Not as Advertised: Moving Beyond Traditional Definitions

In my first advertising class, my professor told us that advertising was: “A paid form of communication with the objective of selling a good or service.” Advertising would therefore be the profession that plans, designs, and writes advertisements. However, so much of advertising these days does not even involve these traditional definitions.

Here’s why:

1. Most advertising agencies are now big data warehouses filled with just as many programmers as account people.

Agencies are waking up to the fact that data is now a determinant of whether an agency lives or dies. As such, they mirror software development companies as much as agencies.  It’s no coincidence that the primary conversation about the Publicis-Omnicom merger has revolved around data. People in ad land wonder whether a merger gives the two ginormous networks the ability to compete with the likes of Google.

2. PR and advertising are increasingly falling under the same roof.

Even a few years ago, it used to be that advertising and PR were separate things. They still are to a degree, but the rise of social media and other forms of multi-way communication has signaled that the two industries will inevitably collide. It’s not unusual to see advertising firms doing PR and vice versa. That’s why buyouts like that of  Allen & Gerritsen’s of Neiman Group make perfect sense. And that’s why articles like the 10 Differences Between Advertising and Public Relations will soon lose relevance.

3. Advertising is a parity industry–agencies need to secure business, not be a slave to definition.

There’s a reason that most agencies have slightly different terms for the same job. Agencies call my internship position anything from human insights to account planning, because they are looking for ways to differentiate themselves. At PJA Advertising + Marketing, I asked my supervisor , Hugh Kennedy, EVP of Planning, about whether the agency at one time focused more on B2C. He said, to paraphrase, that the agency started with a large variety of clients but moved towards a B2B specialization. Through capitalizing on this specialization, PJA was able to grow from a 15 person shop to the present day 63 person shop. In order to survive and thrive agencies need to find something they excel at. The agency that finds a real niche is the one that will last.

Although a catvertising department might not work, John St. projects their unique, humorous culture through this promotional video.

Is Bigger Really Better?

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The Publicis-Omnicom merger is the talk of ad land right now. Agencies big and small are discussing the ramifications of the merger of the two giants. Some ad mavens say this majorly changes the advertising game and others say that it’s all smoke and mirrors. Questions about agency size are rampant: Is bigger really better? What does the merger mean for smaller agencies? Are smaller agencies doomed to fail?

On one side we have the argument that a larger network enables agencies to provide high quality services; on the other side, we have the argument that smaller shops are more nimble, innovative, and flat out produce better results. Wieden of Wieden+Kennedy fame even went on record recently  to assert that small is beautiful.

It’s really difficult to objectively say which argument prevails. I can, however, objectively measure the creative results of agencies through publications like Communication Arts. I decided to do just that using the 2012 list of winners. The results? 66 percent  of awards were from agencies that were part of a large network. 34 percent were from smaller agencies that were not part of a large network and that had under 200 employees.

Now, this makes it seem like large networks have ‘won,’ but we also have to take into account certain discrepancies.  Firstly, large networks bring in billions of dollars of revenue. Surely, larger agencies are producing more work, therefore giving them more of a chance to receive awards. Secondly, we also have to account for all the offices within a network that operate like creative boutiques or idea incubators (I.E. Google Creative Lab).

When you decide to include smaller agencies that are part of a larger network, the results are absolutely stunning. More than half of all awards in Communication Arts end up coming from small agencies.  That’s not even taking into account agencies like Wieden+Kennedy, a large agency that tries to think like a smaller agency. Proving that, at least when it comes to creative, it doesn’t hurt to ‘Think small.’

The Era of Emotional Advertising is Upon Us

I absolutely adore advertising. I wouldn’t be writing this blog if I didn’t. But ask me a few months ago if I thought that advertising was a form of true art, and I would’ve said no.

You see, to me, art in its highest form is transcendence from the material. It’s the closest one can get to connecting the desires and emotional state of the inside mind with the outside world.  Advertising is created with the express purpose of selling a product or service–materialism–therefore it leaves little room to be defined as art the way I think of it.

However, I feel that the past year has reiterated a sort of transcendence for advertising in and of itself.  Is advertising’s end goal still to sell stuff? Of course, but companies have increasingly been willing to use advertising as a vehicle that speaks to the human condition. And a year of emotionally driven  advertising has reminded me that advertising can indeed be a form of high art.

All this emotional advertising seems to have started a little over a year ago with “Halftime in America“, a commercial for Chrysler by Wieden + Kennedy. The commercial aired during the Super Bowl and spoke directly to a country that, like Chrysler, was down and out. Beautifully written and executed, “Halftime in America”  silenced rooms across the country. Afterwards, other emotionally charged ads  like “Farmer” for Dodge RAM and “Thank You Mom” for P&G appeared.

These ads prove that companies are waking up to the fact that it pays to brand human. Playing to emotions creates brand advocates and it’s good for the bottom line. People don’t want to open their wallet for a giant mega corporation richer than a country, they want to open their wallet to someone that gets them on the most basic level.

4 Recent Ads that Will Make You Cry (With Joy)

1. “Nana” for Cheerios by Saatchi & Saatchi NY

2. “A Letter to Mom” for Famous Footwear by Y&R

3. “The Animal Family” for Skype by Pereira & O’Dell

4.  “Made for Mankind” for Acura by Mullen

Can Advertising Change the World?

One of the biggest criticisms of advertising is that it sells people things that they don’t need. This type of criticism paints the ad person as just a schmuck for hire that will sell anything without regards to ethics. It points to historical cases of duplicitous advertising and marketing: P.T. Barnum gets crowds to line up to see the head of a monkey crudely sewn onto the body of a fish;  Lydia E. Pinkham inserts a non-existent sign under the Brooklyn Bridge;  Listerine invents the nonscientific term halitosis in order to sell mouthwash; De Beers convinces us that a “diamond is forever,” ensuring that diamonds don’t flood the market and lose their value. The list goes on and on.

Now, I’m not here to argue that any of the above cases are ethical or that present day advertising is consistently ethical. Rather, I argue that advertising reflects the times. Change happens on a societal level and advertising slowly comes to reflect that change. Ads have always reflected society’s ideal vision–for good or for bad.

The modern day ideal American family isn’t just Anglo-Saxon–it’s all shades, all genders, all theologies– and advertising is slowly starting to reflect that. For example, in the advertising of the 1950’s, the only place where you would see a wife was in the kitchen. Today, as women take their rightful place as power players in the economy, it’s not uncommon to see a women on TV in business attire.

With all that in mind: Do I think advertising can change the world for better? You’d be surprised to know that I think that it absolutely can. It’s not going to create radical change, but it’s a powerful vehicle that can accelerate change at certain points in history.

Some very recent examples of advertising being used for good:

1. A record 55% of Americans now support gay marriage. Unfortunately, mainstream advertising still seems to consider showing a gay couple as controversial and political–gay people  are almost non-existent in ads. However, Amazon was brave enough to release an ad that includes a married man that happens to be gay.

2.

One thing that really warmed my heart after the Boston Marathon tragedy was how Hill Holliday created The One Fund in seven hours. The bombing had barely happened and the folks of Hill Holliday were able to pull together the resolve to create  a unified fund for the victims of the bombing.

3. The Dove “Campaign for Real Beauty” displays the negative results of America’s unhealthy perception of an ideal woman. It a vanguard of sorts in representing America’s changing ideals.