I saw this comedian once who was complaining - here we are, in 2010, and we're not driving rocket cars to work (which fold neatly up into a suitcase), not eating small green pills for dinner, not teleporting to vacation, and still watching television commercials?
OK. That last one I added myself. But really - isn't this a reasonable question? I don't want to be the one who lets out the big secret, but...really? I've been in this business since the mid '90s and there have been a slew of technology announcements, bold predictions, and concessions of a loss of control by marketers. Each year, we look at these continuing trends and figure, well, this is it.
But, for some reason, we keep seeing commercials on TV and banners on the Internet. In fact, if we think about advertising in a very traditional sense (a message sent to a consumer to compel an action), the market seems to be expanding. In addition to the traditional channels, we now see a huge increase in ad inventory in social media, mobile, online video, and digital outdoor.
By all logic, advertising should have massively contracted, but, instead, it seems to be expanding. What's going on?
More to Advertise, More Quickly
Well, one of the main reasons that advertising hasn't gone away is that there's more stuff to advertise. The number of products in a supermarket has gone up several hundred percent over the last few years. And these products are coming out of the factory and into retail at an extremely rapid rate. There are simply more products to talk about and more marketing budgets to spend.
Matching up with this is that increase in inventory, many of it requiring a ridiculously small amount of creative effort. Search ads are clearly the leader in the make-it-quick advertising world. But if you want to get an ad up quickly, you don't need to settle for just a few characters and maybe a GIF. Thanks to services such as Google's TV Ads, you can practically click your way to a real TV ad, live and on the air.
But that isn't enough of an answer. Yes, we have more products and reasons to advertise, and more channels through which we can advertise. But all that means is that the landscape is way more cluttered than it was before. I thought we were supposed to have ad blocking and skipping technology in place that would enable us to sail through oceans of content, unhindered by the whitecaps of marketing.
This? This Is Consumer Control?!
The problem really is that the consumer control that we've all been so focused on is...not really that big of a deal. Well, it's a big deal, in that it's changed the ways in which we operate an ad campaign. But it certainly hasn't obliterated advertising. In fact, advertising is absolutely flourishing.
The fact is, advertising got pushed into a corner in the late '90s and early '00s. The threat of ad skipping and blocking was real, and ads in general were clunky and boring. The Web was dominated by cheesy call-to-action ads (remember the pop under ads for the X10 spy cam?). Or what about television spots for HeadON?
This was advertising that consumers rightly wanted to get control of. If we stopped innovating at that particular point, we really should have all been out of jobs.
But the fact is, advertising is an industry that's dominated by highly creative people who live to solve challenges, and the biggest challenge they faced was saving their own industry. The brand and product, "advertising," needed some serious work.
So, we got smart about using data for targeting, provided extremely low-cost/pay-on-performance ad methods, got more/better content online, created premium packages for advertisers to buy, built real relationships between editorial and advertising, and let the consumer have a say.
It's that last part - letting consumers have a say in what we do - that remains the most significant change in advertising. Previously, content and advertising had a confrontational relationship. Ads were on the side of business and broadcaster and they tried to interrupt as often and as strongly as possible. Content was on the side of creators and the audience and fought for continuity. These two sides pushed against each other and rapidly brought the entire experience down. Neither was willing to give an inch in this Cold War of marketing, and, as a result, no one lost. But, more importantly, no one won.
The promise and threat of disruptive broadcast technology changed all that, though, and the fact that this technology wasn't coming from creators, broadcasters, or advertisers, but from a third player: enablers. Companies like Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Apple are now the prime movers in advertising, and there's almost no corollary to them throughout the last 50 years of advertising.
Where does that leave us? Well, in pretty good shape, actually. We're on the cusp of what promises to be the most innovative year ever for advertising. By the end of 2010, we'll have a lot of truly new technology and platforms. We need to break out of a traditional way of thinking, where content and advertising is at odds with one another, and really begin to see us all - advertisers, content creators, agencies, publishers, and consumers - as being in one great big boat, heading, not toward a new country, but back to the old country, with a few new passengers.
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Gary Stein is SVP, strategy and planning in iCrossing's San Francisco office. He has been working in marketing for more than a decade. Gary lives in San Francisco with his family. Follow him on Twitter: @garyst3in. The opinions expressed in Gary's columns are his alone.
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