Will Advertising Learn to Speak Web?

I guess most people a few years ago would have viewed the advertising business as innovative. Advertising was responsible for inventing many of the messages we encountered on the street, in our homes and in our work environments. It was the advertising folks who originated the ideas communicated into those environments, ideas that captured the attention of millions of consumers around the world…

But wait. Why am I speaking in the past tense? My introduction sounds like a eulogy. Well, maybe in fact it is.

Over the past five years advertising creativity has metamorphosed. A discipline that was once innovative, that had the ability to combine well-known elements in a new way, has changed course. For some reason, the day the World Wide Web arrived, all creativity seems to have stopped behind the advertising agency doors.

Yes, most advertising agencies opened new departments in early 1996, but they didn’t manage to keep them alive or to give them the necessary attention to make them grow. Why? Because the risk was that they would grow bigger than their mother business and, in the end, take the agency over by changing the recipe that for years had been so successful for mother.

Let’s test my hypothesis. Think of the three most innovative online marketing agencies in the world… Is there a traditional name on your mental list? Probably not. Now let me ask you to think of three traditional advertising agencies that have seriously managed to carve a strong position for themselves in the online marketing world. You could probably think of one or two, if you are very close to the business, but that would be about it!

Here’s a classic catch-22. Taking your own medicine is almost impossible, and that is exactly analogous to the duty facing advertising agencies. The latest trend is that dot-com marketing agencies now have started hunting the world in order to acquire traditional advertising agencies. These were once the small fish, but they’ve grown and now they’re eating the big fish.

So why have the old advertising businesses failed? Why has it been so difficult for millions of creative heads around the globe to come up with an idea capable of occasioning the paradigm shift necessary for traditional advertising to seize Internet opportunities?

The answer is simple. First of all, the old tale about the boy who cried “Wolf!” springs to mind. The wolf was never really coming all the while the boy cried that it was. So finally, when the wolf did appear, nobody believed him or responded to his pleas.

False alarms for advertising agencies have prompted them to create new departments to deal with new crises; public relations, direct marketing, trade marketing, and product placement departments have all been installed over the years to manage emerging needs. When these departments grew to a reasonable size, the agencies were able to spin them off. The spin-offs never grew bigger than their mother agencies. They stayed small and nice and unthreatening. At least until the Internet showed up.

The second reason has to do with the difficulty of mental change. Try to learn a new language when you are 40 years old. Some of us will succeed, but most won’t manage to ever speak the language fluently. As linguists will tell you, if you haven’t had the requisite exposure to a language by the time you’re two, you’re unlikely to ever speak as a native.

So now advertising agencies are struggling to belatedly learn a whole new language. Millions of people are currently attending the lessons five years too late and at the same time competing with a group that was born and raised with it as its mother tongue. The language? Interactivity.

I’m not being ageist. But I’m trying to explain a reality: Changing the direction of an ocean liner in the middle of the Atlantic is not easy. What advertising agencies must do to survive is so dramatic that some of them will not manage the paradigm shift at all. They’ll have to close down and start all over again. In the Internet world this is called “rebooting.” It’s something most nerds do several times every day. Advertising agencies still haven’t learned how to reboot. And it’s likely that they will never find the button.

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