Why advertising is walking the fine line of disruption
Technology has changed the game, even if we’re unsure what those changes are. But advertising’s evolution hasn’t ended, says Veronica Millan, Global Chief Information Officer at MullenLowe Group, and those that don’t embrace the future might be consigned to the past.
From the start of the modern-day advertising industry, back when ads for some tincture or another were being placed in newspapers, we ad agencies positioned ourselves at the forefront of knowing how to sell a product or service.
This came with some expected, built-in expertise; we needed to tell our clients the best way to sell their product, to position it in the market, create a buzz for it, establish a relationship with the customer, develop a community and expose the brand to the new generation. All of this came with a price that we were willing to pay. We were happy to hold hands with media and establish different media channels to expose our clients’ products or services. We attracted creative minds to make these ads appealing and interesting. We established the practice of understanding demographics and getting insights into why people purchased those products or services.
We took risks on behalf of clients, certain that our knowledge in how to market a brand would pay off for them in sales, in revenue, in brand recognition and in awards.
We happily took on futurists who could help us predict the upcoming trends, and actively fomented a young workforce that came in with new ideas and vigour to make them real. We took risks on behalf of clients, certain that our knowledge in how to market a brand would pay off for them in sales, in revenue, in brand recognition and in awards. We soaked up all the fresh ideas and innovation that came our way because we knew this was the way that we could build a brand, an experience, an audience.
Then we hit the era of technology.
Above: Social media has changed the way landscape of advertising.
We stumbled at first, then started to get firmer footing. We saw the creation of firms that worked differently and called themselves a ‘digital agency’, specialising in a world we had not created. But advertising is flexible and open, and we started to take on the digital era, and then some. We absorbed digital natives into our agencies and believed that we were just continuing the cycle that we have always taken; we look for the new, we adopt the new, we become the new.
We too stand on shaky ground, telling our clients the best way to handle their own shaky ground as they migrate through their own digital transformation.
But something different happened this time. It wasn’t that this digital era was just a new media channel, or just a new type of communication, and that we were now caught up in another industrial revolution (one we created and heralded in the 20th century). Instead, this digital era is here now, and we too stand on shaky ground, telling our clients the best way to handle their own shaky ground as they migrate through their own digital transformation.
The digital disruption was also facilitated by legacy business models that effect cultural and organisational structures and prevent companies from acting quickly to the disruption. Except that, in advertising, we do move fast, but we haven’t changed our business model in decades. Moving fast has probably kept us on that fine line between disrupting and being disrupted. We take tech and transform it into channels that our clients can use (and are more risk-averse to experiment in). We also take tech and use it to transform the way we work, so much so that, at this point, we take for granted all the tech that goes into our day-to-day.
Above: Tech tools have transformed the way we work.
We complain when the internet doesn’t work, or when our email crashes, or if our IT department has decided to send out a patch that has to be installed that very day. But we don’t realise the transformative power of Adobe’s Creative Cloud, something that allows us to reiterate an idea in an infinite number of ways that are extremely low-cost. We take the technology in a production team for granted; the QLED screens and the cloud-storage apps we now use are technical marvels that lower the barrier to entry to our industry (anyone can buy Adobe CC or some cloud storage).
Will the message get lost if Facebook buys all the social media out there? How do we plan for a social media that doesn’t exist today, in a format we don’t know will be popular?
Today, though, the social media that disrupted traditional media is being disrupted by itself. Each iteration of the new social media ‘app of the day’ leads the other social media companies to absorb that new tech (have you seen how Instagram wants to be the new TikTok? Can we now admit that Facebook is for the older generations?).
This leaves in question how we adapt and adopt our planning as we decide which channels to use. Will the message get lost if Facebook buys all the social media out there? How do we plan for a social media that doesn’t exist today, in a format we don’t know will be popular? Has Clubhouse figured out their advertising revenue model yet, or will it just be a blip in the history books?
Above: Creativity is not enough anymore, advertising professionals must become 'technocreatives'.
The pandemic was a test for our industry, one that showed which agencies had adopted technology at their core, which agencies had a strong culture of collaboration and a flexible approach due to people’s ingenuity, creativity, judgement, and expertise. Qualities which allowed them to keep going even if the physical offices were closed.
Data... is the raw material for the future of our industry. The question is whether we can absorb this new technology and make it ours before we lose the game.
But lest you, dear reader, feel that we will never get disrupted, we are still being disrupted. The pandemic tested our fortitude to advance our technology usage, but it didn’t cure the ill. Today, we still have a number of factors that continue to disrupt us, some of which are partly of our making, others which are external to us. Big data, artificial intelligence, and machine learning are making advances into our industry – programmatic advertising was just the start. There are now tools that will create the copy, test the copy over thousands of iterations, and discover which was the best language to use for that digital ad. The data points that this creates is the raw material for the future of our industry. The question is whether we can absorb this new technology and make it ours before we lose the game.
What’s clear is that agencies that don’t embrace the technology for what it is – the new world order, where tech comes first, will lose out. Creativity is not enough anymore – we must become technocreatives, offering technology-first solutions to our clients.
Above: Advertising companies must embrace technology in order to thrive.
Unless they’re a digital native, most clients are going through their own transformation or disruption in their products and services. Our solutions need to consider that the first environment in which most people will interact with a brand, product, or service will be through technology. How is that client set up for success in that interaction? Or does the customer journey stumble over real world obstacles and prevent that seamless experience in their digital universe?
Advertising companies are no longer competing with each other. We are competing with the tech companies that create the media channels we use.
Advertising companies are no longer competing with each other, and those who think they are fail to see the bigger picture. We are competing with the tech companies that create the media channels we use, the consulting companies which understand that digital disruption is fixed through technology (including martech and adtech), and with our own clients who see an opportunity to use our old business model against us.
The talent war is real, and agencies need to be at the cutting edge of this disruption in order to thrive. What’s your agency doing to stay ahead?