Advertising Helps Me Decide, Content Helps Me Explain

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Not long after I took my first job with a small agency, a friend of mine gave me a gift. It was a vintage-looking t-shirt with the phrase “Advertising Helps Me Decide” printed on it in a decidedly 1980s script. It was thoughtful of him, a small token to help me adjust to my new surroundings, my new position in a world I had always resented a bit.

I left my job as a newspaper reporter looking for a better life – better hours, better pay – to support my young family. It was something that, as a seasoned reporter and journalist, a high-minded idealist, I had always sworn I would never do. I would never go to the dark side, never become a part of the advertising machine. I imagined advertising as disingenuous, even deceitful. I was a fact-seeker, a truth teller, a Church and State fourth estater, the kind of person who prided himself on the idea that good information can only come from people like me. But, when you’re young, married and a father at an age when most of your peers are free-wheeling; when you’re struggling paycheck to paycheck just to put food on the table and an opportunity comes along for more stability, it’s amazing how quickly those high-minded ideals take a backseat to a 9-5 and good benefits.

So, I sold out. I knew I was selling out and knew that I could probably never go back. So my friend, Rob, being the sweet, insightful and thoughtful guy he is, decided to make fun of me a little and buy me the t-shirt. It’s still one of my favorites.

My transformation from journalist to marketer was rough. I got restless. I had a hard time concentrating on my fourth and fifth drafts of a 15 second radio spot for a discount carpet barn when I knew there were politics to cover and wars overseas sending home broken and scarred citizen soldiers. My instinct was to go, to interview, to experience and report. It was part of my nature – to be a proxy for people like me, people who couldn’t make the connections, ask the questions or witness the reality that fed that part of ourselves that craved information, context, insight. Trying to fit the particulars of the Labor Day sale on plush carpet in before the sting was making me crazy.

But a strange thing started happening after my transition. The world began to change and not in the way I might have looked for as a reporter. People changed. Their behavior changed. Their expectations. Technology had a lot to do with it. But so did choice. In those heady early days of the new millenium, a couple of developments fundamentally changed the way people – consumers – interact with one another, with brands, with the world at-large. The first was the proliferation of the internet. Just a decade before, when I was in high school, connecting to the internet was an almost illicit thing. I remember the day my friend Joe came into algebra class and announced he had a Prodigy account. I didn’t know what it meant, but I realized it was probably big. And, while the moment was quaint in retrospect, it did, in fact, turn out to be important.

I was in college when I got my first e-mail address and, even then in late 90s, the internet was something separate and compartmentalized. I’d dial up to check e-mail, maybe research a paper or download some music, but even after I had graduated in 2000, the internet had yet to insinuate itself into my every day life.

Then the great proliferation happened. As technology became more easily available and internet access became cheaper, faster and easier, the web became more and more central to our collective existence. It was subtle, but particularly in hindsight, observable, the growing import of connectedness. Getting online when from being a task to being a habit, from something done with intent to something done by reflex, muscle memory and with a growing sense of urgency.

The second innovation was the iPod. Not the device itself, but what it represented. It represented a new paradigm. When I was young, in order to fit in, you needed a pair of Air Jordans and an L.L. Bean backpack. This sort of conforming was expected. Those who wanted to belong looked and acted as others who did. Even those who refused to conform to a given set of behaviors – wearing Air Jordans, for example – conformed to another – wearing Airwalks. Tribes were formed around our consumer behaviors. The iPod, and other iterations of similarly popular devices, changed things a bit. Everyone still wanted one – and the meteoric rise of Apple in the 2000s confirms this – and so there was a certain sense of belonging and being a part of something every time you put those white earbuds in and pressed play. But what made the iPod unique was that in order for a person to take advantage of the possession, they necessarily needed to express themselves. We may all have the same iPod and, later, iPhone, but what we put on it (music, videos, pictures, apps) was a defacto statement of our individuality. We began to look to content not simply for consumption, but as an explanation of who we are.

The shocking rise of social media – Facebook in particular – was also indicative of this change. Unlike Friendster and MySpace before it, which provided near infinite possibility for customization and individuality, Facebook took the iPod route. It created a standard template, an empty box that was easy to use and relied on users to fill it with whatever they liked. Again, it felt like you were a part of something by joining Facebook, but what you did once you were there was clearly a statement of who you are. Apple and Facebook were brands that rose based on their ability to allow users – through participation – to explain themselves to the larger world, their friends or anyone who happened to flip through their playlists.

My t-shirt was correct. At one point, advertising did indeed help me decide. But content helps me explain. It helps me explain myself, my priorities, my interests, my passions. Sometimes I create content – on my blog, my Youtube channel – sometimes I curate – on my Facebook wall, my Tumblr page, may Twitter account. I am no longer content to be a passive consumer of content, I must also be a harbinger of it. The same technology that makes it easy for me to participate is what makes it hard for marketers to keep up in terms of reach. It’s not just the proliferation of television channels from three to three thousand, its the proliferation of choices consumers have on where to spend their capital in the consumer economy. More and more, I speak to people and they not only don’t have cable or satellite, they don’t own a television or a radio, they don’t read newspapers or magazines. They simply don’t have to. They’re not hermits living in a shack in the woods, they are fully engaged citizens of the modern world who have other options. And the perceived value distinction between a highly produced television program – “30 Rock” say – and a video a student made and put on Vimeo is not as clear as it once was. There is less and less of a need to belong by watching a ‘destination’ program as there once was.

Not long ago, I was listening to an interview with Tin Fey, the award-winning author, writer and creator of “30 Rock” on a favorite podcast – note: I haven’t turned on the radio in my car in months. She was talking about this very phenomenon. Of the nearly 10 million people who watched the Season Six finale of her show, she said 80% did so on DVR, which allowed them to skip the advertisements. Whether she was joking or not, it’s an important thought for marketers and got me thinking. I had watched that very episode. And I had done so on a DVR. I had skipped the commercials. In fact, the only shows I watch with any regularity, I do so on DVR. I have a hectic life, a wife, three kids, a busy career. If I sit down at all, I do so late in the evening, long after my shows have aired and watch them before bed. I fast-forward through commercials because I don’t have time for them or, honestly, I don’t want to. And I’m certainly not alone.

In the 1970s, the average American was exposed to about 500 advertising messages a day. By the mid-2000s, that number had gone up by an order of magnitude. It’s no wonder I don’t want to spend a lot of time consuming them if I don’t have to. My mind is already blocking them out. Why would I choose to watch them if I don’t have to? Why would you? I’d rather focus on the information and content I want to consume, the information that interests me, that connects with me, that solves a problem or adds actual value to my life. I would rather engage the content that helps me explain who I am, what my world is and how I can live the way I want to live. Sure, there’s the occassional ad that catches my eye, a television spot that tickles my funny bone. But I rarely see them when they are running. Instead, I get them from friends – on Facebook, Twitter or text. If I like it, I’ll share it forward, a contribution to the attention economy.

So what does this have to do with this book? Am I just here to doom and gloom the advertising industry, to put it down and bemoan the end of marketing as we know it? No, not really. I still work in the agency world and believe that perhaps now more than every brands and agencies have a right to win in the fight for consumer attention. I believe, unlike some, that there has never been a better time to be a brand trying to build a relationship with a consumer. I believe we are living at the dawn of a new era of marketing, one that builds on the natural curiosity, interests and needs of consumers; one that takes advantage of the amazing data we have at our fingertips, data that is created with every key stroke, every click, every “like” from a consumer; an era of unprecidented technological capabilities that allow simultaneously for mass distribution and discemination of brand messaging and instantaneous customization to an individual need.

And I believe that content is the linchpin that holds it all together.

This book is not about calling for advertising’s head on a platter, it’s about helping brand marketers and agencies adopt a content mindset. It’s about a set of principles that will help you change the way you communicate, interact and derive value from consumers. It’s about a set of questions that will help you understand a brand’s right-to-win when it comes to providing real value to a consumer’s life. It’s about understanding that unlike so many marketing activities, content is not a product, but a process and the results are not defined by the work that is created but by the change in the consumer dynamic the work inspires. This is a book about changing the way we think as marketers and agencies, about envisioning a new dynamic between brands and consumers, between agencies and brands, between marketing and those being marketed to.

I work for the Proximity network of BBDO and our company statement of values reads:
We make brands more valuable to people
And people more valuable to brands.

Sounds kind of lofty, I know, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. The second part seems obvious. People are valuable to brands when they purchase brand offerings, right? Right. But what about the first part? The part about making brands more valuable to people. Sure, we can focus on price. We can make better products. But offering a deal or making a product last longer is not the same as providing real value.

I believe in my company’s mission statement. And I believe content is the key. Brands become more valuable to people when they help people explain, not when their advertising helps them decide.

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