The Future Of Advertising Is The Past

The Future Of Advertising Is The Past

Recently, I gave a talk at the Minneapolis AdFed. The topic was “what is the future of advertising?” My answer was simply “the past.”

I meant it, too.

The incredible technological and communications advances that have roiled the marketing and advertising world aren’t heralding a brave new dawn. Rather they’re demanding a return to the core principles of the past.

Advertising agencies became famous not just for being snappy dressers, but for creating big ideas that motivated people to do things. They created big ideas that showed deep human insight and empathy. They became pop culture. They made brands part of people’s self-conception and identity. They sold a lot of products. Big ideas and audience motivation weren’t two competing objectives to be balanced—they weren’t two sides of the same coin—they were the very same thing. As David Ogilvy said, “if it doesn’t sell, it isn’t creative.”

Then things changed.

The holding companies started rolling up agencies, building “agency portfolios” where each agency had to fit in a specific niche. Hot new platforms, tactics and technologies popped up resulting in agencies driving for hyper-specialization.

But who builds microsites these days? Who thinks the future is mobile apps? Social media is going in-house. And it’s not the only thing.

These agency-drive changes to our market made us forget about this one critical thing: comparative advantage. It’s actually my very favorite econ term. It means one’s ability to produce something better than others.

We found ourselves in a position akin to Danny DeVito in an action movie. Yes, DeVito is a great actor, but as an action star...?

Chasing new tactics and niche specialties may have goosed revenue short term, but it took us away from our comparative advantage. And it made clients question what our value was. So what is our comparative advantage, and how does it make agencies relevant in the cord-cutting, high-tech, multi-channel world we live in?

It’s these virtues of the past:

Empathy. Agencies provide a third-party point of view, uniquely capable of understanding current and potential audiences.

Storytelling. Agencies can attract top storytelling talent in a way that most corporations can’t.

Motivation. We’re commercial artists. Hucksters. We use our audience understanding and storytelling to get people to do things.

Our comparative advantage is our ability to use creativity to get people to both feel and do things—at the very same time.

So let’s stop running to novelty and grabbing at new tactics.

What we’ve historically done best is what clients need. Think Old Spice, as wonderful and motivating an idea as any Bernbach campaign. It’s an excellent example of the virtues of the past put to work in the media landscape of the now. Think about Riley Hayes’ Gift Back campaign for Delta Air Lines, a campaign that used emotion to get people to use their SkyMiles credit card more. Another example of the virtues of the past working hard in the marketplace of the now.

We need to get back to doing what we’ve historically done best.

We have to do that because it’s what clients need. And it’s something that clients can’t replicate in-house. They need that outside, third-party point of view and that unique agency-type talent to create motivating storytelling. And they’ll get it once agencies recognize that the future of our business lies in the virtues of the past.