Solving the Ad Industry’s Biggest Problem: Making Ads

I hit the steep, narrow streets of San Francisco just as the thick ocean fog was beginning to fade and give way to a sun-soaked afternoon. Hiking Nob Hill and looking off at the Bay and parting clouds, I hoped that the break in the weather was a signal of more positive change ahead. Not for me necessarily but for an industry in crisis — and one in desperate need of a game plan.

T-minus one minute: just before the launch of Ad:Tech San Francisco 2015

A little over a week ago I attended and spoke at Ad:Tech San Francisco. It was a great experience, filled with intriguing, smart people, discussing bold, new ideas. In my panel group, we spoke to the “Marketing Mistakes” that so many companies tend to make — again and again. I looked out at the audience, noticed the sea of nodding heads, pensive looks and thought to myself, “Okay, we all get this. We marketers know we have to provide value to consumers, to build experiences for them, not just push disruptive messages. So why is it still so hard to truly make that pivot?”

Brands and agencies alike understand that we must think smarter, act faster, and become far more nimble and personalized to the unique demands and expectations of each consumer. However, at the end of the day, are we merely tossing buzzwords around, or are we as a collective industry truly capable of making progress and adapting successfully?

In another panel after my own, part of the “Blurred Lines” track of conversations, I watched the group speak about virtual and augmented reality. Mitch Gelman of Gannett Digital shared a slide during his portion that, for me at least, summarized our entire situation and captured the challenge ahead perfectly. The slide showed a quote attributed to Charles Darwin about evolution.

The one slide that perfectly summarized our industry at the moment.
“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” -Charles Darwin

Despite advances in technology and the resulting massive transformation in consumer behavior, advertising as a process and business discipline has been operating still in a 20th century mass production model, focused on scale.

Yes, we create advertising for emerging new channels all the time. And both creative and media agencies are getting better at mining data for real-time learnings and optimization. However, advertisements still take the form of messages that interrupt our lives in ways that ultimately cause us to try and block them, technologically or psychologically. These ads are ideated, produced and distributed in a manner that has its roots within an industrial-era assembly line. So a mode of operating through volume and scaled efficiency has resulted in a model that is utterly inappropriate for powering 21st century brands. Perhaps that’s why there’s such palpable anxiety right now, given the implosion of the industry and massive budget-cutting that’s occurring with marketers.

As these thoughts sunk in amidst the various sessions and conversations, I realized that this is not a pivot moment for us after all. Pivoting implies simply turning the ship in a new direction. Rather, we require complete transformation and adaption to this new era. This industry needs to go from a ship to a rocket.

Despite the tremendous challenge inherit in accomplishing that, I feel optimistic. We can do this. We can reboot this business in an effective, successful way and use creativity and technology together in ways not yet imagined. Our storytelling will be more powerful and the efficacy of our work more impactful and transformative to our clients’ businesses.

At the end of the first day, with a friend and client, I went to a gathering of the Young Entrepreneurs Club, in a sleek, glass-walled penthouse overlooking the Bay Bridge. Night was setting in, and with it the clouds had returned. As headlights began to flicker on, the city was now slicked with a misty rain. Despite the dreariness outside, the room was filled with youthful energy and people quickly exchanging ideas for solving tough problems.

The Bay Bridge, cloaked in a misty rain as night falls over the Bay

So if we are going to become that rocket, that’s the mindset we must return to: solving big issues together through smart, focused ingenuity. We have to get our hands dirty and try new, perhaps even intimidating measures. The era of finite channels and linear, fixed tactics is fading, and a more dynamic world of micro-content and personalized experiences is emerging. Therefore, the inevitable success we achieve will not be built with the same tools from the past decades. It will, however, be built with smart people who want to accomplish great things again.

At Ad:Tech SF, much like throughout my career, I met a lot of terrific people, filled with energy and the eagerness to win. It may sound daunting, but that’s what it will take for all of us to succeed: the positivity and attitude to do things differently. And not ever worry about looking back.

The “Victory” statue at the top of the Dewey Monument in Union Square was especially inspiring against the late afternoon sun.

I hope you enjoyed reading my perspective on the changing landscape of advertising. Please feel free to tweet to @MatthewWitt with any comments or questions.

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Trisect is an Independent advertising agency with over 140 people across our two offices in Chicago and Los Angeles. Simply put, we are a change agency. As one of the country’s fastest growing independent shops, we help brands navigate a constantly changing marketplace, adapt and win. We listen harder. Collaborate better. And infuse business with exhilaration.