Advertising after messaging

12 July 2011 at 9:19 am 4 comments

Alex Steer writes: Chances are, if you work anywhere in marketing or media, you’ll have read something like this at some point over the last two years.

The advent of social media has changed the communications landscape forever. The old rules of advertising – in which brands pushed marketing messages out to consumers – no longer apply. Consumers, empowered by social media, are savvier and more demanding, looking for authentic brand experiences, not just messaging. To thrive in the age of social commerce, you need to provide dynamic opportunities for consumers to connect and co-create with your brand.

OK, I made this example up, but could easily have been pasted together from scores of white papers, blog posts and conference presentations. It’s the kind of rhetoric that makes us feel we can see the future, and that the future is nothing like the past.

Just one problem. It’s wrong.

Like a lot of wrong ideas, it’s a patchwork of truths. I’d like to pull out three of those truths here, then throw in one more obvious truth, to show that they create a different future environment for advertising from the received wisdom above.

The first truth is that good advertising is inductive. It presents a join-the-dots of images and information, but it leaves you to draw the conclusion, and make your own lasting association between product, advertisement and brand. That inductive spark is what draws people into good advertising – it’s why ‘Just do it’ (do what?) is a better slogan than ‘Nike products improve your sports performance’; why Apple chose ‘Think Different’ (about what?) rather than ‘Computers with an unusual operating system’. Good marketing involved engagement and co-creation long before it could be interactive.

The second truth is that digital media channels are taking the burden off advertising. It’s easy now to raise an eyebrow at old ads, crammed with product information and claims. But digital channels provide opportunities to connect with people at more points in the purchase cycle, from early consideration (websites, apps) to after-sales support (Twitter, instant messaging). In a ‘just-in-time’ information environment, less shouting is required.

The third truth, as Andrew Curry noted in his piece on the future of advertising, is that consumers are better interpreters of media messaging now. But this is a long-term product of the old media, not just the new. Sheer volume of exposure makes us both less attentive to individual messages, and more critical of them when we do notice them. Some long-term shifts in social values and attitudes to power and authority are also driving this.

I promised the fourth truth would be obvious, and it is. We may all know that markets are conversations, but this is often quoted as if all it said was ‘markets are not diatribes’. But conversations are purposeful as well as interactive. So the fourth truth is that, in a media environment with more noise and fragmented attention, it is more important for marketers to get to the point.

This fourth truth casts doubt on the idea that advertising’s role now is just to represent a brand’s values entertainingly in an ongoing dialogue with consumers. It suggests, instead, a future in which advertising messages need to be more surgical and more rewarding of attention – delivering that engaging, inductive payload to the right people, in the right channels, and just in time.

This is a moment of change. The power of media participation is in the hands of a public impatient with propaganda and noise. But the alternative to noise can be signal as well as silence. Advertising needs to step up, not give up.


The picture at the top is courtesy of Coker College, and is used with thanks.

Entry filed under: advertising, digital.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • […] Alex Steer’s great post on The Futures Company blog about the future of advertising can be used to establish a clear set of deliverables that define what advertising now has to do. […]

  • […] post on ‘advertising after messaging’ is on the Futures Company blog at the moment. It’s not perfect, but the gist is that a lot of […]

  • 3. jjbads  |  17 November 2011 at 7:06 pm

    Thank you for standing up for advertising. I was beginning to feel like a dinosaur. Excellent post!

  • 4. Bad theory in advertising | Alex Steer  |  29 April 2012 at 8:28 pm

    […] post on ‘advertising after messaging’ is on the Futures Company blog at the moment. It’s not perfect, but the gist is that a lot of […]


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The Futures Company was created through the merger of Henley Centre HeadlightVision and Yankelovich in 2008. This is the blog of the new company - but the former posts from the former Henley Centre Headlightvision blog still can be found here.

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