Close-Up: Advertising is not dead, and I can prove it to you

In an extract from his new book, How To Do Better Creative Work, Steve Harrison argues that there is life in advertising yet.

I was on the Cannes website recently and saw this blurb for one of the Festival's workshops: "Advertising agencies and brands are running scared. They're being forced to seek out alternative means of engaging customers because their excessive marketing habits of the past have been rendered obsolete both by technology and by lack of consumer interest. Face it, no-one wants to be advertised to."

Surely I'm not the only one who's tired of these pronouncements on the death of advertising "as we know it". But I suspect that few speak out for fear of the scorn that'll be poured on their unfashionable opinions. I, however, have a book out soon, the success of which is dependent upon at least one or two people still secretly harbouring such views. So, here goes.

WHY DIGITAL IS TAKING US FOR A RIDE

I think everyone, both on- and offline, has been taken for a ride by digital's pundits. That bandwagon started rolling back in 1999 with Permission Marketing, Seth Godin's all-out attack on what he called "interruption marketing", ie. creative that relied on a big idea to stop its prospect, engage their attention and sell via paid-for media.

If you read the book, you'll see that Godin has mistaken bad execution for a broken discipline. And it never occurred to him that the remedy might lie in doing better and more effective creative work. Yet, as digital expanded, Godin's blanket dismissal of interruption marketing became the conventional wisdom and is today the starting point for pretty much every book about marketing in the digital age.

If Godin had the practitioners of competitive persuasion reeling, then another book (and the countless bestsellers, articles, conferences and blogs it spawned) floored them. Rick Levin's The Cluetrain Manifesto heralded a golden era in which the technologically empowered customer would pull only those messages they wanted to receive and engage only with those brands that they'd allow into their lives. Not only that, they'd link up to share knowledge, opinions, recommendations and advice on what to buy and what to avoid.

This vision ignored one glaring fact of life. The commodity all of us most lack is time. Indeed, according to research by nVision, "having time to just relax" is the UK's number one luxury and few want to squander those precious moments in a virtual huddle about baked beans or business software.

DIGITAL ACTIVISTS ARE THE EXCEPTION

Of course, as books such as Groundswell and Wikinomics show, there are good examples of digital communities dedicating time to a brand. But these "mavens" are the exceptions which prove the rule, ie. a hugely disproportionate amount of online activity is accounted for by tiny groups.

Take the blogosphere. January's IPA research showed that of the UK's online consumers just 2.8 per cent bother to blog. Only 8.8 per cent read them and 3.7 per cent comment. Likewise, a mere 6.5 per cent participate in online chat rooms and discussion forums. It's the same with social networking sites.

According to Forrester's Technographics research, 75 per cent of the UK's internet users use social networking sites only once a month or not at all. Far from being addicted to Facebook, MySpace and Twitter, the vast majority are indifferent. James Harkin articulates this in his intriguing new book, Cyburbia. He says: "Just like teenagers growing up in post-war suburbia, many of us inhabitants of Cyburbia are growing up bored, and longing to be transported somewhere more exciting."

But what of those who do use these sites on a daily basis? Well, they're overwhelmingly students and/or aged 16 to 24 years old. And, sales directors please note, given their age and occupation, most don't have a pot to piss in.

As for the ones with a few bob to spend, even, for example, the expectant mother who's absorbed into an online community in one aspect of her life, will look to different channels in most others and have her purchase decisions informed by a smorgasbord of on- and offline communications.

And even these individuals are relatively scarce. Because, of those who are online, there is actually a silent majority who've been totally unmoved by the "groundswell". According to that book's authors, they constitute 53 per cent of Europe's digital community. And they won't start Tweeting or blogging any time soon. As Faris Yacob explained in his IPA essay, I Believe That Children Are The Future: "The majority will continue to operate much as they ever have. Having grown up with a passive relationship with media, the shift to becoming an active consumer of ideas is neither likely nor desirable."

WHAT SMART CLIENTS WANT

Are smart clients going to wait patiently for the "groundswell" to eventually envelope these potential customers? And then will they accept a new status quo wherein the customer dictates the flow of marketing communication? What do you think? Clients will be expecting you to proactively attract and convert new prospects, persuade competitors' customers to defect and encourage existing customers to spend more.

Can you do this by first getting "permission" with, as Godin suggested, the offer of a free pen or prize draw? Maybe, but as everyone with a letterbox knows, Readers Digest has done this for years and such tactics tend to attract people who like free pens and prize draws and not the kind of prospects you might be seeking.

Could it be achieved via a social networking site? In some cases, but even Facebook applications created by brands such as MTV gather fewer than 200 users. And as Deloitte's January report shows, monthly average revenue per user for such sites can be measured in pennies (as opposed to the tens and even hundreds of pounds for Sky TV). Can it be done by inviting prospects to join you in a bit of co-creation? Perhaps. But it will work only with a minority of prosumers and, by definition, they'll be the hardest people to attract if they're already committed to a competitor's brand. Or will you also have to interrupt these people, both on- and offline, by alerting them to the advantages they are missing, the benefits they could enjoy or the problems you could solve? In short, won't you still have to do a bit of competitive persuasion?

ARE INTERRUPTIVE IDEAS STILL CRUCIAL?

I am pretty sure the answer is yes. Which is why I think my book will interest on- and offline agencies alike. Indeed, the latter might find it particularly useful as, thus far, they've been misled into thinking they've nothing to learn from their offline peers.

Last year, I was a D&AD jury foreman and, regardless of platform, the best work had a great interruptive idea at its heart. I'm sure that's the case this year, just as it was at Campaign's Big Awards where interestingly the best UK digital (and direct) agency was that doyen of interruptive advertisers, Bartle Bogle Hegarty.

Agencies such as BBH, Crispin Porter & Bogusky, glue and Shackleton know that interruptive ideas remain crucial to the success of brands and the generation of sales.

Moreover, they have the self-confidence to ignore the bandwagon, driven by pundits and ridden by those who've been browbeaten into believing that everything that came before is now worthless, which will be rolling past your agency again in the next few weeks.

When it comes, I hope you encourage its passengers to jump off when they get to Waterstone's and grab a copy of my book. However, you might warn them not to leave it lying on their desks - or they may cop for some of the obloquy that's probably heading my way.

- Steve Harrison is a co-founder of Harrison, Troughton Wunderman. How To Do Better Creative Work is out on 4 June by Pearson Business.

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Digital marketing executives oversee the online marketing strategy for their organisation. They plan and execute digital (including email) marketing campaigns and design, maintain and supply content for the organisation's website(s).