The Return of the Native

25 Feb 2014  |  Simon Pont 
The Return of the Native

Native Advertising is nothing more than a returning articulation of a long-standing intention, says SMG's Simon Pont. So is timeless brand thinking set for a welcome homecoming?

I got into this business because I liked advertising. I liked it back then. And I still like it. And it's why I'm inclined to still call an ad an 'ad', and view advertising as something that can be brilliant and that may still serve to influence, even inspire.

I say all this because eyeing 'Advertising' head on right now, you can't help but note the furrowed brow of existential angst. In defence, the ad industry isn't alone. The angsty frown is endemic of our times.

Our Digital Age now pushes at the borders of previously understood meanings and practices. 'How things once were' now feels shaky; no longer proven. 'How things can be' becomes open rolling debate and ongoing exploration.

Challenges to why things exist and how they might alternatively exist is actually all very exciting. Yet speculation begets uncertainty begets possible misdirection. New words pop up, old words require redress and face inquiry. 'Advertising' is one such 'Word & Deed' that's been summoned to the stand.

What the hell does it mean anymore? Just what is advertising? Is it fit for 21st century purpose? Or is it all a bit Betamax in an age of Blu-ray; its profile too Cro-Magnon for this era of cloud computing?

It was John Claude Van Dame's Epic Split that really got me wondering. Some were quick to explain Epic Split (and its success) as an ad trying not to be an ad. It felt a little as if praise for this slice of viral genius was being given rather reluctantly. (At time of writing, Epic Split's at 69.7 million YouTube views.)

Surely, some suggested, the only way any ad can be this popular is if it's an ad masquerading as "great content"?

I'm not sold.

The only thing that's great content...is great content...and isn't it possible that great content can still actually be "an ad"?

My feeling is that we might be guilty of sucker punching ourselves. Ours is an industry that invented "New & Improved", imbued weighty meaning to words like Plus and Ultra. From Ariel Ultra to Google Plus, the ad community will perhaps always be the most open-minded when it comes to a new formula (whether in tablet or code) - and 'Advertising', as an industry and as a noun, is getting its own 'Ultra' treatment.

The 'Advertising Ultra Plus' of our prime time hour goes by the strapline 'Native Advertising', the implication being that advertising sans prefix is potentially some kind of Old World paradigm putz.

Which leads me to suggest this. 'Native Advertising' is nothing new. At least, not in sentiment. To steal from a Thomas Hardy novel, I think we're more so discussing 'The Return of the Native'.

Native Advertising is nothing more than a returning articulation of a long-standing intention. It's a reminder that brands must be built on one thing, on producing images and proposing ideas that are worth a damn; that are made of the stuff we all naturally want and enjoy.

Native Advertising is principally a return to timeless brand thinking. Which is something we should never tire of - where great content can be advertising, in that it needs to be smart and enjoyable, rewarding to watch and potent in its ability to persuade."

'Advertising' is content (of a type), and all content has worth when it entertains or informs us. Entertain me. Inform me. Do either or both. Content that has a 'pay off' will always be worth my while and be the content I want and seek out. And there's no reason that can't assume the form of an 'ad'.

Not wishing to come over all nostalgic, but off the top of my head, consider...Canal Plus' 'Never underestimate the power of a great story', Guinness Surfers, the Stella Artois Jean de Florette-inspired series that came out of BBH in the 90s.

From the same decade and agency, add Levi's and Boddington's. Think (trust me, it's fun to) Kylie Minogue besting a bucking bronco, brought to us courtesy of Agent Provocateur; Tiger Woods bouncing a golf ball on the head of his club; Terry Tate playing 'Office Linebacker' for Reebok; a John West fisherman kung-fu fighting a big bear. And this is all before I throw in Cadbury's drum-playing Gorilla, TBWA's 'Get a Mac' campaign and Wieden+Kennedy's re-imagined Old Spice Guy. (If you haven't clicked on at least one of those links, there's something wrong with you.)

All of the aforementioned: content that naturally rewards. The fact there is a commercial agenda behind it, that it's content "as brought to you by a brand" ...well, that's incidental. Native Advertising is a new headline that's nothing new. It's Clive Owen starring in eight online movie shorts for BMW Films back in 1992. It's Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive and Lever Brothers selling soap to 1930s housewives via the ad format of daytime radio 'soap operas'. (P&G still run a production arm.)

Just as in the 1930s, I'd like to think that brands still have the capacity to become radio, TV and film producers. I'd like to think that ad-funded in these 'native' times can simply encourage any brand to make a brilliant piece of content, while remaining editorially impartial. Similarly, I don't mind if there is commercial bias if the 'content' makes me smile the way I did when I saw Bud Light's 'Ian up for whatever'.

Can we simply file 'Native Adverting' under the catch-all, 'Advertising is dead, long live advertising'? I suspect we probably can. Let's not be so quick or so premature as to lament the demise of 'advertising'. Let's unfurl that brow.

While being de rigour, I'd argue that Native Advertising is principally a return to timeless brand thinking. Which is something we should never tire of - where great content can be advertising, in that it needs to be smart and enjoyable, rewarding to watch and potent in its ability to persuade.

To this end, let me conclude by telling you that my seven-year-old son is a fairly serious fan of superheroes; his favourite Avenger a photo-finish between Iron Man and Thor. I'm with him on that. But as much as my son likes superheroes, he likes super villains more. "Why, Dad, is Loki such a good bad guy?" he recently asked.

"Maybe because he's really smart, and cunning, and has all the best lines?" This received a sage-like nod from my son and an, "I think you're right."

Where 'Epic Split' was my favourite ad/native ad/brand film/content piece of 2013, Jaguar's 'British villains' is already my favourite of 2014 - because it's simply so very satisfying to watch. Because my son thinks it's "brilliant". Because it makes us both grin on the outside and glow on the inside. And because it reminds me that 'advertising' hasn't changed. Not the really good stuff.

Great 'advertising' can still be great, whatever age you live in or age you are. Great is the work you know the moment you see it, irrespective of the label you give to it.


Simon is a British writer and commentator. He is chief strategy officer at Starcom MediaVest Group and an EACA Effies judge. Find out more here.

@SimonPont

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