The End Of Advertising As We Know It—And What To Do Now

AKQA’s Rei Inamoto argues that the thing we call advertising is over and offers four guidelines for moving into the next era, when 365-day connection, people-focused stories, and business invention will be key.

"How are we supposed to judge a creative idea versus a product idea?"

This was a question that surfaced during one of the many long judging sessions last week in the South of France where I got to preside over the Mobile category, one of the 16 categories at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.

It caused quite a stir in the jury room. Some strongly argued that creative ideas and product ideas should not be in the same category, while others countered that real users don’t necessarily differentiate the two. Whether it’s a campaign or a product, brands are vying for people’s time. Another juror posed a slightly more existential question: Why would we assume campaign ideas are creative and product ideas are not?

This question about campaigns versus products was raised simply and partially out of confusion. However, it was also out of underlying—and perhaps unacknowledged—fear and insecurity. Do brands now have to compete against not only other brands but also companies outside of their immediate industry? And do agencies have to compete not only against other agencies but also companies that make products and services?

Yes and Yes.

Kodak filed for bankruptcy while Instagram was bought by Facebook for $1 billion. Airbnb is now filling more nights than Hilton Hotels. Nike+ Kinect Training [created by AKQA] is now "as good as a real trainer, costs less than a one hour’s lesson, and it’s 24/7 at home," as Chris Anderson put it.

The reality is this: Business ideas from the least expected players and angles will disrupt your brand faster than advertising can save it.

A couple of years after the world’s biggest advertising award show ditched the word advertising, we’ve reached an inflection point: Advertising as we know it has come to an end.

Now what?

Here are a few principles that can guide the shift from the Old World Order to the New World Order.

1. From Integrated To Connected

"Integrated" has been the holy grail of advertising for a long time. It also has been the most coveted category at Cannes.

However, the lack of excitement was rather noticeable in the Integrated category this year. Even for its Grand Prix winner—while I completely acknowledge how massively viral it was and totally respect the work—integration was relatively simplistic and seemed like an afterthought.

By far the most talked about brand marketing activity of the last 12 months was Red Bull Stratos (which wasn’t entered into Cannes Lions—lucky for many winners this year, because it would have absolutely cleaned up at the festival).

It had no TV or print or outdoor media—the usual suspects of the Old World. It wouldn’t have qualified for the Integrated category. Yet Red Bull demonstrated what the brand stands for, reached the world over, and gained awareness more brilliantly than any other integrated campaigns as of late. It did so by masterfully leveraging connections it had made with the audience. And of course, it had the most audacious idea to go with it: Having balls of steel is a real edge.

In addition, connected means something beyond the surface. With more and more devices, products, and services becoming perpetually connected, brands can connect the dots in an intelligent way in order to serve the needs of the user. The aforementioned Nike+ Kinect is as much about turning your living room into a gym as about connecting you to Nike’s service ecology wherever and whoever you are. Whether through your Fuelband on the go, Nike+ Kinect at home, or even future Nike+ products, Nike can seamlessly connect your activities.

In the new world, it’s about how well connected you are with the audience and how well you connect the audience themselves.

2. From Brand Story To People Story

Beginning with the Bible many centuries ago, brands oftentimes came up with stories to distribute, to "build a brand." However, In the age of radical transparency and hyperinformed users, people are now more aware of inauthenticity than we have ever been.

A common trait underneath some of the strongest work, such as "The Real Beauty Sketches" for Dove, "Find Your Greatness" for Nike, and "Paralympics 2012" is that they are not necessarily "brand stories." They are reflections of "people stories."

Also another trend that is emerging is the rise of "purpose-driven" work—whether for a corporate brand or a charity organization. "Why wait until it’s too late?" for Dela, a funeral-insurance company in Amsterdam, "Immortal Fans" for Sport Club Recife in Brazil, as well as many other cases were not only reflecting real stories from people but also had a purpose larger than just selling something.

If you choose to tell stories as a brand, don’t make it about you. Make it about the real people. Use the power of your brand and reach to reflect the truth.

3. From 360 To 365

Many of us in this industry have been trained to think up Big Ideas that can be "360"—360 degrees of communication.

In the old world, 360 worked relatively well for a long time. In the world gone digital, however, the effectiveness of most media outlets has become so small and people’s attention span so short that trying to surround the user with 360 degrees of communication can be a wasteful exercise.

The scale of an idea should no longer be measured by the size of the surface or the number of media channels it can cover. It should instead be measured by its longevity, ambition, and the impact it could have on society.

"TXTBKS" is possibly the smallest in size yet the biggest in scale and potential. Smart Communications, a telecommunications company in the Philippines decided to repurpose old SIM cards by saving textbook data onto them and distributing them to children in need of education. This shockingly simple idea is what I call a 365 idea—one that can create 365 days of connection between a brand and people—even through a single device in people’s pockets.

4. From Media Disruption To Business Invention

The business of advertising has for many years relied on media disruption as its business model.

The formula has been to find an insight, come up with a story, a theme, or the Big Idea as we so lovingly call it, and multiply that by media channels. Grossly oversimplified, of course, but many have followed this model to create media disruption, believing that they would build brands or solve problems.

Truth be told, though, it may have been more about hiding the problem than solving it.

For instance, a retailer may opt to run a campaign to build awareness or even a sales promotion. The real problem is the high cost of their business itself and the structure around it. Enter Everlane, a digital luxury clothing design manufacturing company that drastically reduces its product costs by completely cutting out the middlemen. Instead of hiding the problem, they invented a business that solves it.

Another example is "Awake by Amazon," a concept by one of AKQA’s Future Lions winners this year. It’s a digital service idea that benefits the user, the brand, and contributes to society.

Creativity and innovation are about finding unexpected solutions to obvious problems or finding obvious solutions to unexpected problems. We should use our creativity to provide better businesses and solutions rather than constantly trying to disrupt what people are doing.

Campaigns or products, if they are not worthy of people’s time, will end up polluting the world—literally and metaphorically. As we forge ahead into the post-digital, all-mobile era, 360 degrees of integrated campaigns to tell brand stories via media disruption may no longer be as effective—and quite frankly, as necessary—as we thought.

Brands should aim to solve real problems by providing connected services over 365 days and by inventing new businesses that benefit people, not just the brand.

Rei Inamoto is chief creative officer at AKQA.
Read his previous thoughts on the evolution of marketing here:

"Madison Avenue’s Identity Crisis (And Why Silicon Valley Still Needs To Learn From The Ad Industry)"
"Why Ad Agencies Should Act More Like Tech Startups"

[Static Footage Courtesy of RecRoom | Flickr users Steve Snodgrass, Angie Muldowney, Thomas Leth-Olsen, Dominic Cleal]

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  • Newmedia_newarse

    The tragedy here ( and as been so for years) is that consumers are idiots - sucked in by these empty, shallow and boring straplines...where do you want to go today? Make. Believe...

    What a load of self important bollocks...and as for the people sitting around tables dressed in black drinking coffee to look cool who come up with this drivel....


  • Alberto Cottica

    How about "5. Give up and go home"?

    Arguably advertising has outlived its usefulness as conveyor of information about products. Read the Cluetrain Manifesto one more time ("Don't even try"), then walk away.

  • Chris Kelly

    Being a wide eyed dreamer on the creative side of things, I'm a firm believer that businesses are SUPPOSED to benefit people by their very definition. I do understand that theres money to be made that doesnt fall into this definition  but why on earth would we want to be involved in any of that!

  • Jim McNamara

    I am constantly amazed at advertising campaigns that, to me, at least, miss the mark.  Television is a great marketing tool for those who can afford it, but I see too many ads that are obviously not aimed at this 71 year-old retiree.

    To illustrate what I mean, I offer the following:

    - A current ad for a Lexus that raves about leather seats, bluetooth capability and Serius.  Is here something inherently wrong with the car that they don't talk about it?

    - Almost any ad for Coors beer products in which we are told about how refreshing the beer is and how the can tells us when it is cold enough to drink.   I keep beer in a specific refrigerator so it remains cold enough to enjoy, but not so cold it disguises the flavor.  At the ideal temperature, Coors still has very little beer flavor and the label does not turn blue. 

    When I smoked, I didn't choose Marlboro despite knowing one of the models used in the Marlboro Man campaign.  When I buy a car, it's not with an eye to the gadgets, but with attention to that model's reputation for quality and longevity.  When I buy beer, I don't always buy the same one because in the last 25 years, American beers have matured and there are many choices that I never see advertised that prove to have glorious flavor.   

  • Mike Wilson

    I've worked for AKQA. All they do is make banner ads that nobody clicks on, dumb campaign websites nobody uses, and stupid "branded" apps that nobody will ever download. Oh and Nike+ was pioneered by RGA, not AKQA---you guys just rode on their backs. Sorry Rei, you are no different from all the other ad guys. The ones who make TV spots have delusions of being famous storytellers in Hollywood. The ones who work in digital have delusions of being start-up pioneers in silicon valley. The fact is, its all still advertising. If your ideas were so great you would be creating the next Facebook, not trying to convince people to buy whatever brand of toilet paper. The revolution you speak of has been talked about for over a decade now, and nothing has changed since then. Your cliched words have been spoken ad nauseum by the "this is dead" and "that is dead" crowd, who are always looking forward yet never seem to learn the lessons from the past. You are no different from the guy who said public transportation is dead back when the car was introduced in the early 1900s. Your the same guy who said Hollywood is dead when TV came out in the 1940s. You are the same guy who said brick-and-mortar stores are dead back in 1997 when you bought something off Amazon. You are the same guy who said TV is dead in 2007 when Youtube rose to prominence. News flash: All of these things still exist and are thriving. Advertising is not dead, it is changing. Please stop insulting our intelligence with your desperate advertisements for your agency (which is now the Ogilvy of the digital world--archaic, bloated, and lame). 

  • BrendaKilgour

    what a load of self-important navel gazing.  Advertising is not dead," it just takes on new forms.  And as far as the Kodak vs. Instagram comparison goes, all that proves is Mr. Barnum's maxim about the frequency of suckers being born.  Kodak generated hundreds of billions of dollars of enterprise value over its history, and continues to do so.  What value has Instagram provided to Facebook other than PR?  Please, stop being so painfully näive.

  • FellowHQ

    So media disruption is fading? Excellent. We're growing up. Remember that youthful attitude - we need to make this music/plan this demo to shake people up? We don't need shaking up, life shakes us up all the time. We need to talk, to be reassured, to share, but we need these things differently as we get older - we don't need or want to be permanently connected and we certainly don't want to be disrupted all the time, it's just juvenile and irritating, not edgy or so this afternoon. 
    I'm heartened by this new trend, if that's what it is, maybe the industry is growing up, just as so many of its audience are growing up and older.

  • Mike Brandt

    "The reality is this: Business ideas from the least expected players and angles will disrupt your brand faster than advertising can save it."
    I agree with Rei. Seems like ad agencies have to get into Business Invention.  

  • Ignasi Giró Reig

    Can't agree more! Find innovative and different ways to add value to people, that's the best way you can use your creativity for :)

  • Boydist

    Here's something you didn't know:

    "The Edmonds Cookery Book is the quintessential guide to traditional New Zealand cuisine. It was first published as The Sure to Rise Cookery Book in 1908 as a marketing tool by a manufacturer of baking powder, but it is now known as a Kiwi icon."

    So a baking powder company making a free cookbook as part of a marketing tool in 1908 that became an indispensable item.

    Seems like this whole 'interactive, engagement' idea was dreamed up by a bunch of self aggrandising digitnuts in the last ten years after all. 

  • SloganMedia

    We at Slogan Media have been calling this phenomenon the birth of the "Oscar-winning commercial" where high-quality, A-list, artful movies are completely underwritten by brands and show only on their websites.   We think consumers will come if corporations show a real love for the art first, and their enjoyment - and work in their branding message in a way serves this primary objective.  Track this conversation over the weeks and years to come as we set out to convince a brand to make our movies that happen to sell, at SloganMedia.Net.

  • Manuel Camino

    Even when I agree with many of what is said here, I see a tendency from digital agencies to think first on the "media" rather than the "idea" or the "consumer".

    Assuming all ideas are better because they are digital ideas that connect us with consumers 365 is something I would disagree, as this has something to be with the nature of your consumer, in the first place.

    In Vietnam, where I worked for Saatchi and Publicis, lots of your target consumers are rarely connected, specially those from around 45+, and you need to step back, invest time in getting to know when and how are they exposed to any connection and then work on it.

    And this is the case of millions of people in emerging countries, like China, South Asia, Africa or South America.

    I don't believe innovation = digital (not saying you are saying this), but I worked in both digital, including AKQA, and more traditional agencies and my conclusion is that innovation can only come from the idea, never from the media, digital or not. And this is why I think agencies should just be "advertising agencies", instead of "digital" or "traditional" agencies. When an agency is calling itself "digital" or "traditional" is putting the media before the idea.

    You can make a very cool app that is just a copy of another already created, and you are doing something digital, and maybe you are now 365 connected, but you didn't do anything new.

    I prefer to talk about innovative ideas, rather than BIG, digital or non digital ones. And even those innovative ideas can be useless in markets that aren't ready for it.

    I hope the digital/non digital discussion is ended soon and we talk purely about ideas again. Let's assume it, the world of advertising has changed, the channels are now different, and now we have digital channels that are tools for us to get to the consumer. But let's not forget that those are not always and "no matter what" the media to reach to everybody and being always connected with people (emotional and with the media) may be more effective with a new corporate message (like Just Do It, back then) rather than a Nike app, as a start.

    So for me, its all in the consumer and in this sense I fully agree with the idea of being always connected with them, with what matters to them, so that emotionally and rationally we can reach them.

    Consumers and ideas is basically what matters for me the most and assuming that all the markets are the same everywhere and applying the same advertising (or post advertising) principles is not right, in my opinion. Because we can't use the same formulas in Tokyo or NY than in Ho Chi Minh or Kumasi. And these are places that have a great potential for brands, as they are emerging and growing while lots of countries in the connected side of the world are now in crisis, including mine, Spain.

    Thanks a lot for your article Rei, very interesting.

    Manuel Camino

  • Ellie K

    Same for me. Manuel AND Dilshard are correct. The current focus on technology has obscured truths about human behavior. The examples given by Manuel in describing 45+ years of age individuals in southeast Asia are applicable to slightly over half of the population of the U.S.A. too: Females. 

    Shopping and purchasing decisions are recreational, social; "Social",  not as in Twitter or Pinterest, though the latter has potential. Instead, "social" as in my mother visiting me, us sitting together at the kitchen table. She lays out ordered piles of paper coupons and specials, from Macy's, Penny's and supermarkets. I do too, though less so. We talk about brands and compare products (as consumers), mostly her telling me. Sometimes we trade coupons. My mother still accesses the internet using AOL, but she and my aunts have tremendous influence over my buying decisions. I talk to my friends, who are internet-savvy. If I preface a comment by saying that an older relative said a product was good or bad, it will have more influence. Somehow, this dynamic, which men and women who work in advertising have been aware of for decades, is now being overlooked.At the end of the article, Mr. Rei said:"We should use our creativity to provide better businesses and solutions rather than constantly trying to disrupt what people are doing."

    Yes, but you should do so in ways that match users needs. For example, I find skeuomorphic design to be tacky and distasteful on most websites. It DOES suit websites for purchasing clothes, shoes or listing coupons though!

  • Dilshard

    I agree with manuel. We have to stop been awed by new technology or new media, and start focusing on why they have come into being in the first place. Yes, it's a new era in advertising - in terms of opportunity and obstacles- and we do what we were suppose to do always ; solve problems.

    But thanks for the article Rei. It is quite insightful. 

  • Brun_ooo

    Why would we assume campaign ideas are creative and product ideas are not? I unfortunately wasn't in the room when this question was asked. I therefore can't say a whole lot to it's motive. The question reminds me of the discussion creatives had when interactive brand communicative endeavours broke in a traditional dominated advertising industry. The traditional ad world creatives VS the new, maybe exciting digital ad world creatives. 

    Do brands have to compete against not only other brands but also companies outside of their immediate industry? And so agencies have to compete not only against other agencies but also companies that make products and services? I disagree with the author on this one because first of all agency environments wouldn't stand a chance against product environments due to their perspectives, expertise and business understandings. Both environments have different motives that lead to sometimes similar but often different outcomes. Agencies have the sole purpose to generate profit whilst products aim to generate profit but don't necessarily do this for a long time. Yes, agencies sometimes don't generate profit right away when their dorm room office open and their two staff member team begin their work on a platform idea for an automotive client, they're pitching at & yeah, products don't try to become profitable right away after their production cycle comes to completion on the first round. A lot of StartUp's create to underline for instance a specific environmental, scientific, economic or everyday struggling situation and try to shift a perspective within the possibly difficult situation to a lighter, easier seeming one. It can be imagined, that the build, break, build break process that Sebastian Thrun agree's upon possibly even lead a StartUp to it's desired exit strategy whilst an agency would never be able to spend a client's budget on the breaking of an idea. Do that and the client will send the agency to hell with the leading executives out of the agency. Plus, within an agency you will always have the same kind of individuals working on different client situations. An environment like the one of a digital, new age agency will always have digital fuelled experts working in that environment. Will they offer a television commercial to a client in need of that or will they try to sell a digital, possibly more expensive idea to that client and convince him of digital leading effects attributes underlined with a kick of innovation? In product environments / StartUp's you've got a mix of people, with different understandings, different perspectives, different set's of skill set from entire different industries that have come together to work on one agreed upon vision. Good fight, good night I'd say but with absolutely no winner.

  • Eric Pomert

    Having worked many years as a tv commercial editor, I'm glad to see the next generation of advertising may be more connected to the reality of what people actually want instead of what they fear they can't do without.  So let's enjoy it while it lasts — community building is the emerging art form of the 21st century.  Could be a nice thing until the cycle returns to greed as it must. Can you hear the echos of the Beatles' "Come Together?"