The more things change, the more things stay the same – such is the truth in so many areas of work and life. However, at no time, certainly in my memory, has any industry, including advertising, experienced such accelerated change as it has this year, and yet its future seems somewhat in question.

Last month, I was part of a panel exploring the challenges and opportunities facing the advertising industry and considering what’s on the horizon for those starting out on their careers or rethinking them.

The discussion was chaired by David Harris, Creative Director at Deloitte and included other esteemed leaders in the field, including: Steve Harrison, the most awarded Creative Director ever, creative consultant and author of four advertising/business books and Patrick Collister, former Chief Creative Officer at Ogilvy and Creative Director at Google’s Zoo.

So many questions arise when you open up this conversation:

  • Where are the opportunities for advertising in the future?
  • Where will the growth be?
  • What’s the impact of the growing use of technology?
  • Will advertising continue to exist as we know it?
  • Has it become too tainted with consumer mistrust?

The most important thing about advertising

The truth is that none of us can really know what the future holds for advertising, but we can seek to be proactive and realistic about it. There is a sense that the industry has lost its way a little over time and forgotten its purpose. Whatever the mechanics of delivering the advertising itself, going back to its core business function is key to future success. In short, we need to remember that however creatively brilliant and on the zeitgeist our campaigns are, our core purpose is to sell stuff.

Although how we do things has changed massively over the years, what we intend to achieve from our work doesn’t. If I think about my career, the most important thing was and continues to be getting the brand positioning and strategy right. Then there are the usual debates on how to do that – including the channels you use to achieve the most impact on target audiences, for example.

Lost in conversation

What’s most different now to when I started, for good or ill, is the constant feedback loop which comes from lots of people who may, or may not, actually be your customers. There’s a more transparent marketplace for commentary on your brand than ever, which may or may not be valid, and which you may or may not wish to take notice of.

I was listening to a representative from an advertising agency recently talking about brand positioning from an ad perspective. He said: ‘effective marketing is communicating to the minimum number of people possible and getting rid of all the media wastage.’ The point being that you don’t want to sell your brand to everyone, you want to focus on targeting relevant individuals and building the strongest consumer affinity base possible.

Advertisers are not social campaigners, even if the brands they work for are

What’s been happening in the industry for a while, is that this cycle of open commentary seems to have created a sense of industry confusion. While everyone comments on a brand, irrespective of its relevance to them, some brand owners seem to feel the need, or are encouraged by their agencies, to comment on everything as well. The industry has matriculated from messages related to the effectiveness of what we do for brands and has begun to air opinions on society and societal events in general as part of our repertoire. Whilst a brand owner needs to communicate relevantly and in a relevant context, it’s not the advertising industry’s job or mission to try and change the world unless they are so briefed by the client.

In our discussion, the panel felt strongly that if advertising is going to succeed in growing, it has to get back to selling. Those going into the industry, need to remember that we are the hired help and we’re there to help the clients ‘sell’ by putting the best brand message together; the most convincing one for them, that causes people to buy the concept, service or product. Naturally, in some cases there may be an obvious drift towards intellectual debate from a brand rather than simply concentrating on the operating nature of the brand and it is part of the advertising agency/consultant’s role to advise on the relevance and consumer utility of that.

Advertising is important in its own right

Culturally, we have developed into a time where people do not separate their personal world and brand from the commercial world. Everyone’s instructed to ‘share’ all the time and unquestionably there’s an overload. However, there is a difference between commercial communication and on-line personal branding, as well as social activity sponsored by the government to propagate behavioural change (which is still paid for). There is also of course a difference between paid and earned support and its purpose on behalf of brands themselves.

If you’re in advertising, you’re paid to activate a brand’s positioning and develop the best communication strategy. However, there’s a reality to it, and a humility as well. It’s a wonderful and important thing to be advocates for important social change within our own industry and as representatives of the industry, but virtue signalling for the sake of it from advertisers on the day job, is not that. At its core, advertising is a skilful and fundamentally necessary industry to bring together brands and their target audiences, thus helping to meet the needs of each other. That is the heart of what it does, and that in itself is an important and meaningful role.