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.

What ‘Bad Jews’ can teach us about good communication

“It is my sincere belief that by being incredibly specific, one taps into something which is universal”.

Casually perusing the theatre reviews page in the Evening Standard last week I came across this great quote from playwright Joshua Harmon, taken from the programme notes for his new play, Bad Jews.

Whilst patently true, Harmon’s maxim rarely seems to be followed, particularly in the world of marketing communication.  Too much mass marketing takes a ‘one size fits none’ approach – attempting to appeal to everyone, whilst actually appealing to nobody.

Maybe it’s the desire not to offend, or the fact that too many ads are designed by committee, all the interesting rough edges having been smoothed away in endless rounds of research, but however it happens a large proportion of the work that finally sees the light of day ends up being bland, uninteresting, and – the cardinal sin for advertising – unmemorable.

Every brand wants to have a genuine dialogue with its customers, and ‘be part of the conversation’.  But most of them are too scared to talk to people on a human level, in the language ‘real’ people actually use in day-to-day conversation.

Some people (such as self-styled Ad Contrarian, Bob Hoffman) take this as a sign that people don’t want to have any form of relationship with brands.  And for the most part this is undoubtedly true.  But it isn’t necessarily so.

Mischief-making bookmaker Paddy Power is one clear exception.  It’s not for everyone, but Paddy Power always provokes a reaction, and that makes it a brand that many people want to have a conversation with, and about.

Because it is one of few brands out there that genuinely has character.  It is edgy and provocative.  Sometimes (often!) they go too far and get it wrong.

But by talking and acting like a real sports fan in the pub, they appeal to laddish young (and not so young) men who comprise a large proportion of the betting audience.  This is an amazing success story in such a commoditised and highly crowded market.

Going back a few years, the Yorkie ‘Not for Girls’ campaign was equally distinctive and controversial.  Byron Sharp uses this campaign in How Brands Grow as an example of focusing on too niche an audience, because ultimately more women ended up buying Yorkies than men.

I see Yorkie more as a triumph for distinctive brand positioning than bad targeting.  Nestle made sure to use mass media that would expose the campaign to men and women equally.  In doing so they deliberately created a strong emotional reaction amongst women, forcing them to actively appraise whether or not Yorkie was for them.

Of course the increasing ability to use data to deliver personalised behavioural marketing should theoretically put an end to this issue of irrelevant and uninteresting advertising.  We know so much about who people are, where they go and what they do that we have the ability to always be incredibly specific with our marketing communication.

The problem is that for the most part creativity doesn’t seem to have kept pace with technology where personalised marketing is concerned.

‘Hey, look at this really cool ad that’s obviously been created just for me’, said nobody, ever.

‘How do they know which websites I’ve been on, and why do they now keep bombarding me with ads for things I looked at once but didn’t want to buy?’ say lots of people every day.

Having lots of data at our disposal is a wonderful gift.  But with great data comes great responsibility.

Obviously we have a duty to our clients to drive cost-efficient sales in the short term, if that is the task at hand.

But we also have a duty to the consumer, to ensure we use what we know about them to deliver interesting, relevant and timely communication in a way they will genuinely value.  And we haven’t cracked that part yet.

For the billions of marketing dollars that are spent every year, most people wouldn’t care if the vast majority of brands ceased to exist.

Unfortunately it seems we know everything about everyone, except how to make them care about us.

We’re smart people.  We can change this.  But only if we make data and content work hand in hand, rather than seeing them as discrete choices.