Beware the Ad-Industrial Complex.
I’ve been accused in the past of speaking and writing almost entirely in metaphor, and I’m afraid I’d have to plead guilty. They’re just so darned handy in making sense of things. But let me warn that what follows may be the granddaddy of all industry metaphors…with a little ancient history tossed in.
I heard on the Radio that Monday of this week was the 50th anniversary of President Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell speech, the one in which he famously warned against the influence of the “Military Industrial Complex,” the collection of arms makers, former generals and politicians who would seek to perpetuate its own survival and growth. Eisenhower — career military man and architect of the European victory — was no fan of perpetual military buildup. In fact, he cut military budgets each year of his presidency. The “Military Industrial Complex,” in Eisenhower’s view, had simply lost connection with its purpose and become self-directed.
Later that day I waded into Danielle Sacks Fast Company article on “The Future of Advertising.” The article is a tome by web standards, but it paints a rather stunning picture of yet another “Complex” that gotten dated, out of control, self-directed and ultimately devoted to feeding itself. In the same way that the Military Industrial Complex sought always more spending, more planes, more submarines, the “Advertising Industrial Complex” perpetually seeks more spending — more advertising.
Last March in this blog I urged digital marketing people to “Stop Worshiping at the Altar of Advertising,” a message that takes on even more resonance in light of the Fast Company article. That piece begins by describing a boot camp aimed at helping “traditional advertising execs” hone their skills and imaginations to compete on this new battlefield. But the very nature of marketing has changed so drastically that those agencies, media providers and services rooted in the Ad-Industrial Complex may still be, unwittingly and perpetually, fighting the last war with new weapons.
The defenders of the advertising status quo continually call for more spending, more firepower, more large weapons systems. Today’s overemphasis on “targeting” and “optimization” are our version of laser guided bombs. But the truth is that no matter how hard we work to improve advertising, we are simply further refining that which we already have too much of. Marketing today is a series of skirmishes being fought in alleys and jungles. It’s up close, personal, hand-to-hand. It calls for not just different weapons, but a fundamental shift in perspective. And in some ways a return to fundamentals.
If I were starting a company today focused on helping marketers bring their products and ideas to consumers, I’d look far outside the Ad-Industrial Complex. And given the shape of the business described in Fast Company, it appears many marketers see things the same way.