps that we come back to repeatedly are, almost without exception, not those that offer passive watching experiences. They are enabling services. Often basic, labor-saving utilities.

Indeed, Mark Zuckerberg – ingenuously, since it has helped Facebook to sidestep the moral responsibilities and legal liabilities of being a publisher – continues to speak of the company as a utility.

It’s services that consumers from here on use and value. On or offline, a great service now trumps a great product. Every single time.

While the language of advertising value has certainly evolved over the past 10 years, the industry has – and as an advisor, I’ve been along for the whole of this ride – stuck stubbornly to the increasingly flimsy guns of its impressions.

Accepting the new power of the connected consumer, we have sought “engagement” and “experience”. In media terms, though, the measurement of these elusive imperatives – we have yet to successfully get behind the consumer eyeball and into their mind – invariably involves some sort of reduction back to the trusty impression: “one engagement = ten impressions”. Really?

The most pernicious and resilient of all current marketing watchwords, however, is “relevance”, the touchstone of adtech. It’s rarely if ever, challenged, but this single good intention paves much of the road to the hell of low-impact advertising.

Not that our brand communications should ever be irrelevant. But look closer. Isn’t it, in fact, the #1 job of advertising to be “irrelevant”? To apply powerful insight and creativity to gently challenge and nudge the disinterested consumer? Persuasion, almost by definition, begins with an assumption that minds need to be changed.

There is an obsession with – at any cost at all – sucking as much data as we can from the environment, to convert it into brand messaging that, in the end, tells these newly powerful consumers that we know who they are … what they’re doing … where they live. Again … Really?

Brand messaging, of course, is certain to retain a central role in effective advertising. But the honest, mutually beneficial value exchange that has, for well over a century, made advertising the staple food of brand building, has been broken.

There’s a stinging paradox here. The digital giants that have so enthusiastically smashed the shop window – the Googles, the Amazons, the Facebooks – have taken more or less complete ownership of a brand advertiser’s most precious commodity, quality consumer attention. They have also gone on to create the largest and most profitable businesses on the planet. How? By selling that attention back to us, as entirely dominant adtech and e-commerce systems.

How on earth have they done this?

It’s simple. They’ve done it by providing empowering, must-have, day-to-day – even hour-to-hour – services, that billions of consumers just can’t live without.

They’ve created – and continue to create, at pace and scale – entirely new forms of consumer value, digitally-enabled service value.

There’s another, a deeper sting in this tale. Those pumped-up, data-nourished, super-relevant impressions – yes, they’re still alive and, sort of, well – that adtech sells back to brands are, given the dispersion and dilution of consumer attention, combined with their irrepressible delight in smart, enabling services – in fact of far less value to brands than their apparently dumb, analogue predecessors.

The cost of their CPM’s is built on a cultural fiction. And we know this, really, from our own experience. Don’t we?

Those perfectly targeted ads, that interrupt our reading of an article on our smartphone, resulting in a kind of automatic mental blinkering. With a quiet mental “Doh!” we glide over them to the next piece of text … the stuff that we actually wanted to read. Have you ever exclaimed, en passant, “Wow! That advertisement was particularly relevant to me!”? Me neither.

It sounds absurd, but this is not far off what the purveyors of adtech are selling to their brand clients. The idea that a consumer is somehow delighted – at least somewhat flattered – that an ad vaguely corresponds to their previous purchase history or recent web searches. Once again … Really?

Cut to another scene. Before the movie begins in our new, ever-more-luxurious cinemas, we sink into those largely irrelevant, luscious widescreen commercials like a warm bath. Yes. Really.

Enough said.

So. How does advertising begin to repair this damaged value exchange, to rebuild those precious permissions? To become trustworthy again?

It’s not the messages, stupid. It’s the services.

First, marketers must put down their infatuation with consumer attention. Many – surely most – of the digitally-enabled services we treasure are intelligent utilities, ones that remove work and risk for the user. Hard and expensive to build. Very easy and very satisfying to use.

In the hunt for post-digital impressions, in the name of engagement, experience, and relevance, most brand advertisers have been playing King Cnut, throwing trillions of unwanted – and yes, often “relevant” – messages against the heaving waves of shrugging consumer indifference and irritation.

Paradoxically, in many sectors it will be the brands that demand the minimum possible amount of our screen time, of our media attention, while removing painful, boring legwork and freeing us from drudgery, that will command the value, the loyalty, even the advocacy of their customers.

The messaging platforms we have built, the data we continue to hoard and sieve through, perhaps – with a little thought – the apps we’ve offered … all of these can, I believe, be retooled in the name of must-have, smart, valuable consumer services. And I can’t think of any industry sectors – and within those, many huge marketing and advertising budgets – that won’t benefit significantly from what I’d argue is an irresistible Copernican shift.

But the precious commodity now – arguably this is the essential must-grasp insight in our debate – is no longer the content that advertisers have, one way or another, sponsored for well over a century. It’s the attention of our cranky, demanding, powerful connected consumer.

Return On (brand) Investment has continued – with all the precision and certainty that digital promised and has never delivered – to be a vexing problem for advertising. A new metric will, I’d argue, prove invaluable as we navigate the new territory of building our brands with services: Return On (consumer) Attention.

As in any court, those courtiers who fail to find ways of usefully serving the queen will soon enough find themselves headless. To hang onto our heads, we now need to very carefully read the writing that’s now on every screen in the world. And act accordingly. Advertising As A Service may offer a less than appealing acronym – AaaS, anyone? But when we are finally able to wean ourselves off the tired teat of impression-based brand messaging and come to accept the more nutritious, brand-building vittles of value-added services, we will be able to say that advertising has, finally, got digital.