Hari Ramanathan
Jul 6, 2016

How advertising can get its mojo back, before it's too late

There's no question the industry is in crisis, but a solution may be found in the unlikeliest of sectors, writes Hari Ramanathan of Y&R Asia.

Hari Ramanathan
Hari Ramanathan

We’re in trouble. That the advertising industry is in a crisis is not debatable. While our self-importance may not have shifted an inch, especially since I’m seeing it in full strength at Cannes, increased revenue pressures, clients pledging to constantly lower fees and the cost of talent to revenue ratio going higher are all signs of an industry in trouble. This isn’t to say we’re all going the way of Lehman Brothers, but acknowledging the problem is the first step to fixing it. 

More important than loss of revenue is the fact that we’ve lost respect, and nowhere is this more evident than at Cannes. A festival where creatives used to be celebrities is now an event where creatives queue up hours to listen to celebrities like Will Smith (he was very good, by the way). And the world’s top creatives are now relegated to posters telling people to cross the road safely (this is for real).

Someone’s doing it right

So what is the solution? There is one creative industry we can learn from. And it’s the very last creative industry that actually leads people with a vision of its own. It’s the one industry that never asks a focus group what it thinks of its ideas. In an era where even Hollywood movie endings are tested, that is something to be marvelled at.

That industry is high fashion.

It struck me at a talk Anna Wintour gave (another one that celebrity advertising legends queued up to hear). Her opening was about how she was going to ignore every suggestion by the festival organisers because “they don’t know me.” It set me thinking about where fashion industry gets its power. And the answer is quite simply, its definition of its role with consumers of fashion: to lead.

Every designer working in a fashion house, from junior to the creative director, has only one description of their job: to tell people what to wear next season. They never stop for a moment to consider whether people will like blue in summer or if it’s ok for men to wear tight pants. They just do it, because they think that’s the way it should be. That’s a very clear attitude centred around them leading people, and people reciprocate that idea by their willingness to be led. And all the technology in this world hasn’t changed this equation. Sure there are still hits and misses, there are still things people won’t buy, but that’s mostly because someone like Anna Wintour has decided it’s not good enough. Fashion media too is clear that its role is to lead.

Now, one could argue this is a very simplistic analogy, but I’m not trying to say advertising and fashion are similar. I am trying to explore what we can learn from another creative industry that has retained its respect and power.

We’ve centred our offering around echoes

Many things get blamed for why advertising is the way it is, and very likely some of them are true. But the biggest reason, in my view, on why we’ve lost our way, is the focus the business has put on research. Since 2000, for example, Ipsos has a revenue increase of over 360 percent, while if we charted advertising loss of power and respect it might correlate to this trajectory. This is not a witch-hunt on research (that’s a fine thing, but not the point here), but it’s to say that we’ve turned research from being something that should inform us to something that we try to echo. There are insight factories (I haven’t made that name up, it is a research tool) and needscopes that try to tell us exactly what people expect from brands, and then there is ad testing to see if we did give people exactly what they expected.

As an industry we’ve turned the meaning of the term 'research' from standing for exploring new ideas and concepts (as in scientific research) to one that means finding out what people think they think. Focus groups, the marketing equivalent of American Idol, where everyone is made to feel like an expert judge, decide what brands say and do. And of course, since we give people what they expect, they’re not surprised, delighted or engaged, leading to the rise of ad blockers and such to shut our work out.

It’s time to lead

The role of people in advertising should be to help brands lead. We’ve now gone to the other extreme of claiming that no one has control of brands other than consumers. That’s patently false, consumers have more means of tuning you out, but not of controlling what you say. If consumers had such control, most brands wouldn’t spout the tripe we see.

So not only do we need to switch our minds to say we have control of brands, but also that we have a responsibility to lead people by talking to them about topics in life from a fresh perspective, and open their eyes to new ideas and beliefs. And as people in advertising, it should be our role to get clients that perspective and help them see research as input, not a guidance on output.

That has to be the future of advertising. In fact, without leading, I doubt there will be a future for advertising.

Hari Ramanathan is the chief strategy officer at Y&R Asia

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