Could the UK's advertising industry handle the truth?

Will consumers gaining more power over brands mean that advertising loses its potency and can agencies cope with this shift, Sue Unerman asks.

More than ever, it is crucial to tell consumers the truth about brands. It is just too hard these days to keep up pretence in an age where the consumer is digitally empowered to find out everything they need or want to know. The art of spin is becoming, indeed may have become, redundant, anachronistic, a dead parrot.

Are ad agencies ready to handle this? From the 19th century tradition of snake-oil salesmen through to the contemporary big-budget shoots in the Philippines, the spin that ad agencies could give a brand has been one of the biggest elements of the business. But now, there is too much information and opinion out there and you can't stop the truth emerging.

Parallels can be drawn with the spread of literacy when the printing press made books and leaflets readily available. Priests and kings could no longer keep the public in the dark. Recently, one (wellknown) creative director told me that telling the truth is the last thing that ad agencies want to do. He thinks they're going to hate it. They're in business to sell the sizzle, not the steak. In a world where the sizzle isn't what it used to be, can the UK ad industry handle the truth?

Just try to pull the wool over the eyes of mums, for example. Sites such as Mumsnet tear people apart who try to sell them an angle on something that they know isn't true. The Mumsnet co-founder, Justine Roberts, gives the following advice/warning to advertisers about her community: "Get it right, and they'll tell the world. Get it wrong, and they'll tell the world".

Do you book a holiday just on the basis of a glossy ad campaign without checking out the reviews online? Or buy a book or DVD on Amazon without considering the star ratings from other customers? (Buy something because you're convinced by an ad against the advice of the reviews online - trust me - you will only do it once.)

Advertising has reached a crossroads. It could become merely a form of entertainment around the brand and not an important mechanic that drives sales. Ad agencies may like this. We've seen examples of work that creates great buzz for being entertaining, but may have less to do with selling the product than any ad has in the past 60 years. There is a danger that this makes advertising ultimately less central to a brand's strategy.

There is an alternative. Advertising can find a way to tell the truth that will resonate and drive returns to new levels. I'm writing a book about this with Jonathan Salem Baskin (the author of Branding Only Works On Cattle). Our blog on the subject is at Please give us your views. Meanwhile, here's a couple of techniques worth considering.

First, there is the technique of being expert in your field by being expert at listening. Starbucks - with 21 million fans on Facebook - has an ideas page which gives a more convincing sense of co-ownership of the brand than any amount of brand image promotion.

Then there's very local advertising. Despite decades of claims that we're all citizens of the world, most of us are really citizens of our street. Why don't we see more advertising that acknowledges this?

Half-a-century ago, David Ogilvy said: "The consumer is not a moron, she's your wife." Now the consumer is the expert who knows everything about you. What they don't know they can find out in 30 seconds on their smartphone. This isn't as snappy as Ogilvy's original statement (well, I'm just a media person so what do you expect?). The fact remains, you can't spin the facts to the consumer like you used to. Better get used to the idea.

Sue Unerman is the chief strategy officer at MediaCom.