It seemed so simple in the golden age of advertising, when the Mad Men made the ads we all loved to watch on TV.
A couple of drags on a freshly branded cigarette and a winning slogan appeared. This was the era of marketing to people. The advertising industry was on transmit as a planet of consumers awoke, excited and on "receive".
There was time. Time to be creative. Time to take a breath and judge the success of those ads. Time, even, if successful television dramas are to be believed, to have a few drinks to help oil the creative process.
And so an industry was made, one that grew to be the most creative and one of the most influential in the world. Politicians wooed the grandees of the industry to make the difference between candidacy and government.
You don’t need someone like me to tell you that the world has moved on. Developments in technology and consumer behaviour are now so rapid that I have seen as much change in the past five years as in the previous 25. It’s bewildering, chaotic, and more exciting than ever. And it begs a fundamental question: is the advertising industry keeping up?
I have significant doubts as to whether it has sufficiently changed the way we think as an industry.
The common denominator in today’s world is connection. This has transformed the way people consume, the way they live. Yet, I have significant doubts as to whether it has sufficiently changed the way we think as an industry.
In a landscape where content is currency and consumers are making both content and connections for themselves, marketing is no longer just competing with film and TV for attention. We are competing with Fenton the out-of-control dog chasing deer in Richmond Park, which many millions of people have viewed, enjoyed and, crucially, shared.
I can’t help feeling that, though our consumers are connected and joined-up, as an industry we are not. You may not recognise the name Marshall McLuhan, but you will recognise a couple of the phrases he coined. It was he who stated that "the medium is the message", and he was the first to talk about the "global village". More than half a century ago, he also said: "It is the framework that changes with each technology and not just the picture within the frame."
Are we great at changing the picture but falling behind while the framework changes around us? Are we truly getting to grips with mobile, social and data, areas I have no doubt will be more transformational than the internet?
It was Google CEO Eric Schmidt who observed that, from the dawn of civilisation to 2003, humankind generated five exabytes of data; by the time of his speech in 2010, that much was produced every two days. The results of this seismic shift in data creation are complex and chaotic, with machines talking to machines where algorithms and analytics rule.
What are we doing to find order in this disorder?
At Unilever we are wrestling some kind of clarity from the chaos. All Things Hair is a platform that uses data to predict hair trends before they happen. Eleven billion Google searches on hair are made a year. That adds up to consumers telling us, many times a second, what they want. This gives us an incredible opportunity to respond to that demand and reach consumers more effectively, with the information and answers they are looking for – from search through to ecommerce.
But this is not happening frequently enough, or at sufficient scale. As an industry, we need to crack both big data and collaboration so we can not only listen to the whole consumer conversation, but also react and respond to it.
If we can galvanise people’s interests, if we can offer ideas, products or services at scale, this could be something really special. This is when we can really move on from the golden age of marketing to people, to a new age of marketing for people.
We need to crack both big data and collaboration so we can not only listen to the whole consumer conversation, but also react and respond to it.
We are seeing the challenges first hand. Late last year, for example, we launched Unilever Project Sunlight – our effort to stimulate a growing community of people who are motivated to improve the life chances of children, to drive change that will see everyone living well and more sustainably. We are very proud of the start we’ve made, but it has been hugely resource-intensive. It has taken 12 of our partners, working together 24/7, to make this happen in five countries. And when we decide to do it again, to expand into a new country, we’ll have to recreate it. We need to find a truly repeatable model – but that goal seems a long way off.
We need our agencies to orchestrate the relationships required to do this at scale for their clients. For years we had big partner creative agencies to help us navigate the world of advertising. Not so very long ago, digital agencies appeared to help us navigate the digital world. Now we have specialist individual agencies handling mobile, data, social and whatever’s just around the corner. The issue is that each of these specialists is channel-focused, optimising the best solution for the channel – the best mobile activation, the best use of data, the most interactive social-media campaign. What I need is the perfect combination that works best for the brand. We need "always on" and "always on-brand".
We all talk and have heard about consolidation in the advertising world, but what we have yet to see is integration. We need to prioritise the brands’ best interests and orchestrate the network of close working relationships required to build brands at scale. Our agencies must retake the initiative of leading the multi-agency approach, even if all the agencies are not in their holding company. If we don’t address these issues, the risk is that a fragmented group of partners will unwittingly fragment the brands they seek to support.
As an industry, our challenge is to keep painting the picture in a constantly shifting frame.