September 25, 2010

Should advertising be abolished?

So here we are, the final chapter of David Ogilvy’s book “Confessions of an Advertising Man”. The book that inspired this blog finishes with this dramatic question – Should advertising be abolished? Ogilvy quotes Churchill who said “Advertising nourishes the consuming power of men. It sets up before a man the goal of a better home, better clothing, better food for himself and his family”. A rather patronising view but spot on in a post-war era when the economy needed to grow. Yet at the time of writing the book (the early 60s) the debate was raging about the value of advertising.

Fast forward forty years and in the digital world we now live in the debate continues… but today the backlash against advertising comes from consumers who now have personal control to ban advertising themselves. From ad skipping Tivo to pop-up blockers through to spam filters – people have multiple ways to avoid being advertised to. Now we are facing a situation where our audience is no longer captive but rather it is brands that are held hostage by consumers who demand more than being told that they should buy a product to have a better life. Marketers are now forced to find new ways to reach the people who potentially could buy the product. When any negative experiences with a product can be posted online brands are being held accountable more than ever before.

Interestingly David Ogilvy showed in his book how advertising has always been a force for sustaining standards of quality and service. When his agency started advertising KLM Royal Dutch Airlines as “punctual” and “reliable”, their top management told their staff that they had to live up to the promise of their advertising. Today we see campaigns like the Domino Pizza Turnaround that allow consumers a window into their operations and shout their new values from the computer screen. Power to the people.

Ogilvy believed that TV was the most potent advertising medium ever devised but he would pay for the privilege of watching it without “commercial interruptions”. Times have changed but they stay the same. Online people enjoy free media with online news and entertainment content but hate animated ads that cover the page they are looking at. No doubt David Ogilvy would have loved Tivo allowing him to skip all the ads. Online advertisers have learned quickly that consumers will ignore their messages so have developed more engaging ways to attract attention. Branded content rewards people for their time. iAds promise to deliver a richer experience. Advergames entertain you hoping that next time you want to buy a bag of chips that you’ll choose their brand. When you want to launch a new movie a trailer just isn’t enough any more. You need to draw people into the world of the movie through transmedia “experiences”  like the multi-screen campaign that was executed for the Avatar movie across Xbox and MSN.

Ogilvy finishes by saying that advertising should not be abolished (of course) but it must be reformed. No doubt he’d be alarmed and fascinated by the digital world of today where reform is being enforced by consumer behavior. Truth and lies about brands and products are revealed by the verbal few and received by the masses on social networks, blogs and Twitter. Ultimately commerce needs communication. Brands need fans that act rather than just “like” (as pointed out in this article by Simon Mainwaring). Digital spells the end of advertising as we know it. Ads that talk at you are definitely banned. Campaigns that connect with customers in a meaningful way, that bring people together with a common brand affiliation and ultimately result in sales… that’s the kind of advertising that rings in a new way of thinking.

So I come to the end of Ogilvy’s book and as I close it I’m also on the verge of a new chapter myself. At the end of October I leave Ogilvy to take up an exciting new challenge in China where I hope to continue the digital adventure in a market where online and mobile brand communication is still relatively new. I’ll be posting my future confessions of a digital adman from a totally different perspective. It’s going to be a blast.

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