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Dominic Mills: How the C-word is changing adland

30 Mar 2020  |  Dominic Mills 
Dominic Mills: How the C-word is changing adland

From a post-pandemic capitalism built around new values, to redefining purpose, Dominic Mills examines the new challenges facing media and advertising. Plus: some familiar comforts

As with last week, it feels weird trying to write a normal column when there is no normal.

Let’s go eclectic then, and offer up a mix of random thoughts, most of which are driven by current circumstances (anyone who wants a zone free from the C-word look away now).

And next week I will revert to my intention to offer up a bit of fun.

Random industry thoughts linked to the C-word

Time on our hands means time to think — or over-think more likely. Here are five macro and micro thoughts about the industry post-pandemic (mostly mine, but some derived from conversations with others). Feel free to add or disagree to them.

Economic recovery: Two weeks after 9/11, George Bush urged Americans to do their patriotic duty and go out and spend. They did, and the economy not only recovered rapidly, but hit new highs. Consumerism ruled.

What then will the role of advertising be post pandemic? Will it be to get us to spend our way out of recession by buying new cars and travelling? But what with? Borrowed money or credit card debt?

Or will it all be different? Climate change and other forces are pushing back against consumerism. Will the role of advertising be to usher in a new form of capitalism; more caring, more co-operative, underpinned by a spirit of altruism?

Free market vs state economy: You know the world has turned upside down when Unite’s Len McCluskey applauds the Conservatives’ business support programme as “historic, bold and very necessary”.

For the past 40 years or so the ad industry has benefited from, in the broadest sense, a benign free-market economy. But will the balance between a free market and a state-controlled economy shift significantly towards the latter, expressed perhaps less through ownership (except for airlines) but by regulation and intervention? If so, how does that affect advertising?

But then we must also overlay the issue of cheap money. Low interest rates after the 2007-8 crash ushered in floods of VC and PE cash, most of which has been focused (to our benefit) on huge innovation in areas like DTC and tech — with bonanza levels of media and ad budgets.

Now, interest rates are lower still so presumably there’ll be even more VC money to splurge, which in turn raises the prospect of oddly-shaped economies: a large VC-driven tech sector at one end, government-owned or regulated parts of the economy at the other, and a squeezed and shrinking bunch of what you might call trad businesses (including agencies and media owners) at the other.

The High Street: Like most of you, I suspect, I have been trying to spend as much cash as I possibly can with local tradespeople and shops a) to maximise their chance of survival and b) because there are no crowds.

The pub round the corner, for example, is converting its trade supplies into veg boxes (and pasta and toilet rolls too!); I’m buying wine and the odd lettuce from the local newsagent/convenience store.

Meanwhile the High Street is a ghost town, tumble-weed blowing round the doors of familiar retail names. Even if they survive the immediate aftermath of the pandemic, what hope do they have say 12 months out as even technophobes shop online?

Note too that three of the UK’s most successful retailers of the last decade have no online presence to speak of. Yes, that’s Primark, Lidl and Aldi. Let’s see how it pans out for them.

Media hit: If the government’s social distancing campaign is frequency capped, I must be consuming way too much media judging by the number of times I’ve heard and seen it.

Never mind. There must be many media owners grateful for any money coming in. Even if they can maintain a semblance of volume, prices are on the floor.

What we must hope is as many media owners as possible are not harmed beyond repair by the current hit and can hang on long enough to benefit from the upturn. The prospect of a diminished and reduced media sector is not a pretty one.

Redefining purpose: The mythical question baby boomers like me grew up with was, ‘What did you do in the war, dad?’.

The equivalent question today is for brands and it’s this: ‘What did you do in the pandemic crisis?’.

It’s heartening to see that many seem to have grasped that the number one thing they can do is... be useful.

There are many examples of this, whether it’s the supermarkets prioritising the elderly; BP providing free fuel to emergency vehicles and free home delivery of food from its convenience sites; or Unilever donating £50m worth of soaps and sanitisers, and supporting small suppliers with early payment terms.

What isn’t useful is the travel company I never booked a holiday with (a ‘prices from £xxx’ promise turned out to be an egregious lie) emailing me to tell me of its heroic efforts to enable its staff to wfh and its plans to ‘share stories about the good work it and its partners have carried out’. Do I chuffing care?

It seems to me that, in recent years, ‘useful’ morphed into the more exciting, self-centred and self-satisfying concept of big P Purpose. But now humble old ‘usefulness’ is going to make a comeback.

Brands realise that they can’t save the world or right wrongs but they can, within their own terms of reference, make small differences. And that, to me, is a definition of useful.

Finally, if you too are thinking current and future issues, let me draw your attention to an excellent initiative by the Advertising Association. As of now, it is running a weekly tracker survey with senior respondents from brands, agencies, media owners and production companies. They will feed back on sentiment, outlook and actions which the AA, for its part, will pass on to government in its weekly session with DCMS.

Familiar comforts

I have no doubt that, were they heartless mercenary corporate bastards, the good people at Disney would be high-fiving themselves via Teams at the serendipity of the launch of Disney+ last week.

Everyone stuck at home... bored kids, bored teenagers, bored parents. What could be better (which probably explains why it’s confident enough to offer what seems like a mean seven-day free trial rather than the more standard 30 days) timing?

But hold on. Can householders cope with the extra choice? I’ve long subscribed to the doctrine that too much choice means paralysis and default to the familiar and I’m relieved, judging by the evidence of a study published by EY earlier this month, to find that I’m not alone.

I just want to highlight two points from the study, but you can find more here.

The first is that, despite (or because) of the cornucopia of choice, households are increasingly defaulting to the familiar — in this case BBC One and Two, ITV, C4 and C5. Indeed, according to EY, these five channels together account for the main proportion of viewing in 56% of households, up from 51% a year ago and 46% two years ago.

‘Trad TV’ therefore still has a hold on UK audiences, although obviously these figures co-exist with the fact that overall viewing to these channels is falling, and pretty fast too.

But clearly there is something comfortable about the familiar, and I bet that is never more true than during these troubled times.

If that is one aspect of too much choice, the other is confusion. Almost three in ten households (29%) say they find it hard to keep track of their favourite content across all TV (including streaming), and that feeling is even more pronounced — at 52% — for 25-34s.

And things will no doubt have got worse since the survey was conducted pre BritBox and Disney+. Somehow, broadcasters need to get hold of this otherwise they may pay a price in cancelled subs. I felt that way with Netflix, where I realised I hadn’t watched it for about four months last year. This wasn’t for want of trying: it’s just that I’d flick through pages of 'recommendations’ and go ’Nah, can’t be bothered’. Mind you, I’m relieved now I didn’t cancel.

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05 Aug 2020 

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