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June 12, 2008 / davebirss

I’m sorry, Steve, but I don’t think you’re seeing the full picture

Steve Harrison is never one to keep his opinions to himself. I worked for him a few years ago and he earned a lot of my respect (while I earned a lot less than the going freelance rate). So it’s only right that I respond to his full page article in Campaign this week.

You see, Steve has some good points. In short, he’s saying that as an industry we have learned a lot about people’s behaviour, what they respond to and how to motivate them. And it would be foolish for us to be “throwing the baby that it’s taken nearly 100 years to nurture out with the analogue bathwater.” I agree with all of that. But I also think it’s a sweeping and unfair statement to claim that the industry is guilty as charged.

As Creative Director at Poke, my main focus is the bright new world of digital – which is apparently the area at fault. And from my achingly-trendy point of view in Shoreditch, I just don’t see it. I know that Steve worked in a big agency group for a few years before he was exiled from the industry, so I can only assume that his point of view has been coloured by that experience. But I actually think Steve has maybe misunderstood what people have been saying and has misinterpreted realism as barbarism.

Quite simply, people relate to each type of media differently. And these relationships are evolving over time. The new area of digital requires a new bunch of rules and a few of the old advertising rules just don’t work in pixel-town. These new rules aren’t by any means a wholesale replacement of the old ones – they are just a set of addendums and revisions.

And our work is never done. The new speed of change requires constant reassessment. Take online display advertising, for instance. Figures show that it’s becoming less and less effective as time goes by. Look at TV advertising that just isn’t reaching the audience it used to, can be edited out of recorded programmes and is losing its place as the key channel of influence. And look at the growing hostility towards DM from consumers, government and local councils alike.

You see, Steve, the issue here is not the change in the industry – it’s the change in consumer behaviour.

Many of these apparent barbarians who are supposedly trampling disrespectfully on Bernbach’s grave are in fact smart visionaries who are constantly having to rewrite their own rules to fit in with a rapidly evolving audience. Three years ago people sent viral videos as attachments in emails – now we just point to YouTube. Last year Facebook apps were considered a great customer engagement tool – this year they’re a no-no. At present, the internet is something you mainly access from a computer – in a couple of years it’s more likely to be through your mobile.

The landscape, culture and capabilities of digital is ever-changing and the audience is developing in line with it. The most powerful marketing method is no longer talking at people – it’s engaging with them. Communication is no longer one way – it’s two way. Companies now need to stop being precious about their brands but instead share them with their audience. The amazing ways you can now reach people were unthinkable 10 years ago.

Yes, people are the same creatures with the same motivations as ever. They’re still as greedy, lazy, selfish, insecure, horny and vain as ever. All the learnings from the past are still relevant. But the truly dangerous Philistine-ism would be to overlook the changes in audience behaviour and try to talk to people as if the internet was never invented.

9 Comments

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  1. Lea / Jun 13 2008 12:26 pm

    I couldn’t agree more. People and media are evolving, so the way we use media to engage people surely has to evolve in order to survive. Beautifully written.

  2. Anjali Ramachandran / Jun 13 2008 4:16 pm

    You are exactly the person I thought of when I read the Campaign article! Well put.

  3. davebirss / Jun 13 2008 4:23 pm

    Thank you, thank you!

    Join the evolution, comrades!

  4. Damien Parsonage / Jun 16 2008 12:55 pm

    Hey Dave – long time no see/speak. Congratulations on the engagement btw!

    And when are you going to invite us to Shoreditch House?

    Anyway, interesting article from Steve H. I agree that many of his points have been lost in the debate around the article.

    I think the main thrust is valid.

    As you and I know very well Dave, there are a lot of cowboys out there in the digital arena. People who got lucky basically by being in the right place at the right time. No one good wanted to work in digital eight or nine years ago; it was full of people who couldn’t get work anywhere else, I’m afraid. However much they tell you now it was brilliant foresight.

    They did some ok stuff a few years back, mostly technology led, and they were breaking ground in making stuff move. But I’m not convinced they ever really knew what they were doing. It just sort of happened.

    Now they’re struggling to do anything interesting or creative because they never knew what they were doing in the first place. And they’re being usurped by brighter people who have now got into digital in a big way.

    As you say, Dave, people haven’t changed; they still want to be entertained, amused, informed, listened to, and made to feel important. How we do that today is a fantastically interesting challenge. But I’m not sure the cowboys are the people to be driving the bus.

    There’s way too much “move over Grandad” attitude in digital. Too much “old is bad, new is good” idiocy. It’s still big, bad, old fashioned above the line agencies making the stuff everyone talks about: Balls, Gorilla, Dancing Thunderbird Brains. Although I’m not sure how anyone gets to see this stuff, since “no one watches ads any more.” Plus everyone’s “immune to advertising” now aren’t they? Or so they keep telling me.

    There’s a lot of arrogance and a lot of hot air around new media. Let’s be careful. That seems to be Steve’s message; and what’s wrong with that?

    Everyone should be able to explain why they are doing what they are doing, why it’s better than what’s been done before, why it works, why it will work again.

    It’s always the snake-oil salesmen who laugh at those asking awkward questions.

    Let’s have a peaceful revolution, man!

    Damien

  5. davebirss / Jun 16 2008 1:27 pm

    Hey Damien, I agree with just about everything you say.

    And I think we should have a beer soon because there’s so much more than this to catch up on.

    Like you, I’ve encountered a fair amount of charlatan-ism in the big agency groups. But this has never been confined to just digital. It’s endemic. And you find it in most of the small agencies too.

    I know that digital people tend to harp on about the future – but that’s because that’s where they’re focussed. And they preach about this visionary stuff and the new ways of talking to customers because the newly emerging channels that they’re working with require a different etiquette and fresh ways of engaging with people. Posters, press and mailpacks have been around for well over a hundred years. Claude Hopkins wrote about the science of persuading customers 85 years ago. And the amazing thing is that what he says is still incredibly relevant in those more traditional channels. Digital folks are trying to define how the new channels work. And the problem/opportunity is that they’re always changing.

    You know that I’m a traditionalist in so many ways. In fact, I’m just about to post my document on writing persuasive copy. But what excites me so much about digital is the opportunity to engage with people in new ways. But – of course – still using the 16 years of experience I picked up in other parts of the industry.

    And finally – beer? Next week?

  6. Damien Parsonage / Jun 16 2008 3:57 pm

    A beer or two sounds great next week Dave. I’ll give you a bell – same mobile number?

    Of course, you know I’m just being a bit perverse Dave. There’s lots of great thinking going on in digital. And the landscape has undoubtedly changed.

    But just because someone works in “digital” it doesn’t mean they automatically know any more than everyone else. Some of the biggest idiots I’ve met have come from digital.

    And it is worrying ,as Steve points out in his article, that there is a lack of discipline about the whole thing. No briefs, no insight, just ‘gut feel’. And lots of useless “brainstorms” which are surely the refuge of the deeply uncreative.

    This seems to reflect a disturbing trend in society that sums up this Age of The Idiot, as I call it, where feelings override facts and opinion trumps evidence.

    We have surely learned something about human behaviour in all these years advertising without the internet. Why would we not use that knowledge to help us connect and engage with people in this shiny new medium?

  7. davebirss / Jun 16 2008 4:16 pm

    Hahaha.

    I think I’ve met a lot of those idiots you talk about.

    And I think I met them in useless brainstorms.

    But – of course – I believe that the age of the idiot is pandemic and not just restricted to Webville. And it raises another important issue – an investment in the newcomers to the industry. I don’t think they’re being taught the basic rules. Does anyone have time to train them up? Does anyone care anymore? Do agencies see it as a waste of time because they’ll bugger off in a year anyway?

    I’m not sure what the solution is. Call me and we can work it out over some London Pride and pork scratchings.

  8. Donald Cameron / Jun 18 2008 3:06 pm

    I’m with you both and, if you can stand a brainstorm monkey, I would like to have scratch and a slurp as well?

  9. davebirss / Jun 18 2008 3:21 pm

    Welcome on-board Donald!

    Of course you’re welcome to join us for a scratch and slurp.

    I’ll let you know as soon as we have a date.

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