Advertising will change forever. Yeah, and I'll grow wings and fly.

by User Not Found | July 27, 2009
"This is huge," said Josh Bernoff in last Monday's AdAge, referring to the Forrester prediction that digital is likely to grow to about 21 percent of total advertising spend in five years. He went on to state, "We are all digital marketers now." Personally I think it would be best if we just forgot about the spurious divide between digital and traditional and got back to the basics of marketing: identify an idea that will enhance perceptions of your brand and then figure out how best to engage people with it.

In the article titled "Advertising will change forever," Josh reported that "Six out of ten marketers we surveyed agreed with the statement 'we will increase budget for interactive by shifting money away from traditional marketing.'" Yes, consumers are spending more time online to view video, play games, and read the news. Marketers want to follow them. But does this really mean that advertising will change forever?

I think Josh is assuming that technological change will lead to a fundamental change in the way people communicate, and that will just not happen. For every new digital media channel there is a traditional equivalent. For online video it is TV. A Web site is a magazine in a different guise. Search is the Yellow Pages and encyclopedia rolled into one. Social media are the equivalent of chatting over a cup of coffee. New media simply provide different means for meeting basic human needs. The fact that many people have embraced these new media because they fit their 21st century lifestyles does not mean that the new media are better tools for brand builders. Enhanced dissemination of ideas and interactivity simply makes it possible for marketing "duds" to become apparent more quickly. Instead of enduring irrelevant and annoying advertising in silence, consumers can speak out or simply make it disappear. The downside to marketers is that not only is their money wasted, but their brand may well suffer in the process.

The fundamental problem right now is that most digital executions are weaker versions of their counterparts in traditional channels. They rely on intrusive media placement to get noticed, or they offer discounts to incentivize people to buy. Very few of them really engage people. And by "engage," I mean encourage people to willingly devote time to the content. I willingly give my time to search results because I am actively seeking something of value to me. I do not give my time to pop-ups and similar ad formats because they hinder me from getting to the content I want to see. It is not that digital communication cannot be more effective than traditional media; it is simply that most of it is used as a blatant sales pitch that lacks personal relevance for most of the audience.

Early in his article, Josh stated, "Marketers have learned that interactive marketing is more effective, and advertising less effective, per dollar spent." Oh yes? And where does that evidence come from? Most marketers still don't test their digital advertising, so how would they know? One consistent finding from all Millward Brown's cross-media research is that TV is typically the bedrock on which other media build. Sometimes the next most effective medium is digital. Sometimes it is a traditional channel. The truth is that not all brands benefit from interactivity. Some brands are just so mundane and boring that no one wants to engage with them. Passive media like TV, online video, radio, and outdoor should be the channels of choice for brands like these.

So let's stop worrying about the digital/traditional divide and start figuring out which communication channels will most successfully engage people with a specific brand idea. If we don't do that, it won't matter what happens five years from now because most brands will have gone belly-up for lack of effective support. And I will have learnt to fly.

OK, rant over. Your turn now. Tell me what you believe is really happening.