Broadcast advertising is no longer king as ideas are more important than ever

The 30-second spot no longer reigns supreme

2017 marked a watershed moment in the history of advertising: it was the first year that global media spend in digital exceeded that of broadcast television. The 30-second spot, which bestrode the advertising industry like a colossus for decades, no longer reigns supreme. As a creative director, part of me says: good.

The truth is, there’s nothing inherently “creative” about this format from the 1950s, a contrivance of the television networks as they pivoted from sponsored programming to a “magazine” approach to sell more ad time. The :30 is intrusive, prone to formula, and let’s face it — even in its heyday, most broadcast spots were much closer to “My Buddy” than “1984.”

But here’s one thing that concerns me about the decline of broadcast. I believe this trend has, at least in part, eroded the sense that producing great creative is hard. And that’s a problem because it’s no easier today to come up with a great idea then it was 20 years ago. But it’s gotten much easier — I say too easy — to make stuff and get it out in the world.

This growing asymmetry between the difficulty of coming up with the idea vs. executing the idea is what I want to examine.

Think back to 1998. To produce filmed advertising of any length was a massive undertaking. It required the intense efforts of around 100 people across many disciplines and organizations and a lot of planning. And to get the thing seen by anyone (alas, there was no “just post it on YouTube” option) cost a lot of money. Twenty years ago, a 30-second spot on “Seinfeld” cost $575,000 — about $900,000 in today’s dollars, which tops NBC’s priciest slot today.

All this personnel and expense created an infrastructure of heft and gravitas around the work, and to some degree, limited how fast something could be produced. And for decades, to a non-trivial number of brands, broadcast was the centerpiece of their marketing efforts. Just a few years ago, I worked on a Fortune 500 fast food brand that still referred to their marketing department as the “TV Department.”

So what happens when that centerpiece shrinks or goes away entirely? We’re finding out.

Consider a small, related example. Take a look at this photo of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London I snapped with my Google Pixel. It’s not going to win any awards, and it lacks “story appeal,” the quality David Ogilvy used to say great photography needs. But just look at those details.

Let’s go back twenty years again. To produce that image in 1998 would’ve been pretty difficult. You would’ve needed a high-end SLR equipped with a wide-angle, low f-stop lens, several rolls of high ISO film, a tripod, and probably a few lighting instruments. And it would’ve required a custom development process to get that level of detail in the print, especially under the arches —which my Pixel’s HDR+ software did automatically and flawlessly. And all that would’ve required planning, a professional photographer, walking the location, figuring out the best times to shoot, and getting all the necessary permits. And probably shooting dozens of images.

But before you went through all that considerable trouble and expense, you’d have an idea. You wouldn’t just randomly show up like I did that weekday morning and attempt to produce that image. This is a significant shift, and I don’t think we’ve sufficiently grappled with it as an industry.

So to summarize:

  • Because it’s become easier to make stuff, more forgettable stuff is getting made
  • A lot of that stuff is forgettable because it lacks idea and craft
  • Without the anchoring mechanism of a big, complicated, hard thing to make at the center of your marketing efforts like broadcast advertising, seduction is all too easy by the speed and efficiency of creating said forgettable stuff, while skimping on idea and craft

The bottom line: despite all of the digital advances that have made producing work faster and cheaper, and despite the ability to get that work seen for next to nothing, it’s still as hard as it ever was to produce great ideas — the stuff that makes brands matter. And we should never forget that. As David Ogilvy said, “Unless your campaign is built around a great idea, it will flop.”

The six-decades reign of the :30-second spot is officially over. All hail the idea.

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