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The Death of Advertising – An Obituary

It is time now – someone has to announce, officially, that the advertising industry is dead. Business is now only interested in creating brand communications strategies, it is not really interested in buying ads. People still make ads and ads are still an important part of developing communications campaigns, just like film and photography are an important part of making most advertising. But you cannot describe advertising as the film industry. Describing brand communications as advertising is equally myopic and inadequate.

The ad man has been, for many years, a key figure in popular culture. From Samantha’s husband in the TV sitcom ‘Bewitched’ to Mel Gibson’s character in the film ‘What Women Want’ they were never presented very favourably. The ad guy was always a sharply dressed, fast talking salesman A great ad campaign could change the fortunes of a business but the people that created and then sold them to the dull witted, somewhat stiff, clients were never portrayed as people of intellect and integrity.

In real life it was a bit different. The ad industry seemed to attract a particular type of smooth, clever but morally questionable type of undergraduate, it sucked in creative brains that one always felt could have been better employed in the arts. As regards the latter, many did go on to pursue nobler careers in literature (e.g. Salman Rushdie). Many of the most respected film makers started out making ads (e.g. Ridley Scott, Alan Parker and Nick Roeg). They were ‘the creatives’, the ones who came up with and produced the actual advertising campaigns. The ones who managed the clients – sold them the ideas and collected the commissions – have always been known as the ‘suits’. Many of them have become respected business leaders, respected not just for their knowledge of advertising, for example David Ogilvy or Jeremy Bullmore, but for their ability to run big companies, for example Sir Martin Sorrell who bought both Ogilvy’s and Bullmore’s agencies plus many more to create, WPP, a Footsie50 company. In the 1970’s and 1980’s one of the biggest brands in advertising, and the people who came to define ‘the ad guy’ in the UK and around the world, were the Saatchi brothers. One now sits in the House of Lords and the other has become a world-renowned patron of the arts (modern art as it happens, which some regard as an oxymoron typical of a superficial ad guy).

It is probably a stretch to say that advertising ever truly attained the cache of ‘finance’ or even, God forbid, ‘marketing’ in the world of business but it did attain a degree of respect and was referred to as an industry. “I work in the advertising industry” was a socially acceptable thing to say. “I am an ad guy” got you a seat, not just at the best restaurants in town, but even the occasional boardroom table, for a while. But not any more. “I work in the Media and Communications industry” is much more impressive and ‘ad guy’ normally has the prefix, ‘old fashioned’. The older and more recalcitrant advertising executive will still introduce themselves as ‘an old fashioned ad guy’ because they are trying to remind you that they have a precious expertise in advertising and that a 30 second TV commercial or memorable slogan still has value in the world. And they do. But they have been subsumed and superseded by the bigger, more contemporary and complex Communications industry.

Effective business communication involves not just brands but stakeholders. The choice of media is exponentially bigger (the way the Grand Canyon is exponentially bigger than a crack in the road). Advertising was B to C (business talking to or at consumers) whereas Communication is two-way dialogue. At its best, advertising was ‘truth well told’ at its worst it was hyperbole or downright subterfuge. Communication requires honesty and authenticity. Advertising thrived, in its heyday, on the USP (the unique selling proposition); Communication may have at its heart a ‘big idea’ but relies on ‘multiple touch-points’ where messages are tailored to the audience and the occasion. Ads and slogans have their place but when creating brand communications strategies it is just a limited place and not very high up the food chain.

If all this seems a little harsh, disrespectful, mean spirited even, if it seems like it ignores the many thousands of people who still work in advertising and frankly look not a lot different to their predecessors (Calvin Klein suits have lost ground to Paul Smith) at the end of the last century, then consider this – the companies such as WPP and Omnicom that own most of the ad agencies call themselves “Media and Communications Groups” and derive most of their income from marketing services outside making ads. They talk about ‘effective business communication’ not ‘effective ads’. Sir Martin Sorrell or John Wren do not describe themselves as ‘ad guys’ the way Maurice or Charles Saatchi used to.

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