Advertising in the Post-Advertising Era

As usual, we’ve been thinking about advertising, and about its future.  To help us grapple with the days ahead, we’ve read two very interesting pieces this week. One  is from a book called Frenemies by longtime media journalist Ken Auletta who has written “Annals of Communication” for the New Yorker since 1992.  Auletta’s book is about the disruption of the ad business by all the new technologies that have affected it during the past two decades. His thesis is that advertising won’t go away, because it is necessary for consumers to get information about products and services, and subscriptions can’t reach all of the people who need to know. Auletta reminds us that both Clinton and Obama agree that consumers are strapped, having not gotten wage increases in over a decade.

Thus advertising, he contends, is still necessary to feed the free or nearly free content that we all want to see.

 In a non-state-dominated economy, advertising is the bridge between seller and buyer. It would seem an obvious statement, but I’ve found it bears repeating. And that bridge is teetering, jolted by consumers annoyed by intrusive ads yet dependent on them for “free” or subsidized media. In this sense, consumers are frenemies.

Because he begins from this premise, Auletta can spend most of his book talking about what’s happening to the agency business. He calls frenemies the brands who are taking their work in house, the consulting firms like Deloitte that now run their own digital agencies, tech firms that buy and sell media, and the usual competitors who now have to deal with each other because few brands have a single “agency of record” anymore. He can also focus on some of the colorful characters in today’s agency world like Martin Sorrell and Gary Vaynerchuk.

On the other hand, media marketing guy Andre Redelinghuys takes a far more pessimistic view of the future of advertising, because he believes the need for advertising is dependent on a need for distribution that can be met in ways not possible previously.

Terms like ‘Disneyflix’ and ‘Apple Prime’ essentially describe how the most powerful global brand owners are coming to terms with the new rules of engagement. This is not just another story of new versus old, it’s a fundamental shift in the natural order of consumerism. Brands have traditionally been prized, while distribution has been more commoditized. The ‘must have’ things held the power. But if the pipes into people’s lives have become more powerful than the products that go through them, then we’re in the beginning of a new era. and the change is just beginning.

In his view, “pipes” into the home, car or phone now have all the power, and consumers no longer value brands — they value convenience. Ordering household goods from Alexa is one of his big examples. as is using a Nespresso machine and ordering whatever pods fit the machine rather than choosing a coffee brand.

Brands have always fought for a place in consumers’ hearts, and then relied on their loyalty for repeat business. Pipes are structural relationships that don’t rely on such fickle factors. They are built on more vertically integrated distribution channels and behave more like utilities — a way into people’s homes and lives attached to an account.

Amazon is the ultimate pipe. Their entire value is that they bring things to you — the things can change as necessary: movies, pickles, sneakers. They own the interface, the invisible moving parts, and the household. They understand your preferences intimately and have become arbiters of choice in many homes.

I’d argue here that Amazon is also a brand, in the same way Facebook is a pipe, and that the “convenience” of pipes is constantly being weighed against the sacrifice of privacy we make for the convenience. Thus, Facebook lost some brand equity through Cambridge Analytica, and who knows what inevitable mishap can befall Amazon, whose personal assistant already send private conversations to one family’s contacts.

I’d also argue that while things have changed, we are still feeling our way around the post-advertising world.