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Advertising Technology: Back to the Future of the Present

Advertising technology has reinvented marketing communications practice, but many SMEs haven’t changed with the times. This is inherently dangerous…


I was looking through some old boxes that had been hanging around my storage shed for donkey’s years today. In the process, I came across a copy of an article I wrote for Campaign Brief Magazine in 2003 on the future of advertising creativity. For the sake of posterity, I have included the article in full below. I include it here in my blog as an illustration of how quickly things can change.


Advertising’s evolution isn’t going to exclude the creative department.

 Advertising agencies worldwide are reinventing themselves to deal with a plethora of challenges and threats to our industry. Yet, to the naked eye, the creative department has remained largely immune to change. How much longer can the status quo survive?

 Our industry has always lived and died by our inventiveness. Advertising took off and thrived when Bill Bernbach and the marketers of his generation made their work more creative. And if advertising is to remain innovative, creatives must again come to the fore and help reinvent our industry. But first, I believe we may have to reinvent ourselves.

The advertising landscape seems to be growing more mountains than molehills nowadays. Media is fragmenting rapidly and consumers are often getting harder to reach because of it. Retail market power is shifting from manufacturers to retailers. Advertising environments are becoming more cluttered. Consumers are becoming better educated and more cynical. Competing interests are eating into Advertising’s income base. And new technologies like TIVO are making it easier for consumers to avoid our messages. (By the way, how long do you think it will take for the TIVO concept to be applied to other broadcast media eg. digital radio? …Just a thought.) Every one of these forces impacts on advertising practice, and agencies everywhere are racing to keep up. One agency department that doesn’t seem to be changing terribly much though is the creative department. Why is this?

Perhaps it’s due to the specialised nature of our expertise. As creatives, we can tend to look at other agencies, other cultures or other clients in an effort to be more inventive. But it’s less often that we look to further education to sharpen our skills and more importantly – broaden our knowledge base. Frankly, I think this belittles us. I believe that as creatives, we need to bring more to the businesses table in future than just our creative acumen. Certainly our core competencies of writing, art direction, design and production are crucial – the need for these skills is not about to disappear. But if advertising is to hold onto its mantle as an invaluable innovator and marketing’s custodian of lateral thinking, it must diversify its skill-sets or risk being marginalised by emerging industries. This goes for advertising creatives too.

As an example, a few years ago at a PADC award ceremony, I spent a large part of the evening at the student tables, chatting with the next generation of marketing’s creative professionals. Nearly half of the people at that table were IT students. We weren’t just discussing ideas, layouts, headlines and creativity – we were also talking about convergence in electronic media and debating the need to learn HTML mark-up syntax in the presence of WYSIWYG software suites. What the hell would IT students do with advertising skills you ask? Think about it – With interactive TV looming in the distance, broadband access on the rise and future communications being increasingly technology-dependent – were these young kids our future creatives, or our future competitors? Draw your own conclusions.

Now many would say that we don’t have to worry about all this techno-babble rubbish. We need to know how to use technology and more importantly move people with it. And they are perfectly right.  Our job is to communicate product benefits in moving ways. My argument is that pursuing further education in areas complimentary to but outside of advertising is a great way to achieve this. Advertising agencies are being asked to solve bigger and more complex problems than ever in order to do their job. In this kind of environment, having multiple skill-sets is a wonderful way to enable paradigm shifts. Look at the Wright Brothers They weren’t aeronautical engineers – they made bicycles for a living. Instead of concentrating on increasing an aircraft’s lift, they focussed on making them balance. And bingo – airsickness here we come!

In the past, Advertising agencies have always been good at buying expertise they don’t possess through strategic alliances with other suppliers, or by forming and staffing internal divisions. This may buy creatives some time in terms of surviving with our current skill-sets and existing roles in the marketing process. But ultimately the nature of our job is going to change, and if we don’t plan for career longevity now, we may be living on borrowed time. I’m not advocating for a second that creatives should radically reinvent their roles overnight, or (heaven forbid) become left-brained or technologically-led in our thinking. It’s vital we keep our impartiality, media neutrality and right-brained inventiveness intact – that is after all, why we’re here. But we do we need to develop our skills beyond the current demands of our industry in order to meet the future ones – and this doesn’t appear to be happening in anything approaching an organised way.

One final thought. One of the central tenets of evolutionary theory is that in a rapidly changing environment, overly specialised species die out while generalist species thrive. If that’s true, given the ongoing changes we’re seeing in media fragmentation, media consumption, market demographics, contemporary marketing practice, information technology, national / political / economic allegiances and international consumerism in general – now is not the time to be a one-trick pony.


That awards dinner I mentioned above was in 2001. At that time:

Facebook didn’t exist,
Myspace didn’t exist,
Blogging didn’t exist in the mainstream – the term was only invented in 1999
Twitter didn’t exist,
Gmail, Adwords, SEO, Android, iPhones, iPads, Tablet computers, netbooks, IPTV,  Wifi, Wimax, The NBN, Google+ and mobile apps all didn’t exist,
– Social networking meant schmoozing,
Alta Vista was the world’s largest search engine
and Google – the world’s largest brand – was a small private company that no one had heard of.

Considering the tidal wave of technologically-driven change that has engulfed communications worldwide over this period, and the even bigger tidal waves of change that are yet to come, let me ask you this:

1: How many of your current communications practices still date back to a time when none of the above technologies were at your disposal?

2: Of all the technologies above, which one stands to make the most impact on your business over the next 10 years?

Food for thought…