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Bob Wootton 

Existential threats: ad industry is fiddling while Rome burns

Existential threats: ad industry is fiddling while Rome burns

Bob Wootton discusses self-inflicted industry perils including regulation, pitching, awards and a perceived higher calling

I rattled a few cages in my last opinion piece.

Some felt I was being rebuked, others flattered, when our industry’s three leading trade bodies responded to my assertion that we had been roundly ignored as the Government unilaterally introduced further strict controls on advertising foods and drinks high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS).

I was glad to provide them opportunity to reiterate excellent arguments, which I wholeheartedly support but they rather avoided my point – that they/we hadn’t been heeded.

Nor did they rise to my informed comment that these products’ manufacturers perhaps had wider agendas and therefore have left the defence of advertising to the ad industry.

But it got me thinking about the bigger picture for advertising and the existential threat I believe it now faces, some (though not all) self-inflicted…

Gambling is highly profitable and very advertising-responsive. 

Whether it should have been allowed to advertise some years back is debatable.  How it – and our dependency on it – has evolved is a problem.

Once TV advertising was allowed, it was obvious that spends would balloon. 

Regulation of this adult product concentrated a torrent into a few programmes and time segments, so every permitted break typically contains two gambling ads. Most of them pretty hideous. Now it faces further interventions, likely depressing spend.

Alcohol has faced tightening constraint for years. Now we face similar further distortions of the commercial media demand/supply relationship from the HFSS restrictions. 

Pre- and post-watershed will be two different worlds. At least blanket online restrictions could drive funds back into the legacy (sorry) media.

But then this chilling piece. Imagine also closing down the (petro)chemical, automotive, energy and numerous other carboniferous sectors. A clear and present advertising Armageddon in lieu of a prospective climate one….

Then there’s the worrying scope creep of our own self-regulator, the Advertising Standards Authority.  The Institute of Economic Affairs’ view on industry’s over woke self-censorship is worth reading.

Regulatory investigations, mainly into the platforms, are now proliferating. 

Whether algorithmic manipulation, user stalking, inciting extremism and hate or wholesale tax avoidance, storm clouds are massing across Facebook’s (and Google’s) horizons.

The new chair of the US’ Federal Trade Commission, Lina Khan, is only 32 so likely a “digital native” who might know better than the old guard where bodies are buried.

AdContrarian Bob Hoffman’s recent submission to our House of Lords select committee is a virtuoso tour d’horizon whose contents will surely recycle into other enquiries.

Will these have any impact on companies whose (advertising) revenues dwarf most countries’ GDP? 

To have any impact, their determinations should be retrospective to deliver substantial penalties. The recent G7+ corporation tax harmonisation declaration is welcome, if only a start.

Many ‘old economy’ companies were struggling before Covid hastened an online-first society. The new flush of tech-based businesses also needs to advertise, but unlike their predecessors they think they know which half of their advertising isn’t working. Bad news for the total pot.

Which brings us to pitching and remuneration. 

I desperately want my fellow columnist, Nick Manning’s excellent recent piece on the changing shape of pitching to be true but I’m still close enough to enough major advertisers, some pitching right now, to report that the dead hands of finance, procurement and the spreadsheet still hold sway. 

Duncan Collins of AMS Media Group seems to feel the same.

Nick does refer to agencies declining to pitch for anything that moves, so there could be a new meritocracy emerging. That said, there will always be second-rate operators to “partner” bean counters.

Even if you discount as carping the view of those, like me, who lived through better, more fun and entertaining times, the industry is a shadow of its former self.

Yes, it’s much more businesslike and rational and has embraced data. Money men and geeks may be inheriting the earth but neither have done anything for likeability (or recruitment).

Viewers no longer tolerate, let alone enjoy, the ad breaks and can now avoid the little worth watching.

Unlike the – still memorable – advertising of old, today’s “content” has scant narrative, empathy or craft, let alone uniquely British self-deprecating humour. 

Not surprising, you might say, since it was briefed out of Milwaukee or Seoul and judged by committee in Dusseldorf.

For all the protestations about storytelling, as the excellent blogger Ben Kay suggests, we’ve more or less forgotten how to create good ads. Who allowed that?

Creative colleagues advise that the presentation of a smörgåsbord of concepts has returned. 

I thought this ended 30 years ago but I suppose creative agencies can sidestep accountability if the client is encouraged to pick a concept as if from a supermarket shelf.

These same people have been displaced from agencies under margin pressure and find themselves having to work freelance for diminishing day rates, “knocking up” dozens of creative executions or concepts in a few minutes or hours. What does this do for quality?

Three cheers then, for the ebullient Rory Sutherland, although I fear he alone can’t turn this supertanker around.

I’ve observed before that the industry has lost sight of what it actually does in favour of some higher and overtly-virtuous callings – and was quite surprised more people didn’t try to cancel me for that.

Whether it’s D&I (apparently renamed I&D because it’s more inclusive just as the new business cards had been printed) or purpose or the future of work, we’re eclipsing what we actually exist to make and place.

Many of my conversations suggest I’m not alone in this view.  A sizeable minority, perhaps even a silent majority whose freedom of expression is suppressed. 

So much for “being your whole self at work”…

Every day sees new alleged transgressions and judgements from the metropolitan echo chamber and activists, the latest being the new GB News TV channel. 

Will our self-appointed and ill-qualified “moral guardianship” never cease?

It’s surfaced two things – GB News’ advertisers’ feeble responses to challenge and their ignorance of where their ad budgets are going.

Thank goodness backbones seem to have stiffened across the week. The “anti-woke” GB News is Ofcom-licensed, not a “brand unsafe” environment – except in the sense that its very promise attracted Stop funding Hate’s ire.

Meanwhile, as @grumpyagencyguy reminds us, advertisers continue to deluge money into Facebook despite its ongoing refusal to take much responsibility for its “content”.

Encouragingly for some, The Times’ West Coast-based tech correspondent Danny Fortson writes this weekend that the platforms face yet another advertising bonanza from a swarm of post-pandemic b2c startups.

Wrapping all this together, I worry that we’re fiddling while Rome burns.  And that the Devil is indeed making work for idle hands to do.

Advertising is a business that has always had to make its own luck.  We rightly pride ourselves on our energy, creativity, intellect, enthusiasm, diligence, industry, ability to influence – and charm.

We embody all the qualities necessary to turning things round.  Perhaps it’s high time to apply them.

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