Adapting to a brave new world
After presenting at the Westminster eForum digital marketing seminar, I found myself feeling somewhat isolated from the other speakers. And it wasn’t just because the event was conspicuously full of grown-ups in suits – regulators, lawyers and legislators.
The event was ostensibly about digital marketing, and the challenges presented by a fast-changing media landscape. But most of the speakers talked about digital advertising, which is not the same thing at all.
Guy Parker, chief executive of the Advertising Standards Authority, talked through the ASA’s extended remit, which now includes websites and social media channels. Speakers from the IAB, AOP and ISBA talked about finding the balance between consumer privacy and the importance of targeted advertising in supporting high-quality content.
Other speakers used impressive-looking charts to show how complicated the advertising business has become – with publishers, platforms, ad exchanges and intermediaries all crowding into what used to be a simple world of media agencies, media owners and media lunches.
All this is indisputably true. But one of the fundamental shifts in marketing is that brands no longer have to rely on advertising to connect with their customers.
The advertising model is built on a scarcity of distribution. A limited number of newspapers, magazines, TV channels or radio stations controlled access to a mass audience, and could therefore generate healthy ad revenues by selling space alongside their content.
But in a world where distribution is ubiquitous, the value of that space is compromised. Today’s brands can quickly and cost-effectively create their own content, and build an audience through owned and earned media channels. If they can create stuff that is interesting, useful and entertaining – no mean feat – they can build their own audiences, rather than relying on a third party to deliver it for them.
Like many industries left reeling by the pace of digital change, the ad business is fundamentally challenged by this shift. It reminds me of the old joke about asking for directions in the middle of rural Ireland: “You wouldn’t want to start from here,” being the not-so-helpful advice.
Agencies, brands and regulators alike are trying to adapt to this brave new world. Lots of what they are talking about is sensible and well-meaning. But in many ways, they are simply starting in the wrong place – it’s not all about advertising any more.