Lip ‘Read’-ing, dinosaur crash, and PC-ness

17 Dec 2018  |  Dominic Mills 
Lip ‘Read’-ing, dinosaur crash, and PC-ness

In his final column for 2018, Dominic Mills looks at last week's most interesting events: WPP's creative overhaul; the failure of Oath, and the CAP's new rules on gender stereotyping

Blimey, that year went by fast. Sometimes it’s hard to sort out the white noise from the serious stuff, and some weeks so much happens that you can’t do everything justice.

Normally, this is the time of year when things slow down, giving columnists the excuse to dig in the archive.

But not this week. Instead, the archive will be cunningly deployed in January (unless something big happens in week one) but to look forward, not back.

And today, we look at three very different events from last week.

Event #1 starts with a bit of ‘lip Read-ing’, aka some textual analysis of Mark Read’s ‘radical evolution’ statement of intent for WPP.

The plan has been well covered, by Mediatel and Campaign . The consensus view, judging both by industry comment and investor reaction (shares actually rose… a small personal hooray), is that it makes sense even if it doesn’t shoot the lights out.

What might be a little surprising – in a good way – is a bit of key-word density analysis, thanks to a mate (let’s call him Portobello fellow), of the actual strategy statement. You can read it in full here, but this shows the following key-word usage:

Data: x 3
Technology: x 15
Creative/Creativity: x 15
Talent: x 4
Media/advertising: x 1 each

Hallelujah, as Portobello fellow says. Clearly Read has decided to put creativity at the heart of the new-look WPP, something which it seems to have forgotten in its previous quest to gobble up everything that was focused on the ‘D’ word.

Similarly, it’s not often that holding company stuff, aimed primarily at investors, uses the word ‘talent’.

As Read made a point of saying: “[WPP’s] most important competitive advantage is its creativity.” It’s telling too that the words that most often accompanied ‘creativity’ were ‘investment’and ‘talent’.

Other than the suggestion most of the talent investment will go to WPP’s creative agencies, ‘advertising’ doesn’t get much of a showing, but that I think is because it is most commonly used as a synonym for ‘creativity’.

As for the relative lack of focus on ‘media’, I think that can be explained in two ways: one, some of the media stuff is covered by technology; and two, GroupM and its agency units generally remain high performers, and don’t need any radical treatment.

Event #2 is news from the USA that phone giant Verizon has worked out that its attempt to gatecrash digital advertising via the purchase of AOL and Yahoo has been a calamitous failure, so much so that it has written down the value of a combined $8.8bn investment by around $5bn.

And this in a proposition that combined mobile with content – the theoretical sweet spot for digital advertising.

In a classic piece of corp comms understatement, Verizon said… "pressures on Oath continue and have resulted in loss of market positioning to competitors in digital advertising.” Too right. Figures I’ve seen suggest Oath had a US digital ads market share of just 3.5%.

Some might say that anyone who is daft enough to buy two 90s dinosaurs like AOL and Yahoo and then rebrand them as Oath in a bid to take on the duopoly, demonstrates a kind of hubris that invites ridicule and disaster.

All this focuses the attention - especially in the US, but elsewhere on the basis that what starts there trickles over here - on other legacy business attempts to grab a share of the digital ads market and/or consumer screen time.

First up is the AT&T/Time Warner combo. Superficially, it is easy to get seduced by the similarities – telecoms giant buddies up with content producer – but superficial is what it is.

At 34+%, AT&T and Verizon have similar shares of the mobile market, but Time Warner is a far larger and stronger content proposition (costing ten times as much as Oath did) than Oath ever was, or could be, and is far less dependent on advertising.

Over here – and the jury is still out – the read-across is to BT/EE and Vodafone/Liberty Media (owner of Virgin), with the latter’s attempts to team up in Europe currently held up by the EU.

We shall see how these play out. But other than watching Amazon looming fast in their rear-view mirror, the duopoly have far more to worry about from regulators than they do from competitors of this type.

Event #3 was the launch last week of the Committees of Advertising Practice's (CAP) rules on gender stereotyping from June. Or to be more precise, rules on ‘harmful’ gender stereotyping, as opposed to that which is unharmful… and good luck figuring out the difference.

Uuurgh and double uurgh.

Although I write this at the risk of offending leading industry figures I like and admire, I just wish this wasn’t happening. The rules, regs, guidance and all that stuff are here.

Why do I hate this? For many reasons. First, it feels like social engineering to me, and I don’t think this is a function of advertising.

Two, it feels like a pre-emptive defensive move to head off an attack (from who, when… we don’t know).

Three, it assigns an importance to advertising’s role in society that I don’t think it has -- let’s face it: most advertising goes entirely unnoticed or ignored by most people most of the time.

Four, what about rules against harmful gender stereotyping in the content itself? Ah, that would be censorship. But the content is far more powerful, and in any case is what pulls the advertisers in.

But here’s the scary thing. According to the CAP report, some of the bodies consulted for this exercise think the rules don’t go far enough. Bloody hell.

There’ll be a review in June 2019, at which point the rules could shift. But you can pretty much guarantee they won’t be eased. Regulations generally only go one way – upwards and tighter.

For example, to one respondent to the CAP consultation, the fact that so few ads currently breached the codes wasn’t a sign that the codes were working… but the reverse. They needed to be made stronger.

And who are these people pushing for more? Well, they’ll come from a sample of the groups consulted. I don’t quibble with the rights of these groups to have a view on gender stereotyping, but I wonder where the balance, or indeed the silent majority, is.

Here are some examples of harmful gender stereotyping as outlined by the CAP.

  • Man puts his feet up while woman clears up a messy family home
  • Man can’t change nappies, woman can’t park a car
  • Ads that imply lack of romantic or social success is linked to physique
  • Ads that show boys as daring and girls as caring
  • Ads that show new mums prioritising home care and personal grooming over emotional well-being
  • Ads that belittle men for carrying out stereotypical female tasks

Hmm. In the last five years, how many ads have we seen promoting these images? Not many, and where there are examples of egregious stereotyping, the media and social media blowback against advertisers that transgress is so quick and so strong it is far more of a deterrent than any regulatory slap on the wrist.

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NigelJacklin, MD, Think.me.UK on 17 Dec 2018
“I would get more upset about the gender thing, but I've seen so many ads with unemotional middle aged males that I've become a bit too self-contained.”

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