Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Have Ads Lost Their Mojo?

Published in Nov-Dec 2021

From the insipid to the utterly infuriating, ads are failing to connect with audiences.

It is a rite of passage. A moment comes when you look at the world around you and shake your head sadly. All the institutions you once trusted seem to be crumbling. The values you held dear mean nothing any longer. Young people have no respect for the past. The future looks murky. You are well out of it, you tell yourself. Yes, this is me as I survey the wreckage that is the advertising industry today. The media landscape looks to me like the Arctic Ocean, filled with icebergs of different shapes and sizes, melting. 

The problems are many.

For starters, there was a time when people actually looked forward to the commercial breaks on TV. The ads were often better than the programmes. Brands began spending serious money on making epic movies in miniature. The British Airways Face commercial cost over a million pounds. Carlton Draught’s spoof of it cost about the same.  What we were doing back then was building brands. We were creating characterful ads that would make people smile and get them to watch out for the next one. It was all about projecting a personality. Beer ads were blokey but matey. Telco ads were about the warmth of human relationships. Crisps and snacks gave us ads that were upbeat and fun. Supermarkets like Tesco used the stars of popular TV shows to make us feel the brand understood Middle England. 

And, you know what? Creativity worked. Ads made with wit and with style made money for both the advertiser and the agency. As a creative director, I used to say to clients that if we were going to push our way into people’s living rooms uninvited, it behove us to be charming and pleasant. For the most part, they agreed.

And today? 

Well, I have just typed “I hate advertising” into Google and am told there are 538 million pages on the subject somewhere on the internet if I care to look.

People hate advertising. And they hate advertising people. A survey in the UK just before the pandemic revealed that advertising executives are less trustworthy than politicians. Less trustworthy than Boris, who won an election on a lie (that Brexit would lead to an extra £350 million a week for health services); less trustworthy than Donald Trump, who, according to The Washington Post, told 30,573 lies during his four years in office. 

Advertising has become intrusive, shouty and generally crass. I think there are three reasons for this.

One, the creative/media split. Clients now have to buy their advertising in two separate places. It does not help that media agencies sell ROI rather than ideas. They promise clients that a simple message placed at all the appropriate intersection points of the customer journey will deliver six percent, maybe seven percent, growth. 

If you are a marketer, it is easier to stand in front of your CEO and talk numbers than it is to wax lyrical about the ‘big creative leap’. You may have been able to get away with it before the Financial Crash of 2008-09 but you certainly cannot any longer. Especially during these Covid-straitened times. In 2020, if a CFO released any funds for advertising, (s)he wanted immediate results. A measurable effect on the bottom line. 

Two, if Orlando Wood is to be believed, and I think he is, advertising is mimicking society at large in becoming aggressively left-brained. Orlando Wood is the author of Lemon and, last week, Look Out. Taking as their primary source the work of psychiatrist Ian McGilchrist, the books argue that modern culture has become introverted, humourless and emotionally stunted. Left-brained, in short. In advertising terms, this means thumpingly rhythmic music, pacey cutting, lots of titles to get the product point across featuring many different people in different set-ups. By contrast, right-brain advertising tells a story, allows faces to express emotions, shows us people we can relate to and invites us to empathise.

Right-brained ads are now few and far between. Left-brained ads assault us in every break. And here is another problem. They look and feel pretty much the same. Brands, quite simply, are failing to differentiate. Havas’ Meaningful Brands report cheerily suggests that if 75% of all brands disappeared overnight, no one would notice. In a world in which every market is over-subscribed, you would think brand managers would want to establish some sort of emotional connection with their customers, wouldn’t you? But they don’t. Instead, advertising has become painfully rational.

Three. The digital revolution has done terrible things to ads. It has forced them to become five-second burrs in Facebook or six-second stings in YouTube. Google creatives will tell you that to create ‘unskippable’ video you cannot construct your ads like traditional commercials any longer, with the slow build-up to a punchline or a big reveal. No, you have to start with the reveal. And where is the reward in that?

The real point here, though, is that there is just too much of the damn stuff. Adverts, I mean. You cannot escape them. Thanks to programmatic, display ads are sprayed across the internet indiscriminately. Even though personalisation at scale is not just possible today but easily achievable, 97% of all online advertising is untargeted. 

Twenty years ago Seth Godin wrote Permission Marketing and imagined a time when advertising would be anticipated, personal and relevant. Instead, nearly a billion people have installed ad-blockers in their phones and tablets. This is alarming because the internet was set up like broadcast TV and the news media generally. Advertising paid for the content. Publishers posted videos on YouTube and offered content for free on websites and social media, because they made money from the ads. But if no one is looking at those ads, then the whole model falls down. Indeed, it is beginning to fall down already. More and more paywalls are going up. Net neutrality was repealed in the USA in 2018 and my bet is that this is going to be a massive issue in the near future. 

So, was it better in the old days?

In some ways, it was much, much better. With fewer TV channels, a simpler media landscape, copywriters like me had the magic dust. I wrote a lot of ads that sold a lot of products and I drove a Porsche. Agencies did not bill clients. They were paid a commission by the media owners. Theoretically 17.65%, more usually 15%. So procurement did not exist. Oh, happy days! Now agencies have to spend money to pitch for mere projects. Forget being on a retainer. Being a valued partner or anything like that. Agencies are suppliers, nothing more and can be treated (and are treated) with scant respect. It is common for a dozen agencies to be invited to pitch – and for a losing agency’s work to be ‘stolen’. 

In my youth, agencies made better money and that bought time. There was more time to look for genuine consumer insights and more time to craft the work. It also bought talent. Agencies were magnets for clever, imaginative people. And now? Well, I could rage for another page at least. Except for one thing. Creativity. 

I have read plenty of old crusts like me bemoaning the death of creativity. The IPA has warned of it and Forbes has written about it, how algorithms are taking over. But this is nonsense. Creativity is alive and well. It may well be that traditional formats are on their knees; commercials with actors playing roles in a drama around a product benefit. But tech is giving brands and brand owners astonishing opportunities to be useful and delightful in equal measure. Brand owners are adapting rather faster than their agencies. Maybe that is why as long ago as September 2020, 57% of multinationals had taken their creative in-house.  

Was it better? No, it was just different. My worry is that many agencies are still clinging to the past rather than embracing the possibilities of the future. You don’t need me to tell you what will happen to them, do you? 

Patrick Collister is Editor, Directory magazine. He is former Executive Creative Director and Vice Chairman, Ogilvy & Mather.