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The Future Is Now: 4 Rules for the Post-Advertising Age

crystal ball with eye-illustrationWith abject apologies to the young Bob Dylan, nobody in adland needs a weatherman to know which way the wind blows these days. It blows toward great content.

Seriously? We’re gonna have another debate about the future of advertising? It’s a little late for that. But there’s still time, I think, for a heart-to-heart about how, and how quickly, we get there. 

Adland’s confusion about advertising’s future reminds me of America’s more consequential relationship to climate change: There’s general agreement about many of the facts (CO2 levels are rising), little understanding of the causes (It can’t be people. Could it be cow farts?), and zero ability to accept the logical consequences (Yes, sea levels are rising, so Miami will be underwater). The result: paralysis and ineffectiveness.

The ad biz version: We see the facts. (TV’s share of total media-watching time, for example, has contracted by 10.75 percent over the last five years, according to eMarketer). We even understand the causes. (More people are watching streaming TV without ads, and 47 percent of all media time is now spent on digital devices). But there’s precious little discussion in our business about the “whys” behind this mass behavior change, and there’s outright denial of the logical consequences.

Despite everything we know, the entire media industry keeps talking about “the future of advertising” as if it was, well… way off in the future, like a remote land we might visit one day. Our audiences — the folks we keep trying to reach (formerly known as consumers) — woke up in the “future” roughly eight years ago, when digital became social and changed media forever. Now audiences seamlessly consume (and create) media — TV, movies, music, books, news — across all kinds of devices. (Another fact: The New York Times says NBC just paid an eye-popping $7.5 billion to extend its rights to the Olympics because “more viewers consume media on their own schedules, often without commercials.” This puts the Olympics among a dwindling number of spectacles that keep audiences watching, and advertisers paying, in real time.) 

Rules to follow

For brands and agencies, it’s past time to face the consequences of what’s happening. Here are four rules for successful advertising now:

  1. Ads can’t interrupt anymore because people have too many choices and too much control over the media they consume. Consequently, ads have to change into content that actually deserves an audience — compelling, authentic stories that create real meaning and provide real value to a brand’s audiences.
  2. Brand stories have to be told on the audience’s schedule — 24/7, across all media, mostly on social channels or digital platforms owned by the brand.
  3. Brand stories have to be so good, so true, and so contagious that they compel audiences to share them.
  4. Brand stories have to unmistakably embody the brand and its unique core narrative, differentiating it from all others.

All sorts of agencies with all sorts of models are flooding into the newly created “content” and “storytelling” space. But precious few are displaying the vision or breadth of skills needed to take charge of advertising and keep it working for clients. Content marketing and editorial agencies lack brand knowledge. Traditional agencies lack both storytelling and digital knowledge. Digital agencies lack strategic knowledge and don’t understand content at all. What’s demanded is a hybrid that’s very tough to create: a completely integrated shop that understands editorial thinking and brand management so intrinsically that it can create strategically effective, branded narrative executions for TV, web, print, live events, Twitter — for any delivery format now known or ever to be invented.

For me (and for my agency, Story), the future clearly belongs to anyone who can put brilliant brand management, strategy, media planning, and storytelling into a single, integrated shop.

This will involve more than just a shift in approach, however. It will require a serious reorganization of how agencies and brand marketers operate. The starting point is banishing silos and killing the idea that channel specialists are useful. (No more “digital units” or “TV teams,” please.) The end game is integrating all disciplines — creative, planning, technology, production, accounts, and media planning and buying — into a single multidisciplinary, multichannel team. That’s the hardest part. But everyone knows it has to happen.

From there, the newly organized agency will have to dedicate its integrated organization to upholding the first commandment of future advertising (which has always been the first commandment of storytellers — the folks who create successful movies, books, photos, poems, and TV series):

You shall put the audience first!

Your brand and how it’s managed are critical; but your audience’s needs and desires need to be seen as even more critical, if you actually want that brand to connect with people. You’ve got to respect the audience. You’ve got to earn people’s attention. You can’t force anyone to listen to you anymore, so you’ve got to make media they actually want to see; media so good they want to share it with their friends, too. That’s the present and future of advertising.

There are a lot more demands, of course. Advertising in the future will be complicated because it not only has to have a great story to tell, it also has to be data-driven, technologically enabled, automatically distributed, targeted with pinpoint accuracy, constantly measured and optimized, and so on.

But without a great, unique, and authentic brand story to tell, none of that will get you far. That means we have to matter to the audience or we’ve lost before we’ve begun.

As I so often say, welcome to the post-advertising age.

This article originally appeared in the August 2014 issue of Chief Content Officer. Sign up to receive your free subscription to our bi-monthly magazine.