South Africa’s advertising industry is not so much at a crossroads right now but rather one of those chaotic, multi-lane motorway interchanges that look like spaghetti gone mad.
There are also sorts of challenges being thrown at advertising as we know it and it will take a lot of determination and cool minds to ensure that the status quo does not become cataclysmically unstuck.
Interestingly enough, the problem is not money. Which it has been for the recent past with advertising expenditure stagnating.
And even more interestingly, the problem is not an erosion of the above-the-line advertising pie by all the new fangled marketing communications methods being used instead of the conventional TV/print/radio combo. In spite of predictions that so-called new media was gaining so much momentum that it would soon overtake its conventional counterpart, this actually hasn’t happened. Yet.
The big challenges for the advertising industry involve its image and its efficiency.
With the average consumer being exposed to something like 10 000 marketing messages a day, the whole issue of getting the attention of readers, listeners and viewers is becoming a source of increasing deliberation.
Just taking South Africa as an example, over the past two decades the average citizen has been inundated with added time-consuming distractions. Dozens of new TV channels, more radio, more magazines, more newspapers and most of all more business and leisure time technology. Emails, internet browsing, smartphones and iPads chew up hours of the modern consumers’ time and it is this time that used to be spent not only devouring conventional media but the advertising that came with it.
There was a time when the people who produced mass media newspaper ads and TV commercials, for example, were told that they had two seconds to get the attention of the reader or viewer after which they had simply lost the opportunity.
These days that time has reduced to less than a second.
Harvard University long ago insisted that the information economy as we knew it had become redundant due to the information highway becoming so clogged nobody bothers to use it any more.
That was replaced with the attention economy. And in spite of Harvard claiming that we have long since moved on from even this, the majority of South African advertisers are still struggling to come to terms with it.
What it involves is not only applying a lot of thought and creativity to ensuring that consumers actually see an ad but that the ad manages their attention until the message had got across.
Quite simply, to be effective and efficient now, advertisements – be they on radio, TV or in print – will have to grab attention and then not waste any time in getting to the point.
So many TV commercials and full-page ads are completely wasted today because they are simply too complicated, too subtle or just plain too long.
It continues to be a massive challenge for the advertising industry to persuade its creatives to move away from shock tactics or Hollywood-type works of art into something a lot more efficient. Strangely enough, if any of them had to look back in history they would find that a huge number of really effective advertisements were extremely ‘creative’ in the aesthetic sense of the word. And these were also very simple.
There is no question that the anti-establishment, arty, ponytail brigade who make up so much of the ad industry’s creative departments, are going to have to start understanding the consumer a lot better. They are also going to have to become a lot more business-like in their mind-set because advertising is becoming far too much of an expensive business to take chances on.
Equally, the whole industry is going to have to have a long hard look at its own image if it wants to be taken seriously in boardrooms.
Right now, many non-marketing people still see advertising as something trivial and self-indulgent from a corporate point of view. Boards tended to indulge their marketing directors rather than understand them. They tried to find some sort of return on investment on their advertising but end up simply assuming that sales increases means the advertising is working.
This dangerous perception of advertising as something trivial and perhaps even mystical is exacerbated by the advertising industry’s obsession with winning awards. In essence that’s not a bad thing in terms of motivating those who produce the ads, but very often misleading to those who actually pay for the ads.
The ad industry regularly explains that when they hand out awards to each other, winning ads are not necessarily successful ads. But, while this might make sense to someone in the advertising business it certainly doesn’t make sense to an accountant who would wonder at anyone rewarding failure.
A classic example of this Budweiser ‘Wassup’ campaign in the USA.
Not only did this win awards all over the world but was acclaimed generally by the industry as a breakthrough in attention-getting, motivating, marketing communications.
But, for in the period after this campaign ran , Budweiser sales dropped 8.3%, market share went from 4% to 2.5% and the campaign was generally regarded by the Budweiser people as not only a complete flop but damaging to the brand.
On top of which, particularly here in South Africa, the increasing volume of controversy surrounding ill-considered advertising, which falls foul of the Advertising Standards Authority, is also damaging the reputation of the industry.
The facts show that advertising is a critical component of any economy but alas, the industry continues to shoot itself in the foot with ill-considered creativity .