Andrew Essex challenges the current digital advertising construct and predicts its inevitable destruction in his book, The End of Advertising – Why It Had to Die, and the Creative Resurrection to Come. But as the title suggests, while Essex believes the current model cannot hold, he’s also hopeful that creativity will eventually return advertising to its contextual and informational roots.
Virtually everyone who uses digital advertising should read this book and would do well to take Essex’s advice.
Essex had an epiphany when he installed an ad-blocker on the advice of his teen-age son: an advertising-free world with uninterrupted content would be a great thing. Not too remarkable for those of us who roil against mindless digital advertising but actually quite something for a self-professed “ad guy.” Essex was not just any advertising Mad Man but the former CEO and vice-chairman of the Droga5, one of the most admired advertising agencies in the world. He started his career as a writer and editor in the magazine business, so he has experienced both the buy and sell sides of advertising.
Much of my personal success in money management came from the content that I developed to educate and inform people on very complicated investment subjects. I went “native” many years ago in 1996, when the Internet first developed and I taught myself to program in HTML. It was amazing to me that ideas and content could be shared easily on a global basis through the bits and bites of Internet Protocol. Sadly, the promise of the brave new Internet world was diverted into the click bait of the Facebook and Google surveillance and advertising networks. Google’s altruistic “Don’t Be Evil” motto trans-mutated very quickly into “Make Us Fabulously Rich” as the company descended into algorithmic “targeting.” The lure of Facebook’s social network created a programmatic netherworld where digital stalking is celebrated as “innovation” and the best computing minds in the world focus on getting “targets” to click on ads.
Essex’s book is a funeral dirge for advertising. He recognizes that traditional advertising only existed because target audiences had no other choice than to consume it along with the content they sought. He particularly despises the development of annoying programmatic clutter. He rails against the ineffectiveness of traditional media advertising but saves his outrage for digital, which he believes is worse than useless:
“How amusing: Digital ad technology, once thought to be the future of the (advertising) industry, turned out to be its mortician… But the not-so-dirty little secret is that online advertising general effectiveness, not to mention its value to society, hasn’t improved much at all, and quite possibly has gotten much, much worse. It may be digital, but junk mail is still junk mail.”
Essex admits to being an “irritable author” and has a tendency to rant like a convert to a new religion. He makes many good points, especially that content and advertising have always slept in separate bedrooms in their unhappy traditional publishing marriage:
“Back at the magazine, this duality was palpably reflected in the final product. There was the content that my colleagues and I put together, the stuff our subscribers paid to see. And then there were the ads, those secondary snacks that somebody else had inserted willy-nilly into our pages…”
The upshot of Essex’s ad-blocker epiphany is that intrusive ads are net negative to the advertiser, no matter how well “targeted.” “Pre-roll” video on YouTube offends and irritates the viewer, which does not benefit the advertiser. The consumers might be aware of your product but they hate your guts. As he points out, billions are wasted on ineffective digital advertising but no one gets fired for advertising on Facebook. Some of us old folks also remember that nobody got fired for “buying IBM” at its peak so things can change quickly for a business model.
The digital stalkers who creep the dark corners of the programmatic “stacks” should recognize the limits of their privacy-depriving efforts to perfect targeting. If the citizenry does not take kindly to NSA surveillance, they are not likely to be big on being watched by the Big Bro Brothers of Silicon Valley. Facebook is certainly seeing this downside from its Cambridge Analytica data sharing scandal.
According to Essex, the death of the current digital advertising construct, hastened by ad-blockers and pure subscriber content on the likes of Netflix and Spotify, will lead to a rebirth of advertising. His brave new advertising world sees creativity and utility replacing annoyance and interruption. If you can get past Essex’s preachy style, there is great advice for the digital advertiser in this sermon from the advertising mount. Without stealing Essex’s closing thunder, he biblically wraps up with “Ten Principles for Better Advertising.” These emphasize that telling interesting stories, avoiding intrusiveness and providing useful content and context are key.
Nobody presently gets fired for advertising with Facebook or Google, but they get little value for their money and probably end up hurting their brands in the end.
I highly recommend Essex’s book as an essential read for advertisers wondering how their digital dollars are being spent or indeed wasted.