Look back: open your eyes to advertising's history says Brian Jacobs
Look back: open your eyes to advertising's history says Brian Jacobs
A view from Brian Jacobs

Digital natives: Open your eyes and look back

Media's resident curmudgeon Brian Jacobs reminds all digital pioneers there's still much to be gained from knowing advertising's history.

It’s a curious thing that whereas many media people of my generation find it essential to learn as much as we can about the digital world, many digital natives currently populating the media world do not seem to consider it in any way relevant to learn anything from or about the past.

It's certainly true that over the years, I have become more cynical than I used to be about the advertising and media businesses. It's also true that I'm getting pretty old – at least by the standards of the advertising and media businesses.

Beyond carpet slippers and pipe

The major benefit my advanced years brings (beyond increasingly finding carpet slippers and a pipe strangely attractive items) is experience – the sense that many of the concepts, the issues, the debates that occupy the pages of the trade press these days have indeed been there before.

It's easy to say that each generation finds the past an irrelevance – but actually it isn't true. When I was learning my trade in the old full-service ad agencies ,I could have bored for England with my knowledge of the great men of the industry and the issues of the day.

I could have told you all about Bill Bernbach and Rosser Reeves, David Ogilvy and Leo Burnett. I made it my business to understand what USPs were all about, and I did my best to understand the theories of Simon Broadbent and John Philip Jones.

Being interested in stuff outside of your particular job function wasn't particularly unusual – there were groups to go to and conferences to attend. Nowadays too many groups and conferences are excuses for sales pitches by sponsors – which is why I generally don't bother going.

Does this lack of interest in the past, this narrowness in thinking only about the immediate present matter? Well, when it comes to the core theories on how advertising works, I think it does.

Think beyond the short term

Nowadays there is an understandable interest in short-term advertising effects. Fair enough, times are hard, Boards demand results and the digitisation of media channels means that it is more possible than ever before to track results.

Attention spans are short (and I’m talking about professional attention spans, not just how long the average consumer can focus on one thing before casting around for something on which to multi-task), and so as a result, we expect the model to be "spend the money, count the return".

But as those who have been around a bit know, brands aren't built like that. Brands are built over time. In Jeremy Bullmore's words, "people build brands as birds build nests, from scraps and straws we chance upon". Some of those scraps are of course via short-term activities such as what used to be referred to as direct-response ads, but to stretch Jeremy’s analogy to breaking point, it would be a pretty poor nest built only out of one size or one type of scrap.

Many people in advertising agencies understand this well, and are well-versed in communicating the benefits to a business of long-term brand building. Yet it is fairly unusual to come across digital media agency managers well informed as to how different media strategies can help build healthy brands.

Certainly they can explain very well how digital works and what programmatic buying means (actually that’s a lie – no one can explain what "programmatic" means, as it mutates to mean whatever the speaker wants it to mean). But they often struggle to understand the role that their particular specialism plays within what used to be called "the marketing mix".

Many commentators, including this one, have pointed out that what consumers do, and have always done is use a variety of channels and devices to fulfil different needs. So it is with communication planning – advertisers need and use a variety of channels and techniques to build their brands.

It would be smart of the digital generation to understand that this isn't about throwing rocks at each other ("my channel’s bigger than your channel"), but rather it's about collaborating and combining to meet the advertiser's strategic objectives. And an understanding and appreciation of where we've come from can help when it comes to deciding where to go.

Brian Jacobs has 35 years' experience at advertising and media agencies, including Leo Burnett, Carat International and Universal McCann. Prior to establishing BJ&A in 2006, he was executive vice-president at the research agency, Millward Brown.