Rise and fall of the ad man: How digital technology has changed advertising

Business is booming thanks to big bucks digital budgets, but has the crowded modern landscape robbed advertising of its old glitz?

by Jack Torrance
Last Updated: 20 Aug 2020
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Illustration by Jamie Sneddon

Leafing through the earliest editions of MT from back in the 60s, a reader will find some big differences in the adverts compared to today. While now in these pages you're more likely to find ads for cloud computing and consultants, in the 60s MT's readers were urged to splash out on assorted bits of telephony (the fax machine was taking workplaces by storm), office furniture and even cigarettes.

The tone is different too. It's hard to imagine today's arty creatives coming up with a rallying cry as ruthlessly functional as, 'Mobil can make your fleet operation more profitable,' except perhaps in an ironic way. And, with the exception of the odd secretary or short-skirted air hostess, the models were distinctly male and pale.

VW's Lemon campaign in the 60s with the tagline, ‘We pluck the lemons, you get the plums’

Few people who were in the advertising business back then still are today, but one of them is MT's very own Jeremy Bullmore. He began back in 1954 as a copywriter at J Walter Thompson and still sits on its parent company WPP's advisory board. They were very different times, he concedes.

'In those days marketing departments weren't nearly as common in client companies as they are now, nor as big,' he says when we meet at WPP's unassuming offices in Mayfair, no more than two minutes around the corner from JWT's old offices. 'A full-service agency such as JWT would probably do the marketing and sales plans for a client as well as the ads. Our chief point of contact with one client, who shall remain nameless, had been promoted to the job of advertising director from his job looking after the stationery.'

Bullmore joined JWT months after the passing of the Television Act, which made possible the launch of ITV, Britain's first commercial TV network. 'One of the reasons I was taken on was because they thought I knew something about television, which was totally untrue,' he says. 'I was there just about a year before television started, but we needed a year to get ourselves together to know how to deal with it.'

TV went on to transform the business, playing host to the nostalgic ads that everyone can still recall - from the Smash Martians of the 70s to Guinness's captivating Surfers in the 90s. It's not hard to imagine how excited ad execs would have been about being able to pipe sound and moving images directly into people's living rooms.

The Smash Martians ads in the 70s used the catchy slogan ‘For Mash Get Smash’

Today the advertising world is undergoing a similar shift as agencies and marketing departments get to grips with digital media. Last year, Britain became the first country in the world where spending on digital ads exceeded that spent on all other forms of advertising put together, according to research by eMarketer. The always-on, fast-paced nature of the internet has forced agencies to up their game.

'Communication used to be in two or three media, on four or five channels, broadcast or print advertising talking at people,' says Cilla Snowball, group chairman and group CEO of AMV BBDO, Britain's biggest ad agency by billings (up 8.4% to £511m last year). 'Whereas before we'd probably be making three TV ads per year, and some press ads and radio ads and posters, now we're developing hundreds of pieces of content 24/7 around the clock.'

1999 Guinness Surfer ad

The relationship between agencies and clients used to be a lot more linear, says Richard Pinder, the former COO of advertising giant Publicis Worldwide and now CEO, UK & International of Crispin Porter + Bogusky. 'Now it runs more like a PR or political campaign. If you have a read of what the market's thinking today, it will probably change by tomorrow. So if you have an idea you better move pretty quick.'

Advertising agencies have long been an attractive destination for graduates with creative minds and commercial nous but now they face tougher competition in the war for talent. 'It's less glamorous - the opportunity to do interesting stuff isn't impossible but is possibly harder than it once was,' says Phil Rumbol, founding partner at ad agency 101. 'And we're competing with the likes of Google, Facebook, that are big corporations but also creatively minded and hugely entrepreneurial.'

The rise of digital has also accelerated the 'fragmentation' of media consumption. 'Once upon a time you could advertise on The Morecambe and Wise Show and talk to 60% of the country,' says easyJet's marketing boss Peter Duffy. In 2016, plenty of people still watch prime-time TV, but plenty more will spend their evening scrolling through Instagram, watching Netflix or reading zany listicles on BuzzFeed.

1985 Levi's 501 Launderette ad with Nick Kamen

That's made making your brand a national talking point if not harder, then certainly a lot more complicated than it used to be.

Pinder says that he was inspired to get into the ad game partly by the now legendary Levi's ad campaign created by John Hegarty in the 80s. The most famous of these featured a hunky, dark stranger (played by Nick Kamen, as those of a certain age will recall) stripping off to the tune of Marvin Gaye's 'I Heard it Through the Grapevine' so he could stonewash his 501s in the launderette. The ad that sticks in Pinder's mind, though, depicted in glorious detail the process that goes into producing the rivets that hold Levi's jeans together - from the copper mine to the clothes factory.

'It was an extraordinary way to communicate; I'd never seen anything like it before,' he says. But nowadays a single ad is unlikely to have such an effect. 'I think it would be rare that you'll go to a movie now at the cinema and come away with your breath taken away with how different a piece of advertising was.' It's thought the average consumer is exposed to as many as 5,000 corporate messages per day. As a result, he says, 'I don't think advertising is anything like as impactful as it used to be for one TV ad.'

There is still the odd exception, though, the most obvious being John Lewis's teary Christmas adverts, which have replaced Coca-Cola's 'Holidays are Coming' as the annual reminder that 25 December is just around the corner. Another success story from (relatively) recent years is Cadbury's 2007 ad featuring a gorilla thrashing the drums along with Phil Collins' 'In the Air Tonight'.

'It's scientifically proven that chocolate makes you feel good because it releases various chemicals in the brain,' says Rumbol, who commissioned the ad in his past role as Cadbury's marketing boss - he was the last to hold the position before the fateful takeover by Kraft in 2010. 'What we wanted to do was connect the Cadbury brand to that feel-good factor - but rather than tell them, we wanted people to feel it in the moment.'

These two campaigns have a few things in common. They're not overly preoccupied with selling a product. They play on a viewer's emotions. And they've succeeded because of the internet, not in spite of it. 'The Gorilla ad was designed as a viral film,' says Rumbol. 'YouTube was just over a year old in the UK, but we were deliberately thinking about how we could create something that would be shared (on it).' It has since racked up more than six million views. John Lewis's most recent Christmas outing, Man on the Moon, has more than 24 million - the kind of exposure most marketing directors wouldn't dream of. And they are free.

Although basic online advertising in the form of 'display' ads has been around for more than two decades now, there are so many other ways that the internet can be used to get an ad in front of someone's face - from Facebook and Twitter to promotional emails and sponsored search engine results - and display ads themselves have got smarter too. The majority of online display ad spending now goes on so-called programmatic ads, which purportedly make the sales process more efficient by automating the buying of ads and allow them to be targeted at consumers with specific interests.

But there are signs that people are growing tired of these intrusions on their media consumption. AdBlock Plus, an iPhone app that prevents adverts from being displayed on users' internet browsers, has been downloaded 300 million times. Some publishers like the financial newspaper City AM have fought back with their own technology to stop users with ad blockers from reading their content (the site has suffered cyber attacks as a result), but the ultimate solution is likely to be less confrontational.

'We can't just figure out a way to block an ad blocker and think we've solved the issue,' says Nigel Gilbert, VP of strategic development EMEA for AppNexus, a programmatic advertising platform.

The response from many in the trade - and now also from public intellectuals like Umair Haque - is that ads need to be better, for the sake of both advertisers and publishers. 'We need to recognise that people have an off button,' says Snowball. 'Compelling content will keep people in and intrusive bombardment will force them out.'

John Lewis's Monty the Penguin 2014 Christmas ad

Rumbol says that ad blocking is part of a wider, growing antipathy: 'I think it will become a very big problem, not just in its current guise but the notion of more empowered viewers and users being less tolerant of intrusion. Unless brand owners and agencies like us up their game, we will be spewing out a load of content that will just be blocked or fast forwarded. The days of interruption marketing are dwindling rapidly.'

In response to that challenge, advertisers are looking to go 'native', creating promotional content that nestles inconspicuously among traditional media in a bid to capture the viewer's attention. When done well, social media marketing is a good example of this. Facebook accrued almost $18bn of revenue last year, mostly through advertising.

'[Facebook] ads have to be just as relevant, personal and interesting as the content people see from friends and family,' says Nicola Mendelsohn, the tech giant's VP of Europe, the Middle East and Africa. 'Whether it's a beautiful image or a 360 video, we're constantly asking our partners to ensure they are rooting their creative in an understanding of how people genuinely express themselves on the platform.'

Publishers are getting in on the action too. 'Advertorials' (adverts that look and read like an article) are nothing new, but now media owners are operating as 'mini ad agencies', creating campaigns for clients that fit with their own tone and audience - and theoretically eating into agencies' share of the pie in the process. New media brands like BuzzFeed and Vice have focused heavily on this but so have more traditional publishers like Times owner News UK, which created its own 'strategic content agency' Method that helps advertisers '(tell) the stories that help you stand out'.

Today's marketing directors have more ways than ever to communicate with consumers, but there's a risk of spreading yourself too thin. 'The amount of choice can sometimes be bamboozling,' admits easyJet's Duffy. 'You have to focus on the commercial return you get from them.'

Marketers are under pressure to demonstrate they are spending budgets wisely so there's little wonder they are demanding proof of return on investment on their advertising in a way that would have been entirely alien back in the swinging 60s. 'We have a basic rule that if we can't measure it, we don't do it,' says Duffy.

Agencies and ad tech networks like AppNexus have obliged and today's advertisers have access to a dazzling array of metrics, from click-through rates to dwell time, Facebook 'likes' and engagement stats. 'We need to make it easy for the brands and advertisers we work with by showing them that every pound, dollar and euro they're spending with us is giving them the best return on investment,' says Mendelsohn.

Advertisers' relentless desire to better measure the impact of what they are doing is best illustrated by the ubiquity of the phrase, 'I know half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half', which has been attributed to several different industrialists over the years.

Illustration by Jamie Sneddon

It's a credo that Jeremy Bullmore takes exception to. 'It sums up that unease that there is something about advertising that you can't measure,' he says. 'Advertising has got that slightly mystical half-art, half-science thing that gets people who are utterly ruled by the need for metrics thoroughly unnerved, and you can see why.

'If you take a couple of meerkats,' he adds, referring to the hit Compare the Market campaign, 'How do you know they're worth spending 10 million quid on?'

There's a danger that by focusing too much on the short term, advertisers lose sight of an important long-term goal of advertising - building a brand that people care about. Agencies and ad tech companies counter that by pointing out you can also measure signs of a brand's strength over the long term.

But can you really put a numerical value on the way people feel? 'I think there's a gap growing up between mainstream traditional media, which continues to be good at brand nourishment, for want of a better word, and the way that online is being used, which is mainly for a quick fix,' says Bullmore.

In an age when people often demand immediate results, companies need to be careful they don't sacrifice powerful, beautiful, thought-provoking branding on the altar of click-through rates. At least if they want to carry on creating brands that will still be around in another 50 years' time.

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