It’s a good time for media agencies to be human again

—Advertising is about telling people what to think and do, while media agencies listen to what people want. Now’s a good time to be a good listener, says David Jowett—

For the past decade or so, probably even longer, the media industry has been hurtling inexorably towards a “short-termism,” data-driven abyss.

The internet, endless data, increasingly sophisticated analytics, and a mostly unchecked obsession with short-term metrics have been a force for good in many ways, but they have also alienated us from the most basic element of what makes media thinking powerful: making human connections.

The COVID crisis, as horrifying as it is, has unexpectedly helped shake us—in the smallest way, and for a moment at least—out of this self-destructive plunge. It has slowed us all down. Made us pause to reconsider what we do, and why we do it. It has mercifully made us stop and really listen to people, not as customers or consumers or abstract data points, but as people—actual human beings.

Here at my agency, we have been reminded that humans trust some things more than others, and that includes media environments. Over the past six months, we have seen a significant change in the way people are engaging with advertising on platforms they trust, such as Refinery29, versus distrusted, paid influencer-based communications.

People also have more time at the moment. This has resulted in some startling consumption rates of longer-form content, showing yet again that humans are yearning for emotional engagement.

This “listening” quality has long been the function of the media agency world. Ad agencies often rush to tell customers what they should think about a brand, whereas media agencies spend time understanding what consumers want to engage with. We are the listeners.

Yes, Google, Amazon and Facebook data and algorithms provide rich insight, but these are one-dimensional in many ways and should be complementary data used to help sharpen thinking and focus execution. But it should never totally replace broader, holistic, thoroughly researched insights and experience that make the stories come alive. After all, if you ask each of the three tech giants where to spend money, each will tell you to spend 100% of it with them. Are they all right?

Strategically, media is about knowing the customer and what they are passionate about, and using that understanding to increase the impact of creative storytelling—to amplify the connection and to locate the human emotion so that the story can achieve its full potential.

There are many flaws in the internet—the scale of the fraud is mind-blowing—but perhaps the greatest damage the internet and all its platforms have done is to make us forget one of the fundamental lessons that was once the bedrock of our business: building brands that have some meaning in people’s lives is what builds businesses.

If you stop meaning something to people, you stop being a business. Les Binet and Peter Field (and many others) have an enormous volume of research about brand versus short-term marketing, and media environments are no different. And let’s not forget that the tech giants spend a huge amount of money in brand-building environments.

We will always use media to drive short-term, response-based actions, but if you fail to also understand the human element and how to use media to connect in trusted, motivating and inspiring media environments, you will lose. This is especially true during the time of COVID.

Advertising has mostly been about telling people something, and data has been a way of telling one person at a time what they should do. But in this current environment, we need to stop telling and start listening.

This is a good time for media agencies to take the lead. To listen, to empathize and to take the time to truly understand. To be generous and big-minded.

And to be human again.

David Jowett is a partner and head of media at Toronto agency No Fixed Address.

David Jowett