Are some senior ad agency folk still living in the past?

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Recently there was a good read about what ails advertising today. The writer, an advertising veteran, lamented the lack of craft in the business, driven largely by the advent of ‘digital’ and technology – a common grouse from senior ad agency folk. The points made were spot on.

My theory is that creativity lost its way during the digital boom years. Almost overnight, online software meant anybody could create their own layouts. Our clients decided art direction wasn’t a precious craft skill any more. If their 12 year-old could crank out pictures and typography in 10 minutes, anybody could. A whole generation of digital native ‘designers’ was born.

Many senior marketing & advertising folk hold a dim view of digital advertising and its practitioners. In many ways they are right. There’s far too much of a checklist approach…a token presence on new platforms, jumping on to the ‘latest fad bandwagon’ than any effort towards long term brand building. As a practicing ‘social strategist’ said, ‘If you can speak in cliche, you can get the job‘.

Creating cool content does not mean we’re properly marketing. There’s a huge lack of strategy and insights. There’s a huge canyon between executives and entry-level.

In my experience, many senior folks in advertising are still unsure, uncomfortable about how best to use digital platforms for branding – be it at a personal level or for brands. They hold a dim view about digital advertising and are also poor users of such media at a personal level. So we have a situation where we have the grey-haired, old world advertising folk (some of them referred to as digital migrants) who aren’t very comfortable with digital and a bunch of Snapchatting youngsters who have no formal training or skill in marketing and lack experience in brand building. I am not suggesting that either of them – brand building or understanding of new media is rocket science. It is a matter of applying common sense, having a flair for how business & branding works and more importantly, having the right attitude towards learning, adapting to new concepts.

Back in 2012, when I was in advertising, I distinctly remember many senior ad agency folks see social media and ‘digital’ as a fad, a waste of time and were rather clueless about how to use it effectively for branding. Such an attitude comes in the way of seeing the potential of new media for marketing communication. In turn, it results in believing that the old-world approach of a conventional TV spot is the only effective marketing tool…and gets slapped on YouTube years later as a long-form video.

I am not suggesting that use of new media is the panacea for all brand ills. Presence in digital platforms is not a must for all brands. The reality is that consumers are on social media and consume media differently nowadays (conventional television is still very strong) – but don’t really want brands intruding that space, unless they offer something ‘valuable’ in return. That ‘value’ could be entertainment, new news, utility etc., executed in a manner that doesn’t feel like an intrusion. Moreover, brands need to focus on ‘action’- actually doing, demonstrating what they preach rather than merely sending out a message (like in the old days). That’s the secret sauce behind marketing success of campaigns like ‘Thank You, Mom‘, Old Spice, Volvo Trucks, Blendtec blenders to name a few.

Volvo epic split
The demonstration stunts of Volvo Trucks are a great example of effective new media usage. They were rooted in the product, conveyed a benefit, went beyond mere telling but showing and were entertaining. So they ended up going viral. Consumers didn’t feel they were being force fed ‘advertising’.

Another stick to beat new media usage is the pointlessness of brand communication in digital platforms. Most of the social media posts (be it tweets, Facebook posts or YouTube videos) are banal, run of the mill and plain irrelevant to the brand. There was a time when every social media agency handling the Facebook page of a brand would post something related to ‘Monday morning blues’ on er…Mondays and ‘TGIF’ on Fridays. There will also be brand posts linking themselves to sports celebrities in the news – however tenuous or irrelevant the link. These are done in the mistaken belief that brands need to get into ‘conversations’ with consumers on social media. So, yes, there is a truck load of banal, irrelevant noise from brands on social media.

But that’s true of traditional media too. So I find it amusing when senior ad agency folk mock the stupid use of social media by brands. A majority of all advertising is mediocre. How is a ‘bad Facebook post’ different from a template-driven, bland radio spot? Or a boring 30-second TV spot? Those were examples of money down the drain too. The difference is that traditional advertising was clearly seen as a ‘paid’ message from an advertiser whereas new media is a (fake) attempt to blend in with the media environment of today (at least those on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube) in the disguise of ‘content’.

Many agencies which claim to adapt to new media (by opening digital divisions or buying out agencies) pay lip service to digital, in my view. How many ad agencies have active blogs? Or use platforms like Twitter and YouTube effectively? It is common to see social media ghost towns (a concept Tom Fishburne mentioned in 2011!) even today among ad agency properties on the web. But the same agencies would recommend effective use of content for ‘thought leadership’ and such like to agencies. Do they practice what they preach? So just as juniors (especially in digital) have a thing or two to learn from the seniors, the reverse is also true. Many seniors need to give up on thinking conventional media straight away and see how new media can be effectively used.

So my limited points are these:

– poor or sub-optimal use of media for marketing communication is a phenomenon common to advertising for decades. A small percentage of marketing communication stands out from the clutter driven by its relevance, craft and finesse in execution
– many senior folks in advertising still see new media through traditional media lens. They also have disdain for new media, partly driven by their own discomfort and lack of use of such
– So while people are right in calling out the lack of marketing sense among digital natives and finesse in today’s advertising , there is a need for change in attitude and behaviour among traditional ad agency seniors and their companies when it comes to new media
fundamentals of advertising & marketing communication have not and will change, as they are based on human instincts. But brands need to adapt to new media and the focus should be about doing something relevant (useful or entertaining) for their consumers and hoping that would get talked about

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