We need to think more about advertising

I am no fan of intellectuals.

The people that complicate, theorise, pontificate and posture. With little effect on the real world.

Marketing is a simple business. Dress it up all you like to make yourself feel important or clever, but marketing is fundamentally about ordinary people. What they do, what they need and what they love.

However, I adore people that think. Really think. And people who can bring that thinking to bear on our actions and output.

Sadly though, few people in marketing are really thinking.

Maybe we can’t afford the time to think in an age that demands that we fire before we can aim.

Maybe marketing itself is so unfashionable that the big thinkers have gone off to somewhere altogether more interesting.

Maybe marketing was never truly thoughtful.

But the result is an industry that lacks any real form of philosophical care. An industry only interested in what can be done rather than what should be done. And an industry obsessed with the short term, whether in output, tech or business performance.

Though we love technology, we don’t really think about it. We are persistently obsessed with the shiny and new but bored witless by last year’s preoccupation.

Take Web 3. Web 3 will be a defining technology of our age, the final realisation of a people owned internet. But are we thinking about it? Of course not. Last year we got briefly excited about ‘the metaverse’ and NFTs but this year we have moved on to AI.

And before we get to properly thinking about Artificial Intelligence and the profound implications for humanity of a lifeform that is cleverer than us, we will have found something else to obsess about.

Which is handy because it means we won’t have to think about any of it.

We love marketing’s output, whether sponsorship, influence, promotions, or advertising. But we don’t really think about them. Not about their collective effect, not about consumer acceptance of what we do, not about the regulation that is right and appropriate for us to advance.

And if we ever think about regulation – the fundamental social contract between marketing and society – it’s always as a rear-guard action. Behaviour that sets us up as enemies of society not its allies.

While we moan about ad avoidance or the absence of marketing permissions in otherwise powerful databases, we do little to try and create a product that people enjoy inviting into their lives. About collective standards and the quality of our output.

Because we just aren’t thinking.

We love business of course. Whether setting the tills ringing today or identifying the sources of growth for tomorrow, this is our day job. But we don’t really think about the economic context in which our businesses operate.

Maybe there is a consumer confidence chart in a periodic update from the insight department and maybe, as the warnings of austerity blow in through our sales, we might introduce a ‘value campaign’. But there seems very little concern for the real economy and the long-term impact of economic decline on the lives of our customers.

We can position and reposition our brands all we like, but in the final analysis we need economic growth to prosper. The discounters may have taken a chunk out of the UK supermarket industry over 15 years of economic stagnation, but in the end even they will need money coming into in people’s pockets to thrive.

Yet I haven’t heard a single client express concern at the financial abyss that 2.4 million people are facing as they come off fixed rate mortgages over the next 18 months. Or what this might do to their business as their customers are crucified on a seemingly ineffectual strategy of fighting inflation with interest rates.

We really do have to start thinking harder about the economic reality that underpins the performance of our businesses and not just about the response of those businesses to decline.

Because if we thought about things a bit more, we might be able to do something about them.

We might be able to decide how best to use new technologies and where and whether they should be employed.

We might be able to safeguard the sustainability of our industry by curbing its excesses and in particular promotion of harmful or destructive behaviour.

And we might in together exert some influence over the course of our economy rather than being buffeted around by global headwinds that are too big to fight and national policy that is seemingly impotent.

Making things happen is the single most important quality in the marketing industry. But thinking coherently, collectively and properly before doing any of them comes pretty close.

It is time to welcome thinking, the time to think and people that can think back into marketing.

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3 Replies to “We need to think more about advertising”

  1. In my time in marketing, I thought a lot about it, perhaps too much and I didn’t have good thoughts. I couldn’t find a good version of the thing I was good at; struggled to uncover a part of it to feel positive about.

    For a long time, I persevered with a Honda-ish ‘hate something, change something’ attitude. Then I had the crushing realisation that, as a person, I actively avoided my work and that of the rest of the marketing profession. I didn’t watch ads. I never clicked on a digital ad. I skipped everything on YouTube. I never downloaded a branded app or went to a branded experience, never scanned a QR code, never used a hashtag and never shared anything brand-y.

    So, I left. I couldn’t keep working at something of no value to me. I might as well have worked for Facebook, BP or British American Tobacco.

    I love your thesis. Everyone should think more about what they do but they should do it with caution. Sometimes that way sadness lies.

  2. Richard, brilliant; your point about advertising receiving “no philosophical care” is like a stiletto into the jugular of the industry: precise and damning. In my 40+ year career I loved the opportunity to engage with clients in need of counsel, ideas that could be inspirational, and people that were passionate about what they contributed. As you people talk about “can” not ” should”. Advertising as the art of persuasion is of vital importance not only to the health of business, but to the twin challenges of societal discourse and justice, and of environmental sustainability. We should ask not only what it is for, but WHO is it for, re-think rewards and incentives, and reach a system understanding, a unity of thought and knowledge, about its evolving role.

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