Newish things that haven’t made advertising better, part 2: the internet

Has life improved since the arrival of the internet? Yes, no and maybe.

At first glance it appears that instantaneous access to most of the world’s information, art, music, film etc. has surely been a boon to our lives. As has the ability to instantly connect with anyone in the world at little or no financial cost. Then there’s the freedom we now have to set up businesses, and wider groups devoted to our hobbies and interests. We can crowdsource petitions, money and other kinds of support at a moment’s notice. And we can spread and update important news literally every second of every day.

And yet…

The above means people have their work stolen or used without permission all the time. It’s been well documented that the superficial connections of social media have actually driven many of us further away from each other, and entrenched us more firmly in the opinions we already hold. Businesses have been crushed by massive behemoths such as Amazon, and there are far fewer new companies and much less innovation than there used to be (name a world-changing invention from the last 5-10 years…). The news is clearly much easier to fake, and therefore harder to trust, leaving us unsure of what’s really happening and why.

Of course there’s far more to it than those two short films and paragraphs, but what about whether the internet has been good for advertising?

Let’s first consider the creative process and how it’s changed. (Pardon the generalisations I’m about to make; I’m going to take a broad midpoint for the purposes of illustration.)

In 1995 a creative team would work like this: a brief comes in and they chat about it, or chat about something else before getting back round to the job in hand. Or they go for a walk, or a drink, or a game of pool. Then they might flick through one of a few dozen books in their office, or see a film, or play a few directors’ reels. At some point during this process an idea would hopefully appear in one of their minds, and it would then be expressed to be assessed, rejected or improved by the other one. Then they would draw it up using pens and paper, or write a script, and present it to their boss, sometimes with reference material, but usually not. If successful, the sketches would then be presented to the account team so that they could get the gist of the concept and present it on to the client, who would then commission it to be made, or reject it for amendments/death. The team would then find a photographer/illustrator/director/typographer or other creative person to help them realise the idea, perhaps with a bit of reference, but not much. Then the ad would get made, usually without much scrutiny from the client, who would eventually see the final thing they paid for and, hopefully, like it enough to run it somewhere.

Now things are different: the brief arrives, and the team may well still do the ‘chat, drink, pool’ thing, but there’s a good chance that they’ll soon turn to the internet and its endless resource of ‘inspiration’. Everyone has their favourites, from the infinite rabbit holes of YouTube to the design-leaning sites such as It’s Nice That, or Creative Review, so the headphones go on, the fingers slide across the trackpad, and the silence and personal disconnection begins.

Eventually one of the team will tap the other on the shoulder. After the startled reaction, off come the headphones and the discussion of ideas begins. This culminates in one member of the team (the 2019 version of ‘art director’) putting together a layout that looks almost finished, using images from some favourite photo sites and a quick bit of typography, or the addition of a typed script. There might also be a ripomatic, or at least a link to some Vimeo reference. This will then be shown to the ACD/CD/GCD/ECD or CCO, who can judge it as something close to a finished piece, with far less space for interpretation or imagination. The client will then see it and take it literally as an ad intended to run, and ask why the lady has to have a green sweater. If approved it will then be given to the photographer/director/designer, who will then make a more polished version of something kind of like the layout.

Which is better? The 1995 people using only a small frame of external reference and a marker pen, or the 2019 people with every image ever created and the computing power of 1000 space shuttles?

Clearly the former. Forcing yourself to think, and make connections from the furthest reaches of your memory, will lead to places other people haven’t yet visited. I know this will also happen when you spend an afternoon on YouTube, but feeding your brain with that much ready made stuff makes it lazy. Showing people a thing like the thing you want limits the contribution they will believe they are allowed to make. Showing a client something that looks 90% like an ad reduces their expectations, and if the finished article isn’t a lot like that almost-perfect layout they’re more likely to be disappointed than when it doesn’t look a 1995 marker pen sketch.

But that’s just one aspect of how the internet has worsened advertising. Far bigger, and far more detrimental, has been the arrival, rise and current domination of digital advertising.

I remember back in the early/mid 2000s, when it seemed as if the digital landscape was going to become an endless vista of new ways in which to deliver messages. Agencies flocked to set up ‘offices’ in Second Life; BMW Films and Subservient Chicken showed us how free, expansive and goddamned creative the online world could be; and for a minute or two many of us thought that this was going to be the bravest and newest of worlds; a universe-sized toy box where our greatest dreams would be realised on a daily basis.

Then something else happened. It would take me far too long to explain in detail, but can I simply point you in the direction of Bob Hoffman, the Ad Contrarian, who has spent a good decade puncturing the bullshit, and pointing out the many pitfalls, of online advertising? From data scraping and microtargeting to colossal fraud and huge amounts of waste, the interaction of advertising and the internet has led to some dreadful consequences. Our industry has fueled much of anything you hate about being online, and it hasn’t even resulted in better, more effective advertising.

But this is a somewhat creative blog, so I’m going to concentrate on that part of the process.

Digital advertising prioritises data, information and precision targeting over engagement, entertainment and memorability. Have a read of this excellent post by Martin Weigel, Head of Planning at W&K Amsterdam, and you’ll be led through a forensic explanation of why and how ads have become more boring, annoying and unlikeable. They are entirely made for the left side of your brain, ignoring the right side because the only priority is hitting endless measurements of reach without a thought for memorability or enjoyment.

And this is where advertising is continuing to head. Search and social are gobbling up increasing proportions of adspend, along with every other ad-funded website, from the New York Times to Pornhub. So this is what our foreseeable future looks like, and if you work in an agency, trying to add something positive to people’s lives with your creativity, your briefs and budgets are steadily dwindling to the kind of levels that make success far more the exception than the rule.

There are millions of ads all over the internet, with the number increasing at an increasing rate every single day. But when did you last see a good one? When did you last see a ‘not bad’ one? What percentage of internet-based advertising is anything other than dreary, simplistic, ugly and/or annoying? Even the targeting, for which we have given up so much, is poor. I receive ads for all sorts of things I’m not interested in, from ladies’ shoes to gigs for bands I’ve never listened to. Maybe there’s some algorithm somewhere that says I’ll respond to that kind of thing, but if so, it’s shite.

And you might have noticed that the BMW Films and Subservient Chickens seem to have dried up. The former appeared nearly twenty years ago, and the latter in 2005. The last fifteen years have been an arid desert of creativity, even when it comes to the kind of show-pony creativity Cannes encourages us to laud. There’s nothing making you happy, inspired, entertained, joyful or enthralled. And as a percentage of ‘millions’, ‘fuck-all’ is a pretty dismal strike rate.

If you’re an advertising creative you’ve almost certainly worked on a brief for an ad destined to appear somewhere on the internet. Have you shown that work to your mum? Have you explained it to a cab driver? Have you smiled in satisfaction as a talk show host repeated your online endline? I’m willing to be a pound or two that the answer is overwhelmingly ‘no’.

So the creative process has been compromised, the opportunities for excellence are decreasing every day, and the ads that do appear are crap, and enable lots of awful consequences.

In the words of AOL, as far as creative advertising goes, the internet is a bad thing.