To advertise or not to advertise, that is the question.
The credit crunch, the financial crisis, the global slowdown. We find ourselves in the vice-like grip of a recession, where lifestyle aspiration has been replaced by workplace survival, and where sales figures are plummeting like a spent booster rocket.
The question on most business moguls' lips is how to maintain an even keel in this sea of crisis? How can we make sure that our beloved products at least have a fighting chance of keeping afloat in an ocean of rising debt?
One thing is for sure, the public at large now treats every proposition with the deepest suspicion. Even former icons of trust and credibility, such as the high-street banks, are treated with the same transactional trepidation as a used car with a dodgy paint job and a sticker announcing "one careful owner".
Above all, what the public seeks is reassurance (and we're not talking the type of reassurance that's underwritten by AIG). They seek trust. Credibility. Solidity. Certainty. They want to understand, to question and to be sure that what they are spending their money on is either fit-for-purpose or value for money.
Gone are the quirks of Halifax Howard. Out are the visions of the aspirational image. Dead are the days of Generation X. Or Y. Or Z. When all society is fighting for survival, the messages transmitted need to assimilate into the context of the social mood. And asking society to open its collective wallet right now is akin to asking which limb it would like amputated or which pet it would like executed.
For the advertising industry, this should mean a whole new raft of opportunity. There is a fundamental need to get a new type of message out into the market, and to reassure the potential audience that the offering is credible and robust enough to last at least until the end of next week.
Marketers now need to examine their communication and react swiftly to the changing financial landscape. Those companies that refuse to embrace and communicate their change will fall by the wayside as the public at large treats every potential transaction (or business development executive) like a visit to a backstreet dentist.
The harsh truth is that clients are simply not doing this. They are not reacting quickly enough or accurately enough. For once, agencies are struggling to assess their audience, as social drivers vacillate between pure survival, a struggle for status quo, or at best, an animalistic instinct just to keep going.
In a way, you can't blame them. Suddenly, and without warning, they've realised that every market projection, every consumer survey and every USP can no longer be relied upon. For the first time in many a year, campaigns seem to be built on a foundation of shifting economic sands and moving financial targets.
So, without the foundations of research, prediction and differentiation, the global brand moguls appear have no other solution than to watch impotently, frustrated as new conditions demand a new approach.
The delicious irony revolves around the paradox of the bottom line.
For years, corporate giants have focused on little more than the capitalistic dream of profit, growth and turnover. These days, however, there is a new bottom line on the horizon. The greens among us have become more than unfashionable vegetables as we preach the emerging approach of the Triple Bottom Line of social, economic and environmental sustainability.
"Ahh! Greenwash," we hear you cry. Well, hush up and gather round - now is the time to wake up and smell the fairtrade, dolphin-friendly organically grown Brazilian Blend.
The Triple Bottom Line model has been around for a few years now. It's all about responsible employment, engaged and stable communities and a sustainable future for our society. These three qualities are now the only pillars on which a stable business or attractive offering can be founded. Give the community these aspirations, and, so the theory goes, people will be happy.
That happiness is about certainty, certainty is about trust and trust is about provable delivery. The new-age advertiser now needs to emphasise and embrace these qualities and communicate effectively. Refusing to speculate in order to accumulate is simply burying one's head in the sand and is doomed to failure. And it's not about shouting loudest, it's about preaching the most honestly.
In order to do so, rather than sitting passively in a walnut-panelled boardroom, corporate executives need to get out and communicate their commitment to the new pillars of business in a way they never have before. They need to be out there, caring and sharing, without obvious greed or overt commercial agenda.
So the message is advertise, properly and compassionately. But when you do, make sure your product and your business is seen as believable, trustworthy and sustainable.
And if you can't do any of those, at least you'll be well-placed to feed the growth industry of the insolvency practitioner.
- Mark Summers is the creative director at Mark Summers Casting.