How the ad biz has changed

I was leafing through a stack of very old papers the other day, and I came upon something I had written a full dozen years ago for That Other Trade Publication. They had asked me, along with a few other people of incredible importance to our industry, to predict what would happen to the advertising business in the 1990s.

I was leafing through a stack of very old papers the other day, and I came upon something I had written a full dozen years ago for That Other Trade Publication. They had asked me, along with a few other people of incredible importance to our industry, to predict what would happen to the advertising business in the 1990s.

I wrote a cutesy little piece on the folly of trying to predict anything, using unforeseen examples from the ’80s like the fall of the Berlin Wall. Then I proceeded to predict anyway. I said that nothing would change in advertising, because nothing ever changes. The only constants, said John the Guru, were good chemistry and good ideas.

I have never been so wrong in my life.

The advertising business, if we would ever stop running around long enough to look at it, is almost unrecognizable compared to what it was in 1989. Yes, good ideas and good chemistry remain important… but the delivery systems have totally changed, and the audience is in charge.

Once upon a time, everybody watched the same TV shows and read the same magazines. When Lucille Ball carried her baby in prime time (and never used the word ‘pregnant’), it was front-page news in the New York Times when little Desi was born.

When M*A*S*H finally folded its surgical tent, more than half of North America was simultaneously watching. When Young & Rubicam first installed a newfangled computer in its media department, a crusty old coot senior executive christened it ‘The magical machine that always comes out Life.’

Here in 2001, that comment is so strange I have to translate it for you. Life Magazine was a Time Inc. picture book, with occasional pretensions to seriousness, that everybody read. So since most advertisers wanted to reach everybody, every advertiser had to use Life.

Today, if an advertiser can reach 10% of the public at once, they have discovered a blockbuster vehicle. Everything is fragmented. There are thousands and thousands of different magazines, hundreds and hundreds of TV channels (WITH A WHOLE SLEW MORE COMIN’, WHOOPEE!), and I understand there’s even something called the Internet, where members of the public can choose to focus on exactly the intellectual pursuit or body part that particularly fascinates them.

And there’s something more. These members of the public are now armed. They hold in their hands either a zapper or a mouse, depending on their medium of the moment. They no longer sit there placidly waiting for Lucy to return, dreaming of Maxwell House Coffee as the Great Advertiser intended. They zap, they bounce, they run around the banners and the pop-ups. They behave in a totally undisciplined fashion and refuse to be clobbered by our messages as they should. They’re guerrillas, like the Yanks against the Brits in 1776, or the Viet Cong against the Yanks 200 years later.

And what do we do, we sophisticated advertisers with all our computers and psychographic printouts, we who claim to be able to make communication a science?

We go back to the Stone Age. We hurl more and more messages at them, from fax machines and urinals and fortune cookies, hoping to hit somebody, some time, with something. By now we’re supposed to have laser missiles; instead, we’re throwing rocks from a catapult at a well-protected castle.

At this point in this tirade, it was my original intention to stop talking about the problem and start offering a solution. However, I have worked myself into such a fine frenzy that I have no space left in this column. (Yes, I am a member of the advertising profession, and yes, I am undisciplined.)

So I will write about what we must do to fix things in the 21st century, but I will not do so until the next issue of Strategy. As they say in the advertising business, stay tuned.

John Burghardt’s checkered resume includes the presidency of a national agency, several films for the Shah’s government in Iran, collaboration with Jim Henson to create the Cookie Monster, and a Cannes Gold Lion. The letterhead of his thriving business now reads ‘STRATEGIC PLANNING * CREATIVE THINKING.’ He can be reached by phone at (416) 693-5072 or by e-mail at burgwarp@aol.com.