What does it mean to be a modern advertising professional?

I stumbled across an article this weekend by Michael Wolff of USA Today, titled “Whatever Happened to Advertising.” In short, he wonders what happened to the good old fashioned (m)ad men of the world. What happened to the traditional advertising agency, where an art director and a copy writer worked in tandem to build tell stories, influence people, and build brands? Where did the creative agencies go? Why everything is centered so much around the number crunching of the digital age?

The article caught my attention because I am a marketing professional. I started off as a graphic designer, went back to school to get my web development education, and then back to school to get my Masters in Marketing and Public Relations. I did these things because on the ground level, I could see how the environment and demands of being an advertising professional was changing.

Wolff’s article, in my opinion, decried the death of the advertising career; a profession destined for the makers of the buggy whip. It mirrored what I find is a common misconception held in the public about what makes for a marketing professional.

No, the creative and artistic natures that underlies the modern agency haven’t died. They’re very much alive and kicking, but as with any profession, our industry is one that is subject to change. Wolff wonders why the agency racket is so enamored with technology. “Is the business about advertising, or is it about technology? Is it a creative business, or a number cruncher business?” Wolff wonders.

It’s not that the advertising agency has closed up shop, but rather is that the abundance of new channels has afforded us new channels to tell our stories. It isn’t that technology has killed creativity, but rather allowed us to fine tune our stories; formatted for an increasingly precise and diverse audience. We’re telling more stores than ever, and in many ways, we’re freed from the limitations of the traditional media that has handcuffed our creative voice for so long. No longer are we limited to 30-second spots, or static display. We now have the opportunity to engage our customers and bring them along with us as part of the story, not just as a silent audience. We build brands through interaction, mutual dialog, and encourage our fans to take an active role in building our brands.

We still love all things print.

We still love radio and television.

But new media has forever changed our landscape, and the modern ad man has had to change with it. The days of Don Draper—as glorious as they were—are gone. Nostalgia has turned from an idyllic sense of how this were, to another tactic designed to appeal to the current generation of customers.

Wolff seems to lament that the art of advertising had been shunned in favor of “moving the client closer to the cash register.” I disagree. Advertising has always been about moving the client closer to the cash register. What has changed is that the movement is now a two-way street. It’s not just us talking to you and trying to convince you to buy our trinkets, but rather it’s us encouraging you to take charge of your experience. We’re inviting you to become part of our family; we’re aligning our story to yours so that you feel more invested in our success, and us in yours.

It’s absolutely true that the marketing gig has changed. So much so that any agency that tells you they know exactly what will happen is lying. Technology has only made our jobs more difficult, not easier. It may seem that we now know more about our customers than ever before. We know where you live, what you ate for breakfast, and that you were in such a rush to get out of the door this morning, that you did so while wearing one blue sock and one brown sock. But that as true today as it was 50 years ago. The challenge for us is to keep up with the change in technology. When is it better to advertise on Facebook than on Instagram? Is it better to run in a local paper, or a local website? Does broadcast TV make sense, or is a viral video more appropriate? Technology has made the foundation of our business so much more challenging—and that how to relate intimately to the people we seek to engage.

Our profession centers on the human condition, finding ways to communicate and relate that feel real; genuine. Technology may make it easier to pinpoint specific demographics, but the need to communicate value and benefit remains paramount. In truth, there’s far more psychology and emotion to our job than technology. Tech just help us communicate better. If we fail to reach our audience, odds are it has more to do with the message than the vehicle. The marketing pie isn’t shrinking, it’s actually larger. There are just more slices to go around.

If you want to delve into the real challenges facing the marketing profession, you don’t have to look much farther than technology itself. Every time we introduce a new piece of software that makes building websites or editing software easier, the greater number the people who feel empowered to handle it themselves. That’s the real challenge. It isn’t that empowering the average small business owner through technology is the threat, it’s that they are often ill-suited and lack the simple resources of time and experience to effectively market themselves. Do-it-yourself marketing is the real threat to our existence. Technology has made it so easy for anyone to copy/paste their way through a website or brochure template, that the value of our expertise and education is being undermined.

No, the lay person cannot market as well as an experienced marketing professional.

No, clipart and stock photography cannot replace the experienced photographer.

No, templates do not create the individuality or replace the creativity of a graphic designer.

It’s just led many people to think they can.

And that’s dangerous—both to advertising as a profession AND to the livelihood of the business owner. Cheaper is seldom ever better. Convenient almost always comes as a sacrifice to strategy. Yet we seem to go out of our way to accommodate both cost and convenience. Where did the education of our customers go?

Why aren’t we bringing clients along with us?

Why aren’t we showing clients what experience and practiced patience can do?

Why aren’t we doing a better job at showing the value of sage advice and deliberate strategy?

No, marketing isn’t going away. The need for advertising agencies hasn’t dwindled. It’s all just changing. Our roles as marketers are no longer limited to that of ‘copywriter’ or ‘art director.’ We must be versed in multiple disciplines: print, social media, web, broadcast, transit, photography, research, strategic development, and storytelling—and this means changing the way we educate college students. We cannot afford to teach a single discipline, but rather build in a big-picture understanding of what it means to market in the 21st century.

We cannot rest on our laurels or on the idea of ‘this is how things have always been done.’ The head in the sand approach doesn’t beget progress and ultimately delivers an unsustainable business model as new technologies enable others to do what we always offered at a premium.

If anything the need for agencies is greater than ever, but we must do a better job and selling ourselves and the merits of our services. We need to draw the line between convenience and competence.

I’ve always found it ironic that agencies seldom advertised themselves; we did very little to solicit business. We seemed to think that our services were implied for any business who wished to succeed. Many of the tools that once made our skills and talents compulsory, are now freely available to all.

Other companies have found a way to make marketing seem simple.

“You too can build a website in minutes!”

“Design your own business cards using our prebuilt templates!”

“Advertise on Facebook and grow your business!”

Technology may have inserted itself as the great equalizer but the reality is that it’s far from it. Rather, it’s the great homogenizer. It gravitates people to the middle. It devalues creativity and uniqueness—concepts that are critical to achieving an identity in a crowded marketplace. Technology cannot replace experience, instinct, and market research. What technology has done is shift the burden of marketing and promotion back onto the business owner under the guise of simplicity. It doesn’t take into account the simple truths that:

  • The average business owner doesn’t have the time to pay attention to marketing trends.
  • The average business owner doesn’t have the time to weigh the available channels to make sure that his efforts are well placed.
  • The average business owner doesn’t have the time to design, code, build, quote, or otherwise manage marketing on top of the day-to-day operations.
  • The average business owner is too close to his profession and often has difficulty focusing and honing communication efforts to simple, digestible, benefit-related points of differentiation.

As marketers, this is all we do. This is our value proposition. We build brands and market share. We free up the business owner to focus on running the company, not implementing promotion. The value we bring to a business is far greater than the upfront cost of developing the campaign and strategies. If anything, our services should make these cookie-cutter solutions less attractive. Over time, I think that will happen. We can make it happen quicker if we draw attention to this fatal flaw of ready-to-made advertising.

Wolff is right. The classic advertising agency is dead; it’s model that’s unsustainable in a technology-driven world. Like it or not, we’re all digital agencies by merit of sheer survival. Despite the influence of this new medium, the underlying skills of creativity, insight, and communication are as important as ever. We still craft stories, build our brands, and bring value to our customers that they cannot easily bring to themselves. That much of our mandate has never changed, and it never will.

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