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June 15, 2011
Will Direct Response Save Advertising?
Last week I read a great op-ed piece in The Boston Globe by Alex Poulos called “Mad Men of the Future.” He makes several excellent observations.  But overall, the article paints a pretty dreary picture of life in 2031when technology will have allowed advertising to reach unbearable levels of intrusiveness.  Alex cites a few tongue-in-cheek examples, like shampoo bottles that will “give you an upbeat, musical pitch, reminding you to shampoo twice,” or cars with “scrolling messaging across the back window or bumper for the motorists behind, stuck in traffic.”  No doubt technology will make all these things (and more) possible. But I don’t believe the future will play out this way. 
The picture Alex Poulos and many other ad industry observers paint of the future of advertising is one run by the same “Mad Men” who have ruled ad agency roosts for the last half century. They create a future where advanced technology simply amplifies all that people find so annoying about advertising today. The reason we don’t like advertising now is because the message is so seldom relevant to our needs. For instance, I don’t need to see another tampon commercial — ever. Yet all day long I’m bombarded with messages about products and brands I have no use for.
The advertising we have grown up with reflects the limits of our technology. If you want to advertise with mass media, there will be waste, lots of waste. That has meant routinely interrupting a million people with a message that is only relevant to a hundred thousand. And, to appease the other 900,000? Well, you had better make it entertaining. The average American is exposed to 5,000 of these messages every day. No wonder people hate advertising.
But 20 years from now, I don’t believe it will be that way. Instead of technology accentuating all the things people hate about advertising today, I’m confident technology will eliminate them. Especially the irrelevance.
Because of all the data we will volunteer (implicitly or explicitly), advertisers in 2031 will know a lot about us, right down to where we are at any moment and what purchases we are likely to be contemplating. From a pure advertising perspective, that’s actually a good thing for consumers. No more tampon ads for me. But if it’s November and I’m into snowboarding, chances are I’ll receive an ad about snowboarding on my phone. And that ad will read, “Sean, looking for a new snowboard? There is a Burton sale two doors down. Buy a board in the next hour and get bindings free.” That is good information because it is highly relevant, personalized and timely. We would hardly recognize it as advertising by today’s standards.
Today we accept irrelevance as part of living in a commercial society. We don’t like it. We try to avoid it (or at least TiVo it away).  But we don’t get up in arms over it either. Partly because we know marketers can’t help themselves. Our tolerance will shrink as we start to understand that, with a little effort, any marketer can personalize a pitch. In this future world, there will be zero tolerance for irrelevance in advertising. In fact, companies that employ it will be penalized. Imagine this scenario: It’s 6 pm on a Tuesday and your phone rings. It’s a telemarketer trying to sell you something you don’t care about. You hit #9 and hang up. The telemarketer is fined a dollar and a quarter by the phone company for wasting your time and you’re credited a buck on your next phone bill. When you get a piece of irrelevant junk mail on your doorstep, you simply check a box on the mailing label and the piece is posted back to the sender at their expense.
In a 2009 Forrester study, the number one concern of marketers was relevance. “Forty-eight percent of marketers surveyed indicated that they are attempting to make their communications more relevant.” And who’s taken up the gauntlet? You won’t find creative directors, planners or account directors on the front lines of this battle. It’s being fought by direct response advertisers.
At my company, an international ad agency, we have seen a rapid increase in the number of clients asking us to integrate email marketing programs into their social media campaigns and conventional advertising, in addition to tying them into their company’s CRM system. And with that focus comes more requests for things like enhanced data capture from web visitors, more granular email triggering, and more functional global content management systems.  This isn’t something you can hand over to the creative team to solve. But it’s familiar territory to direct response specialists. Perhaps that is why it seems that more email service providers like SilverPopEloqua, and Exact Target have been quietly evolving their mail offering into a more comprehensive and sophisticated behavior-based marketing offer. 
In old-world, above-the-line agencies, DM was in a different silo. This type of “back-end technical integration stuff” was nothing ad folk would soil their suits with. That’s changed. And not just because agencies need to diversify income streams. It’s changed because, as brand stewards, we are beginning to realize that the internet is the most powerful channel we have to interact with consumers.
Now that the bulk of consumer brand interaction is moving online, a brand’s digital behavior is one of the most influential factors in shaping consumer perceptions and fostering loyalty. This is something Jeff Bezos realized before any of us and one of the reasons why Amazon is one of the world’s most loved and trusted brands. The Amazon brand has been built with innovative coding more than innovative advertising. Digital behavior comes down to this “back-end stuff” and how it is integrated into email marketing, CRM systems, etc...
As Fast Company’s Danielle Sacks put it, “The death of mass marketing means the end of lazy marketing. At agencies, the new norm is doing exponentially complex work.” 
As a consumer I want advertising to be more relevant. But as a marketer, I wonder if this complex fight for relevance will be our industry’s next proving ground. And, if so, will direct response experts, armed with ever sophisticated technology, emerge as the most capable marketing professionals to lead this battle?

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Sean Duffy is a founder of Duffy Agency, the digital marketing agency for aspiring international brands. Sean has over 25 years of experience working with strategic marketing in Boston, San Francisco, Stockholm, and Copenhagen. In addition to his involvement with Duffy Agency, Sean is a frequent speaker on strategic international marketing and online brand management. He serves also as Lecturer and Practitioner in Residence at the Lund University School of Economics & Management and as Mentor in their Masters Program in Entrepreneurship. Sean is an active member of  TAAN Worldwide where he has served two terms as the European Governor. He is also a speaker, bloggerTwittererand is on LinkedInWith offices in Malmö and Boston, Sean splits his time between Sweden and the States.

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