The pandemic provides an important reminder of how advertising can actually help society

—We in advertising are, whether we like it or not, the financiers of media, says Mo Dezyanian. And who can get by without the media?—

I picked up my girlfriend at her clinic. Her cheeks were wet but her eyes glowing. “My patient Annie and I just had a good cry together,” she told me. “I’m so happy she’s getting better.”

And it hit me hard. I was exhausted from a 60-hour work week where I had healed—wait for it—zero people. My career seemed so inconsequential!

That moment was many years ago. But as I write this, we’re quarantined with our two children in pandemic-land, and I find myself again reflecting on my career. I’m still not healing people, that’s for sure, but I do feel more fulfilled.

This pandemic has highlighted an interesting purpose for advertising. Take away advertising from the economy—as so many major advertisers have recently—and you’ll find a media industry in crisis. Whether we like it or not, we in advertising are the financiers of media. And who can get by without the media?

The marriage stress test

The deal was always simple: advertising financed media, at arm’s length. That still holds true today, despite the tremendous change in business models. But advertising’s marriage to the media, while a simple construct, has always been uncomfortable.

COVID-19 exposed a deep vulnerability in this marriage. For starters, the pandemic has called for a greater need for accurate, wide-reaching and timely information. All crises do. But none have simultaneously affected so many lives and livelihoods as this one.

With newsrooms buzzing around the globe, the media has become important and trusted again. Four media organizations recently made a top-10 most trusted brands in Canada list from the University of Victoria’s Gustavson School of Business. None made the list before the pandemic.

On the flip side, it’s no secret that brands have pulled advertising dollars from the market across the board. While not even tech giants have been immune to the revenue decline, national and local media have faced two additional threats:

  1. Subscriptions, an increasingly important source of revenue, have declined, as many organizations opened their paywalls around COVID-19 stories.
  2. Brand safety practices are making it difficult for publishers to monetize COVID-19 related news and content. Dr. Augustine Fou, an ad fraud investigator, recently wrote that “…virtually the ENTIRE lift in pageviews generated by virus-related coverage is unable to monetize via programmatic ads—due to keyword blocking by brand safety tech companies.”

For an industry already in crisis, the effects of the pandemic have been devastating.

An appetite for change

So here we advertisers sit, our gateway to consumers crumbling before our eyes. Still, while we are sitting, we have not been passive. The debate around advertising’s responsibility towards the media is complex, and it’s raging in every industry forum I tune into these days.

From the ICA’s media task force to the CMA’s discussion forums, I’m hearing leaders engage in discourse from a wide range of angles. That says to me there’s an appetite for change. It’s a good start. Now is definitely the time to redefine our relationship with the media.

Standards and ethics

We need to recognize that we are the financiers of information, and take that reality into account when we make investment decisions.

This goes beyond just changing our media strategy to support a tech platform or local pub­lisher. It means that now is the time for us to develop standards of ethics in how we invest every dollar, and hold each other accountable to those standards.

We need a code of conduct that empowers not just leaders but day-to-day decision-makers to ask the tough questions like: What percentage of our investment funds fraud, crime, hate speech, misinformation, and disinformation?

Such questions allow us to redirect those funds towards media backed by journalistic standards. And that shouldn’t be up to each company, it should be the industry standard. Many of you will have heard this rationalization before: “The cost of fraud is baked in the low price!” But that should not be acceptable in our industry. The only acceptable response to that is: “You shouldn’t fund fraud to start with!”

Every industry that directly affects people’s lives and livelihood and the fabrics of our society has ethics standards. Advertising shouldn’t be any different.

Training the next generation

Two decades into internet advertising, we have an entire generation of marketers whose careers started with the digital industry, some now in decision-making positions.

But digital advertising evolved so rapidly that the industry neglected to invest in holistic marketing training, leaving a gap that was quickly filled by big ad-tech companies with certificates skewed in favour of the tech solution they sell. “Complete our product how-to course and collect a marketing badge for your LinkedIn profile.”You know who I am speaking of.

Couple that with a low barrier to entry, stir in almost no regulation, and you end up with a flooded market ripe for bad behaviour.

It’s incumbent on us to train the next generation to think of the consumer as a complete individual, not just a potential click staring at a screen. At the same time, we must unlearn bad digital marketing habits, the most poisonous of which is the notion that there is such a thing as “digital marketing.”

We need to train marketers to evaluate all marketing channels on a level playing field—before sending two out of every three dollars to the advertising duopoly, as we currently do.

I can’t help but wonder how many decisions that caused this unbalanced scale have been truly strategic. It’s time to train marketers to think of marketing and advertising as a business discipline alongside finance and operations.

The silver lining of this pandemic is that I’m hearing these concerns raised far more now. That means my career might not be as inconsequential as I once thought it was. While I may be stuck at home, quarantined and masked, I am hopeful.

Mo Dezyanian is the president of Empathy Inc., a professor at Centennial College and has co-written the curriculum for the Chartered Marketer’s media course.

Photo: Gaspar Uhas on Unsplash