Some years ago on a flight, my seatmate asked me what I did for a living. I told him I was president/CCO of an advertising agency. I was reasonably proud of my position, but he looked at me as if my dog had just died, and everyone knew about it but me.
“Advertising…” he fumbled, “does that even mean anything anymore? Is it still… relevant?”
He was making an observation based on personal experience and went on to tell me about his household—four kids, working wife, proliferation of personal technology, etc. In short, a “normal” successful family, the type of which all my clients paid us to connect their products to.
Except he seemed to be saying that, what with the explosion of media delivery methods and content models, increasing ability to opt-in or out, time-shift and block, coupled with limitless access to information, advertising was becoming even less relevant than it had ever been. And the giant sums paid for impact and awareness were, more than ever, wasted.
This was five years ago; the last ice age. Cue ominous music.
For a long time, I was already feeling a lot of what he so clearly stated. Simple observation in my own house told me something needed to change, and fast. By the time my kids were six or seven, they were ninja experts at avoiding or deleting the hundreds of millions of dollars companies spent to foist messages upon them.
Cue more ominous music….
Shortly after that memorable flight, I went to work at a large media company just beginning its journey to help clients respond to the changes in peoples’ behavior that was so drastically disrupting their traditional marketing efforts.
Leadership correctly realized that for brands to connect and matter and succeed in the new environment, “creativity,” as our industry defined it, was going to need to be completely reimagined—and that a media company is the perfect Petri dish in which to do it.
Clients recognized that standard methods of reaching and motivating folks were doing neither, and asked the company for “ideas” with increasing urgency and frequency, even though they couldn’t quite articulate what they were asking for—likely because it hadn’t been invented yet.
I buy the vision completely. Why? Because media companies historically are experts at a lot of important things: partnership access, tech/innovation platforms, investment/measurement, consumer behavior science and insights, to name a few. They look at the world clinically, precisely, neutrally, through the eyes of human beings. Not through the lens of product features or deals.
If you do that, you realize how much more rapidly inured and weary people have become to marketing, while their ability to act on that aversion has grown exponentially. The younger they are, the truer this is.
The other thing you realize with this perspective is that people aren’t looking to brands to help them enjoy life, get things done or even for information. They’re perfectly capable of discovering, aggregating, curating, sharing or ignoring everything they need themselves or with the input of friends.
What to do? Companies still have an awful lot of stuff to sell, and happily, people are still willing to buy stuff. The answer though, probably doesn’t solely look like more ads. Nor even 90-second ads (called “content”) that run on your phone. The solution is probably that and more. Not any one single technique, but an interconnected approach, culminating in an idea designed specifically for the problem it’s meant to solve. They’re called experiences. Experiences matter, they build brands and enhance lives.
A few years ago Forrester defined the agency of the future as “mediator of a value exchange between people and brands.” I like that. Improving that value exchange, although a very difficult thing to do, is the way for everyone to win. And, an opportunity for brands and their idea partners to practice a new type of creativity.
Companies who truly attempt to view the world through people’s eyes acknowledge what they see by responding in their behavior, and by being of genuine service in whatever way that may manifest, will distinguish themselves from their competitors and earn their consumers’ money.
Jonathan Hoffman is President, Experience Design at ZeroDot, a brand consulting agency that is part of Starcom MediaVest Group