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Reading between the Lions: the effects of user mentality on the digital ad landscape

Digital Man

Earlier this month, Facebook made a new play in the fraught game of data-driven advertising with the launch of a tweak to its custom audiences feature, allowing clients to serve “interest-based” ads to users who have visited their sites or downloaded their apps.

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Amazon and others have been in this space for a while, but Facebook, as we know, has a knack for getting personal. So, should you decide to make moules marinière for your fiancée with the aid of a recipe app, watch out for that special on his-and-hers garlic crushers in your newsfeed. Handy? Disturbing?

Well, finding the sweet spot in the creepiness-to-relevance ratio of targeted advertising was always going to take some doing, especially now that the PRISM scandal has put the wind up users when it comes to how their data is tracked, and by whom. But there’s another question raised by the data discourse – one close to the hearts of creatives, and perhaps particularly the old guard – that warrants some airing. That question is, whither the message? As put by the estimable Rance Crain, in response to the Publicis/Omnicom merger (and more to the point, the vaunted merger of their data resources): “even if their combined numbers-crunching ability allows them to keep tabs on where consumers are heading, I don’t hear anything about how to motivate them to buy.”

“The medium is not the message — the message is the message, and I haven’t heard anything about how an artful and appealing story is an important ingredient in getting consumers to part with their money,” Crain worries.

The absence of this argument from the digital debate is telling. Perhaps we haven’t heard anything about how important a good story is to data-driven advertising because it isn’t. The hard truth, learned the hard way, is that the online audience has extremely little patience for advertising. Users engage with content in a very different way from yesteryear’s couch-based passive consumers. Online, every content choice involves an active allocation of time and attention (and in emerging markets like South Africa, bandwidth). To stand a chance of earning a click-through in this environment, you need to make sure your message takes up minimal amounts of these precious resources. Unfortunately, time and attention are rather central to the communication of artful and appealing stories.

If we are to assume, with Crain, that the tail is wagging the dog on digital platforms, and that brands still need to live within compelling stories to attract and keep customers, then the real question isn’t “why aren’t we hearing about them?” but “where do they belong?” In the age of the 125-character Google text ad, where is our opportunity to connect emotionally? And, as creatives, to do work of merit?

Funnily enough, it’s greater than ever.

And not just because it’s an age that begs for playfully to-the-point advertising like Droga5’s recent campaign for Newcastle Brown Ale, although I’m all for it.

Nor because we can now blend our craft with data science, so meeting rigorous new heights of ROI measurement, though some argue that this is precisely where the creative opportunity lies. I am happy for you if you find this exciting. I don’t.

The thing I am excited about – and the challenge that the digital age has put to us, whether we like it or not — is that while today’s consumer has no patience for message, they will get on board with your brand in a powerful way if your campaign creates value. Not the product or service it is selling, mind. The campaign itself. In an overcrowded media world, the only story that bears any weight with the audience is a story that enhances life, rather than interrupting it.

Trendwatchers still said it best, back in 2010: serving is the new selling. If an advertising platform were an aeroplane, your message needs to be the cute air hostess offering the moist towels, not the overweight guy in the aisle seat who talks incessantly and then asks if he can eat your crackers.

Though this is still most true of digital channels, where attention is at a higher premium, the effect is filtering through to every platform.

Witness the prevalence of work with a social slant at Cannes: Nike’s Find Your Greatness; Help Remedies’ bandages, IBM’s billboard furniture, Coke’s stunning Small World Machines — in radically different ways, all of these campaigns (some of which can hardly be confined by the term anymore) rise to the challenge of creating value. And although a strong message made them shine, they all turned on something else: concrete, quantifiable benefit.

Refreshingly, the audience isn’t necessarily in it for the quid-pro-quo. As long as you are adding value to somebody’s life, somewhere, they will get behind your idea. And so, it appears, will the judges. If you’re still wondering what’s to become of artful and appealing brand stories, look no further. These campaigns amply demonstrate that our audience will tell them for us.

Our market is holding our work to challenging new KPI’s that are going to make better artists of us all, and radically broaden the scope of what we get to do. The message has a place in the equation. But in this future, the way to reach the user, and ultimately her buying power, is through a story that does good, rather than one that merely is good.

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