Advertising is Dead.

Long Live Word of Mouth.

Why our job has fundamentally changed and how we can adapt.


Until a while ago, an adman’s job was to craft persuasive messages. The public still had an almost blind trust in our claims; life was good!

Unfortunately I missed out on that period by a decade or so. But I’ve been in the business just long enough to see how tough recent changes have been on some of our more seasoned industry peers. To reach a similar ROI, writing persuasive copy and putting it in front of millions of eyeballs just doesn’t cut it anymore. We now have to master an entirely new set of skills in order to succeed in this transformed marketing landscape.

I’m not talking about knowing the best time to post on Facebook or figuring out how to use SnapChat to reach a teenage audience. Let’s leave that to the Social Media gurus.

The fundamental change lays much deeper indeed: it’s a sociological change, rooted in Millennials’ world-view and quickly spreading to older generations. The rise of the Internet and Social Media, undoubtedly acted as the main driving force behind the greatest challenge marketers ever had to face:

People don’t trust brands anymore.

According to Y&R’s Brand Asset Valuator, the number of brands that consumers say they trust halved between 2001 and 2010. And this naturally affected our trust in advertising and other brand messages, as illustrated by this Nielsen survey from 2012:

Only half of us trust traditional advertising.

Does this mean the death of traditional advertising? I’m afraid so. Does it mean that traditional channels like TV, Radio, Print and Outdoor Displays have become irrelevant? Absolutely not.

The Keller Fay Group wrote this revealing passage in their 2012 publication, ‘The Face-to-Face Book’, based on a joint research with MarketShare:

“Social voice represents a critical pathway through which more than half the impact of paid advertising and media passes in generating customer purchases. In other words, advertising works most of the time because of social influence.”

Why is this social voice, or word of mouth so important, you might ask? Well, going back to Nielsen’s survey above, you’ll notice that 92% say they trust recommendations from people they know. Trust has shifted from brands to people. Hugues Rey, CEO of Havas Media Belgium puts it this way:

“The audience is the New Medium.”

People have changed. The marketing landscape has changed. And we admen must adapt.

Everything a brand says and does — from it’s latest global campaign, to the way a company van is parked — is being analysed, filtered and potentially amplified by a few alert people; brand advocates and detractors. They are the only ones paying attention, and tend to be extremely vocal about the information that made it past their bullshit-filter.

An adman’s job nowadays consists of understanding these filters and using this knowledge to seed stories, that are designed to be amplified by brand advocates.

Many of these stories will be generated by positive product or service experiences. However, there’s more to it. A brand’s marketing is referenced in 58% of these experienced-based conversations. (Keller Fay Group 2013). In this case advertising often acts as a trigger to multiply the number of brand conversations, helping people recall previously seeded brand stories more often.

“We believe advertising works primarily by generating conversations amongst informed people who then spread the news — and their recommendations — to new customers.” from The Face-to Face Book by Ed Keller and Brad Fay.

To conclude, I’d like to argue against people claiming the end of advertising — my younger self included. Combining the above insights, one can deduct that advertising itself is not outdated, but the way we’ve all been going about it is.

The 21st century adman has to master an entirely new set of skills, allowing him to design advertising that generates, amplifies and nurtures word of mouth. Both on and offline. These skills include:

  1. Ethnographic research: to understand what drives your audience’s social behaviours, such as brand advocacy.
  2. Design thinking: to craft brand stories and experiences that are truly relevant and valuable to your target audience.
  3. Behavioural design: to plant the right triggers, getting people to share your brand story often and in relevant contexts.
  4. Lean campaigning: you won’t just guess what works, you‘ll discover through series of smaller experiments, scaling when successful.

Agree? Disagree? Would love to hear your thoughts. And if you enjoyed reading this, click that little recommend button below. It would mean a lot to me. ☺

In my next posts I’ll introduce the term Buzz Hacking, discussing how smart marketers can hijack social behaviours to generate buzz. You can follow me on Medium or sing up here to get updated when it’s out, in a few weeks time.