Why the days of the 'format factory' are numbered
A view from Charles Vallance

Why the days of the 'format factory' are numbered

The proliferation of new formats has been dizzying but what shape will the frenzy take next, asks the founder and chairman of VCCP.

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I've been working in advertising for 30 years, and it's been very much a game of two halves. In the first half, not a huge amount changed. In the second half it's been nothing but change. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the proliferation of format.

In my first 15 years, I had to master two new formats. The arrival of text messaging, and then the arrival of email. To be honest, I don't think I've entirely mastered email as it can be something of an etiquette minefield (do we, for instance, still 'Dear' people; and what is the best sign-off, or do you just go straight to Christian name or, as appears to be increasingly in vogue, simply eschew a sign-off altogether?). By contrast to these early years, the last 15 have experienced such a profusion of new formats that I’ve rather lost count.

Every industry, of course, sees the arrival of new formats, new platforms and new thingymibobs. But the media industry has seen far more than its fair share for a very simple reason; our industry isn't on the receiving end of change, it is at its epicentre.

The new economic landscape is being redrawn by TMT players, not simply because of the colossal influence of FANGA (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google and Apple) et al. They are merely indicative of something more fundamental. They are indicative of the internet's power to transform not just the channel of communication, but also to transform the actual machinery of communication.

This is quite fundamental and is having huge repercussions for our (comparatively) little world of advertising. It started with online digital display. We had to learn about banners, skyscrapers, MPUs, homepage takeovers and the like. Things accelerated as the FANGA/social media brigade seized their opportunity as gatekeepers to the interweb. Suddenly, we needed to master photo ads, video ads and story ads for Instagram; follower ads, promoted tweets and (my personal favourite) branded emojis for Twitter; canvas, carousel, live and 360 for Facebook; lenses and geo-filters for Snapchat; 15 second pre-rolls and six second bumpers for YouTube.

Fizzle out

I could go on listing new formats. But for each one I write, a new one is being invented in real-time. Welcome to the format factory. The output of this tireless production line highlights a point I made in my December column about Brand Impressionism. We now live in a world of composite, al fresco brand building, where a brand is constructed using hundreds of tiny brush strokes in a less deliberate, more improvised manner than was the case before the format frenzy erupted.

So what about the next decade? Where will the format revolution take us during the twenties?  I think it will go deeper. This will mean two things, a de-proliferation of communication formats, where the fittest will survive and the weakest will fizzle out as quickly as a Snapchat post. At the same time we will see a massive rise in the most radical format of all, which is the automated or intelligent user interface. We are seeing a whiff of it with Alexa and co, and we are seeing its early adoption with the AI or bot-led (if you pardon the expression) user experiences being created by the new wave of fintech brands (e.g. Cleo, Plum, and Monzo).

And this is before the interface bonanza of open banking has really begun in earnest. You only have to look at the hyper-connected intermeshing of services on WeChat to realise that communication is moving from a message delivered, to a service rendered. Now that's a very, very big format change indeed.

I would, however, like to finish by looking backwards rather than forwards. The march of UX and interactive, personalised interfaces will continue relentlessly. But rather like a group of schoolchildren visiting the Tower of London, all these little interfaces will need someone to look for and to follow. For advertisers, this 'someone' will remain their brand, which will have to be built at a higher and higher level in order to span the disparate, composite nature of new media mechanisms. Fear not, then, you old school brand builders. Your skills will be more in demand, not less. At least that's what I keep telling myself.

Charles Vallance is the founder and chairman of VCCP