The interested and interesting of UK planning came together on Tuesday night to talk about a subject that is getting a lot of attention right now - digital advertising and where it's going. In previous Firestarters we've done a lot around agency futures and models, innovation, data and creativity but never actually focused specifically on digital advertising so it was a great time to do just that. And we had three amazing talks from three super-smart thinkers on the theme.
First up, we had the author of one of the most talked about pieces on digital advertising of the past year. Ian Leslie gave a talk that expanded on his well-shared How the Mad Men Lost the Plot article in the FT. That piece (and Ian's talk) started with questioning whether ad-land's once celebrated ability to create famous and well-crafted ideas that became embedded into everyday culture (the 'taxi-driver test', asking a cab-driver what were his favourite ads of the moment, would always tell you how much you mattered) had waned, and whether digital advertising had actually caused us to forget some of the fundamentals of how our craft works. In other words, how 'an industry that used to compete with Hollywood is starting to wonder if it has become a colonial outpost of Silicon Valley'.
He framed this in the context of where the industry had come from and how advertising used to be regarded as a branch of sales, then came the creative golden age of the 70s and 80s and then the great promise of digital which offered the seemingly bright opportunity to move on from 'the blunt instruments of conventional advertising' to embrace the laser-sharp targeting of digital media. Yet in doing so, argued Ian, digital advertising has become a victim of its own (apparent) accountability, leading to what he called the 'fallacy' of efficient targeting and engagement.
This has come to the detriment of some of the fundamental aspects of how advertising actually works, as expounded by Byron Sharp in the brilliant How Brands Grow. In particular, how you can’t grow a brand by increasing frequency or by targeting loyalists, meaning that in order to grow brands need to reach as many customers as possible, especially 'light-buyers' (Andrew Ehrenberg said: 'Your customers are customers of other brands who occasionally buy you'). In other words, in the wastage lies the value. Few customers care enough about brands to want to engage with them. Rather, brands are short-cuts that help us navigate the complexity of the modern world so physical and mental availability is what really matters. This led Ian to posit what would happen if we designed advertising (and digital advertising) around how the brain works - we like things that we're familiar with (the 'mere exposure effect') so fame matters, emotion drives memory, we prefer the shortest route so make it easy, and we're social animals so talkability helps. More than anything the job is about what Martin Weigel called 'the conquest of indifference'. It was a nicely provocative opening talk.
Next up, we'd flown renowned provocateur Tom Goodwin all the way from New York to give us his take on the theme and he did not disappoint. Tom gave a 90mph run through some key trends he believes are reshaping how we should think about digital advertising. Using the quote about how things have never changed so fast before but will never change so slowly again, he made the point about how not everything changes. Many of the things we celebrate as new (in video, social, commerce and content marketing) are actually nothing new, and as Marshall McLuhan said 'We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future'. Tom made some great points about what he called 'digital garnish', echoing Russell Davies who talked in his Firestarters talk about how before we start innovating we need to 'fix the basics'. Innovating with shiny technology makes little sense when there is far more fundamental customer experience and service issues to be sorted out (as there are with so many brands).
In our industry, he said, we've always had a bolt on approach to every new thing (PR, Media, Retail, CRM, BTL, ATL, Interactive, Social, Mobile) so rather than being additive and thinking of everything in terms of channels, we need to think of digital as just the way we do stuff in the modern world. The big shifts are around digital disappearing, and the internet ceasing to be 'a thing' (there was a great chart he used to show that millions of people in Asia use Facebook but have no idea they're using the internet). The more integrated digital is therefore, the more it makes sense. IOT is a great opportunity to integrate brands into our everyday lives. Screens will be all around us, all media becoming digital, and characterised far more by video, real-time, and all bought programmatically. Those screens are becoming more intimate and personalised over time, so that we're increasingly able to buy contexts far more than channels. We're only at the beginning of understanding what digital and mobile can do so don't shrink to limitations, work around possibilities. Advertising will become far more anticipatory (look at Google Now) so it will be far more about helping people to decide and buy, using context. But then more and more products are building scale through exceptional customer experience rather than advertising so we need to stop looking backwards at case studies and look further forwards towards the possible. Advertising won't look anything like how it has before, or what we currently think it will. So there has never been a better time to work in the industry.
That point about looking at the far future and working back from there to shape our current context was one that was made powerfully by our next speaker Tracey Follows. She used some quite mind-blowing examples to talk about some far-off concepts, focused around three key themes (revelation, emotion, bio-integration), and beginning with that great Kevin Kelly quote:
‘We are at the beginning of the beginning – the first hour of day one. There have never been more opportunities. The greatest products of the next 25 years have not been invented yet. You’re not late’
Opening with revelation, she talked about how the digital revolution and its philosophy of efficiency have created shortcuts that save time, but have also eliminated moments of discovery and revelation. Greater opportunity will come from brands introducing chance encounters and serendipity to their consumer conversation, and using it to unlocking the creative potential of their businesses. The quest for efficiency has ironcially downplayed our need for individuality, reflection - she talked about the rise of flaneurism, and the value of wandering and getting lost rather than knowing where we are all the time, and also the art of procrasination and how brands might introduce these as a way to open up more possibility.
Tracey also majored on the value of emotion amongst all the technology. Digital life, she said, is evolving from being cold and utilitarian to being more sensorial and interactive. Our understanding of emotion is developing as we move from framing it around six basic emotional states, to an much expanded list of compound emotions. Emotion provides a new context for digital communication ('emotional data'), not least through facial recognition, and a new context for how we organise products and experience. We can utilise a wider range of senses to capture emotional resonance (using an amazing example from BBDO Beijing for Dove Chocolate).
Tracey finished by focusing on how bio-tech is the next big technology, talking about how genetic computing and living technology (OK Go released an album encoded on a DNA strand as a marketing initiative) present completely new opportunities that we are only at the start of exploring. We are, she said, moving from an age of operating systems where humanity is in the service of technology to a new era where technology serves humanity. It was a far-reaching, mind-expanding way to round off what were some fantastic provocations.
In the panel debate afterwards, it was interesting how a real theme emerged from all three talks about how we might move back from efficiency in isolation to frame a much broader context for digital advertising. Plenty to think about. My thanks to our three amazing speakers, and to Google of-course for hosting. As usual Scriberian have done a great job of visualising three inspirational talks and you can see the visual in all it's glory here. My thanks also to all who came and joined in the debate.