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Exactly how broken is advertising?

Al Moffatt
Exactly how broken is advertising? Al Moffatt
'Is advertising really broken?' This is the question being asked by many journalists, clients, agencies and media outlets. I highly doubt this question would have been asked a year ago when optimism flowed like wine from a faucet, agencies were making money hand over fist and marketers were all aglow over MySpace and Facebook. In fact, 2008 was a record year for many agencies. So what gives?
The easy answer would be the economy. But it's not just economy, it's a multitude of things that have converged at just the right time and become inextricably linked to change the face of advertising as we know it -- and in some people's mind, declare its death. It's almost as if everything has matured at once: the economy, the media and the consumer.
For starters, we're at social crossroads, which I contend has contributed to a self-imposed economic slowdown rather than the other way around. In the mid-1990s, when ballads were making a comeback, a famous musician at the time was asked why hard rock was dying off and slower, folk-like music was taking over. His answer? 'Hell, mate, you can only play 220 beats per minute for so long.' And so it is with consumers. You know you've hit a market top when consumer spending accounts for 70 per cent of the U.S. economy and the self-storage business becomes a $20 billion industry. 'Hell, mate, you just can't buy anymore stuff.' Thus, the simple act of purchasing has matured.
Along with consumption, media has also matured. Not just traditional media like TV, out-of-home, press and radio. But digital media has also matured faster than most expected. Clients and agencies have quickly found out that the internet isn't the holy grail of advertising it was once thought to be. For instance, pay-for-performance digital advertising is now all the rage, because results from display and banner advertising have hit the top of the bell curve faster than a speeding bullet. And finally, the consumer and how we talk to them has hit the wall.
The cumulative effect of being bombarded with more kinds of advertising messages and techniques than Bill Bernbach, Jeff Goodby and Alex Bogusky could dream up in their lifetimes has resulted in savvy, highly-cynical consumers. We're trying everything these days to get people's attention and sell them something without them knowing it: five-minute webisodes underwritten by soft-drink makers, e-coupons delivered right to your mobile phone, brand-embedded videos on YouTube, and, of course, Twitter-inspired product sessions. But it seems like the more covert we are; the more different kinds of messages and media we need just to make an impression, much less a sell. And while agencies are talking about the 'long-tail' (code for: we're not really sure this is going to work, but it's cool and it may sell something down the road), clients are cutting budgets and clamoring for short-term results. So now many advertisers have gone to just the opposite extreme, using carnival-barker-like approaches (think Billy Mays and Vince, the Sham Wow dude), to hawk their wares.  And even more perverse, some companies (God forbid), are going back to TV as their base medium because it's relatively cheap and zigs while everyone else is zagging. What's new is old, and what's old is new.
Good lucking catching the bouncing ball that is the consumer these days.
So does all this mean that advertising is actually dead? No, it doesn't. It just means that advertising is in a shakeout period, just like the rest of the world.  Plus, when you think about it, advertising is nothing more than coming up with clever ideas to sell something. So, who cares if it's on Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, in pubs, on sidewalks, TV, radio, newspapers, posters or through word of mouth? Times change. People change. And media platforms come and go.  Advertising is like baseball. Just when you think it's dead and gone, there's a hot new agency or an Apple 1984 commercial just around the corner that catches everyone by surprise and compels journalists, clients, agencies and even consumers to say; 'Advertising is indeed alive and well.'
Al Moffatt is the CEO of Worldwide Partners Inc.

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