Going Up Against the Old Guard

The other night while snowed in like millions of other folks in the Northeast, I was using StumbleUpon to entertain myself when I came across this article in, of all places, Adbusters…probably the most-read “anti-advertising” magazine around. Entitled “Pop Nihilism: Advertising Eats Itself,” it turned out to be one of the best critiques of this business I’ve read in a long time.

The central thesis of the article is that the advertising industry as we know it is dying from a combination of pressures from “new” creatives hell-bent on subverting the very industry that supports them and the simultaneous disruption that’s occurring with online advertising:

“Radical creatives who have entered the industry within the last few years tend to have little or no faith in the viability of “BDAs” (big dumb agencies). They view the established order as antiquated and staffed by frauds and has-beens, old-media curmudgeons who still watch television and don’t take the remix revolution seriously…This abrupt shift in thinking has caused ad agencies to divide along demographic lines – those favoring the mass market and traditional client service, versus progressive creative agencies that embrace chaos.”

Sound like some agencies or people you know?

It does to me. While those of us who read ClickZ are probably more on the side of the “radicals” mentioned in this article, we’ve all certainly had the experience of coming up against the “old guard” who still can’t grasp that what they defined as “advertising” – mass media-based, interrupt-driven, one-way, predictable – is dying. And as it dies, it’s being increasingly replaced by the chaotic world of digital media where old channels are fading away (newspapers, anyone?), new channels appear at a dizzying pace, consumers can (and do) talk back, and “attention” becomes harder to grab as it gets divided into tinier and tinier slices.

Sure, the old guard may talk the talk, but the numbers seem to say that they don’t know what they’re talking about. A recent study by Alterian found that seven out of 10 marketing professionals admit to having little or no understanding about how their brand (or their clients’ brand) is being discussed in social media. Let me say that again: 70 percent of people who do marketing for a living have no knowledge of what’s going on with their brands in the social media space!

That’s nuts! As this infographic demonstrates, over one-third of the U.S. population (approximately 116 million people) are active Facebook users. To put that in context, Nielsen estimates that the 2010 to 2011 TV viewing season will reach about 116 million households and an estimated 294,650,000 people. I’d argue that the Facebook numbers are a lot more accurate, a lot more measurable, and a lot more representative of a population who actually will see advertising. No matter how nifty today’s TV technology is, there’s still no way to directly measure who is watching, when they’re watching, and if they’re actually paying attention to the screen. Nobody puts Facebook on in the background while they’re doing household chores: if they’re using it, they’re using it.

“Oh, pashaw!” says the old guard, pointing to studies such as this one recently released by Deloitte, which predicts technology, media, and telecom trends for 2011. They point to the fact that Deloitte labels TV as “super media,” predicting that it will grab an even bigger share of ad dollars in 2011 than in the previous year. Deloitte also provides more backup for its decidedly old school position by pointing out that “despite social media’s large and growing audience, its advertising revenues still represent less than one percent of the worldwide advertising spend total.”

Interesting. By pointing to spending they can avoid talking about effectiveness. Spending’s the symptom, not the disease. The reason that social media spending is low is because 70 percent of “marketers” don’t know diddly about it! And, of course, let’s not forget what a great track record big consultancies have in predicting the future when it comes to online media, as this stunningly-clueless infographic representing Gartner’s “2006 Hype Chart” demonstrates. Apparently Tablet PCs were destined to languish in the “Trough of Disillusionment” by this year. Maybe Apple and Google didn’t get the memo.

But I’m not here to rant…well, mostly not. What I am here to point out is that regardless of industry “buzz” (obviously not on social media), we’ve still got a long way to go as an industry in terms of really understanding what’s going on with the media landscape. While Deloitte (and others) talk about the increasing power of TV advertising, they also fail to recognize the significance of their own data that points out trends such as the fact that mobile devices are going to overtake PCs this year. Combine that with interesting tidbits like this study from mobile analytics provider Zokem that finds that mobile app usage rises at night – especially during the prime time period – and the insistence that TV should be the primary advertising medium starts to look a little silly. Consumers can do both…and they are. Just because the TV is on doesn’t mean that anybody’s watching it actively and actually paying attention to the ads we spent so much money on to put there.

Obviously we’re working in an increasingly-complicated media landscape. And we have to deal with it. We must look at the bigger picture, come to grips with the facts, and (most importantly) not stop learning. We should focus on results, not spending patterns: spending patterns are just indications of what people spend money on, not necessarily what works.

And remember: the old guard ain’t gonna be around forever.

Sean is off today; this column was originally published Jan. 31, 2011.

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