Let’s be brave again

Taxi's Thomas Kenny on why complacency and diminishing audiences mean the industry must create a better value exchange.

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By Thomas Kenny

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when the ad industry was abuzz with excitement about a new way to reach consumers. It was called social media, and for the first time in a long time, we were wrapping our collective heads around a new medium and fearlessly exploring ways to exploit it to make people fall in love with our brands. People spoke of it as though the advertising landscape as we knew it was going to change and be replaced with a brave new world of discovery, participation and conversation.

Less than five years later, most of those platforms are still around, but the sense of potential is long gone. In its place we now have tiny print ads and 140 character headlines that we pay to put in front of people. We took something new and turned it into something old and familiar. It’s not hard to trace the downward trajectory of what once seemed so exciting into what’s now largely underwhelming. The introduction of algorithmically-driven feeds led to diminished reach, which in turn led to the ubiquity of promoted posts.

What happened next is perhaps also not surprising – we stopped trying as hard. The moment we could force our content into feeds, the impetus to make people want our content in their feeds was diminished. We were no longer creating brand acts; we were creating brand ads.

This same inflection point we’ve just experienced in social media is simultaneously happening in advertising at large – except in reverse. Where social media introduced an array of new ways to force content in front of consumers, the opposite has been true in most other media. TV is going on demand, the kids don’t listen to the radio or read magazines, ad blockers are on the rise. There are fewer and fewer places where we can force people to watch our ads. In decades past, advertising was inescapable. The good ones were great but the bad ones were a necessary evil that people endured because they subsidized the content you were there to consume. In many instances these ads are no longer necessary; they are now just evil.

Within this evolving landscape, we continue trying to do great work, but we’re doing it within the constricting parameters of our existing definitions of an ad. The complacency we feel towards what an ad can be is the same complacency we feel towards a Facebook post. It is what it is, so let’s make the best of it. The problem is that the world is changing around us and if we fail to change with it, we’ll get left behind.

So where to next?

Because we can no longer force people to watch our ads, we need to offer an equitable value exchange to compensate for people giving us their time. We need to find ways to make people want to see our ads. But, of course, making people want to see our ads is not an easy task. For many, the answer has been utility.

Brand utility is a term that gets thrown around a lot but often with the narrowest of definitions. When people typically reference utility they’re referring to instances where brands offered a specific product or service to people – Nike+, Fiat eco:DRIVE, Lululemon’s Om Finder app. The truth is that utility can come in a wide variety of forms. All utility means is that your ad brings value to the person experiencing it. This value can come in the form of making us smile, making us think, making us safer, or even making the world feel a little smaller.

As we begin to reinvent what an ad can be, a great place to start would be to revisit the channels that we’ve written off as creative nadirs. The only reason banner ads suck is because we’ve all agreed they’re going to suck. A great banner can make us laugh, surprise us, educate us, interact with us and even win us awards. Same for social. Same for search. But more important than reinvigorating our interest in existing channels, we need to be inventing new ones.

We are currently on the cusp of what could be a new golden age of advertising. Technology has given us the tools to pursue our craft in ways and places that would have been inconceivable only 10 years ago. It’s our job to connect the dots and imagine the ads of the future.

In short, we need to go back to where we were five years ago, filled with excitement and curiosity and trepidation, and take the same sense of possibility we had for early social media and apply it to advertising at large. We need to push ourselves, and our clients, and our media partners to rethink what an ad can be. To do this we will need to be brave – creatively, in how we allocate our budgets, in how we approach research, and in how we measure return on investment.

I don’t know what these new ads will look like. But I want to find out.

Thomas-KennyThomas Kenny (@thomaskenny) is strategy director at Taxi in Toronto.

Featured image via Shutterstock