Sue Unerman
Dec 20, 2021

Enter, the fifth age of advertising

We are at the dawn of a new era. The age of dialogue is making way for the age of relevance.

Enter, the fifth age of advertising

There have been roughly four ages of advertising. We have now entered the fifth age. The age of relevance.

In the first stage in the 1950s, in the age of interruption, consumers were happy to pay attention to advertising and essentially to do what it told them to do. They actively sought the reassurance of brand names and tended to trust what big companies told them. Culturally, advertising represented an antidote to the scarcity of the war years. 

In the second age, the age of entertainment in the 1960s and 1970s, people would still pay attention to ads, but they needed to be entertaining. This was the first golden age of creativity in advertising.  People actively sought out entertaining advertising, school kids acted the great ads out in playgrounds and some of the brand-building effects of this resonate today.

Many people can still recite the slogans from ads in those days (were they in fact ad slogans or mini poems to brands? “A million housewives every day, pick up a can of beans and say: ‘Beanz means Heinz’”). John Webster’s Smash Martians ads still top leagues of favourites. Dave Trott’s “Ariston and on and on” still sings to us (even though you may have a Bosch now). People actively looked forward to the new CinzanoHamlet or Gold Blend execution.

The age of entertainment waned, as the IPA has reported, and mutated into the third age of advertising. 

In the third age, the age of engagement, in the 1980s and 1990s, the relatively rapid rise in the number of media channels meant that reaching people at the right time and place was crucial. Then, the rise of social channels and ecommerce changed things fundamentally in the early 2000s. 

In the next era, in the age of dialogue, conversations between consumers could – and often did – have more effect on brand growth than advertising. In the old paradigm, when you popped into a department store to buy a new dishwasher, other customers didn’t come up to you and tell you what they thought of it. But that's exactly what they do online. As I wrote in my book Tell the Truth, Honesty is your Most Powerful Marketing Tool, the consumer had become an expert, in finding out price comparisons, sourcing provenance and discovering other people’s opinions. Social media and researching and buying online changed shopping forever. 

And where are we now? 

We are at the dawn of a new promise. The age of relevance. In the age of relevance, ads are served to the right people at the right time and in the right format and place, fuelled by brilliant live personal data insight and not the proxies we used in the 1990s. If this is combined with a renewal of brilliant creativity, informed by our data-led understanding of what gets a brand talked about, what resonates culturally and what is truly personally magnetic, then we have a future ahead of us where no one dodges advertising. This is because the advertising that they are served is the right message, at the right time, in the right place, with the right relevancy. We will be in a new golden era for creativity across the whole purchase cycle.

And consumers themselves will contribute to this age of relevance. By editing their own ad preferences, by skipping ads they find disruptive and by being careful of their privacy, they will ensure that the work that cuts through is rewarded. 

There’s work in our creative systems department that shows when data, media and creative are optimised in concert, effectiveness increases significantly. I find this really striking and a real signpost for the future: a future where new data delivers new effectiveness. As Stef Calcraft, our global chief executive of creative transformation, says: “The truth is that with new knowledge comes competitive, creative advantage.”

There’s a bright positive future for those brands that get this right. Those that don’t will find themselves increasingly irrelevant. 


Sue Unerman is chief transformation officer at MediaCom

Campaign UK

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