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Agencies, Lies and Social Media

July 4, 2011

Opinion piece, designed to elicit some discussion (i.e. controversy). As written for the 2011 Marketing Magazine Digital Survival Guide (grab a printed copy from good Magazine stores and see the back pages). Apologies for the length, but hey, it was for print! …

Don’t look to advertising agencies for results in social media, it simply isn’t in their DNA. Oil and water do not mix.

Social media is the hot topic about town. Like all waves before it, the heat in the conversation has an almost religious fervour, nothing new to the church of advertising. So before the advertising fraternity’s fatwa is imposed on me, let’s discuss why the fit of advertising to social media is so poor. Why is it, that the better you are at heritage advertising, the worse you are likely to be at delivering results from environments that require true interaction.

The nature of agency
Important in the definition of agency’ is the concept of ‘a service that acts for others’. Success in ‘classical’ advertising demands that the advertiser act as dual advocate for both the vendor and the consumer.

One way of bridging the middle ground between vendor and consumer is the search for ‘fundamental truth’. In some advertising agency right now, an advertising guru is explaining to an advertising greenhorn, that the art is striping back the plethora of market noise to fundamental truth and then crafting a credible brand story. Sound good? Well it certainly pays for the new car! The end result can look like Clemenger BBDO’s work for the NAB … ‘more give, less take’. The campaign was launched in March 2010 to address the ‘fundamental truth’ of the bank’s poor reputation and the relationship imbalance between the bank and its customers. The NAB profit of $4.2 billion for the 2010 financial year is clearly all give! The ‘real’ fundamental truth is that the bank wants consumers to ‘give’ it a better brand image to avoid any political risk to its revenue model and ‘take’ away any consumer hope for better service, lower cost and greater credit availability. Give and take are such conveniently fluid concepts, great for building a concept bridge between parties.

While advertising creates a bridge between the parties (saying nexus would be far too academic), social media only needs to create a venue for the exchange of meaning. Advertising agencies are habituated to act as the middleman in the arbitration of meaning. Social media, in contrast, is about facilitation rather than arbitration. The desire of advertising agencies to tamper with meaning is their first failure in extracting real success from social media.

You talking to me?
The advertising message is not called a ‘pitch’ by accident. The delivery is set to a “particular level, degree or quality”. We all know that advertising messages are targeted at an aggregated audience, a function of the broadcast heritage of mainstream advertising. You are trying to get a single message to a lot of people. The advertising guru is skilled in finding the right target (demographic model) and then ‘pitches’ the message at the appropriate level. The target can be set a little high (aspirational), a little low (dumbed-down or ‘not-aimed-at-you’ humorous) or any number of other strategies that succeed in subtle audience manipulation.

Advertising creatives know what works! Nevertheless, the years of aggregating audiences into demographic stereotypes have taken their toll, and most forget that the audience has been in on the joke all along. The individuals that make up the mob perceive that they are not at the centre of the audience profile (even if they are). Ninety-percent of drivers believe they are ‘above average’, so self-delusion is alive and well. I would argue that when in comes to advertising the same metrics apply. In most cases, more than ninety-percent of consumers do not believe that ads are talking directly to them. The societal distancing of meaning and being ‘in on the joke’, rather than being the ‘object of the joke’ are part of the unwritten code of modern broadcast communication. The broadcast code doesn’t extend to social media. The social media code has more in common with the behavioural norms that exist in true networks: friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances. In the ‘network’ code, the broadcast ‘pitch’ comes across as spin, lies, oppression and being out of touch. Agencies are used to shoving a single blunt idea down the throats of their audiences, and audiences (when they are thinking of themselves as an individual) don’t always like that. Stereotyping is advertising’s second failure to fit into social media.

My design
Advertising is synonymous with graphic design, image motion, sound and aspects of film, photography and fine art. The armoury of the trade is deployed strategically for impact, cut-through, retention, signalling, recall, emotive triggering and a host of other objectives. Copy sometimes takes the back-benches or is reduced to taglines, straplines and the supporting cast for the visual stars of the show.

For most social media the visual hierarchy is reversed. It is true that video drives traffic and meaning on Youtube, powerful images rule the roost on Flickr, and sound does its thing on Apple’s Ping. These exceptions prove the rule that meaning within social media depends fundamentally on text, with rich media, images and design playing an important but ultimately supporting role. It is not surprising that Facebook, LinkedIN, Twitter and a host of other hot social media properties win because they downplay specialist communication skills in favour of simple social interaction using text. Simple user generated meaning wins. Text is fast, searchable, cross-platform and direct. Simple authentic messages trump advertising spin. Personal relevance outplays contrived broadcast. The skills of video, drama and music, done brilliantly by ad agencies are not shared equally in the social media community. The common denominator of text is the message medium of choice. The creative focus and range of skills that reside inside an advertising agency, are poorly aligned to the needs of social media and our third failure to fit. Oil and water!

Get away, don’t touch me!
Many commentators suggest that modern advertising was born in the early twentieth century. Cruikshank and Shultz in ‘The Man Who Sold America’ suggest that it was a transition from ‘keeping your name in front of the public’ to ‘salesmanship in print’. I like simple models, so for me, this was changing the role of advertising from ‘Discovery’ to a combination of ‘Discovery and Engagement’. The evolution took some part of the sales ‘engagement’ away from human interplay (with a storekeeper or salesman) and moved at least some of it into the advertising message. Many of today’s advertising powerhouses owe their decades of success to this simple innovation. The establishment view of the day was supplanted by a new idea that spawned a more complex and transformational model.

It is ironic, that a century later, in our early part of the twenty-first century, a simple idea is transforming the marketplace again. Just as ‘engagement’ was added last century, consumers are now demanding direct communication. Once again, in my search for a simple model, we are adding ongoing and individually meaningful interaction. Social media is taking some of the ‘social’ element away from traditional human interaction and making social media marketing about a tripartite mix of ‘Discovery, Engagement and Interaction’.

In communication exchanges where social media works, the two-part model of advertising just cannot compete with the ‘Interaction’ element. Ad guys don’t walk amongst you, they walk over you. Establishment models do not generally drive innovation – there’s no reason to innovate if you’re the big honcho. So establishment agencies are not equipped for true interaction. The doyens of advertising don’t want to mingle with the great unwashed. Like many of their corporate clients, the thought of interaction is an anathema – professional blasphemy and our fourth failure to fit. The establishment church of advertising is not about to get down and dirty with its constituency.

I was important once
I have dug the boots in pretty hard and now I am having that moment of mild regret. My thoughts have taken on a tinge of melancholy, as I think of the evaporating confidence of many of the advertising moguls, when I hear them speak on the future of the profession, the industry, the art. Like deposed politicians, disgraced golfers and bankrupt tycoons, the journey from magnate to public curiosity is one worthy of some pity. OK, pity party over and the boots firmly back on.

Cartwrights, Pardoners, Philosophers, and Burnishers find it hard to get work these days. I’m not trying to be silly here. Clearly the needs of society change, and supply and demand dictate that certain roles have changing cache. I know I’ve had my shot at banks already but clearly the role of ‘Bank Manager’ in 1910 had a different societal status to a Bank Manager in 2010. Many advertising roles have also seen their halcyon days. Advertising isn’t dying I’m sure, but then neither is Stockbroking and yet Chalkies, Callers and Runners are all gone. Changes in technology and public need have modified financial professions and just as advertising roles related to typesetting and composing are gone, contemporary roles are also under threat from disruptive innovation and societal change.

True strategic thinking, messaging and art may remain important but advertisers who depend on the ‘black-arts’ connected to specific period technology (you may remember when a Bromide Operator was a profitable occupation), could be the Dinosaurs of the next wave of transformation. The real issue here is what economics and social science would call ‘path dependency’. The path to advertising roles with cache and reward, filters out most aspirants. Remove the items along the path (the hurdles) and you change the rewards, barriers, and personality type. Most Cartwrights did not become Automotive Engineers. Most Stock Exchange Callers did not move into new financial services professions. Most advertising specialists have travelled down the wrong path, accumulated the wrong skills, passed through the wrong experiences, and have the wrong motivators to find themselves equipped for social media roles. In general, the lack of desire to transform skills and the failure of emergent social media to provide equivalent financial reward, means that any ‘forced change’ will come too late. I think we have five failures to fit – in this case it is the story of the ‘slow boiling frog’. Google will help if you aren’t aware of the anecdote.

Personally, I hope one day to be able to say ‘I was important once’, when Social Media Strategist is a public curiosity and historical footnote. My place in the proverbial ‘frog’s pot’ is perfectly acceptable to me.

Am I at the right place?
If you have ever turned up to the wrong party, or worse, the right party on the wrong day, you know where I am going. So let’s get straight to an advertising analogy. McDonalds advertises during meal times and for the most part, the advertisements either work at ‘Discovery and Engagement’ or they fail with the occasional derogatory remark. During the cross-media phenomenon of MasterChef, McDonald’s ran a ‘Macca Chef’ campaign. The production quality was high, there was tongue-in-cheek humour and tailoring to the show being used as the delivery vehicle. To the television-only audience, this was ‘Discovery and Engagement’ with a slight twist. It either worked or didn’t, and where it failed it would have only engendered the usual derogatory comment and been quickly forgotten.

In the parallel world of social media, the one that contains ‘Discovery, Engagement and Interaction’, the advertising campaign was lambasted. Clearly McDonalds is not ‘fine dining’ and the employees are not ‘chefs’. The message may have had only one vehicle on TV, however in multivariate social media channels, there was no suspension of disbelief. Each audience member took the social elements, as though they were personally targeted, and the levels of audience dissonance were much higher. Instead of the dampening effect of broadcast, the social media channel can lift both the reach and longevity of the message and broader constructed meaning. I am sure that someone at DDB, Fuse or Fremantle thought the campaign might be pushing both the MasterChef and McDonalds brands to breaking point, but I doubt they realized the reaction in social media channels would be as powerful and negative. McDonalds was not in the right place. The social setting was wrong and while it mattered little on TV, it mattered a great deal in social media channels. Advertising agencies do not understand the media dynamics and societal behaviours as they apply to social media. Just continuing to building out the ‘failure to fit’ argument here, so I’ve lost interest in counting the instances.

Poorly received films die at the box office as a result of consumer feedback. Delayed live events on TV and Radio have reduced value because they cannot prevent real-time leakage of results and even comprehensive audio and video coverage from the social media world. Even the spill of political leadership becomes a wave of rumour before mainstream press can get a story together, creating a need for public figures to be able to handle questions and scrutiny in real-time before a message has time to be crafted and considered by a pollie’s spin doctors.

Need an experiment? Take any major brand strapline used generically in advertising campaigns. Now consider how this might resonate for better or worse in different social settings. The Fresh Food People, Sheer Driving Pleasure (now ‘Pure Individual’ I believe), Determined to be Different, The Fashion Capital … they work for advertising, they jar for social media. The fact is that they lack any real meaning or network anchors, making them useless (or worse) in social media frameworks. Staff and customers creating more meaning (or at least Interaction) than advertising agencies … I feel my excommunication coming along well.

You can’t manage what you can’t measure …
Proof of performance for most organizations is fundamentally about profit and revenue metrics. Real assessment of the performance of advertising is often abstracted to things like Cost-Per-Thousand (CPM), Impressions, Cost Per Lead, Views, Visits, Ratings, Circulation and a raft of statistics that say something, but not always things that are directly attributable to profit and revenue. It isn’t surprising when the advertising process is about ‘Discovery and Engagement’ to find that the metrics have to be extrapolated and broader objectives and timeframes considered.

With social media we have the ability to cover ‘Discovery, Engagement and Interaction’ activity, the available metrics can be extended to conversation numbers, response times and metrics that would normally be more common in call-centres and sales teams. The array is larger, lifting potential complexity. However this breadth also allows for a much more comprehensive assessment of activity as it relates directly to operational performance. The convergence of these business activities and metrics necessitates that social media is considered at a more strategic and transformational level. All sorts of people within a business need to get involved with social media. Your receptionist is on Facebook and Twitter, and so is your warehouse manager. They are both advertising your business, for better or worse, whether you like it or not. The interaction of social media is a broad church, far broader than the discovery and engagement components of broadcast advertising.

The elephant in the room is blind
Social media is not online advertising. The advertising industry has shifted to the Google Adwords and banner placement models with relative ease. These transitions used the same concepts and the same metrics – put simply a ‘page-based’ model. Google depends on a page paradigm for attributing context (search meaning) and order (PageRank). Every search result and banner placement links to a page on the web. Social media is not page based. Facebook is a complex portal, Twitter has smaller granularity and Youtube introduces the complexity of video and rich media. Search and search-related advertising is in trouble, the paradigm is changing, the audience is moving and the advertising locations are disaggregating. The current Google model, based on the print-heritage page driven paradigm, will not exist in its current form five years from now. Advertising agencies, especially those that believe they have shifted to digital, fit the ‘page model’, not the emerging social media dynamics and a network model with far greater granularity.

Largely, people want to use social media for meaning, communication, belonging, networking and discovery. Those with a barrow to push need to reconsider messages devoid of meaning (fake ingredients and hollow promises), communication that doesn’t belong (patronising tone) and that is capable of standing up to scrutiny – because it will be scrutinized and failures will echo louder and longer than successes.

Can a marketing and advertising industry that has been built for broadcasting half-truths be the engine room for taking messages of real value to consumers in this brave new world? I guess that is the question posed here. Can agencies change their ways, speak the truth, facilitate interaction, generate personal meaning and provide more appropriate measurement?

We are all watching and making comment thanks to social media!

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 8, 2011 11:01 AM

    Full marks for passion but I’ve got some bad news for you.
    It’s not 2005 anymore.

    Statements like this were ten-a-penny (i made many similar myself) when we were all in the first flush of social media excitement, but times have continued to change. While we all imagined (and you still do, it seems) that the new media was going to kill the old, we were wrong. It’s never happened ever.
    Mobile is the predominant mass media, it does everything that all legacy media does (and more) yet we still go to the cinema, listen to music on a big hifi, watch tv and read books.

    To the same token, Advertising has been transformed by the democratisation of media, absolutely.
    But a brand idea that connects with people will spread. This is what we call a social idea.
    It has customer value and business value. It’s shared. It’s social. Go and ask Nike or Apple.

    Your pop at the bank is ridiculous and ill-informed. People are not stupid, businesses need to make money.

  2. July 12, 2011 11:52 AM

    i see my comment is still awaiting moderation.
    You guys are really on top of the real-time social web eh?
    I would have addressed you more formally if I knew your actual name, veridianmedia.
    Social is all about that human connection.
    Of course you’re the experts so you know that ;)

  3. July 12, 2011 6:05 PM

    I think you read something into my piece that wasn’t there and certainly not intended … there is no argument that any form of preceding media is dying.
    You’ll find me on Twitter @drwarwick and email david@veridiansm.com if you want the person – of course I am named on the original Marketing Magazine piece.
    Sorry for the delay in posting your comments … of course I had no other priorities. Thanks for the feedback, I don’t think I had a contrary opinion to your points, so somehow our arguments are not connected. Perhaps its because I am still lost in 2005.

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