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The tyranny of digital advertising

I don’t come from advertising. I have an eclectic, unusual background that includes training as a lawyer, joining a startup,getting a masters in Software Engineering, and founding another startup. I am a sterling example of not hiring advertising people to make advertising.

This April, I clocked up my two-year anniversary at Wieden+Kennedy, an independent advertising agency with offices all over the world and clients like Coca-Cola, Nike, P&G and Facebook, in Portland,Oregon.

I’ve done a lot of doing, thinking and trying about what it means to be “interactive,” “digital,” or “non-traditional” at an advertising agency. And man is this shit complicated.

For the uninitiated, this is how advertising agencies work:

First, the marketing department at a client comes up with a brief. Then, the strategy (“planning”) department at an advertising agency comes up with another brief for its creative team. A media agency will work out how to best reach the target audience. Finally, all of them will fight together (competitively collaborate) to accomplish the goal of communicating a marketing message to the target audience.

Here are some examples:

a) Nike’s Free shoes are flexible and help make your feet stronger, b) there are some new ones that are very flexible, c) you should buy them now;

a) Olympic athletes aren't the only people who deserve acclaim, b) this kid does too, c) and so you can become a better athlete too;

a) P&G really understands you as a mother, b) P&G also happens to make a bunch of stuff you know about, c) you feel better about buying other P&G products now

a) Old Spice is awesome

A media company will deliver, through the strategic application of statistics and a television programme like The Voice or Saturday Night Live, an audience to whom you can deliver your message.

TV advertising functions like this: people watch TV shows and then sometimes they see the adverts that are helpfully placed during ad breaks during the show they decided to watch. The deal is: amazing programming like NBC's coverage of the Olympics in exchange for a few messages from our sponsors that, combined with concepts like reach and frequency result in effective marketing. Brands get a large amount of eyeballs squished into a short amount of time. But, don't think about it that way, because it sounds gross and Cronenbergian.

The smart will have noticed a gap here:there certainly are large numbers of eyeballs watching TV shows. In theory, the ads placed during those TV shows are seen by a proportion of those eyeballs. But it’s not exactly well-understood what happens after those eyeballs have received the message that was placed in front of them. Suffice it to say that the business that places those messages is a pretty hefty portion of a trillion dollars.

Let's be clear: big businesses have grown up around the availability and theory of mass media and buying attention. Any big client older than15 years old will have grown up with the reassuring ability of tv and print advertising to reach mass audiences. Those were methods of advertising predicated on guaranteed access to peoples’ attention through interruptions in mass media.

And thus the marketing and business plans and briefs for those companies assume that you market your product or service by delivering a message to a stupendously large number of people in a short amount of time.

The Product is the Service is the Marketing

At roughly the same time as my two year anniversary in advertising land, Russell Davies recently wrote up a storm explaining what the UK’s Government Digital Service does and what GOV.UK is for.

Simply, their job is to save money by making the digital provision of government services so good that the public prefers to use them.

One of the points that Russell makes in his post is that, in their case, the product is the service is the marketing: the product (a government service) is the service (the delivery and usage of that service) is the marketing (the clear communication to the target audience of the benefits of that service). The tying together of those three different items - product, service, marketing, and how GDS have achieved that aim, has implications as to why good integrated (and so digital) advertising is so difficult to achieve.

The tyranny of digital display advertising

The majority of digital advertising is display advertising: such as buying a homepage takeover on Yahoo! or YouTube.

Thanks to Wired - WIRED, of all people - interactive internet advertising is commonly thought of in terms of media inventory. As in: I need to tell a whole bunch of people about the internet underground music archive or AT&T and the best way for me to do that is in a place with lots of attention.

Man, banners.

Media agencies practically control all of this display advertising. Everything from the little videos on your Xbox dashboard that you hardly open unless it's worth it (maybe a chance to win some Microsoft points?). Or the ones that sell those really irritating full-screen popup ads that you skip past. Or the ads that appear in front of videos on YouTube and lead to the somewhat bizarre situation of watching a pre-roll ad to watch an ad someone has uploaded to YouTube.

The Interactive Advertising Bureau specifies media formats, then advertising agencies try to figure out what to stick inside those formats. Those formats are standardized so that ESPN can just stick a skyscraper-sized hole in its templates and forget about it and so the media agencies can say "you can get a skyscraper-sized hole on ESPN that will reach a gazillion eyeballs if they happen to look at it”. The same media formats allow mobile developers to have Apple insert an iAd into their free iOS app or use Admob to do the same thing.

Ultimately, digital display advertising is boring and suffers from a glut of oversupply. This is why we have a pseudo holy war going on between the display advertising folk and the native advertising folk: because people ignore interruptive display advertising and pay attention to interesting content.

Anything but display advertising

But then there's the whole other, other side to interactive advertising that isn't confined to formats defined by media agencies and associations. And I might be biased, but they seem way more interesting than display advertising.

Here's some examples:

It’s attention, stupid

Despite everything the internet promised - disintermediation, two-way communication, choice, engagement and interaction, one thing remained the same: our collective capacity for attention. It doesn’t matter a damn what you’re saying if nobody’s listening.

Here’s a gross oversimplification: in communications, you can be creative in a predefined medium that comes with attention (display advertising, like television or banners), or you can be creative in an undefined medium that doesn’t come with attention, but you hope to earn it through being interesting or, in the early days of Facebook, massively optimising your viral coefficient.

The majority of the advertising world is still predicated on the assumption of attention: because until it’s impossible to buy the attention of 17 million people, the easiest way of getting the attention of 17 million people to whom you can communicate a message is to, well, buy the attention of 17 million fans of NCIS.

All of this ultimately comes down to the ease of use of a medium in an organisation. The medium of television advertising is organisationally convenient: a small number of people can make a small number of decisions to spend a lot of money in a small amount of time to reach a large number of people.

Turns out, the thirty second television spot is a pretty flexible, creative medium. There’s a lot you can do with that. Sure, there’s a lot you can’t do with it, but there’s the full weight of about 60 years of filmic storytelling expertise that can be brought to bear. If you say the right thing at the right time you can be incredibly powerful and become a moment in mass culture and start a conversation.

Organisational Drag

Conversely, realising the promise of digital or interactive communication requires lots of people with specific domain expertise to collaborate together across disciplines that are traditionally siloed in large organisations. The result of that digital communication may well radically alter an audience’s relationship or behaviour with a product or service, but it’s invariably a difficult concept to communicate quickly and easily amongst a large organisation with a similarly large and distributed number of people making decisions.

The TV advertisment, because of its history and familiarity with its medium, only requires watching.

It is easy, though, to buy lots of digital banners and to not have to deal with the question of what, exactly, it is you’re trying to achieve.

Not service, not content

When great interactive advertising works, it provides the ability to have a deep and meaningful relationship with people.

Whether services like Nike+ Running are advertisements is irrelevant: what matters is that because they are digital services, they are another way for brands to communicate with the people who buy or use their products in a meaningful, useful way.

A general mistake in thinking around digital advertising is that there are two binary choices: either provide utility and essentially create products;or create fluff or entertainment that reinforces a brand and relies on paid attention.

That ignores the tremendous but difficult space in the middle.

The difficult space in the middle is what happens when every grocery brand thinks it should be making a recipe or cooking website and stops at the utility but before building something that is a pleasure to use, that an audience chooses to use.

Because of organisational drag, it’s difficult for big companies to produce such new products. Without recognising the difficulty and the impact of organisational drag, they’ll always be out-performed by the recipe or cooking website built by the right cross-disciplinary team that isn’t siloed.

That organisational drag is precisely the reason why Nike+ Running was the exception amongst sports brands and unopposed by its competitors for five years and the same reason why competitor services like RunKeeper, from outside the Fortune 100 company category, could catch up with it so quickly.

A recipe website, just like a blogging engine, is a commodity online. Anyone can make one. There are certainly more than a few successful ones. Which means any brand could make one. So why would Hormel or Heinz make one? Feature lists can always be matched, bullet-point for bullet-point. But how a service feels, how it reflects its brand, is a function of marketing and advertising for the overall brand.

The flip-side of digital advertising that is partly served by the glut of digital media is that of scale and speed. There are digital media that prefer scale and speed: YouTube videos, tweets and Facebook posts operate at such a level: they are easy to spread and have media ecosystems that provide bought attention. Or in other words: an advertiser can buy their video, tweet or Facebook into your attention.

The Product is the Service is the Marketing

There’s a way of looking at digital advertising where you draw a line between content and products or services.

On the content side is essentially TV and print advertising built for a networked world. It includes things like “viral” YouTube and Vine videos, Facebook posts, Twitter hashtag and Instagram campaigns, because these are essentially the new kind of consumable advert on different services.

These things are not so different from the TV spot of old - they are self-contained, short messages of communication that can now, thanks to networks, be passed around from one person to another, be commented on and be measured.

All of these messages are produced more quickly, in response to audience feedback, but in the end, they are atoms and atoms of advertising messages, shuttling around the new distribution networks that have already earned attention.They are, essentially, advertising agencies as meme-miners, chipping away trying to find the next meme-nugget to attach to a brand line and release into a media ecosystem where it can attract attention and multiply by getting people to repeat it.

The service line is the part that scares advertising agencies. It’s associated with building products, which potentially puts them in competition with their clients who, after all, are the ones who actually make things. Those services can create deeper, more meaningful experiences that solve different needs and produce a different kind of brand relationship. It’s also, because of that organisational drag, horrendously difficult.

It’s difficult because:

  • Making things that people use is a completely different skillset from making things that people watch or consume, skills that agencies and clients traditionally have.
  • Some of the skills might seem familiar (art direction, copywriting), but they will be applied in different ways in different media. Just as comedy writers don’t write serious scripts, long-form writers don’t write user interface copy.
  • Things that people use have a velocity and a rhythm. They get better over time, and they do not work on campaign timescales.
  • Making a successful product or service depends on focus, which is best achieved by clarity and authority from above and a small executional team, not the input from a large number of stakeholders.
  • Bringing attention to a service or a product is different than bringing attention to a piece of content. Without experience of launching such a product or service, a client will easily ask the question: why do I have to buy media and attention for a product or service that supports a brand experience, instead of merely buying media and attention for a brand message directly?
  • The Government Digital Service, for example, has the luxury of being one of the few channels to services that citizens and residents of the United Kingdom must use. But those creating products or services for brands compete in a marketplace with economies of attention. After spending to create the service in the first place, now that service must fight for an audience and fight to retain it.

Product people know this. Startup people know this. Most advertising people do not, as yet, know this.

There is a shift at the heart of this. There are new brands out there - Kickstarter, Etsy and Amazon come to mind - that got big and profitable without conventional advertising. They’re also brands built in a world reliant upon the network. They do not need advertising, at least, they don’t need advertising the way your mother’s fast moving consumer goods company needed it. Their products are services, and the way their services behave are their own marketing. Google’s own Dear Sophie and Parisian Love adverts are critically acclaimed examples of advertising letting products and services speak for themselves.

So what does an advertising agency do for them?

PS You can follow me on Twitter @hondanhon.

PPS I collect sarcastic user stories at

With thanks to:

The following people read over earlier versions of this article and generously offered feedback.