All of a sudden, the world of marketing has got very polite indeed. For years we have taken absolutely no notice of whether people actually want us to communicate with them and instead have deluged their letterboxes and inboxes with communications, willy-nilly.
Then overnight, four letters that sound like the acronym for a former Soviet satellite state, GDPR, have got us all minding our Ps and Qs. And asking people terribly politely whether it’s OK to continue to talk to them.
I’m all for this consent business. Psychopaths aside, none of us wants to do something, anything, without people’s permission. For one thing, it’s frankly un-British, given that we can’t walk through a door without insisting everyone else goes first.
And having tidied up our databases like marketing Marie Kondos, the promise is of better open rates, better engagement and better conversion. Consent sounds like an all-round good thing.
To be clear, what we are really all obsessed with at the moment is a particular form of consent – the explicit agreement of the individual to have data held by, and receive communications from, a specific organisation. It’s the essence of one-to-one marketing and increasingly vital to any form of addressable communication.
But there is another, arguably far more important, form of consent that receives rather less attention. This is the tacit agreement of society in general that it’s OK with advertising, full stop.
Offend the former and you risk irritating people and attracting regulatory or legal sanction. However, offend the latter and you risk compromising the very endeavour of advertising. For the truth is that advertising can only work if society permits advertising to work.
Despite the "skip ad" histrionics, for many forms, techniques and categories of advertising this is absolutely the case. There is an "agreement" that society is fine with advertisers plying their trade, providing their work does four things.
First, that it is responsible and doesn’t put society at harm – that’s the reason why we no longer give our consent to tobacco advertising. Second, that it doesn’t get in the way, require our attention to remove or irritate us, beyond the odd catchy jingle from a price comparison website. Third, that it has some utility even if people ignore it completely, maybe because it funds a public service. And last, that occasionally it has something useful, relevant or entertaining to say.
You can best see these principles at work on the average Tube journey. There can be no other environment as congested with advertising than the London Underground, an onslaught of messaging more overwhelming and insistent than any online journey ever. There are station entrance six-sheets, escalator digital panels, cross-track posters, digital screens, platform six-sheets and my favourite medium of the moment, Tube cards (underground Wi-Fi now makes them a response medium). Yet absolutely no-one objects to this, precisely because this advertising environment adheres to those four principles.
Here is advertising that is full-on but never in the way, delivers helpful information (particularly if you love Southern bourbon or West End musicals), is often relevant and sympathetic to the city and the context in which it appears, helps to keep Tube fares down and the system functioning, and occasionally makes you titter over your latte.
These are not the criteria of the regulator, they are the criteria of the people – it is they who govern whether our activities are tolerated by those we seek to serve and sell to. And, ultimately, whether what we do is sustainable.
Yet for all the conferences, webinars and consultants banging on about individual consent, there is next to no discussion about the creation and nurturing of social consent. And still less about how that consent varies from environment to environment and medium to medium.
Advertising works because of a very finely balanced relationship between the different interests of the advertiser, publisher or media owner and consumer – and we are doing a frankly terrible job of ensuring that this balance is maintained. These four principles might be a polite way to start.
Richard Huntington is the chairman and chief strategy officer of Saatchi & Saatchi