Ad-blockers must become a catalyst for change

A lot has been written about ad-blockers over the last couple of weeks.

We all now know that Peace came from nowhere to top the iTunes charts for 36 hours, and was then just as quickly pulled by its creator, Marco Arment.

The end of Peace promptly turned the ad-blocking debate into a discussion about internet morality.  (Surely an oxymoron, if ever there was one?!)

Is it immoral to view content for free knowing that you’re stopping the creator and publisher of that content being recompensed for their endeavours?  Probably.

Are we going to stop people doing it?  Hell, no.  Not unless all ad-blocking products are purged from the market.

So here’s my take on it.  Ad-blockers are a form of consumer feedback.

And the feedback consumers are giving the marketing industry is loud and clear.  Collectively, our work simply isn’t good enough.

Yes, there are exceptions.  I’m sure you can think of a few right now.  But that’s what they are – exceptions.

The majority of online advertising is actually pretty terrible.  Low cost, high volume banners are endlessly churned out, because as long as a tiny fraction of the public click through and buy, the cost-per-acquisition stays low and the agency creates profit for the advertiser.

But what about all the other people, the ones who don’t click, and won’t buy, but are still constantly targeted with irrelevant and intrusive advertising?

What’s the cost of each failed interaction?

When talking about the success of Breaking Bad, Walter White actor Bryan Cranston explains what drove the cast and crew to ensure that every detail of every scene was as perfect as they could make it.

He talks about each little continuity error, each little out of place gesture, each piece of dialogue that a character just wouldn’t say in a particular situation, as a ‘little drop of poison’.

Individually, a little drop of poison is nothing; the audience will accept it and get over it.  But pretty soon, repeated doses of poison will make you sick.  And in TV terms that means you’ll switch over, or switch off.

Well, we poisoned the internet with our cheap advertising, and the public got heartily sick of it.

The rise of ad-blockers is therefore a good time to pause and reflect on where we are as a marketing community, and where we’d like to be in future.

In defining our future we would be well-served to remember the mantra: “brands should serve people, not just serve ads to people”.

It strikes me that in this world of big data and amazing content opportunities, too many advertisers and agencies still seem to be making binary decisions in developing their online ad campaigns..

They either use really smart data-led targeting but deliver woeful creative, or produce wonderful idea-led creative that broadcasts the same experience to everybody, regardless of who they are or what is most likely to appeal to them.

There are very few agencies or advertisers that seem genuinely to be using data to inform the content experience they deliver to people.  Again, there are exceptions.  But they are too few and far between.

With the wealth of data available, and some of the greatest creative talent on the planet, the marketing community should be rising to the challenge so clearly laid down by consumers.

We should be constantly pushing to break down the silos, and finding ways to deliver genuinely engaging, valuable experiences to people, not just lamenting the fact that we can’t spam people to death until they either submit and buy our product or throw their phone at the wall in frustration.

So the question shouldn’t be ‘how do we get around the ad blockers?’

The question shouldn’t even necessarily be ‘what does the rise of ad blockers tell us about the state of people’s relationship with marketing?’

The question we should really be asking ourselves is ‘how can we ally both data-led insight and idea-led content to create meaningful brand experiences people will value?’

Because if we can create meaningful experiences that people will value, we will ultimately build greater value for brands.

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A new age of authenticity?

Jeremy Corbyn’s election to the Labour leadership is truly remarkable.

He only made it onto the ballot paper at all because a group of MPs, some of whom cheerfully admitted they wouldn’t actually vote for him, decided at the last minute to nominate Corbyn in order to ‘widen the debate’.

Well he certainly did that!  Even when he made it onto the ballot paper, Corbyn was still a 100/1 outsider with the bookies to win.  But then something truly remarkable happened.

He didn’t just widen the debate, he changed the entire nature of it through a willingness to speak plainly, directly and with obvious passion.  And it had a striking impact.

This isn’t just about Jeremy Corbyn though.  The same could equally be said for the likes of Nigel Farage or Boris Johnson.

Across the political spectrum we find the politicians who have most caught the public imagination in recent years are those who speak ‘plain English’ rather than politicobabble, and have a ‘man of the people’ image (albeit very carefully cultivated in at least one case).

Over the last 20 years or so, certainly since the advent of New Labour and it’s media savvy spin machine, modern political communication has become cliché-ridden and soundbite-driven; an exercise in finding ways to avoid giving a straight answer to a straight question in a ‘Westminster Bubble’ parlour game to which only a closed elite of politicians and media know the rules or are allowed to play.

To the party spin doctors this may have seemed like an exercise in great media management, but the net result has been that the language of politics has become entirely divorced from the everyday language of the people the politicians are supposed to serve.

Against this backdrop it’s no surprise that we have seen a growing disenchantment, not necessarily with politics per se – the Scottish referendum turnout, the Iraq War march, or the number of petitions doing the rounds on social media demonstrate that people still care about important issues – but with the politicians themselves.

I’m not saying that the likes of Corbyn, Farage or Johnson are better politicians than their more ‘on message’ colleagues – the relative appeal of their policies is a matter of subjective personal opinion – but they have each found a way to connect directly with the public, which in turn gives them a more powerful platform from which to persuade people to their point of view.

Enemy isn't conservatism

So given we have seen the power of authentic communication in politics are there any lessons for marketers in all of this, or is the term ‘authentic marketing’ simply an oxymoron?

Is it possible to have true authenticity in a discipline where the primary objective in most cases is to maximise sales?

Certainly some people must think so.  A Google search for the term “authentic marketing” yields 6,590,000 results.

But in a cutting response to one advertiser request, director Johan Liedgren wrote “I don’t view the opportunistic call for “authenticity” as a hope for our industry, but rather as an all-time low point for a trade that is no stranger to constantly lowered ambitions for the communication between organizations and real humans”.

Liedgren authenticity

Liedgren goes on to say: “Authenticity would be a short clip of you asking the audience to buy more of your product so you can keep your job and get a bonus.”

Which brings us neatly onto the current campaign for Oasis soft drinks:

Oasis Refreshing Stuff

Maybe we really have just entered a new age of authenticity?