Culture as Competitive Advantage

The Crisis of Digital and “Creativity” in Advertising

By Dino Demopoulos

Brand-building and marketing are at an interesting inflection point. In the face of growing business uncertainty, consumer apathy and the growing commodification of products and services, where should we be applying our focus strategically and creatively? Where should we turn for competitive advantage?

For marketers and brand-builders this a tough question. In addition to the well-known marketing challenges (too much clutter, not enough attention to go around etc.), a growing wave of new issues plagues the industry. Two that stand out to us are (i) the state of digital advertising and (ii) the eroding value and contribution that most advertising “creativity” provides to brand-building. As these are shown to be less effective in helping a brand gain a competitive edge, smart brands are shifting their focus to getting a better handle on culture for it’s proven value in helping brands grow.

Digital Disillusionment

Over the last decade or so, the promise to marketers has been that digital tools and technologies would be the most effective and efficient way to gain a competitive edge. The vision was for greater effectiveness, efficiency and new way of doing things.

While the ad landscape is obviously radically different today than a decade ago, it’s undeniable that we’ve lost our optimism surrounding digital advertising. It promised an awesome world of digital brand utility, untold earned media riches gained through organic reach and the marketer’s holy grail: perfect attribution. Our collective optimism has been replaced with a deep skepticism brought on by rampant ad-fraud, unreliable measurement and metric models and a growing disappointment with terrible ad experiences and crap ad-formats.

The industry lost sight of putting the audience or user first a long time ago. Interruptive two-second, ads aren’t going to get too many people excited, or happy. The digital advertising levers available that allow marketers to gain a true competitive advantage are withering.

In addition to issues plaguing digital advertising, there is a parallel, broader conversation emerging about the role of “digital” technology in general. As a society, we’re questioning and challenging the cultural and social costs of the rush to invent and “disrupt”. We’re challenging long-admired digital darlings, demanding greater accountability, and asking good questions not only about their role and impact in culture-at-large, but also looking closely at their internal culture, practices and behaviour. We’re less willing to give them a blank cheque in the name of “progress” or “innovation”.

The pendulum is, thankfully, swinging back to the human, social and cultural consequences of digital progress.This is a good thing. Putting people first and thinking about the impact on culture is positive.

The implication for brands and marketers? In appreciating the limitations and realities of digital marketing, we’ll be more critical and continue challenging our own assumptions about “digital”, and we’ll look elsewhere for competitive advantage. And we’ll have to answer questions regarding the actual role that brands play in people’s lives. In short, brands will need to become better agents of culture, rather than just striving to be better at “digital”.

“Creativity” in Crisis

“Creativity” has long been held up as the one secret weapon that ad agencies have in helping clients grow their brands. But many of the fundamental truths about advertising creativity and its effectiveness are being questioned today, along with its ability to make an impact in contemporary culture.

  • Research “proving” the effectiveness of “award-winning” creativity is flawed.
  • The ad industry focus on “brand purpose” over the last few years has not only made brands and marketing more boring, but the research often held up as proof that “purpose” works to grow brands is also flawed.
  • In addition to the continued lack of diversity that plagues advertising creative departments, there is a growing sense that advertising creative is disconnected from the “real world”, and not really driving culture forward at all.
  • As embarrassing as it is when brands try to be cool, maybe the bigger problem is that the very sensibility of creative advertising is just misaligned with internet culture itself?

To restore credibility and make more impact, the advertising industry needs to go beyond lazy assumptions about the role of advertising “creativity” and commit to doing a better job of reflecting and shaping culture. That’s what really counts. Creative ideas need to be more about the real world, not award shows, if they are to succeed in the real world. Understanding culture will be the starting point in helping brands become better agents of culture.

Focus on Culture

Despite the challenges above, the opportunity has never been greater for the brands, marketers and startups that focus on culture to gain competitive advantage. But it will take a commitment to culture to succeed. Doing the strategic legwork in identifying the role a brand should play in culture, and then activating on that strategy and direction can be one of the few sustainable competitive advantages available to brands and marketers. Success will require us to rethink how meaning is constructed in culture today, while going beyond assumptions of digital advertising and “creativity” that are only holding us back.

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