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A Protracted Demise
By Jonathan Salem Baskin

The Ad Industry Will Wallow In The Tar Pits This Week In New York

Today begins a week's worth of advertising creativity, insight, brilliance and wit, all of which evidences an industry deeply in denial and perhaps terminally ill.

Advertising Week is "North America’s premier gathering of cutting-edge communications leaders," according to its web site, which lists a week's schedule packed with guru-level speakers from agencies, media companies, or technology firms. There'll be a little love thrown at big-name client speakers because they spend the money that those agencies, media companies, and technology firms swap with each other.

Here's the rub: they have nothing to say. Worse, they're just talking to themselves, and the topics for the week suggest their self-congratulating will fall into three broad categories:

  • Repackaged Ideas -- The core of advertising strategy in 2010 is based on an idea that is almost 100 years old: say something, and it will be so. Sure, there are glossy new ways to say it, but no amount of trans-creating, cross-platforming, technology-enabling, consumer-empowering delivering changes the fundamental presumption that advertisers should spend their time trying to manipulate what consumers think (or that they can be successful doing it, or that it would matter if they could). The net effect of the cultural, economic, and technological change over the last century has been that the how of ads and marketing no longer matters anywhere near as much as the why, but the campaigns offered up as models of integrated everythingness will be illustrations of how to brilliantly give consumers stuff they don't need, didn't ask for, and won't use for anything meaningful to business.
     
  • Rejected Ideas -- Of course, the simple answer is to change the measure of advertising, and there'll be many arguments made that proving meaning to business has nothing to do with actually selling anything. The word content will be uttered endlessly and the wacky math of perception and intention will be celebrated as having some vitally important connection to business success (which will remain impossible to trace or prove). Only it isn't. Advertisers experimented with giveaways, sponsorships, and the other analog corollaries of long tail content creation nonsense long before anybody at this year's event were even born, and they learned that the strange attractor of sales was unavoidable. Stuff had to connect to a purchase transaction pretty soon or it really doesn't qualify as commercial speech (it was just ineffective). Why not is not a reason to do it.
     
  • Revisionist Ideas -- There'll be a more extreme POV expressed throughout the week, and it will be to redefine the entire purpose of advertising (and marketing overall): it's about entertainment or engagement so, in other words, not only should marketing not get measured by sales, it shouldn't even have a connection to it. The Big New Idea is that consumers have had an ongoing conversation with brands separate from, or perhaps somehow above or better than, the transactional buying and reality experience of functionality. Again, this is myth-making worthy of the great minds involved in the game because it creates a role for them...and a reason for clients to spend millions without demanding any tangible, measurable, or reliable connection to a real business purpose. It's wrong -- the idea flips effect in front of cause -- but few people in the room will even suspect the inanity of it.

The ad business has it tough, no two ways about it, and it might be unfair to expect an industry to ever change when it's so wedded to old ideas, an outdated technology environment, and a particular worldview. Consumers just don't believe, use, or value the stuff that marketers create anymore...they don't want it and, worse, creating it may well be contributing to the further decline of brands.

The challenge isn't to shy away from that reality, nor to try to creatively redefine the problem to allow for the repetition of the same answers.

The challenge is to sell stuff. Openly. Honestly. Repeatedly. My two-cents is the only way they do that is if they figure out how to tell the truth.

Truth is defined by credibility, authority, utility, and reliability. It is delivered by experiential reality, not creativity or spin. It's something consumers already know -- or believe that they do -- and I doubt whether much if any of the latest advertising wizardry has contributed one iota to it. It doesn't emerge magically from conversation but is the substance of conversation tiself. Truth isn't how people perceive brands but rather what brands are and become. Branding is the ongoing narrative of this reality.

I think the question they should be asking is how do we get in the truth-telling business?

If asked, it would open up broad new avenues of answer-seeking, because truth originates in reality, not the imaginations of marketers. There'd be operations folks on the schedule. People talking about personnel and organizations, whether business or social. Scientists with the latest thinking about behavior and how people interact. Far fewer claims of accomplishments, and many more searching self-analyses and open-ended debates about how to solve what have proven so far to be insolvable problems.

Not an agenda filled with marketers talking to one another about their successes.

The lure of manipulating minds and imaginations is awfully intoxicating and the ad industry has had a few generations to get addicted to the idea. Maybe it's too much to think they'll break their habit. More importantly, they may be right insomuch as they’re proving themselves adept at manipulating the perceptions of at least one audience: themselves.

Imagine a dinosaur writhing in shoulder-deep tar. It can't escape, and every movement brings it inches closer to complete submersion and certain death. But it's not aware of its protracted demise. It sees a new lifestyle wallowing in tar. Finds the limits on its movement strangely comfortable. Convinces itself the warm gunk feels good. "I could get used to this," it says.

It won't drown this week, but the conclusion looks more inevitable by the day.

Added: 27th September 2010

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