Read enough of these books and trade publications, and attend enough workshops and conferences and seminars, and invariably you will find yourself engaged in arguments around an age old question: Is advertising dead? Has it outlived its usefulness? Is it an anachronism in these, our enlightened times. Is it merely some vestigial phantom limb that exists only in our consciousness and serves no valuable purpose. Hell, you might even find yourself seeking answers in a book with the outrageously provocative title “The End of Advertising”.
But what Andrew Essex is thinking about here is a little different from what is discussed in those exercises in handwringing. Writing in 2017, Essex understood that it was the social contract in advertising that had been broken, not advertising itself, and that therefore it was not so much that advertising had to go away, but rather that the elements of it had to be reconsidered, rearranged, and rethought in light of this broken contract. Because, as he points out about halfway through the book “People will still need to buy and sell things; we’ll still need to know what’s new.”
Essex was the founding CEO of legendary advertising agency Droga5, as well as CEO of Tribeca Enterprises, and before those experiences, Executive Editor of Details magazine. Currently he is CEO of Plan A, which has been described as “a creative marketing and communications agency that acts as an operations holding company that provides centralized customer service, strategic advisory and financial management” and which describes itself more simply as “a group of global big thinkers, agency veterans, and creative generalists who got together to create something new.”
The “social contract” that Essex discusses in The End of Advertising (though to be sure he does not articulate it quite that way) is this: advertising was the price we paid for the content we wanted. We accepted the commercials that interrupted our tv shows as payment for those very tv shows. We accepted the print ads that interrupted our magazine articles to defray the cost of those very magazine articles. So much so, in fact, that in 1906, an advertising executive named James Collins testified before Congress that:
“There is still an illusion to the effect that a magazine is a periodical in which advertising is incidental. But we don’t look at it that way. A magazine is simply a device to induce people to read advertising.“
Accept the ads to get the content. That was the contract. Except it isn’t any more. And while it began to fray over the years, it broke completely with the rise of the internet. For as Essex writes:
Of the many dramatic changes that the Web has wrought, the most deleterious to advertising has been the unprecedented economy of abundance it has unleashed. In connecting the world and giving people access to more information and entertainment than any snake oil salesman could ever have imagined, to more content than anyone could possibly consume, the modern Web literally left no additional space for old-fashioned ads. There was no point in being adjacent amid so much muchness; adjacent might as well be invisible.
This, more than the adblockers that came with it, was what broke the advertising social contract. Indeed, as Essex points out, polling of young people about why they used ad blockers revealed that only 17 percent said “for security reasons”, while a significantly larger number said that they just didn’t want to be interrupted. Thus, ads could no longer make money by “standing next to” the content people wanted, because there was so much of it. Indeed, for advertising’s purposes, too much of it.
Which by itself is an interesting observation – that the reason the “interruptive” or “adjacent to what’s interesting” strategy worked as well as it did, and as long as it did, was because there was a cap on that very content. You were willing to be interrupted because the alternative – getting up and changing the channel on the TV before remote controls and cable tv, or putting down the magazine and finding another magazine to read – were worse than just enduring the interruption by the ad.
Which is why Essex is interested in what advertising looks like that cannot be interruptive – since clearly the internet is here to stay and has made it impossible to interrupt consumers as efficiently as advertisers could in the past.
Essex’s answers are less concrete, but that is to be expected. It’s harder to predict the future than the past. He does, however, have a starting point:
Advertising as we know it is not the answer. Imagination, creativity, and an active distaste for pollution are the new necessary ingredients, along with the ability to see the difference between authenticity and artifice. And, of course, dollars which brands have in droves. It just requires a reallocation of resources, and talent with the vision, character and courage to implement those resources appropriately. [emphasis added]
Just reallocate the resources. And have talent with vision. And character. And courage. You know, easy-peasy.
And if Essex’s examples of this are a bit expected – Citibikes, The Lego Movie, American Girl – that’s probably because of just how difficult it is to reallocate and implement. Because we’re not talking about just different creative. We’re talking about a different way of engaging with customers. Which requires a fundamentally different structure for clients first, and then for agencies to meet their client’s new needs.
Which then perhaps requires the forging of a new social contract. One that, as Essex writes, challenges marketers to “be the thing, not just the thing that sells the thing.” One that invokes Howard Gossage’s always on-point dictum “People pay attention to what interests them. Sometimes it’s an ad.”
Or maybe the social contract was never really broken, because we’ve never really been in the ad business after all. Maybe we’ve always been in the attention business. And maybe television let us get lazy and forget that until the internet reminded us.