Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Published in Sep-Oct 2018

Who killed advertising?

A review of Ken Auletta's bestseller Frenemies.

In the not so distant future, when you take a drive down the scenic hills of the media landscape, you will see the bodies of the dead littered on either side. These are the carcasses, the outcome of a unique brand of economic genocide. On closer inspection, you will see that these are the skeletal remains of what were formerly called advertising agencies. And, in the place where their hearts used to be, you will find a silver bullet in each of these relics that has ‘data’ written all over it...

I am not even halfway through Frenemies, The Epic Disruption of the Advertising Industry (and Why This Matters by New York Times bestselling author Ken Auletta – and find myself resisting reading it until the end in case my most private convictions about our fragmenting industry come entirely true. But to pretend that the advertising industry (here and everywhere else) is not in crisis is to ignore the elephant in the room.

Auletta’s groundbreaking, thought-provoking and extensively researched book uncovers and addresses the nature of the chaos that follows when we witness the “premature arrival of the future.”

Advertising is the bridge between buyers and sellers. This seems obvious. But when that bridge begins teetering, jolted by consumers annoyed at intrusive ads (yet dependent on them for ‘free’ or ‘subsidised’ media), then consumers become frenemies – a phrase popularised by Sir Martin Sorrell. That is, friends who are also your enemies, prospects that are behaving more like suspects, or, more often than not, companies that both cooperate and compete with you.


Where have all the admen gone? It used to be that we were the darlings of the business world. The heartbeat of the brand. The head behind all the tales and sales. The savvy custodians of the consumer’s pulse. A direct call away from the CEOs, whose fortunes we helped to build and amplify.


This climate of suspicion is compounded by the assault on the agency edifice itself as more frenemies surface in the form of tech, consulting, software, PR and media platform companies that once used to work exclusively with and through the agency model, but are now double-timing it by both competing and cooperating. If that isn’t enough, the digital hurricane that has swept through Adland and upended the fortunes of newspapers, magazines, television and radio by redirecting their revenues to Google and Facebook and myriads of other digital enterprises which are bypassing agencies and going directly to clients further validates Auletta’s despondency: The agency is dead. Its head offered as a trophy to chief financial officers, its heart to procurement, its talent to the film and production industries and its soul to all things driven, supported or culled by hard data.

Where have all the admen gone? It used to be that we were the darlings of the business world. The heartbeat of the brand. The head behind all the tales and sales. The savvy custodians of the consumer’s pulse. A direct call away from the CEOs, whose fortunes we helped to build and amplify.

But as hard data takes our place in the minds of those who believe imagination has no place in reality, who view advertising as a cost that has to be wrenched out of marketing budgets and not as an instrument of investment that leverages growth (including R&D), then our best will bow out – leaving the industry in the hands of hustlers. Most agencies will agree; when they are treated as partners, clients receive outstanding brand trajectories, when they are treated as suppliers, clients get run-of-the-mill fodder.


Frenemies is a must-read for anyone interested in exploring how an instinctive art is being rapidly disrupted by an ever-changing science and the consequences this will have for those who rely on the avenues presented by (and the revenues generated by) the advertising industry, as it wrestles with the premature arrival of the digital age.


The single biggest complaint agencies have, Auletta explains, is that this relationship is managed increasingly by procurement. And the crux of the problem is that marketing is seen as a cost rather than a value. And when the likelihood of compromising long-term value creation for short-term, quarterly gain is a given in most organisations, we begin to understand how agencies are frustrated by being subjected to amputative contracts, crippling fees and talent-blind headcount requirements. Is it any wonder that there is no sense of wonder left as talented men and women migrate elsewhere to do similar work, but without the ideological coherence to write unrelated paragraphs, so to speak, without really knowing the point of the story.

Frenemies is a must-read for anyone interested in exploring how an instinctive art is being rapidly disrupted by an ever-changing science and the consequences this will have for those who rely on the avenues presented by (and the revenues generated by) the advertising industry, as it wrestles with the premature arrival of the digital age.

Frenemies
By Ken Auletta
Harper Collins
360pp. Rs 1,395
ISBN: 01LB5646

Faraz Maqsood Hamidi is CE & CD, The D’Hamidi Partnership.