Lord Finkelstein, columnist at The Times, opened his diagnosis of Brexit at last week's Media360 conference, which I co-chaired, with an old Jewish joke. A village matchmaker goes to a peasant family and says she has found a match for their son. "What about the daughter of the tsar," she says. "But there’s no way that the tsar will agree that his daughter could marry a lowly peasant," the parents reply. "But do you agree to the match?" the matchmaker asks. "Of course," the parents say. "Well then," the matchmaker replies, "I’m halfway there."
Finkelstein was of the opinion that the deal for Brexit was no closer than the matchmaker’s marriage deal. He described Britain as two nations, Leavia and Remainia. One of the key problems was that politicians don’t understand how little people understand or even care about politics.
This lack of empathy with the public seemed to be echoed in a subsequent debate about building trust in advertising. The panel was divided. On one hand, a campaign educating the public about how their data was being used and why was put forward as a solution. On the other hand, there was a strong feeling that education was meaningless if, as with politics, the public neither understand nor care. They just want the ad bombardment to stop.
Karen Fraser, head of strategy at Credos, showed research on current reactions to advertising, after pointing out that trust was at an all-time low. Great ads were still talked about and regarded as ice-breakers. But there was much more ambivalence about online advertising, with one respondent saying: "It’s hard to differentiate between ads and content online."
In light of this, ISBA’s initiative about ad bombardment is to be welcomed. Direct Line Group’s marketing director, Mark Evans, explained that cutting down on excess frequency won’t just reduce waste, which is a compelling argument for marketers with their chief financial officers. It will also help with consumer trust. A longer-term view is necessary instead of jumping to satisfy short-term metrics targets.
As an industry, we are faced with shifting sands. More change is to come. Damian Collins, chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, was clear that the days of self-regulation may be numbered as today’s media landscape poses very different problems from any in the past. After-dinner speaker Amol Rajan, media editor at the BBC, said that we are at a hinge moment in history and described Mark Zuckerberg as the Gutenberg of our days, although the changes now are fantastically accelerated compared with the impact of the printing press. "We are, perhaps," he said, paraphrasing the great Grace Jones, "slaves to the algorithm." Certainly, as Campaign global head of media Gideon Spanier writes, doing business these days demands new ideas, new ways of working and new behaviours.
It’s crucial to have empathy with the public, our ultimate customers. Difficult as it is to really put yourself in another’s shoes, if you don’t at least try to do so, there’s very little hope of building brands for the long term in the digital economy.
Sue Unerman is chief transformation officer at MediaCom