—As the cost-of-living surges and other challenges plague the consumer, is the ad world too inward-facing and obsessed with distractions like AI? Campaign asks if it’s time for an industry reality check—
By Matthew Keegan
Shortly after this year’s Cannes festival, the global planning community was having a spirited conversation on LinkedIn about the value of debating buzzwordy trends like AI.
They were doing so while drinking rosé on a yacht. Meanwhile, back in the “real world,” people everywhere were still worried about keeping their jobs and being able to provide the next meal for their families.
Alas, the claim that the advertising industry is in a “bubble,” and is far removed from the serious issues many consumers face is nothing new. But perhaps now, amid a cost-of-living crisis and widening inequality, the idea that the industry has lost touch with the reality of mainstream lives and become too preoccupied on projecting its own (elite) values and worldviews seems more pronounced.
“The industry isn’t in a bubble, it’s in a death spiral,” says Steve Walls, CSO at Colenso. “The advertising industry is obsessed with its own health. It’s looking for a magic bullet that will restore margins, prestige, and give it back a meaningful seat at the table.”
Walls believes that the industry is currently so consumed with its own health and survival that it tends not to look far beyond that question.
“So, whether it’s the Metaverse, NFTs or AI, the question that advertising agencies are asking is ‘Will this save us or kill us?'” says Walls. “The industry fears that each bullet it sees isn’t magic, that it’s just a bullet. One aimed at our heads, with the potential to finally kill us off.”
Out of touch
From its earliest days, advertising’s fundamental purpose has always been a commercial one: To build brands and move business. And, if fortunate, make a dent on popular culture along the way. But to sell well? Surely that requires understanding people and being in touch with their realities?
“To sell well, understanding people is fundamental,” says Gino Borromeo, BBDO Guerrero’s chief strategy officer. “We need to know how to appeal to people’s motivations and desires, because we can’t force people to buy a brand. Much less bore them into buying a brand. The least we can do is empathise with the people we sell too.”
And yet, some of this empathy seems a bit amiss at the moment. More than ever, the industry tends to define culture as the cool stuff happening at the edges of society, rather than the huge stuff sitting at the middle of it—i.e. inflation and all its related issues—that affects the majority.
“Edges are easier. That’s why people ignore the middle,” says Walls. But he is quick to add that it’s not the role of marketing or advertising to solve problems for the people we sell to.
“It’s not incumbent on an agency to solve the world’s problems, it’s incumbent on the companies we work for to have products that matter to people,” says Walls. “That said, if you haven’t met with the people you’re selling to, face-to-face, with no ‘moderator’ in the last two weeks, you’re not doing your job.”
Colleen Ryan, partner at TRA, argues that there’s a good reason the industry has a tendency to define culture as what’s different and leading at the edge.
“Showing people what they’ve already absorbed is not going to attract attention,” says Ryan. “We are hardwired to be alert to what is different and what is new, which is why advertisers quite rightly look to the edges. However, reframing the edges is often a way to authentically help people navigate their lives by offering a different perspective.”
Huiwen Tow, head of strategy at Virtue APAC, says there is even a business case for brands to reach for the fringe and tap into subcultures, rather than compete in the middle.
“Competing in the middle typically involves heavy media investment to reach as many people as possible, with the hope of converting the 0.01%, often with indistinctive, mediocre campaigns attempting to speak to everyone and therefore no one,” says Tow. “Conversely, reaching for the fringe involves speaking and connecting directly with the 0.01%, with the potential upside of them carrying the message and evangelising on behalf of brands, and often results in standout advertising that gains attention disproportionate to media investment.”
Is it more challenging to present the realities of a gloomy world to clients right now?
The common belief is that positive messaging generates more favourable responses in marketing. But there’s another school of thought that says our “negativity bias” makes negative information compelling and influential to us. So, what’s the right way forward?
“In challenging times, people want solutions, but distractions are also welcome,” says Stephanie Tyan, head of strategy, South East Asia, Media.Monks. “It’s a balancing act rooted in empathy. Making a positive impact on culture can take various forms—and not every brand needs to change the world on a grand scale.”
Tyan adds that one of the things she loves about the industry is that it has the power to address pressing issues while embracing the cool. “Cool stuff can also serve as a means to shine a light on real issues, and offer impactful solutions,” says Tyan.
Perhaps in gloomy times, people are looking for more distractions. It seems humour is back— “the era of the Joyconomy”, as Wunderman+Thompson predicted in Future 100 at the start of the year. Given the current climate, that says a lot.
“From what I’ve seen from our clients, they are well aware that the world is a tough place at the moment,” says Borromeo. “They do hesitate, however, to mirror this reality in the marketing work for their brands.”
Borromeo says there are several reasons behind this. “One is [our] clients’ belief that their consumers want a break and don’t want to be reminded that life is tough. A second reason is clients wanting their brands to be a positive voice instead of a voice adding to the gloom. Finally, there is also a fear that real talk from brands will trigger backlash, getting cancelled or worse, being boycotted by consumers.”
But it is not only the clients that are reacting this way. Consumers are also responding similarly to using pleasure to forget the pain.
“Entertainment and culture consumption globally has increased by 20% since 2020,” says Mimi Lu, head of strategy, dentsu Media APAC. “People are seeking diverse forms of escapism, through games, films, and concerts. We are only reacting to this shift and creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Emmanuel Sabbagh, chief strategy officer at TBWA\Asia, says that there’s a big misunderstanding around the word “culture,” in that it has become such a broad concept that it’s now used as a catch-all term to describe everything from the latest viral meme to a profound change in society.
“The main problem we face with some of our clients isn’t so much the tension between cool stuff versus real stuff, but rather between short-term versus long-term,” says Sabbagh.
“Culture is the result of two cycles: a short one that moves fast and is made of conversation and hype, and a long one that moves slowly but with great impact,” adds Sabbagh. “It’s our role to demonstrate how a cultural shift has the scale and longevity to propel a brand toward a greater share of the future.”
Speak to your audience
So, has the industry become too inward-looking? Is it so preoccupied with the latest buzzword trend that it’s forgetting to look outside and see what’s happening in the real world? Is an oversupply of data, technology, and analytical tools leading marketers to overlook the value of perhaps having a conversation with a real human being, rather than gleaning insights or stats from a report?
“We are obsessed with doing data analysis, reports, and dashboards to understand where the gaps are. We’ve forgotten the purpose of what they all enable,” says Lu. “We’ve forgotten to seek the answer to the simplest yet most powerful question: Why? After all, no AI will ever understand or tell you the motivations and irrational reasons why we all want to eat hot chips after swimming, or why ice-cream in the winter is better than in summer, and many others.”
Phoebe Keogh, strategy director at UM Australia, believes it’s vital that the industry does more to understand and empathize, to put ourselves in “non-industry shoes.”
“The reality is most marketers earn above the median income. They don’t work or live where most consumers are,” says Keogh. “We could and should do more to understand and empathize, to put ourselves in the shoes of the neighbour next door; the working mum with two children, the vision/hearing-impaired grandparent/father, the climate change advocate, the currently living-out-of-the-car/couch-surfing and there are no rentals available work colleague because they can’t afford to buy a place, as well as the above-average income family etc.”
“To connect with consumers, we [the wider comms industry] need to understand and identify with them as people first. Maybe we should go back to referencing audiences as named individuals, make it an actual person, because it should be.”
What needs to change for the advertising industry to be more in touch with the realities of the majority these days?
Media.Monks’ Tyan believes there are two radical changes the industry needs to undergo. First, a vital shift from the fight for attention, towards a fight for relevance.
“It’s time for us to focus on the ‘why’ rather than the ‘what’ or the ‘how’,” says Tyan. “And that’s both understanding the why for our audiences, but also the why for brands.”
Secondly, a more structural change will be DE&I. “It is the key to a wider range of perspectives and ideas. And the benefit of diverse inputs? Relatable, innovative and meaningful outputs.”
Others question whether the industry’s tendency to focus more on outputs, rather than inputs, is part of the problem.
“I often think of outputs as the Achilles’ heel of advertising,” says Angela Smith, chief brand officer of independent Sydney agency AFFINTIY. “When ideas are reduced to deliverables, we lose sight of the real goal.”
Sabbagh at TBWA believes better inputs make better outputs, and quality inputs require curiosity.
“We’ve forgotten the power of observation. We need to go beyond the reality of our screens and not be satisfied with ChatGPT’s answers,” says Sabbagh. “We need to go beyond the thousands of data we have access to. As a strategist, I believe in the power of ethnography.”
Finally, Ollie Latham, global planning director at VCCP, says that it all comes down to what the individual believes in.
“There are still some of us out there who truly believe that planning is an outside job, that we need to be grounded by truth in everything we do, and challenge clients to bring fresh and diverse insights outside the adland bubble,” says Latham. “Of course the industry is in a bubble. It always has been. It always will be. If we weren’t we would put all the researchers out of a job. Ultimately, success comes down to how hard we try to burst it.”
This story first appeared on Campaign Asia-Pacific.