This year, the industry floundered with guerrilla ads and social networking; 2008 should reemphasize digital media and a return to sales basics
For our round-up of the year in advertising and branding, we asked creative directors from agencies in four locations around the world to nominate work that made an impact in their regions in 2007. Our panel featured Johnny Vulkan, co-founder of and partner at the New York City-based agency, Anomaly; Simon Waterfall, current president of British advertising and design organization, D&AD, and co-founder of London-based digital agency Poke; Jonathan Kneebone, co-founder of Sydney-based creative collective, the Glue Society. Over in the multinational agency corner was Sheungyan Lo, executive creative director, northeast Asia, for JWT (WPP), based in Shanghai.
Their answers and selections of specific pieces of work are remarkable in their diversity—and yet there are also some clear common threads. For one thing, 2007 wasn't exactly a stellar year for advertising as a whole. January kicked off with a guerrilla campaign for a cartoon (BusinessWeek, 2/9/2007) that was taken for a terrorist threat and briefly shut down the city of Boston, costing the general manager of the Cartoon Network his job and sticking the parent company, Turner Broadcasting System, with a $2 million fine. The year ended with Facebook's clumsy introduction of the privacy-invading Beacon ad service; and while certain areas flourished, there were a host of misfires and missteps in the months in between. For example, ad-as-entertainment services such as Honeyshed (BusinessWeek, 5/9/2007) or bud.tv have so far failed to live up to pre-launch hype or deliver anything like watchable branded entertainment. Madison Avenue (and its global equivalents) have been floundering in the dark.
Yet, Johnny Vulkan argues, all of these forays could be a precursor to a paradigm shift. The light switch, in other words, isn't far away. And, he says, the continued industry uncertainty is prompting a return to old-school values, with advertising emphasizing the quality and benefits a business can offer its consumer. "We've moved past the point where bragging rights belong to the creators of articulate analogies or metaphors for why one generic car drives better than another," he says. "Instead we're beginning to see a greater focus on something that is not even a new idea—that the products and services businesses create should be fundamentally good."
GPS Ads on London Buses
It's also an opportunity for businesses—and those marketing their products, services, and brands— to move away from the traditional advertising business model, which for years concentrated on a few lucrative outlets such as TV or radio. That won't wash in this era, and companies are looking for partners rather than mere providers. The proliferation of media opportunities means that more is possible. A new era of creative thinking is being signaled by businesses such as Yell.com, which put digital billboards fitted with GPS technology on the sides of London buses to serve ads tailored to specific locations. And while most agencies have been promising a break from "traditional" advertising for years now, 2007 was the year in which digital technology finally lived up to its promise. U.S. Internet ad spending surpassed $5 billion in the second quarter of 2007, the largest sum yet for that category, according to research from the Interactive Advertising Bureau and PricewaterhouseCoopers. Online advertising contributed 7.4% of the total U.S. ad spend in 2007. Research outfit eMarketer predicts online will account for 13% of all U.S. advertising by the end of 2011. These are incremental, but important, shifts.
"We've been talking about it for a decade or more, but this was the year when everything started to join up," says Waterfall, whose agency specializes in creating digital content. "People aren't so worried about defining work in terms of media; they're thinking more about the motivation for producing work in the first place. It's about value and information, a combination of content and signposting—that's a really important shift—and about time, too." Likewise, while skeptical about the grandiose claims for "multimedia" campaigns made by many agencies, which he suspected had more to do with winning awards than usefully serving a client, Jonathan Kneebone applauded work that eschewed formulas to provide its client with a useful service.
Take, for instance, the much-talked-about Nike (NKE) Plus Web site, designed by New York interactive agency R/GA as a way to provide a useful online community for runners. Available in eleven languages, the site was singled out as an example of the power of branded content. "Running. Music. Running to music. Not only does it fundamentally engage the Nike community, it makes something new from two things that have been around for millennia," says Waterfall. Kneebone adds: "It's an astonishing blend of usable Web design and Nike running technology," he says. "The simplicity and power of what's on display comes down to its accessibility and desirability."
How to Harness Facebook?
Last year, the buzz was about how user-generated content would reshape the industry. This year's hopes rode on the potential of social networking. Yet despite the hype, there's still uncertainty as to how sites such as Facebook and MySpace (NWS) should be harnessed by businesses—or what the impact will be from services such as Twitter, which currently serves text-based ads from the likes of Jet Blue (JBLU). "The population on MySpace is almost as big as Brazil," says Waterfall. "You wouldn't—couldn't—put an ad on Brazil. So why would you put an ad on MySpace? It'd be like sending one ad to a local branch of the Boy Scouts and expecting the entire global organization to listen to—or care about—your message."
And despite applause for its efforts to involve external parties in co-creation efforts, Facebook clearly doesn't have all the answers. Its clumsy introduction of the Beacon advertising service—and subsequent back-tracking—clearly showed that users do care about their privacy, and they do care about being used as vehicles for advertising. That doesn't necessarily mean they won't comply, but the days of consumers acting as unwitting brand ambassadors are over. Brands need to understand that consumers are not necessarily concerned with remuneration; they're concerned with a company's attitude. How brands treat their customers is exactly how they'll be treated in return—and then some. The playing field has leveled and the consumer is a more powerful player than ever. And one thing's for sure: The social networking genie is out of the bottle, and it isn't going away any time soon.
Then there's mobile, the potential of which many advertisers have yet to grasp. With the launch of iPhone, Steve Jobs and the team at Apple brought renewed vigor to the medium. But how will advertisers learn to harness the potential of the mobile medium in a brand- and bottom line-building way? At the pace the world moves these days, it won't be long before we find out.