Ad Spend and Messaging: It’s the services, stupid

Ad Spend And Messaging: It’s The Services, Stupid

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

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

It looks, this time,like a perfect storm.

The InformationCommissioner’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 themove of its already diminishing ad budget – last year’s spend was $7.1bn, andthe plan is to have shrunk it by a further $2bn within 2 years – away from thelarge agency networks and towards new, small agencies.

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

Or, perhaps, something bighas already happened.

Underneath theseheadlines, the rumbles of discontent about, on one side, consumerdissatisfaction 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 andFacebook – no coincidence here – have taken up residence on the front page ofalmost 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 forwhom the digital Kool-aid has worn off, who are able to take a long, strategicstep 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 fundamentalbeliefs and philosophies of old-school, pre-Internet advertising remainstubbornly tough to shift.

On the industry side, anumber of almost tautological notions have, until now, staunchly and quiteeffectively defended the ongoing role and value of advertising. Underpinningthem all is the long-held ad metric of the impression, the unit of audienceattention that tells us that – if only peripherally – a brand message isreceived.

Surely billions have bynow been invested, not without good reason, in the measurement, the weighing upof impressions achieved, and the plotting of future ones. If creativeadvertising 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 watchstuff. 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 responsibilitiesand legal liabilities of being a publisher – continues to speak of the companyas a utility.

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

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

Accepting the new powerof the connected consumer, we have sought “engagement” and “experience”. Inmedia terms, though, the measurement of these elusive imperatives – we have yetto successfully get behind the consumer eyeball and into their mind –invariably involves some sort of reduction back to the trusty impression: “oneengagement = 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 obsessionwith – at any cost at all – sucking as much data as we can from theenvironment, to convert it into brand messaging that, in the end, tells thesenewly powerful consumers that we know who they are … what they’re doing … wherethey live. Again … Really?

Brand messaging, ofcourse, is certain to retain a central role in effective advertising. But thehonest, 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 theydone this?

It’s simple. They’ve doneit 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 – andcontinue 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’sis built on a cultural fiction. And we know this, really, from our ownexperience. 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, butthis is not far off what the purveyors of adtech are selling to their brandclients. The idea that a consumer is somehow delighted – at least somewhatflattered – that an ad vaguely corresponds to their previous purchase historyor recent web searches. Once again … Really?

Cut to another scene.Before the movie begins in our new, ever-more-luxurious cinemas, we sink intothose 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 mustput down their infatuation with consumer attention. Many – surely most – of thedigitally-enabled services we treasure are intelligent utilities, ones thatremove work and risk for the user. Hard and expensive to build. Very easy andvery 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 manysectors it will be the brands that demand the minimum possible amount of ourscreen time, of our media attention, while removing painful, boring legwork andfreeing us from drudgery, that will command the value, the loyalty, even theadvocacy of their customers.

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

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

Return On (brand) Investmenthas continued – with all the precision and certainty that digital promised andhas never delivered – to be a vexing problem for advertising. A new metricwill, I’d argue, prove invaluable as we navigate the new territory of buildingour 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.

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