We need to dislike advertising as much as consumers do

—Adland has lazily assumed that what we do is valuable to consumers, says Shaun McIlrath. But 90% of the time they would actually pay to avoid it—

For years I’ve been haunted by a weird question: why do some goldfish jump out of their bowls? The answer, apparently, is because they think the world’s full of water.

Or, to apply this to our lives: why do some people leave advertising? Because they’re so inured to their own privilege, they believe the world is full of highly paid, status-enhancing jobs where you get to have and (occasionally) make ideas.

So when I leapt from the bowl at the start of summer, I did not do so lightly.

In my mind my absence was to be only temporary. But as the days rolled by, like a mournful ex, I became fixated by another question: Had I left advertising, or had it left me?

Because in my 30 years in the business what we do has never seemed less important. Except for a few glorious exceptions, advertising no longer felt like the fabled builder of factories and jobs. The original meme machine. Rather it was beginning to feel slight—like candy floss at the business fair—but why?

Obviously the mechanics of the industry have changed and must continue to change. I’d long been a noisy proponent of that. But why had the spirit changed? What happened to the soul?

The view from outside the bubble

It took just eight weeks out for the rose tint to fade.

“People hate advertising, they fucking truly and actually hate it… And this is all the agencies’ and advertisers’ fault.” Joanna Coles, former content chief at Hearst, said this a while back. And she wasn’t wrong.

Outside the bubble, this is how most people feel about advertising today. And, like politics, they believe they have permission to hate it because of what they see as its constant, crass attempts to manipulate them.

Another quote, this time from Scott Galloway, clinical professor of marketing at the New York University Stern School of Business: “If you’re watching a lot of advertising today, it means your life hasn’t worked out. The majority of people who are tech literate or moderately wealthy can avoid 80-90% of advertising now.”

Ouch. And that ain’t getting better any time soon. So, what’s the answer? Well, here’s a proposition.

What about an ad agency run by people who hate advertising as much as consumers do?

And I don’t mean the “bean counters”. I mean us.

AI is creating an opportunity

I’m not saying we should despise our craft, simply that we’re being given a rare opportunity to purge the generic, box-ticking corporate crap that paid the bills, but poisoned our industry. AI is one learning cycle away from churning that out, better, faster and cheaper. It provides no value to consumers, clients or now, agencies.

But this is not just about better ads. We need to refocus our core skills to create better, more valuable ways for our clients to engage consumers. Because, as I’ve said before on these pages… Today what you are speaks louder than what you say.

Our job today is to help brands not just to speak, but to behave more creatively.

How? Well, if you start with the KPIs, the budget and an enshrined belief that your audience hates advertising, you’re already one step closer to creating something (even an ad) that might genuinely engage people or be valuable to them.

You’re also getting closer to real creativity. Because in our world, it’s worth reiterating, nothing is creative unless it creates value. And value comes in many different forms. Rational (a great deal), utility (a great service), emotional (a great piece of entertainment) or social (a great act) etc.

Adland once understood the value exchange.

Creating value for your customer creates value for your brand. And, in today’s hyper-connected world, value travels like never before—people tell each other about it—so, crucially, it travels without a media budget.

Therefore the ideal of modern marketing should be to create something valuable enough that your market will do your marketing for you.

And the test of a “great” creative idea—be it a CX innovation, a service initiative, a retail promotion, a CRM execution or even a film—should be how far will it travel before you have to put media money behind it?

Because if no one is sharing it, it probably isn’t of any real value.

Value is the key. To everything.

We have lazily assumed that what we do is valuable to consumers, when 90% of the time they’d actually pay to avoid it.

But an industry that evolves to create new value for consumers and brands in amazing and ingenious ways, well that might even be worth jumping back in the bowl for.

Shaun McIlrath is former global chief creative officer at Iris. This column originally appeared at Campaign US.