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Yes, above-the-line ads can be winners in the social media maelstrom

The golden age of advertising, as portrayed by Don Draper and his hard living cronies in Mad Men, is an enduring image. The masochism of the advertising trade, until very recently, reflected the bullying position that above-the- line advertising owned within the marketing mix. It was, without a doubt, the king.

Now, advertising – in its traditional sense – is letting slip its position of power. But in an age of evolution, where traditional advertising is under threat by the growth in other disciplines – in particular digital marketing, what is the key to the ad industry’s survival in its current form? Well, Richard Russell, creative director at DDB and chairman of this year’s Scottish Advertising Awards judging panel, believes that the key is simple... And somewhat boring: “Make your ad work harder and be better.” Boiled down, traditional media (TV; press and posters; radio) are merely three kinds of message: a moving, filmed message; a static, printed message; and a spoken message. These kinds of basic communication messages are not going to disappear anytime soon. So, the death of traditional advertising has been greatly exaggerated, claims Russell: “It’s just going to have to grab a drink, join the party, and learn to dance better.” “Over the next decade, clients will continue to spend their money on any media that is deemed to be effective, digital or otherwise. If a TV ad is seen by enough people (because the programme is seen by enough people), and if the ad can engage and sell, TV will still be effective in ten years time. As long as it’s part of a multi-channel approach. “What’s more, traditional advertising has a secret weapon up its sleeve that everyone seems to have forgotten about. Posters. “In the next decade, the good old Poster will rise up and become the most important traditional media of all. And this is because they are seen by everyone. They are not hidden. You don’t have to search for them, or download them, or click to go to them. You can’t fast-forward through a Poster. You can’t get bored with it after 10 seconds and click onto another quick thrill instead. Posters are hard to ignore, and they are a shared experience. They are just there. And if you can repeatedly fill them with great work, you will be rewarded with awareness beyond most brand’s wildest dreams. “The thing about a digital experience is that, in the main, you have to find it. And then you have to physically engage with it. You have to do something. Digital technology allows the consumer to engage better with a brand idea than ever before, and for some consumers this is cool, but (and here’s the great unspoken truth) not everyone wants to do that. The country is not full of people desperate to ‘engage’ with advertising and brands. Most people have better things to do. Which means that there will always be a need for uninvited advertising messages to rudely interrupt people’s lives and tell them something that the seller thought they might like to know – as long as we deliver these messages with wit and originality and human engagement. That is our side of the bargain.” Perhaps, though, the answers to today’s conundrum can be found from within the golden era of advertising? Billy Mawhinney, acting executive creative director at McCann Erickson Central, says that one of his favourite Bill Bernbach quotes is one from when he was asked in the early 60’s what Advertising will be like in 20 years time. Bernbach replied, ‘people with the power to touch people will be successful and people without that power won’t.’ “Whatever change occurs,” says Mawhinney, “all anyone will need is a great idea. Just like music, all you need is a great song. Or as Stephen King, the great JWT planner said: ‘If you can’t outspend the competition, out think them.’ The saddest part of technology is it seems to be taking away the most important bit , thinking time,” adds Mawhinney. The perceived wisdom may be that ‘traditional’ advertising is “under threat”, but The Red Brick Road creative director Dean Webb believes we’re just going through an uncertain time. “People are still making great ‘traditional’ ads that both entertain and provide a return on investment for clients. Commercial television viewing is actually up and I believe television advertising is actually more cost effective now than it was in the 80s. The industry will gradually calm down and realise that digital is just another tool in the service of the “idea”. It’s already been shown in numerous studies that the internet is a more powerful advertising tool when it is used in conjunction with TV.” Webb does, however, opine that the industry may suffer creatively as developments in technology allow more and more marketers to get themselves in front of consumers without properly thinking through what they’re doing in front of those consumers. “We’ll see more and more crap around in the ill-advised rush to have ‘conversations’ and ‘engage’. Maybe there are some brands with which consumers want to ‘engage’, but there are a hell of lot with which they don’t. Largely because of the ubiquity of digital channels, at the moment every marketer seems to think that ‘normal’ people are as interested in their product as they are – so they run competitions, they crowdsource, they turn bus shelters into stupid, pointless games. “The industry is fragmenting. We have to be careful that we still reward consumers for listening to our messages instead of just ramming them into peoples’ faces.” “The biggest impact on advertising isn’t just digital, it’s also the economy,” adds Laurence Quinn, a creative director at JWT. “Last year when we saw clients cutting their budgets, agencies looked for other ways to recoup the money. This happened as above-the-line agencies had begun to embrace ‘digital’. So naturally this gave them even more reason to take it seriously. “For me digital hasn’t necessarily changed advertising. We are in the business of creating great ideas no matter how they are expressed. “There will always be clients who will only have the budgets to use the smaller mediums, but the agencies that will be able to add the most value, are those who can create a big idea and execute it brilliantly, in any medium.” Digital isn’t just a solution to the communications problem, but the solution to the very business problem itself, claims Leo Burnett’s Sarah Clift. And as ATL agencies begin to realize this, it will become the very key to their survival. “We are beginning to get the chance to communicate with our audience in ways and TOV’s we never thought possible,” says Clift. “We can connect to the consumer at the beginning and the end of the process, using real human insights. We have the power to entertain and inform our audience, and be entertained and informed by our audience. The realization that television also isn’t dead is a great thing. We know people are watching more television than ever these days, the difference is the ways in which they are watching it. “This digital marketing era is creating a very interesting and varied level playing field for all communication agencies. And if our audience is adjusting, then adjust we must too.”

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