The End of ‘Advertising.’

Accountable direct response ad sellers would often say “Selling is like shaving: if you don’t do some of it every day, you’re a bum.” It was a handy way for DR sellers to contrast their work with that of the ad sellers out there peddling branding – which they dismissed as no more than a con.

But today the slogan takes on a deeper meaning for all ad sellers, publishers, tech and marketing service providers. The jig is up, the news is out, the fatted calf has been picked clean. For generations, we’ve organized our businesses and revenue models around helping advertisers and their legion of agencies spend their money… perhaps a little more accountably, responsibly, efficiently or viewably than the next guy. We’ve all been citizens of ‘the Capital-A-Ad Business,’ and we spoke its language and observed its customs. But no more.

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Fundamental change doesn’t always break down the door. Often it creeps in on tiny cat feet. And while we were busy arguing and negotiating over how much of that big pile of ad money would go to digital or TV or something else, marketers have been under siege from direct-to-consumer competitors, a collapsing retail channel, online shopping and more. In the face of this existential crisis, they’ve fallen out of love with advertising.

Well… to put a finer point on it, they’ve fallen out of love with advertising for the sake of advertising.

Which leads me back to the new premise. Today we must all help the marketer sell – we must attach ourselves to business outcomes, become co-marketers…lest we be dismissed as bums. To survive and thrive in what used to be called the ad sales business we must all go back to school and become fluent in the language and customs of marketing. Someday soon our talk of rating points, viewability and attribution will sound as anachronistic as the Latin mass.

The 21st century ad seller is a business problem solver. She doesn’t wait for budgets, she helps create them. She avoids the watering hole where the herd gathers for RFPs and planning cycles. She hunts alone. She knows more about how the client’s business works – how he sells his products, who he sells them through and what gets them bought – than anyone but the client.

She sells. Every day. But she doesn’t sell ads. She helps the customer sell product.

Lightly edited, this post originally ran in 2017. Perhaps more relevant still today.

Deep State Advertising.

Over the 20+ years I’ve known him, I’ve always thought Rishad Tobaccowala (now with Publicis Groupe) was a national treasure.   He has that rare gift of being able to intellectually surround an issue and then quickly carve it down to its most essential point.  So it was with particular interest that I read his prediction that advertising would decline 30% over the next five years.

He’s right, of course.

The principle reason he cites for this decline is the flight to ad free environments.  “We don’t value (consumers’) time,” he explains, going on to quote the valuation as “less than minimum wage.”  I agree, but for a somewhat more elaborate set of reasons.

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I think too much of the “advertising industry” is just that:  an industry devoted to advertising… to generating more and more and more of it; to giving each other awards for it; to managing it’s migration into every nook and cranny of life.  If we’re honest we’ll admit that the “advertising industry” has become a self-referential deep state affair, hell-bent on its own survival.

We’ll also admit that many of us have lost sight of the original story-line, the real mission:  that the purpose of our work is not to win the next agency bake-off or secure a bigger share of “the budget.” We’re supposed to be devoted to helping marketers sell products, grow their businesses, build factories and employ workers. Small wonder that marketers have come to see advertising not as a source of growth but as a cost-center.

To paraphrase noted Vermonter and 30th president Calvin Coolidge, “the business of advertising is business.”  Or at least it should be.

Not to sound like too much of a relic, but when I started out at a small ad agency at age 22, part of my training program was delivering beer kegs, shadowing bank tellers and working in a shipping warehouse full of car polish.  It may seem quaint now, but we understood on a visceral level the business our clients were in. And by extension the business we were in.

We’ve lost a little something since then.  I hope we get some of it back.

Hack to the Future.

Hack to the FutureLast week in this space I published a post called “The Full Service Publisher,” in which I speculated that media companies were stepping into the full-service void created by decades of ad agency fragmentation and bureaucratic shuffling.   While I still see this as a hard trend, I was forwarded Mike Drexler’s excellent post from Media Village which might come under the heading “…not so fast!”

Drexler describes McDonald’s recent insistence that Omnicom create the equivalent of a full service agency to handle its business going forward.   It’s tempting to speculate – as Drexler does – that this “may be a snapshot of the future as more clients reexamine their business requirements in a complex and fast changing digital environment.”  Or not.

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I’m not saying it’s impossible, just that it’s highly unlikely.  Here, in my humble opinion, is why:

  1. Like the best-selling book says, show me the incentives and I’ll show you the behavior.  The holding companies are incented to keep media buying and planning separate from other services because it’s probably the most profitable stand-alone business they have. Unless the climate continues to sour and margins get way smaller, leadership won’t act against their own financial interest.  People just don’t.
  2. The Lost Generation. Even if agency leadership was highly motivated to put the pieces back together, agency services have been siloed for so long that there’s just about no one left who remembers how integration is supposed to work.  See how many people in marketing today remember Jay Chiat, Bill Bernbach or Jerry Della Femina.  The code is lost, I fear.
  3. The Talent Vacuum. Every few months we focus on a new crop of hyper-talented agency leaders and anoint them as the saviors of the practice.  And every few months, 8 of every 10 leave; they move to the client side, they join media companies, and increasingly they throw in with platforms and social powers.  Re-animating the golden age of full-service agencies is a big job that calls for the best business thinkers on the planet.  Do agencies have the cachet – or cash – to attract and retain that talent?

Welcome to the dawn of the full service marketing age, which agencies may just sleep through.

Gonna Need a Bigger Box.

Gonna Need a Bigger BoxYesterday McDonald’s named its first-ever U.S. Vice president of digital.  The new VP, Julie Vander Ploeg, will report to McDonald’s chief digital officer and will lead… “digital strategy efforts on several fronts — such as enhancing our customers’ restaurant experience, more relevant ways to share our story and how customers engage with our brand.”

It’s noteworthy that the word advertising is never mentioned.

This month marks the 20th anniversary of the first digital advertising buys:  our team at Wired Magazine and its digital cousin Hot Wired were doing deals with agencies like Messner Vetere, Modem Media, Ogilvy and NW Ayer to run ads for brands like Volvo, AT&T and IBM on the new site – the first ever to accept advertising – 468 x 60 pixel banners, no animation, no dynamic serving, no analytics.  Over the subsequent two decades I’ve had a front row seat for the development of our craft, working with hundreds of companies, thousands of digital sellers and every manner of tech, data, service and platform provider.  And I’ve come to a conclusion:  this isn’t really about advertising at all.

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For twenty years we’ve tried to jam the power, creativity and intelligence of “this thing of ours” into the confined space of an advertising business that was already starting to implode way back in the 90s.  The bigger and more multi-dimensional we become (with social, native, data-driven decision making and more) the more anachronistic and restrictive the conventions of advertising become.  Separation of church and state?  Attribution?  The Gross Rating Point?  Don’t get me wrong:  all of these things matter, and they’ll have a bottom line impact on how successfully video advertising dollars migrate from television to other devices and streams.  But all of the wildly successful companies of our era have all realized they are part of something much bigger than the advertising business.

McDonald’s seems to be acknowledging that fact.  Brand engagement and enhancing the customer’s retail experience can’t even be contained by marketing, let alone advertising. And even to share our story is as much about CRM, public relations, social media management and staff training as it is about advertising.

Don’t look now, but it appears we’ve been super-sized.  Gonna need a bigger box.

This Cage Called ‘Advertising’

Cage called AdvertisingIn case you haven’t picked it up in these Drift posts over the years, I’m obsessed by words.

Words can elevate or crush; they can liberate, obfuscate, educate, denigrate, illustrate or illuminate.  And words have a natural lifespan;  they’re born, they thrive, they slow, they fade and, ultimately, they die off.  Take the word ‘advertising’ for instance.

In her guest blog turn on Mediapost, Clear Channel President & COO Suzanne Grimes jokingly suggested that it’s time to ditch the A-word.   Having already burned through terms like “earned media” and “ROI,” she reasons, maybe it’s time to 86 ‘advertising’ as well.  Grimes toyed with a couple of clunky replacements — ‘context-ertising’ and ‘adgagement’ — but coming up with a new name isn’t really the point.

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It’s ironic that ‘advertising’ is mired in intellectual and social decline at the very time when it’s called on to underwrite virtually everything new that’s happening in media, communications and entertainment.  If you poll consumers, ‘advertising’ always gets unfavorable ratings (except of course for that really funny spot you saw for — oh, what was it for?)  To marketers, ‘advertising’ is seen as a cost center; an expense to be managed down by a pogrom of procurement people armed with spreadsheets.  And in our digital world, the things we call ‘ads’ are processed, traded and shipped like so much industrial feed corn.

If you’re tagged as someone who’s “here to sell us some ads” you are immediately shuttled to an overworked, disillusioned “buyer.”  To the folks at the big table, ‘advertising’ is something tactical, executional, that happens down the line.  You get delegated to the people you sound like, and the people who sound like advertising don’t sound very interesting.

The answer may not be a catchy new word to describe ‘advertising.’  Instead, consider hitching the great things we do to the larger concepts of marketing, commerce and CRM.  Start your meeting not with an assumption that the customer needs to buy some ads (he doesn’t), but with the knowledge that he needs to sell a product, successfully open a movie, change a consumer’s behavior.  The seller or agency that focuses on the bigger marketing picture also gets a look at many more budgets, many more decision makers.

There’s no hate here.  I’ve been connected to the advertising business for over 30 years and it’s done very well by me.  In the end, this post is not even about how we see ‘the business;’  it’s about how we think of ourselves and our own roles.  And anyone content to simply buy or sell ‘advertising’ is already living on borrowed time.