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Squeamish about advertising? Get over it

Squeamish about advertising? Get over it
Remember when TikTok told brands: 'Don't' make ads'?
Opinion: 100% Media 0% Nonsense

Does anyone actually do ‘advertising’ any more?

If you hate advertising, you shouldn’t read this. Click away now.

Because I’m about to say something that seems increasingly unpopular with each passing week.

If you look around this industry, the number of voices that seem actually proud to be in the advertising business are few and far between. The thing on which all media and creative sector jobs depend has almost become a dirty word.

The truth is: we not only need advertising at the heart of a strong media ecosystem — we need to be proud of it.

What are we really selling?

As someone whose job involves listening to and reading what media leaders say, I detect a wholesale loss of nerve when it comes to the business of advertising.

The “A” word has become problematic because it’s seen as being in decline — even though, when you look at the numbers, spend is increasing despite a sluggish economy. As I’ve pointed out before, adspend growth appears to have become so robust that advertising’s health no longer seems to fluctuate in concert with the wider economy.

ITV’s annual earnings, which are due next week, will be fascinating when viewed through this lens. No doubt industry watchers will be ready to pounce on the “death of TV advertising” narrative if the UK’s biggest commercial broadcaster reports less-than-stellar numbers for 2023.

Q4 is supposed to be the most lucrative period for any media owner in the business of selling ads, but after CEO Dame Carolyn McCall warned the industry is in its worst recession since the 2008 financial crash last summer, only a brave person would predict positive headlines next week.

But what will be more fascinating will be how McCall describes what’s going on at ITV now and what the future holds.

After all, this is a business that now makes more from its content division, ITV Studios, than it does advertising. For a business supposedly still dependent on linear spot ads, it has made bold moves to release new shows on VOD player ITVX first before they go out on linear.

And, even though it was not prepared to pay over £1bn for All3Media, as Jeff Zucker’s investment company RedBird IMI has just done, McCall has been clearly shopping for more content to woo lighter viewers to ITV.

Attracting lighter viewers is quite a different strategy to that of Netflix and other streaming companies, which have sought to lock people into ad-free subscription models. That might have worked for years for Netflix as the only streaming app with a big content catalogue, but the average consumer simply has too much choice and not enough disposable income to justify multiple ad-free subscriptions.

Hence Netflix doing ads — although there seems to be little enthusiasm for the whole thing. Now that Netflix has signed up as a member of commercial TV’s marketing body, Thinkbox, it will be fascinating to see whether this air of ambivalence will change.

What are we really making?

Or take another online video pioneer, TikTok, whose first major trade marketing campaign in 2020 told brands: “Don’t make ads. Make TikToks.”

It’s a novel sales approach — undermine the very thing you’re reliant on selling.

The bizarre industry relationship with the word “advertising” gets even weirder when looking at the buy side.

Marketing and media academic Vic Davies alerted me recently to something astonishing he had noticed: many of the world’s best-known advertising and media agencies contain barely any reference to the word “advertising” at all.

Omnicom’s TBWA has no time to mention advertising when it is busy building “brand platforms that defy convention and compete with culture”, thanks to its “expertise across the total brand experience”. Publicis Groupe, the world’s biggest marketing services holding company by market cap, lists 13 services under its “What we do” section, but the word “advertising” features nowhere. On its website, self-styled “creative transformation” company WPP promotes such fun as “communications, experience, commerce, technology and data”.

I get that these global companies are conglomerates that do much more than advertising nowadays, but they still do advertising, don’t they?

Why this matters

It’s important to take pride in what you do.

Not least because it makes you better at what you do. We are happier and more productive if we find purpose in what we do. The ultimate version of this is eudaimonia — which, as Aristotle wrote in the Nicomachean Ethics, is an activity that is good in and of itself.

The truth is, it’s hard for advertising to live up to that ideal when it has become a dirty word for many people. The UK and Ireland CEO of Ipsos, Kelly Beaver, reminded the audience at our Year Ahead event in January that advertising is one of the least reputable professions in the UK and is now regarded worse than estate agents. No wonder many of us would just prefer people pretended the whole ghastly endeavour didn’t exist.

That’s a huge shame and this mindset must change.

There is a reason Netflix knew launching ads would placate nervous investors and Wall Street analysts — it just happened to be the right thing to do. Since the birth of the penny press newspapers in New York in the early 19th century, advertising has been the best strategy media owners have ever come up with to keep the price of their product low enough to be consumed by a large audience with modest incomes.

And making media cheap and accessible is important: media literally changes the way we think, impacts our happiness, helps or hinders how smart we are and, of course, keeps us informed about the world. Democracy simply cannot exist without widely accessible media — and that means democracy cannot exist without advertising.

In short, we are more informed, more interesting and more free because of ad-funded media.

Why this matters now

And now is exactly the time to shout this message from the rooftops: we are in a mega year of elections and cost-conscious consumers are continuing to cut back on essentials, including ad-free media subscriptions.

This industry needs to wake up from this self-pitying nightmare of being embarrassed to sell stuff to people unless they are also being “purposeful” or “transformational” or “consultative”. Of course, those things are important as being additive to advertising, but sometimes you wonder if people can actually stomach the idea of buying and selling any more.

My message to ITV, Netflix, TikTok, agencies, brands and any business that is squeamish about being in the ads business: get over it.

I can only think of one media owner that straight out tells me that it loves ads: Odeon (sales house: Digital Cinema Media). No wonder: it’s a big screen with big sound that has a captive audience, so the advertising is peerlessly effective and the quality of content generally great.

That isn’t why DCM CEO Karen Stacey was our Media Leader of the Year in 2023 (entries have just opened for this year, by the way), but being proud of your medium and how it earns its keep is an important signal.

Omar Oakes is editor-in-chief of The Media Leader

100% Media 0% Nonsense is a weekly column about the state of media and advertising. Make sure you sign up to our daily newsletter to get this column first in your inbox every Monday, as well as key updates with what’s happening at The Media Leader and our upcoming events. 

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Roberfroid Katty, Director General, egta, on 26 Feb 2024
“Thank you for making a very valid point, Omar. I am for one a professional who is particularly proud to work in advertising. I made this point very clearly in an article I published on LinkedIn last week. As egta celebrates its 50th anniversary, I deemed it appropriate to remind members and industry partners alike of "Why they should be proud to work in the Advertising industry". Thanks for echoing my call.”

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