Paul Bainsfair: how to safeguard advertising’s future

IPA director General Paul Bainsfair on why the collateral damage of left-brain thinking will damage advertising’s long-term health and how advertisers and agencies must safeguard the future as we head into 2020

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In Paul Feldwick’s entertaining and informative book on the history of modern advertising The Anatomy of Humbug he recounts that in the last century just about every doctrine to do with how advertising works has been dismissed by the next generation. This is not a bad thing in itself, after all progress is good, isn’t it? Well yes, up to a point but as Feldwick explains, the problem lies not in dismissing things that no longer seem to work but in dismissing everything and starting all over.

Our evidence shows that we are making this mistake again. The golden age of advertising technology is proving to be far from a golden age for advertising creativity. Does this matter? If technology gets results isn’t everything else academic? In fact, analysis of the IPA Databank shows that during this period of technological innovation, advertising effectiveness has actually fallen (The Crisis in Creativity: Field IPA). Short termism, specialisation and narrowness of focus are on the rise. Advertising styles are emerging that are diametrically opposed to effectiveness.

What can be done about this? How can we maximise the advantages of the digital age? During this year’s IPA EffWeek, we brought together the collective intelligence of thought leaders across our industry. One of the week’s highlights was the publication of an important thesis in the form of a new IPA book; Lemon by Orlando Wood of System 1 Group.

Wood argues that an attentional shift has occurred in business and society. That we are going through a change in thinking style, a drive for a new literalness that has dangerous consequences for advertising effectiveness. That we are losing the habit of building a connection with our audience through unexpected and often emotional advertising that the public likes and talks about.

When I think ahead and ask what the new year might bring it is this issue which concerns me the most. To my mind this new trend towards more “left-brain” advertising is not only weakening the effectiveness of what we do but is dangerous to the long-term health of the industry. Collateral damage includes a dilution of the perceived value of advertising but also a fuelling of the notion that it can be commoditised and easily taken in-house.

But I am also optimistic, I believe that this trend throws up opportunities for smart agencies to reclaim the high ground by re-thinking our application of the digital age. Recognising the need to fuse the best of the old with the best of the new. Let’s not let our world be reduced to dreary science. Let us hammer home the message that advertising that entertains leads to commercial gain.

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