Advertising’s best problem yet

Ogilvy strategy director Ewen Pettit
By Ogilvy strategy director Ewen Pettit | 4 October 2018

For the amount of times this industry has seemingly been on its last legs, it would appear it has more lives than a reckless cat.

Despite decades of constant and progressive change in the advertising business, there is still an unwavering doubt over the future of our business. Call me an optimist but it’s the impact of innovation in its many forms that will actually enable us to focus on our being more creative, more effective, and more valuable. What a drag.

Mind over muscle

Peter Drucker, the celestial management consultant, on seeing the potential of the internet in 1992 announced the dawn of the “knowledge economy”. He predicted critical thinking and creativity would flourish while manual labour and menial tasks would be subsumed by technology.

Nearly 30 years on, his predictions have been transpiring with eerie precision. Artificial intelligence is removing labour-intensive tasks in the legal profession, Amazon is replacing workers in its distribution centres with automated fulfilment and Uber’s driverless car may soon be driving you home from the pub. Here in Australia, one in three jobs are at risk of being automated by 2030, according to research from Adzuna.

It appears as if ‘doing jobs’ will be eradicated - but this is nothing new. The persistent trend over time has been technology invariably replaces humans, where possible. The printing press made transcribers redundant, rail replaced horse drawn carriages and their drivers, and so it goes.

Seeing the wood for the trees

But even with Drucker’s endorsement for the thinking and creativity industries and a history of evolution, no business perpetuates dread more than advertising. We routinely eulogise our trade and yet, here we are, survivors.

Over time, through gritted teeth, we have remained relevant to our clients and their brands. We overcame the apparent death knells of radio, television, digital, in-house creative, crowd sourced creative, pay walls, and ad-blocking. Still, the unrelenting masochism of the industry is seeking out our next threat. And, as sure as day follows night, we’ve found it.

Mass Personalisation – valuable to our clients and seemingly harmful to our business. For an industry that has eternally thrived on innovation and change, somehow, we are predisposed to seeing the worst in every opportunity.

The virtues of change

If we can be positive even for a moment. These innovations won’t make us redundant, they’ll force us to be relevant. They’ll gift us the opportunity to create more pioneering, more creative and more effective work, and, more of it.

The last 50 years of planning has, amongst other things, taught us that genuine insight can lead to ground-breaking ideas that change attitudes and behaviours. And now technology can help us to do it better than ever.

The considered use of data in communications can work harder at the coal face and allow us to create more salient brands, campaigns and messages. We have more consumer data than ever before - purchase history, online behaviour, tastes and preferences and current activity – this can allow for highly tailored and relevant communication.

But relevance is nothing by itself.

The eternal task

Byron Sharp tells us creativity (or salience) gets brands noticed. Compelling, distinctive, emotive ideas - regardless of the intuitiveness of the message or media format - need to make the heart flutter or the mind desire.

NAB, for example, uses data powered insights to create potent communications that are timely, contextual and conceivably, more persuasive. Technology, data and digital platforms have created the perfect delivery mechanism – the right eyeballs at the right time. But, it is the content of that message that still needs to evoke a response.

NAB, in actual fact, is working to a much loftier goal of helping customers through ‘life’s moments’. So, while all of these ads are well placed and contextual, the ads are underpinned by the emotive ‘more than money’ brand platform – the warm and fuzzy stuff. Data and technology are enablers of strong, moving messages. This is where our dark arts still play a vital role - we still need to understand people and culture to create ideas that mean something to them.

The good news (for now) is that computers have not yet mastered autonomous creativity - of any quality, at least. Creativity is inherently human, technology is not. Without the salience piece – technology in its binary and solipsistic way, doesn’t really care about the user.

Grab change with two hands, or else

So, it appears that the value of thinking and creativity is going nowhere but we can’t rest on our laurels. History tells us that change is inevitable - the challenging part will be in embracing what is yet to come.

In his infinite wisdom, Drucker said every organisation can “return again to abandonment, and the process starts all over”. This will be our single greatest threat.

While our core job will always be critical, we’ll need to adapt to new conditions again and again. Failing to do so will render us “obsolescent, losing performance capacity and the ability to attract and hold the knowledgeable”.

It is the onus of the industry to understand how technology and innovation impact people, how they receive messages and how they behave. We need to establish new ways of working in order for us to retain out cherished role.

We need to be comfortable with perpetual change and preserve our position. Otherwise and ironically, we will think ourselves out of the job.

Ogilvy strategy director Ewen Pettit

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