The Future of Advertising

By Kevin Allen
(As appeared in Wharton’s Future of Advertising Program)

Pull The Camera Back

It might be said that the future of advertising is a discussion of the ever-evolving role of technology and the emergence of things like social media. All true. I thought to help the discussion, it might rather be helpful to take a step back and look at an inexorable sea change that has been taking shape over the last two decades.

The Era of Brand Citizenship

Fifteen years ago, as a member of an operating committee at McCann Erickson, I proposed the notion of Brand Citizenship. I asserted that in the coming years, a brand would no longer be a “thing” that we “pushed”, but rather communities of people bound by a shared value system. I asserted that our job in coming years would be as custodians of these value systems and our job as advertisers would be to nurture a relationship with these communities on behalf of our clients As a consequence, we needed to undertake a wholesale re-evaluation of our role, how we were to be organized what new work practices would be needed and ultimately the physical output we “made”. For a company then making television commercials and exporting them, it was quite a discussion, let me tell you.

I was scorned by the ad guys, cheered by the newly developing communications ‘disciplines’ (as we called them) but the forces of stasis were enormous and the idea died a quiet death.

I look with glee now as I trawl the net and see that Brand Citizenship, put forward and promulgated by others brilliantly, (ah, I wish I had stayed with it!) along with related theorems are discussed everywhere enthusiastically, and rightly so. The future of advertising fundamentally rests on the principle that brands are global communities profoundly in the hands of these very constituencies and companies and brand management alike are no longer in charge.

From the Supply to Demand Economy

To give perspective to this notion, we need to begin shortly after World War II. The dawn of the supply economy was all about the creation of a few products in any particular category, a gleefully awaiting public, and narrow communications channels. The job of advertising was to work alongside the distribution of these goods and services. The dots on a map structure of the mighty networks were all designed to aid in this distribution/supply economy construct. For example, Coke syrup, distributed to bottlers around the world was complemented and supported by effectively “turning on the ads”. Product flew off the shelves, and 15% commission was collected. What an era…and what a business!

The New Coke Harbinger

Many decades later, that same brand, Coca-Cola, decided to launch a major product change based on solid consumer testing. It seemed Coke’s new formula not only tasted better than old coke but in blind tastes tests it beat their arch rival Pepsi, as well. The change was made; the product rolled out with fanfare and within weeks a revolt by millions of consumers took place. Blind taste test results notwithstanding, the “citizens” of the Coca-Cola brand spoke, demanding the return of their beloved brand to the shelves. I heard in the hallways of McCann years later that a letter was sent to the CEO, “I believe in three things,” the citizen purportedly wrote, “My country, my church and Coca-Cola, how dare you to take it from me.” I can’t be sure if it was rumor or fact, but the sentiment summed it up beautifully. The demise of New Coke was a consequence of the citizens of brand Coca-Cola demanding the return of something they believed in and that in fact, as we look back now, believed they owned. From this point the gauntlet was thrown down; the brand, far more than a product, and the control, inexorably moving into the hands of its users. A near-forgotten event, the ill-fated New Coke introduction in 1985 was a profound milestone, although we probably didn’t realize it’s full impact at the time.

Standards Held Aloft

The great Tony O’Reilly of HJ Heinz once said, “Truly great brands are far more than just labels for products; they are symbols that encapsulate the desires of consumers; they are standards held aloft under which the masses congregate.” This wonderful view is part of a broader, tectonic shift in societal construction, the power shift away from the few, to the many. Its corresponding economic democratization, driven exponentially by the internet will move toward 2020 exponentially. Command and control systems of corporate construction, with corresponding advertising organizations defined as a, means to distribute and persuade will all fall away. By 2020 we will, as marketers, no longer be in charge. Brand management will become an arcane term and in its place brand custody, a more appropriate role for the reality of a consumer-led society. Implications are far-reaching: we will be judged by our behavior as brands and brand marketers, successful organizations will be led by authenticity and transparency and marketing and marketing communications will be tasked with reaching individual by individual and establishing both a broad-based relationship with all of its citizens but with the direct interaction and dialogue with each and every one of them.

The Implications for Advertising

How odd it is to look at the Wikipedia definition of advertising as I just did moments ago; it reads “Advertising is a form of communication for marketing used to encourage or persuade an audience (viewers, readers or listeners; sometimes a specific group) to continue or take some new action.” Nonsense. Advertising in 2020 will not be “buy me” it will be “join me.” We will no longer be persuaders, rather advertising’s role will be dedicated to promulgating the belief system of the brand citizenship, listening carefully to them, informing and entertain them, taking active steps to support and nurture an ongoing dialogue and in doing so the company and its brand be made “buoyant” by this community because of their recognition of the genuine support for their interests. Products will become a living symbol and expression of the value system and will be seen as an ever-evolving pledge of service for the benefit of the citizenship. Brand Citizen’s will reward this authenticity and genuineness with their purchases. They will punish the selfish and predatory with their abandonment and the discussion in the hallways of advertising organizations must then elevate beyond the silliness of discussions surrounding ad integration or digital centricity. All disciplines will prove relevant but must be channeled toward the promulgation of a deep and abiding relationship with its citizens.

In short, by 2020 it is we, the few, who will be in service of the many.

Kevin Allen, author of Wall Street Journal bestseller The Hidden Agenda: A Proven Way to Win Business and Create a Following, is a twenty-year veteran of The Interpublic Group, with tenure at McCann Erikson, as Vice Chairman of Lowe Worldwide and posts at holding company IPG. He was an adviser to former Mayor Giuliani and is now founder and CEO of re:kap, a business transformation company, counting Google, Burberry, and Cisco among its global clients.

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