Monopoly, magic and meaning – the enduring power of advertising
In so many ways advertising is on the defensive.
For starters there is the proliferation of new marketing disciplines all of which add powerful new weapons to your armoury and demand that advertising share a little of the financial action.
That’s kind of understandable.
What is less flattering is the increasing degree of consumer disaffection with advertising. People didn’t always dislike the dark art, indeed way back in 1991 32% of all adults in this country believed that the ads were as good as the programmes. That figure is now languishing at 17% and has declined every year since the early ‘90s.
But to be honest this wouldn’t be a tragedy if we could guarantee that they were still paying attention. Who cares whether people like an ad as long as they are being communicated with? Well the bad news is that increasingly consumers are armed with technology, like Sky+, that allows them to fast-forward through the ads. Evidence from Forrester in the US suggests that 92% of all ads get zapped when watchced off a hard disk.
Sounds like we are up a certain creek without a paddle.
Well I’m not ready to throw in the towel just yet. Far from it.
At best advertising is an extraordinary business tool and I still love it. In many resects – and to paraphrase Kathy Bates in Misery – I am advertising’s number one fan.
And as such I want to introduce you to my 3 M’s of advertising.
Now I’d like to suggest that I have been working on the 3 M’s for the past 5 years and they are the centerpiece of a new book on marketing that is shortly to be published and is likely to make me rich and hugely famous.
But the reality is that I made them up.
Or rather I have pulled together three ideas about the potency of advertising and added a neat little alliterative twist. But hey I’m a planner and that’s what we do.
My 3 Ms are Monopoly, Magic and Meaning
These do not represent the sum total of reasons why you should advertise but what advertising can uniquely deliver.
First up I want to talk to you about monopoly or specifically monopolies of the mind.
One of the first things that Tim Parker did when he joined the AA last year was to declare his intention to return to the positioning and strapline of the 4th Emergency Service.
He didn’t do this because the 4th Emergency Service is more famous than the ‘just AAsk’ campaign that was running or because he thinks that it will lead to better creative work. He did it because he knows the power of the campaign to fight the commodity conditions that bedevil his category.
At present there are over 100 organisations that can furnish you with breakdown cover, a low interest category, where every provider is seen to offer the same service and where purchase decisions are made almost exclusively on price. It’s tough to maintain a premium service with a premium price in these conditions.
However, while there may be 100s of breakdown cover providers there is only one 4th Emergency Service. When advertising talks about the AA in this light it creates a monopoly in the mind – an idea about the AA that actively fights substitution and justifies a premium. Its not a real monopoly – few of us will ever be fortunate to run a business in these conditions – but an effective monopoly that fights against the forces of commodification.
Advertising’s power to create monopolies of the mind in commodified markets is one of the principle reason any business should be excited about it.
The second of my M’s is magic and advertising’s lack of predictability.
In the middle of the ‘90s I worked on Its Good to Talk for BT – you know the advertising that almost destroyed Bob Hoskins career. It was another campaign in a long and distinguished tradition of call stimulation advertising that included Busby and Maureen Lipman’s nightmarish vision of motherhood – Beattie. However the effectiveness of ‘It’s Good to Talk’ was in a different league all-together. For every pound that BT spent behind the campaign it delivered six pounds to BT’s bottom line. Both Its good to talk and Bob’s observations about male phone behaviour became part of the vernacular of the late ‘90s.
But for all the success of Its Good to Talk this could never have been predicted. Because great advertising literally goes out of control – or rather out of our control.
And this is what I mean by magic. The strength of thinking and creativity that goes into the best advertising is a magical multiplier. This magic is what propels the brand’s message out of the ad break – which you pay for handsomely – and into people’s day to day conversations – that cost you absolutely nothing.
I’d go further and say that increasingly advertising’s role in the media mix is to act as a catalyst that ignites conversations about the brands we all represent. Catalytic advertising is all the more essential in this category where few purchase decisions are made in isolation, without reference to other people’s opinions whether they are IFAs, journalists or your mates.
So celebrate advertising’s magic and its down right lack of predictability. For one thing it means that the size of your budget isn’t the only determinant of success – smaller brands can walk tall with a sprinkling of the second M.
The third M is meaning.
When James Murdoch arrived to run Sky his appointment stunned the city. Not only were they sceptical about his ability, his youth and his surname but critically his intention to stem the decline in subscriber acquisitions by massively increasing his adspend. BSkyB shares lost 20% of their value on the day he announced the plan last summer.
By close of business on the 31st December 2004 the plan was paying off. Sky had acquired 192,000 net subscriptions in 3 months. This was the first quarterly increase in 18 months, it compared with just 62,000 subscriptions in the preceding quarter and totally outstripped city expectations.
It was direct response press, mail, inserts and online activity, that converted the lion’s share of these new subscribers. However, in the final quarter of 2004 these tried and tested approaches had a different context to operate in. This context was delivered by an entirely new approach to Sky’s advertising – the ‘what do you want to watch?’ campaign.
This campaign gave new meaning to Sky for hundreds of thousands of digital resisters and added impetus to the harder nosed acquisition activity. In particular it turned its back on sports obsessed ‘ransom note’ advertising in favour of work repositioning Sky as a more female focused entertainment brand.
The point is that the meaning that advertising can give a brand not only delivers success in its own right but it creates a positive context for all the brand’s activities and a more fertile environment for the other marketing disciplines to excel.
Love it or loathe it, you have to respect the HBOS Howard campaign. Not only has it directly driven more customers to the brand more efficiently but the other marketing disciplines have successfully fed off it from the reduced cost per response for direct mail to more column inches for PR.
Critically it also galvanized an enormous organisation over a short space of time in a way that no other marketing discipline could match. In fact the best advertising for living brands such as yourselves arguably pays back before it goes on air. By giving the whole company a clear sense of direction, pride in what they do and a standard to live up to – by giving your brand meaning to your people.
So there they are my 3M’s – monopoly, magic and meaning.
These are the achievements that advertising can deliver to your business that the other disciplines can’t touch. Monopolies of the mind help decommodify markets, the sheer magic of advertising can deliver a disproportionate return on investment whatever your budget. And the meaning that advertising can create provides a context for all your organisation’s activities.
Yes advertising is under pressure. It is also one of the most adaptive business tools at your disposal and when its good – its very very good, doing extraordinary things for brands and businesses.
But here is the catch. You see what I have described – my 3Ms of monopoly, magic and meaning – are nothing more than advertising’s promise. They are what advertising does at its best. Whether your advertising lives up to this promise only you can tell.

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