Opinion: Strategy Leaders
We are in danger of breaching the unspoken contract with our audience that we will co-fund media in return for licence to communicate on advertisers’ behalf.
Recent advertising duties have served to reacquaint me with a previously well-beaten path through London.
Down the shabby steps of Waterloo Station, leaving its condemned office buildings behind. Skirting its perilous roundabout and up on to Waterloo Bridge: perhaps London’s ugliest and finest, and not just because of its immortalisation in song. It’s a compromised crossing today, but one that still provides something of the balm Terry and Julie enjoy in The Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset.
Making landfall on the Thames’ north bank — and the business district that developers hope you will one day actually call ‘Northbank’; you can’t miss it, it’s just south of ‘Midtown’ — and normal London service is resumed: a dangerous road crossing, a cacophony of crowds and commerce.
Except that…turning East (for those that survive the crossing) you now find not just the epic courtyard of Somerset House, but a newly-pedestrianised plaza where white vans, black cabs and red buses roared only recently.
Liberated from its reluctant role as a traffic island, the church of St. Mary le Strand looms directly ahead, proudly reclaiming its long-lost status as the Jewel in the Strand.
The whole area is now a small oasis of calm: just plants, seating and sculpture. It doesn’t even have a name.
And here’s the thing. A large part of that calm is the palpable absence of advertising. (Just like this column, thus far.)
Citizens, not consumers
Sure, there’s a pennant or two alerting you to the otherwise elusive Courtauld Gallery, and an order of service for the Church but, apart from that, nothing: it’s a new London space that’s uniquely free of commercial communication and motivation.
The villainous adman of yore (and, yes, he was a man) would view this as virgin advertising space, ripe for the picking. There’s not much of that left, after all.
My hope is for the opposite.
Firstly, because advertising still owes its freedoms and its reach to popular consent…and we are in danger of breaching the unspoken contract with our audience that we will co-fund media, provide utility and even provide bus stops in return for licence to communicate on our clients’ behalf. Despite its best efforts, the Advertising Association is obliged to report slow progress against its trust agenda, and ‘commercial bombardment’ remains a large part of the problem.
Secondly, because the volume of advertising in our lives must surely begin to diminish its ability to create value for our clients at some point. (I will happily be persuaded otherwise.) I’m super-curious to hear the results of Channel 4’s ongoing experiment into whether fewer ads in less-cluttered ad breaks deliver more effective campaigns. My guess would be: yes! Tim de Lisle’s marvellous recent provocation in the New Statesman provides anecdotal support, albeit with a sting in the tail (tale)…
Thirdly, because we can’t pledge lazy allegiance to the new era of stakeholder rather than shareholder value, of purpose and not just profit, without examining our own conscience. The clever folk at the New Citizenship Project perhaps say it best, or at least most insistently: that when we think of ourselves (and our audiences) as citizens rather than consumers, outcomes improve.
Less would be more for everyone
The full bore version of this might be hard to swallow, but its milder variant is both palatable and practical. The lost art of advertising curation, alive arguably only in the magazine business, is in everyone’s interest: medium, audience and advertiser.
State funerals and coronations remind us how rare ad-free space is but are, quite literally, once-in-a-generation events. It is not anti-advertising to venture to suggest that less advertising may actually mean more: attention, goodwill and return…
Millions of people swarming like flies ’round
But Terry and Julie cross over the river
Where they feel safe and sound
And they don’t need no friends
As long as they gaze on
They are in paradise.
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