Giles Keeble: most ads have always been dire, digital means they’re dire in different ways

I was talking to a friend recently who told me he had met Sir Martin Sorrell at a gathering and told him that WPP was selling stuff that nobody liked – ads. I’ve been looking for clear data on this but have only found general comments. Yes, last year TV advertising was static and isn’t forecast to grow by much; and yes, internet and digital ads have grown, mobile especially. There is data that some people skip ads more than others, including the pre-rolls on YouTube; and that the technology for catch-up and playback give plenty of opportunity to fast forward through or even skip the ads.

One reason for the comment to Sorrell seemed to be the incessantly repeated ads for gambling on sports channels, which I have written about before. (There are two issues here: the repetition and wear-out, and the ethics of advertising something that can lead to addiction.) I did say to my friend that it has ever been thus: the vast majority of ads have always been dire by most measures. What is new is the fragmentation of channels and the effect that has had: TV audiences for particular shows have dwindled; the argument about the effectiveness, let alone the creativity, of ads on digital channels continues; good print ads seem to be rare; and radio, while holding its own as a medium, has always been a creative challenge (though it never needs to be).

I doubt that people who say advertising makes us buy things we don’t need actually want to get rid of advertising itself, even if they aren’t aware of the economic arguments. They would like to get rid of ads they don’t like, just like the many of us in advertising who have fought over the years for engaging and memorable work. It is perhaps harder to do this today for a number of reasons. I think one is that digital channels – the nature of the channels and the way they are measured- has led to a kind of ‘direct response’ advertising, or a recognition that there is so little time to grab attention it is hard to tell a story. Of course, while TV advertising spend may be a bit flat, film as an advertising medium is far from dead, and ‘content’ of one kind or another can be targeted more accurately to those who might be predisposed to the category and brand. As Howard Gossage once wrote: “People read what interests them. Sometimes it’s an ad.” But the cost of a campaign means we are seeing the same ads again and again, and there are few ads that really bear constant re-viewing. Make your own list.


On the subject of dire work, January Sales ads don’t do us any favours. I understand these are simply message or directional ads, but do they have to be so boring or strident? The DFS ads which have used Nick Park’s animation from ‘Early Man’ is a welcome exception (below). The other category that seems to be in need of an MOT and new tyres, at the very least, is car advertising. The exceptions- at least that I have noticed- are VW’s films supporting independent cinema. Yes, they take one product point (as many manufacturers do – SatNav! WiFi!), and build a dramatic story round it. They make a change from a sound track, quick cuts, and beautiful people in various situations.

I return to a hobby horse – the role of the ads – and to Stephen King’s ‘Scale of Immediacy.’ Many internet ads assume a direct response model: if you are in the market then you might click – in the past you’d cut out the coupon or phone the number. But that is just one way ads might work. If you don’t agree about what the ads are trying to achieve, in order to affect sales positively along the line, how can you approve them, and how can you measure the effectiveness? What will be the measure of success? There was an interesting programme on BBC radio recently about the business model of comparison websites which made it clear what the role of the ads is and why. Use the algorithms, but don’t forget to think too. Don’t be afraid of the power of the right questions: why? why not? what if?

Happy New Year.

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