Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Does the Unwritten Agreement need Writing Again?

I little while back I wrote about advertising coming up to moment of big change, where it needs to develop in order to remain useful and relevant. I think though, it's also appropriate to look at the other side of the coin affecting this issue.

For almost 300 years, advertising has helped to fund content. First appearing, as far as I can tell without a comprehensive google-day, in early to mid 1700's magazines. Over time advertising has spread to radio, TV, and now the internet - helping to provide the content that billions use every single day. "I'll just skip through 700 pages of advertisements to get to the first article in this copy of in-flight magazine/GQ/Cosmopolitan/etc."

Well maybe just another spoonful...
The unwritten agreement, always in place, was simple: This advertising and sponsorship pays for your content.

The sad lack of support from many towards public broadcasters like the BBC and the ABC shows that this fundamental agreement is still technically in place, and as popular as it ever has been. Except that is, in one place.

Well, I say one place, It's really many. That's the internet obviously,

It seems that outside of a few small home made blogs, the link between advertising and content is less clear, and far more disliked. People have got used to free content with no strings attached. I like all people, get grumpy when a 30 second ad appears on my You Tube content. I left Myspace because the banner hell made it an unusable mess. I skip 98% of all video ads... but I still know why those ads are there, and it seems like many have forgotten, or are holding out as long as possible from accepting the truth: The internet NEEDS advertising support.

Yet ad blockers continue to grow in usage.

Netflix, along with Spotify and others have shown that people WILL subscribe to good content if it is well priced. But when it comes to smaller scale content like news and magazines, they are much less keen to get out their proverbial digital wallets.

It's the same mistake many agencies made in assuming that 'social' was free. They saw organic reach as a mythical unicorn. Failing to realise that it still requires time and effort, and still requires a social site paying for the network you are latching onto. Yes it's frustrating that Facebook has killed organic reach, but you can hardly blame them. We all, myself included, complain when sites start reminding of the unwritten agreement. Sometimes it even drives people away. But without doing so, the only way they can survive is to mine our privacy.

Maybe one route is to create a multi-site microtransaction scheme in the same manner as Spotify. Every web page you read deducts a very small amount (E.g.: 20c from an account. Saving you from ads, but avoiding the uncertainty of paying for news and magazine content that you might not always want. After all, we've seen that paywalls are generally rubbish. If you had ONE account that could send $2 to Wall St Journal, $3 to Autosport, and $1.20 to The Guardian, I reckon people would try it out, certainly more so than access paywalled sites or pay for magazine subscriptions that they never get round to reading.

Of course, this is not to forget the very valid argument that people deserve a break from terrible advertising, and being targeted in intrusive and relentless ways. Some of the ways people are targeted now can border on harassment, no convincing way to get people to respond or change their behaviour.

Yes, we definitely need to improve the campaigns we make. But perhaps the harassment problem is the same. The reason people are being increasingly targeted in this way, is because they have forgotten the unwritten agreement when it comes to the content they love most. They've fallen into the trap of thinking that a free and open web has no cost whatsoever. Whereas we used to use advertising to hide the costs, maybe now we need to be clear and open that there is no such thing as a free internet. When you expect things to be free AND ad-free, your data becomes the cashflow.

Or to put it another way, let's take the old maxim of: Good, Quick, Cheap. Pick two.
Now it needs re-arranging into the modern internet paradigm: Free. Unintrusive, No Ads. Pick two.

The second best reason to have a VPN
 if you live outside of the UK
Not just that, but perhaps the time has come to remind people more bluntly that the internet is not free. Journalism is not free. Proper content is not free. Channel 4 in the UK have started this trend by blocking access to their online video service 4OD to people with ad blockers.

"It may seem obvious, but this site and the resources within are paid for by the advertising within. Without this advertising we would be forced to sell your data or become paid access only. We hate terrible ads too, but if you ad block this site, it won't exist in free form for much longer."

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Looking Back to the Future and Forward to the Past

This is definitely how my fashion looks now. How about you?
No one with eyes could have failed to notice the saturation of coverage around the fact that we are now living in Marty McFly's future. I can only imagine how much more there would have been if DeLorean was still a car brand today. Maybe it would have been their finest moment... that award probably goes to Toyota though, who timed it just perfectly with their piece including the two main actors.

Inevitably though, this drags the mind into the regular habit of trying to predict the future. Possibly as futile a task as trying to argue with internet trolls, but what the hell, it's more fun.

For me the scariest thing about this time is not that we are living in the supposed future, nor that the first film is now 30 years old. What makes me think, is that 1985 is now as dated to us as the 1950's were in 1985. As a kid the 1950's seemed unimaginably far away, and now my childhood is that far away too.

But I digress.

So let's look back at what was happening in advertising in 1985.

For a start, it was the starting to reach (in the UK at least) the end of what some people would call the golden era. Full of John Webster, Dave Trott, and CDP long copy ads. Though as I mentioned previously, I'm not really a believer in any golden era.
Fly you big rust bucket... fly
The ads of 1985 seemed a big wide world away from the stiff, long, slow advertising of 1955, when TV ads first came to Britain. But for the media agencies, things were barely any different. bar one additional tv channel. It would be the next thirty years that really sparked massive change.

1985 was also the start of the shift in advertising from creative led, to accountant led agencies. With a young Martin Sorrell buying the Wire and Plastic Products company. In two years time it would buy JWT and for a while at least, all proverbial hell would be broken loose. For many of us born in the 80s/90s, it's hard to imagine advertising and marketing without WPP - and while it would be nice to have more creative-first management, perhaps that financially careful approach has helped maintain a bigger and more creative industry than would have otherwise been achieved through such big change.

Let's take a look at the kind of advertising that I watched as a three year old...

TV, print and radio. With most brands aiming for TV as lead if they could possibly afford it.

So in many ways, advertising has fundamentally changed (if you exclude the older fashioned brands who just want TV). The huge variety of media options, the falling away of the BIG tv ad, the rise of digital and using different media for different messaging and purposes. Yet in many ways, it is exactly the same. It's still, at it's best, using clever thinking and imaginative creative to change behaviour and get people to act. I'm pretty sure that will remain exactly the same in thirty years time.

Which brings us back to the future (yes yes I know). What will 2045 bring?

I know many people will be shouting "ME ME! TV will be dead sir!" - but I think they are wrong.
It may not quite resemble what we traditionally think of as TV, it may come largely through the internet data pipelines. But will there be a mass channel of entertainment produced by large entertainment companies that people watch in their living rooms on large screens and mobile devices? Of course. Will they be the same media companies as now? That depends on how quickly they stop living in the past and embrace the open world. Funny how we hear about reducing government and legal interference in business, except for when those businesses want to make more money. Global content availability will be key to those who succeed.

Perhaps the ghost of Elton John will prefer
 Pepsi Perfect instead of Coke?
If TV AND the internet haven't killed radio in 70+ years, what makes us think that TV as an overall concept will die out in another 30?

Banner ads on the other hand...

Banner ads have been dying for several years already. Whilst they may not disappear entirely, I believe they will gradually decline as people use data and video content to better reach internet users.

I also think Facebook might become the first social channel to achieve long term success. Whereas other social channels died out as they got too mass, Facebook seems to have found the right balance to keep itself relevant to users. Given their huge cash reserves and available audience, Facebook could perhaps become it's own large scale media owner. If you think organic reach is dead now, it will be spinning it its grave in 2045. It will be hard for other social upstarts to compete, and I would expect the biggest competitors as such will be those based in other countries... or perhaps those who allow absolute protection of privacy as governments continue to crack down on the ability to comment and use data freely.

I wonder what else will change. Maybe this blog will still exist in some form, reaching it's 40th anniversary. Or perhaps I'll do something else entirely. Who knows. As they say, we often overestimate short term change and underestimate long term change...

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Advertising, Record Labels, Videos and Video Games

Such an awesome album.
Shame I have no easy way to own it.
For a couple of years I really wanted to buy an album called Buiiki Kaesu by Japanese band Maximum the Hormone (kind of insane rock/metal with jpop bits).

I looked in every record shop I could find, checking the import and rock/metal sections. Nothing. I checked online, initially nowhere stocking it would deliver to Australia. Then eventually it became available, but at absolutely extortionate prices for a used CD. I checked on Spotify, which I pay to access. Nothing. I checked on iTunes. Nothing. I checked stores in Hong Kong that stock Japanese music. Nothing.

The only way I could hear the band was to play You Tube videos with iffy quality audio - most of these got taken down after a while too.

I did these actions for over two years, and realised that their record label simply didn't want me to able to listen to the band through reasonable legal means. It was even taking actions to stop me using the only real legal source I had.

So in the end I just started streaming it from web music sites. For which the record label gets precisely nothing. More importantly, the band, who I want to support, gets absolutely nothing.

Amazingly, more than fifteen years after the launch of Napster, many record labels STILL do not get the world we live in. They are stuck in their 20th century approach, putting their profits above their audience.

"A million ad views isn't cool. You know what is?
 A BILLION ad views."
Which brings me to advertising.

Everyone has I'm sure seen the recent news and posts about massive growth in ad-blocking. Some people are carrying on as normal, others are panicking like it's the end of the world... in a way perhaps it is. This for me is starting to feel very much like the launch of Napster did for record labels.

This could be our moment. The moment our audience decided they had enough with us doing things in an old fashioned and 'audience-last' way. The moment where agencies start to become divided into those who get it and those who don't.

Take DVDs and video games. Two mediums that are very wary of piracy. I just bought a DVD, and inserted between the menu and the show was a US FBI anti piracy message. Well gee, thanks for hassling me after I ALREADY paid for it. I imagine the illegal versions wouldn't have this, so making it useless.

Video games too were notorious until recently for putting the customer last when it came to security and anti-piracy measures. It started with complex sheets of paper full secret codes, then moved to software that slowed down the PC, and complex installation and registration procedures that just frustrated the very people who had already bought the game. Illegal copies meanwhile, had these features edited out. A pointless irritation symptomatic of bad profit-first thinking.

(Incidentally it's why I prefer the campaign approach to piracy used in Australia. Instead of negative, it makes you feel good by simply saying thank you for buying legally, and points out how doing so helps programmes get made.)

Just like record labels, this backwards thinking does nothing but piss off the very people it needs to target. A situation which feels very very much like most advertising right now in this always on world.

The most emo thing ever is the original
title for a Fallout Boy song:
'I liked you a lot better before you
 became a fucking myspace whore'
So maybe right now we need to decide which side we are on. Is it the audiences, or is it the industry focused status quo? This has been coming for a very long time. Just like record labels it's not like we weren't warned, repeatedly. Web ad blockers have been around for nearly as long as the internet. Displeasure at ridiculous banners has been around just as long, the death of Myspace as a serious social site seems YEARS ago, but that was largely down to bad banner utilization pissing off the users (along with shitty UX). Frustration with bad social has also been clear for a long time, and the backlash against native advertising started last year too. We know people have either had enough or are getting close to their limit with bad and forceful marketing.

Now good creative is definitely a great tool to help overcome this, but we need to do more - because great creative that can't be seen might as well be shitty creative. So this becomes an issue for media agencies too - are you on the side of the audience or the companies you buy space from? If it's the latter, you could be left behind. 

One positive in this scenario is that planners become more important. Understanding the audience, putting them first and trying to genuinely connect with them will be more important than ever in an age where they will be increasingly likely to have to decide to come to you. Not in a 'brand love' way, but simply because they know you respect them and give them something (be that content, offers, information, etc) that they are happy to exchange their time for.

So. Who will be the EMI, the Universal Music, or the Warner Music of adland - and who will be the Napster, the iTunes, the Spotify? I can't wait to find out.

Friday, August 28, 2015

A Whopper of an Unhappy Meal

Ah cats. I reckon they will be the next big thing.
Pic from
It's been all over the internet the last few days, so I doubt many people will have missed the Burger King 'letter' to McDonald's or the subsequent reply that left many people feeling disappointed.

I've also read a number of opinions that range from 'McDonald's made a mistake' to ' Burger King trolled Macca's' to even 'This was stolen from a student portfolio.'

I can't comment on the last one, but I definitely can on the first two.

For me it boils down to this: Burger King, whether deliberately or not, put McDonald's into a situation that they could not win.

If McDonald's had agreed and gone ahead with the idea, Burger King would have taken the vast majority of the plaudits as the ones who instigated and drove the idea. This meant that whatever McDonald's did, Burger King would have been the main beneficiary - so it's hardly surprising they looked to shut it down as quickly as possible.

Now that's not to say that Macca's couldn't have worded their letter in a much better and less condescending way. For example, by agreeing to work together next year, or by making a donation to the Peace movement in lieu of action. But the fact remains that the closing P.S. salvo of Macca's reply was spot on. 'A simple call would do next time."
Stop! Stop! He's already dead...

That sentence calls out the Burger King ad for what it was, an ad. Yes it was hoping to team them up for a great idea, but it was done in a way that would have ensured it was only on their terms. If BK truly wanted to do something awesome in a team on Peace Day, then they would have discussed it fairly and evenly behind this scenes. A peaceful (marketing) Coup d'├ętat is still a military manoeuvre, it is not a truce.

A great idea, which was let down by the execution on both sides. It ended up trying too hard to be a marketing execution, not an idea execution.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Smashing Work

Of course everyone has seen it by now, particularly if you live in London. It spread out like the usual virus across the advertising landscape, covering offices in the sound of 70's pop rock... and with good reason.

My favourite shot in the whole ad.
It won't surprise anyone to know that the latest John Lewis ad is excellent. A piece of wonderfully thought out and crafted creativity that just invites you to want to watch it every time it appears. Even the 90 second version holds the attention enough to warrant a view.

But as I said, that's not surprising. The thing that really interests me though, is the puzzle it raises about how we think about creativity across channels in 2015.

You see, in many respects, this work is incredibly dated. I don't mean the 70's soundtrack and styling... but the fact it's a big budget, long, TV ad. It's the kind of work that is regularly thought of as dying, and that we should move completely away from. Not only that, it's an ad which, at the heart of it, hides its idea. That sense of nervousness and uncertainty around insurance. It could potentially be too subtle to work across every kind of format without good creative guidance.

So is this a last hurrah for TV? Well, no.

As we see at Christmas (the British Superbowl), people are keen to see adverts they might enjoy. John Lewis are among the very best at having campaigns that people actually go out of their way to see (as someone who has worked on insurance brands, doing so against the barrage of price pushing takes a brave client). When you think about it, that's pretty amazing.

We live in a world of consistently always-on, encroaching advertising. Designed to intrude on you at all times it's possible. More than ever people are getting sick of advertising communications, just look at the rapid growth in online ad blocking tools - we may be honing the art of banner copy, but those click rates are still hiding down through the mud underneath the floor. We all know, as I mentioned a couple of posts ago, that the reason for this is simple. Most ads are shit.

Elton back again. Still singing about Coke
So in this complex many channel world, how does a piece of work get so well known and liked that the audience actually WANT to watch it? That simple thing called creativity. Well thought out, well written, well directed work. You Tube, for many people, is now a TV channel in itself - and simply paying your way doesn't work there. You need great pieces of work, and sometimes not achieving it is actually the cause of your channel problems. If you have the quality, particularly consistent quality, it's possible to break the cycle of advertising apathy.

So yes it's great to have new ideas that take advantage of all channels. Yes it isn't enough to just have terrible TV ads anymore. But what this ad shows, is that we too often forget the third way. Doing excellent work can sometimes be the surprisingly simple answer to your channel question.


Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Golden Age

I've seen a number of discussions recently regarding the standards of advertising in the modern day. These range from: 'I remember when ads used to be this good.', to 'I wish long copy was as good as this these days', and ''remember when marketing wasn't full of so much bullshit'.

All of these views make some relevant points, but the problem I see is a very simple one: Advertising has always been largely shit. We just remember the campaigns that aren't, exactly like the general public.

Yes it might seem strange to criticise most of the output of the industry I love, but everyone knows it. Every regular person knows it. Every client knows it. (Perhaps bad clients could argue that the 50's were a golden age, where every ad was full of endorsements, product features and packaging shots...) Everyone in adland knows it. We shouldn't shy away from this fact, because it's what drives those of us who care about creativity to do better. Watching TV and wanting to throw the remote at the screen, that's our opportunity.

Indeed, it is the same as every other creative industry, be that music, film, design, architecture, etc etc. It always has been, and more or less always will be.

Elton singing about Coke with no irony.
Admittedly it's Diet Coke... but STILL!
For every piece of genius long copy that was made in the 70's and 80's, there was also one of waffly, feature blasting junk. For every smart creative TV ad that people adored, there were ten shouty washing powder ads. For every cool, avant garde 90's piece like Guinness Surfer, there were ten post-modern thought-free travesties promoting alcopops. For every Tango Blackcurrant there was Elton John singing about Diet Coke. 

Besides, even if every single campaign made today was amazing, we would still pick the best 10-20% as the ones that were 'really' good anyway.

I think it's hard to argue that there aren't too many people spouting bullshit, particularly regarding big data, social channels and online advertising... still... but this is just the same as the agencies that said radio was dead when TV came along. That's the problem with predicting the future and anticipating audience response, most people aren't ever going to be right. Trusting in the people who guide your brand was vital then, and it's vital now.

Great campaigns like this only came about
 because the products were all identical anyway!
Actually, it's even more important now. With the vast proliferation of available channels, and the wall to wall nature of advertising, having the right, smart people, is crucial. Were those geniuses of the good old days any smarter than the best creatives and planners we have now? Probably not. They made the best of their time, and we make the best of ours. I love the work of John Webster, but his ads for kids didn't have a hugely complex list of do's and don't's that make creativity that much harder. His awesome Hofmeister beer ads didn't have to worry about cute creatures being seen as advertising to children... or at least not at first.

Anyway, The point is. Advertising has always been an industry made up of both smart and creative people, and those who wish they were smart and creative. The good always produce good work, the bad always produce bad. The precise definition of what passes for good and bad will change, as will the issues that inspire both genius responses and bullshit responses. Wishing for a golden era to return is often just a sign that we are worrying too much about the past rather than trying to improve the future. Let the past, both good and bad, inspire us and remind us of what we can achieve - but don't let it get in the way of clear thinking.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Labour Marketing Isn't Working

Perhaps one of the last truly impactful (in a positive way) election ads.
 (image from:
The last general election in the UK was one of the most disappointing events I've seen in a long long time. The apparent complete lack of knowledge and judgement by the British people was on a scale that makes American politics look sane.

As a planner I find it fascinating to understand what it is that actually makes people vote, and why they don't vote with the facts. Because, from everything I've seen, there's no way ANYONE could have voted Tory based upon the pure facts of their time in government. Perhaps people's hatred of the Lib Dems allowed them to morally justify voting Tory, maybe the apparent lack of charisma that Ed Miliband showed scared them, or the threat of the SNP daring to unravel austerity for the pile of economic bullshit it is was too much.

One thing that did seem very apparent, even from Australia, was that Labour's communications and their election marketing did not work. It simply did not convince people to vote for them in any way shape or form.

Perhaps part of this problem is that election campaigns are generally attack ads, they fit into a typically fear-mongering, cheesy and unlikeable form of advertising that most people want to avoid. They generally say nothing new – or do so in a way that is unpalatable. Or they even presume that people know the facts, which we know (or can very likely presume) that they don't.

So what can we do about this? Labour's marketing isn't working, and the public are simply not getting the key facts that might actually help to change their mind. This is largely because the media, especially those owned by Rupert Murdoch, do not want people to know the facts. They want them to hate benefit claimants not wealthy recipients of inheritance – even though both get something for nothing. In fact arguably benefit claimants do more, as they have to visit a job centre and often do unpaid work to allow their claim. They want them to hate high spending wasteful Labour, even though the last government spent more than Labour ever did. Etc etc. Not to mention that most Tory voters probably aren't that interested in seeking out a contrary fact or opinion in this increasingly partisan age.

So what if we change the election marketing game completely. Do what many brands are doing, and being advised to do – and move to an always on approach?

Instead of creating unlikeable and ineffective attack ads, and trying to sell personalities that no one wants to like – we take the facts, the simple things that people need to know and are not being told, and create simple clear advertising that gets those messages across. We do that 365 days a year, with a thinly spread but well targeted campaign that makes the facts harder to miss, regardless of what party you generally support.

“Immigration creates a profit of xxx for Britain.”

“Tax evasion costs Britain over four times as much as benefit fraud.”

“xx people have died due to benefit cuts in 2014.”

“George Osborne lost $13bn of taxpayers money by selling RBS early”

Historically this would have been on billboard posters, but now we can do it through online banners or Facebook targeting. It doesn't matter if people don't click, because they see the clear factual message, and see it repeated. The advertising starts to question the usual narrative and provide answers, but in a clear and concise way that it is easy to pick up. Advertising interrupts, and in this case we use that very deliberately to push the narrative of discussion with seemingly unknown facts.

The difference is, by doing this all the time – for a year or two leading up to an election – you make it harder for the opposition to escape the facts, and you have time to repeat messages so they are absorbed instead of rushing at election time to get summation sound-bites that mean nothing to anyone.

I'm sure it's not a flawless plan yet,but I fail to see how it can be any worse than election advertising has been in the last two decades.