Jerry Judge: does Advertising Week need to be less about us and more about them (real people)?

Unknown-23I was in the room when New York’s Advertising Week was born. That was ten years ago now and – believe it or not – at that time advertising wasn’t a very respectable game to be in.

The week was designed to help raise the industry’s status a little. So we could all hold our heads a little higher when we walked down the street. Help recruitment. Garner a little respect. What if, we wondered, advertising had something like Fashion Week? Something that took over the city and got people excited about advertising?

And so Advertising Week was born. Tony the Tiger strutted his stuff down Madison Avenue. And we all had a bit of fun. But was anyone outside the industry paying attention?

A lot can change in ten years. But some things stay the same. Advertising hasn’t gotten more respectable – in fact, it might have gotten worse.

For one thing, we seem to have forgotten that we ought to be a little troubled about how we do what we do. We interrupt people’s lives, we shout at them, we harass them, and worst of all we try to tell them who they are and what they want (that awful ‘we understand you’ ad – you know the one).

Are we actually making something worth celebrating? Or are we, even in our digital, social, mobile world forgetting the value of likeability? Do we value instruction over seduction?

‘Brand authenticity’ was a big buzzword at advertising week this year – but how many of the discussions around this buzzword were actually authentic?

Advertising Age “saw a surprising level of realism by participants, who appeared reticent to wholeheartedly endorse the industry’s latest hot trends.”  Encouraging, but are we really OK with this kind of ‘realism’ being a surprising exception?

Part of the problem, I think, is in the structure of the week itself. Advertising Week is run with a core that is, in effect, an academic conference. But advertising isn’t academia—nor should it be. And the academic model doesn’t translate well into the business world. Why would it? In academia, putting your best ideas out into the world is the endgame. You get rewarded for it. But in the business world, it often seems that your rewards will be greatest if you keep your best tricks up your sleeve – so that you can sell them to clients as that special something that sets you apart from your competitors. And the competition is getting incredibly fierce.

It’s no wonder that so many people – very smart people for the most part – give a quick glossy self-promotion spiel where they say just enough to keep everyone’s respect, but not enough to give anything away.

An honest discussion would be scary – we wouldn’t know where it would lead – it could be humiliating – we might have to admit we aren’t well liked – and it would be risky – someone might steal, and sell, our ideas.

But if we want to gain respectability as an industry, we – like brands – have to  have conversations not just with our coworkers, not just with brands and publishers and technology companies, but with the people who have no investment in the advertising business, nothing to gain – because these are the people who will keep us honest. And whose attention makes us a living. The people who consume what we make.

Trying to run Advertising Week like an academic conference is like trying to achieve respect, authority and authenticity – there’s that buzzword again – by putting on someone else’s clothes.

Imagine you took a non industry person to an advertising panel. Imagine that afterwards, you asked them what they thought. My guess? They’d say something like—c’mon, really?

Because for them the more pressing issue probably isn’t about Twitter or programmatic upfronts, or even big data – it’s probably something more like this –“why the $#%! is this shitty ad interrupting my show?”

For my part the most valuable thing I got out of Advertising Week was not at advertising week at all – it was in an article I read in the New York times that mentioned a little side note made by Marriott International’s Brian King, who, in discussing a campaign microsite that solicited consumer opinions, found the following:

“Many suggestions are related to improving how room key cards work, Mr. King said, laughing. “I can’t tell you how many complaints I get about that.” 

It reminded me that while we are busy obsessing over where the industry is going and what the hottest new ad-serving technology might be, the consumer is out there thinking—yeah, ok, but have you fixed the damn keycards yet?

A vast number of people continue to be annoyed and irritated by advertising. If you don’t believe me, check Adblocker. They claim to have 200 million downloads of their online ad avoidance technology.

Are these people trying to tell us something? Are we too busy talking to ourselves to listen?

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