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The reality of adland under lockdown

27 Apr 2020  |  Bob Wootton 
The reality of adland under lockdown

True enough, the advertising industry has responded brilliantly to reconfigure itself wholesale, writes Bob Wootton - but it shouldn't kid itself about its present or future positions

Apologies for the lateness of this regular column - incredible weather and strange times have been sucking away at the old motivation and from conversations with colleagues, I’m not alone.

To the mixed feelings about this present danger and our and Government’s reactions, add concerns about job security; how to actually work ‘properly’ from home amidst distractions / kids / relationship issues forced by extended proximity / loneliness / fear / illness; and indeed the future of work itself.

Plus the future of offices, transport systems, broadband infrastructure.  Well, we need something to take our minds off things and it isn’t the ads.

On current outputs, the future for advertising looks a bit bleak.  On the one hand, the industry has responded spectacularly, reconfiguring itself wholesale to operate remotely.

However, it seems to be my place to put what others can’t.  (We now work in a US-influenced business environment which is relentlessly upbeat, every sentence ending in a high-rising terminal.  Where many now fear for their jobs, which in a real-world context are pretty cushy, well-paid and fun).

From my perspective, far fewer people are really enjoying this new way of working than are saying so.  The upside of no commute is overbalanced by the absence of human contact and chance collisions and endless Zooms / Hangouts / Teams / WhatsApp’s / whatevers.

The people whose raison d’être was back-to-backs have just migrated, dragging colleagues with them and Slack is just another way for cunning peers to load each other up and project manage each other to death.  Email fatigue, already high, is also growing.

Meanwhile the ‘content’ that the industry has thus far managed to produce has been pretty dull.  As usual, the brilliant AdContrarian beats me to it, sharing this terrific, albeit American, video while modern Twitter sage Gus The Fox puts it as succinctly as ever...

Granted, stuff has had to be made without the usual physical contact and impacts on logistics and choice of location, and yes, the only agenda now is the chatterati’s new order of empathy, caring, recognition of essential services, ‘concern’ for consumers*...  But still.

My bête noire right now is the beautifully-shot ad of a single-parent horse and its pony crossing a beautiful landscape to a ‘sensitive’ soundtrack to (re?-)join the herd.

I don’t blame Lloyd’s Bank for focusing on the brand imagery they’ve nourished over so much time and with so much money (even if they were foolish enough to turn their backs on it for a few years recently).

No, it’s the new voice-over : “now, more than ever, we’re...” that leads into the strap line : “By Your Side” that gets my goat.  (Gosh, lot of animal references this time, must be true what they’re saying about the resurgence of wildlife during the human lockdown).

Only they’re not, are they?  This is one of the leading banks that have been outed for profiteering from Government’s financial interventions, icing their own cakes by demanding personal guarantees from beleaguered company borrowers.

Ok, the others are as bad but that doesn’t make this otherwise beautiful ad any less sickening and an unfortunate allegory for our predicament.

It’s not agencies’ fault.  Their horizons look downright scary right now and there are still way too many of them, keeping competition fierce.  So the clients can easily find someone who can if they won’t.

Add the growing band of production companies and hive-offs with their own account handlers, strategists and ‘creatives’ and they’ll have no problems getting the crap (they think) they want made.

And, hey, it’s all turnover to the media agency monoliths.

Government communications have also been curious at best. Seldom single-minded and often downright conflicted, in normal times any agency worth its salt would have respectfully intervened.  But it’s not hip to be seen as “unhelpful” right now.

There have been some clever creative uses of lonely billboard sites already committed to, but the bus sides that are now super-evident across our cities in the absence of cars or commercial vehicles are still filled with redundant ads for long-closed entertainments.

Many ads on telly elicit the question ‘why are they advertising this / now?’. Pace booze, mobile, broadband, food and, er, did I mention booze?  Thank God for stiff gin and tonics.

If you want an alternative glimpse of how it might be post-Covid-19 to contrast with the wildly optimistic spirit peddled by many of our industry’s leaders (most of whom fear for their excellent livelihoods too) about a new dawn and other likely bollocks (*see chatterati above), look to:

- supermarkets (e.g. Asda declining to pay clothing suppliers for stocks already delivered and on sale despite record grocery turnover and proposed dividends)

- airlines (e.g. the 51% owner of Virgin Atlantic, net personal worth ~£4bn, seeking a Government bailout)

- banks (e.g. Lloyds above)

Everyone is pleading their 'special case' with renewed vigour and urgency...

The newsbrands must be pinching themselves for having successfully enlisted the Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport to champion their protection.

The National Union of Journalists is now parleying that into a demand for an immediate 6% windfall tax on the digital behemoths to subsidise ‘quality journalism’.  A good idea, with which I wish them luck, though I fear it’s fanciful.

Just as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex unwisely pick yet another spat with the press over access amidst their litigation with The Daily Mail

Meanwhile, and back to previous reality with a sharp thump, dear old ad fraud is alive, well and apparently quite unaffected by viruses. 

For your delectation, one of the biggest (and cleverest) online fraud schemes yet targeting connected TV – “Icebucket” - has skimmed as yet further unspecified millions from advertisers, possibly with some publisher complicity.

Life is life and business is business.  Better acknowledge that than flatter ourselves that much we say will change the world right now?


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17 Nov 2020 

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