Tom Goodwin: Why advertising needs to find ambition again

By Tom Goodwin

August 5, 2014 | 7 min read

Right now is the most exciting time to be in advertising: We’re faced with an abundance of new opportunities, experiencing the thrill of constant change, and chasing the ever-growing possibilities of new technology. It is however not the best time to be in advertising. It’s the most scary, the most directionless, and the least certain.

Tom Goodwin

In these turbulent times ad agencies have ducked their heads, projected smallness, fired their expensive and wisest talent to become resilient and hoped to last it out. We’ve long suggested to our clients that they evolve, spend money on R&D, invest in taking a share of the future, especially in tough times, but we’re not keen on looking in the mirror.

We forget that the only constant in media and advertising history has been change. We’ve long had new media channels, new technology, and the fear of being left behind or missing out, but the state of our industry had never escalated to this level of turmoil before. It wasn’t the long, rowdy lunches, the office summer parties, the big budgets or the taste of glamour that made advertising wonderful decades ago – advertising was compelling because it had scale, it had dreams, it had a role, and more than anything, it had ambition.

In 1987, Saatchi & Saatchi in London placed an offer to buy what soon after became HSBC, yet now Saatchi & Saatchi and many other agencies may be thrilled for the chance to meet with them, to get a chance to give away ideas, our most valuable asset, for free.

Advertising used to reflect and embody our culture. TV commercials were elevated to an art form, film directors commissioned to create them, slogans became part of the vernacular, ads would go through a cycle of fame and parodies, reflecting the zeitgeist – in short, advertising was part of pop culture.

Advertising used to have the very brightest and most ambitious young and old minds in the world, you kept the very best company working in advertising. Now we see seniority as a distance from the cutting edge, wisdom as entrenchment in an older world, we worship those with enthusiasm, agility, tech knowledge and Twitter followers, not those with context or maturity.

I don’t smell the scale, the confidence, importance of advertising in 2014. We’ve let cheap content makers and media owners chip away at production, let management consultants solve big problems badly and expensively, and what do we have left? As an industry that spends $300bn per year, what have we produced, and what are the shiny examples of progress?

There are remarkably few big ideas anymore, as advertising seems to have downgraded to cheap tactics and quick wins. The world of earned media has led to a genre of cheap’vertising, of retweets to win, of selfie competitions, of cat-based social media posts, of hashtags or vending machine stunts. It rarely works but it’s so cheap, it’s advertising as a lottery ticket.

Cannes, our chance to show the world what we do for this money, is consistently won by campaigns that run on media budgets provided by the creative agencies, so the very best of what we do often doesn’t reach anyone in the real world and has no client buy-in.

We see automated creative make inroads into advertising, and Google’s new button ads, as the copywriter and art director are replaced by algorithms and macros.

Advertising has lost its role in our culture, as ads are hated, skipped, and blocked, we fear data and targeting and are concerned about privacy. How did we let the dialogue get like this, why did we give up, why is the challenge not making ads good?

Perhaps our rush to embrace new technology came at the expense of both ambition and ideas. We’ve perfected the art of reducing production budgets, and of finding agencies to get millions of views of videos for a few hundred pounds. Technology has led to lowering media budgets, lowering ambitions, lowering quality and lowering margins. Technology has become the idea, we’ve left empathy or insights behind hitched our ideas to bandwagons for transport.

What frustrates me most is there is no reason for it to be this way. New technology, new media platforms, new ways to connect people and brands are the best thing that could ever happen to advertising. But we used technology as a new spec sheet to be latched onto the end of the factory lines. We didn’t let it become oxygen to ideas or to rethink business problems, we used it as a vessel to fill.

New thinking allows new opportunities. We have the most personal device imaginable: the smartphone. It’s constantly connected to the internet, it has an incredible amount of information about our needs and habits, as well as the ability to send us images, movies, directions, vouchers, even share all of that with our friends –thus, the best possible platform in the history of advertising, and yet, so far, we’ve only produced a smaller version of a banner ad, the worst performing creation in ad history.

TV advertising can be transformed by addressable TV, which, if done right, opens the creative canvas to include incredible elements: from custom real-time creative, sequential storytelling, and T-Commerce, the TV ads of the future can be the richest, most measurable, and most powerful advertising in history.

Digital display advertising, digital out-of-home, predictive advertising, advertising as a service, iBeacons, Omni-channel shopping – the world right now is primed with new opportunities for smart creative people to explore.

We’re surrounded by budgets that allow innovation, be it ad tech, digital media owners, or VC money, and everywhere around us people are honing in on the true value generation that advertising can offer.

What the world needs now are people who understand business problems and consumer behavior, embrace new technology, and can connect the dots in creative ways. Do we have anyone to be fearful of?

The future for advertising is in being bigger, bolder, having the ambition to solve big problems, and to use this confidence to charge more money and to invest in the best people. We can either baulk at this challenge and become suppliers to compete with crowdsourcing, small production units and media owners to launch the latest variant of a soft drink. Or unleash our incredible imagination and knowledge into a world with unparalleled turbulence, opportunities and problems, to change the future of our clients.

Advertising people, this is our time.

Tom Goodwin is a believer in the need to reimagine marketing for the post-digital age. He is the founder of Tomorrow, an agency that specializes in creating new advertising experiences.


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