People love to talk about advertising. Me too- it’s the industry that has shaped my career. “Mad Men” continues to be one of my favorite TV shows, long after the series ended.
Currently, I’m watching the last season again on Netflix. It tells the stories of business executives and their staff navigating the world of advertising, and the adventures (and mishaps) that ensue. Despite the many ethical and moral issues brought to light by the actions of the characters, bright young minds of today see these executives as future versions of themselves. They model their careers after these characters. I’ve talked to so many aspiring young professionals in advertising whose career ambitions follow those of Don Draper and his crew.
Who works in advertising?
Advertising is seen as a sexy and glamorous profession, with days at the office spent drinking and hanging out with cool people. And in many ways, it is. Not all the time though. There are some great minds in advertising who actually do work that moves the professional forward (and their clients’ business) everyday. It’s not just a cushy job for popular adults who sometimes act like kids. People love talking about the creative side of advertising because that’s what they see readily, but few actually understands the business of advertising.
I reflect on the time I spent in advertising– about 5 years in the beautiful city of Chicago– this is the industry that fed me, sustained me and helped me earn my wings as a professional. The skills I learned took me to many great places, both professionally and physically. Advertising helped me travel the world. I earned leadership positions, selected for plum projects, invited to speaking engagements and teaching sessions.
Why are there ads?
But, let me ask an existential question about this industry- why does it exist? Everyone hates ads, right? Yet it is a very lucrative industry where money is exchanged by the millions everyday, between clients, agencies, and technology vendors.
Perhaps the questions I really want to answer are the questions my mom often asks me, to which I can never seem to give her a satisfying answer: what do you do? How does advertising make people money?
In my career, my role had always been about measuring the effect of advertising and marketing programs, analyzing data to generate insights, in order to help media planners make decisions on what media to buy. This is why I am keen on how the business of advertising works, because I look at it from a more holistic perspective than the typical media planner whose main responsibility is to put in an order to buy advertising space on a specific channel (ie. TV, print, digital).
Advertising originated as a way to subsidize the cost of printing news and short stories back in the day. In the advent of the industrialization at the turn of the century came the rise of the modern printing press, mass communication transformed the way people learned about news and gathered information around them. Since it cost money to distribute a message (paper, ink, writers, newspaper delivery boys), advertising was seen as a way to promote for-profit events for a price.
Then in the 1960s, TV was invented and mass-marketed, which set a new standard for distributing messages in the form of high-production commercials and other types of promotional content intended to sell a product or service. Producing TV shows is costly, which is why TV commercials play a key role in subsidizing shows.
Advertising should be more than just about selling
Advertising has been so intricately linked to selling a product that many people think that the focus of advertising is to merely sell a product.
But that oversimplifies the industry. It makes ads annoying and positions anyone who manages a brand to sound like a snake oil salesman. While I do agree that the objective should be to promote a product or service, it should be done in a way that communicates with customers. It should be about telling the story of how a product or service relates to customers’ lives. How it improves their lives and fills a need.
Advertising should be about the customer.
In past decades, yes, advertising was so focused on selling a product that it had lost the meaning of what it should stand for in people’s lives, which is to communicate with customers.
The question of why advertising exists seem like a question reserved for a drinking session on the patio among advertising professionals, but I think it is a worthwhile question to ask, even by those outside the industry, particularly now that we’re seeing the advertising landscape being disrupted from many corners by technology and other new entrants.
The digital disruption in advertising is real
Creative agencies used to lead the production of advertising creative. But now they are being displaced by bootstrapping teams of people with “prosumer” digital devices such as cameras and audio systems who can create videos and images that can compete with a high-value production.
On TV, the ad generally subsidizes the content. But now, streaming networks and their production capabilities are disrupting TV shows– the content itself for which the ad is made. Media agencies are also being challenged by programmatic technology that can buy the most efficient space automatically. Workplace culture is being disrupted too, with the growth of the “gig economy”, which consists of creative freelancers (who don’t necessarily need to have agency experience) picking up jobs at the expense of agencies losing creative talent.
The winners in this disruption are teams who can think of new ways to reach customers and engage with them because that’s the only way they can take an action toward purchase. These are usually uncluttered spaces filled with high-quality content. If advertising campaigns can incite an action (get people to talk about the brand, share the content with their friends, etc) that’s a good way for them to be memorable and be sticky to the customer well after the campaign.