TRA Journal

In the mouth of the sabre-tooth: re-imagining the advertising playbook

Andrew Lewis

As a species, we are not good at change. Indeed, at a cognitive and biological level we outright fear it. When faced with ideas or data that threaten pre-existing beliefs, we respond much in the same way that our ancestors might have when faced with a sabre-toothed tiger. Our emotions kick in before our rational brain, presenting fight or flight as solutions long before reasoning crosses our minds. And when reasoning does kick in, the colouring effect of that initial flood of emotion means that often our cognitive activity devoted to understanding new information more closely resembles rationalising rather than actual reason. We fight to hold onto what exists already, regardless of how rationally right it is.

Understanding this truth about our own brains helps make sense of lots of things in the world – from why climate change denial occurs in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary, right through to why Two and A Half Men managed to run for 12 seasons before, mercifully, being put down.

It also helps us understand something about why our practices in the field of marketing—and how we use media to drive marketing success—have taken so much time to even begin to shift, despite massive changes in what we know about how people and brands work, and a fundamental change in how the world itself actually works.

What’s interesting, in considering these largely accepted changes, is to question how much corresponding change we have achieved in applying these ideas to how we think about using media to achieve success.

Sure, we have accepted that media has fragmented, and we have responded in kind by increasing our coverage of emerging channels. And likewise we have responded to the emergence of social media by invading this space with sponsored messages. But how much have we really thought about what these fundamental changes mean to what will drive success for marketing via our media thinking? What should our playbook look like in media as a response to these changes?

New game, new rules

We should probably start at the beginning, by looking at how the traditional media market has changed. There is endless talk on media fragmentation, but what does this actually look like in reality for a typical household? 

In 2013, the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business ran its latest in a series of studies looking at how much media was available to, and used by American consumers, using data inflows from industry to accurately measure the market. It found two fascinating insights into the media market and how it was changing. 

First, the study showed media available for consumption by people is increasing rapidly. In 1980, the typical household received 9.8 gigabytes of information a day, primarily from TV and radio. By 2012, this had increased to 63 gigabytes, with the vast majority of increased data supply coming from digital channels, such as general internet use, social media and streaming video. And, importantly, the rate at which media was becoming available to households was increasing dramatically. From 2008 onwards, the rate of media data supply to a typical household had reached a point where it doubled every two years.

The second interesting point from the USC study, is that while media supply is increasing radically, actual consumption of media by people is not keeping anywhere near pace with this change. 

From 2008 onwards – the time where media content available started doubling every two years – the growth in linear hours of content actually consumed by people was only 5 percent per annum, from 11 hours a day to 14 hours a day.

When you put together these facts around media hours available and hours used, the ratio of media supply to consumption is escalating rapidly. To put this in a meaningful context, if you went right back to 1960 there was 82 minutes of content available for every minute used by people. By 2005 this had reached 884 minutes available to every minute used. And by 2015 the figure sat at a staggering 2,000-plus minutes available to every minute used.

The upshot of all of this, is that our characterisation of transformation in the media landscape should not just be one that highlights fragmentation and increased supply, but one that accepts a rising imbalance between supply and demand. Because this is where issues will likely be found for the application of media to commercial purposes.

Indeed, oversupply creates a couple of very interesting scenarios for anyone looking to harness media to convey commercial messages. First, because we have such a vast excess of media available compared to our needs, as users we can afford to be very choosy about what content we engage with. In fact, we have to be to avoid cognitive overload. As such, there are likely to be more ‘active’ viewing/listening occasions in the mix, and with this an increased mental agitation with the interference of unwanted commercial messages. They are not washing over us in a passive way, like they were in the days of TV and radio-dominated media supply, they are there in front of us, delaying our access to the content we wish to view, distracting our attention.

Perhaps even more importantly, because there is such a huge supply of content and options for us in media compared to our needs, we inherently value less the contribution of any commercial sponsor in bringing us this content. 

In the past, with limited options available, the value exchange of watching ads in return for being able to access Magnum P.I. on a Friday night was favourable to the viewer, because without this sponsorship, there would be little else available. Now the deal is not so palatable. The commercial message is less relevant to us.

Now, expanding this point regarding value and relevance out, the impact for commercial users of media is further exacerbated when we consider the nature of the media channels which are contributing much of the growth in available supply information for people – namely, digital and social ones. 

Not in my newsfeed

As opposed to TV, radio and print, whose commercial models were deeply rooted in ad revenue from inception, these new channels have often been seeded with the public on a very different value basis. Social media typically has no advertising presence in its founding period, and many digital channels such as Spotify or Netflix allow the user to subscribe out of the interruption of ads. 

As such, when our usage of these media channels grows, so too does our exposure to advertising-free media models. Rather than commercial messages being the norm in life across media, they become more noticeable as an intrusion. Especially when they start to appear in spaces like our social media feeds, or streaming media content, invading what was once understood as ‘private’ spaces.

Highlighting this point, the Wall Street Journal recently quoted a survey showing the number of people finding online video ads more annoying than TV ads was triple that of the reverse scenario. 

And this shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. One of our big learnings from behavioural economists, is that context plays an important role in helping us 

determine the value of things—which is why a t-shirt sold in a high fashion boutique can be seen as providing more value than essentially the same one sold in Kmart. 

Channel and environmental context is important for our acceptance and value attribution with advertising, and the changing channel mix within the expanding media landscape is placing further pressure on the value equation. 

So, in considering what a media playbook would look like in order to drive success under the new marketing paradigm, we must recognise: firstly, that commercial messages offer less value and are now less relevant in traditional media channels due to a rapidly expanding oversupply of media options available to people; and secondly, that that the explosion of digital and social channels has made advertising less accepted.

The point here is that simply following people into new media channels with the old advertising model is unlikely to work. 

Cultural flip 

On top of our understanding as to how the media landscape has changed from a supply and demand perspective, our revised media playbook should also consider how changes in the media landscape have altered the role media plays in our lives from a cultural perspective.

In a recent Harvard Business Review paper, Douglas Holt, cultural author and former Harvard Business School professor, lays out a compelling argument for how social media has changed how cultural innovation occurs in society. 

Traditionally, he argues, cultural innovation stemmed from the margins of society. Fringe groups and movements, artists and free thinkers would challenge our mainstream norms and convictions, and from this fringe base, companies and mass media would pick up on these ideas and diffuse them into broader society. In this practice, advertising and brands could find huge cultural cache as innovators of taste and style, guiding our thinking with new interpretations on how we think about ourselves as a society. 

Now, however, Holt argues, this role has shifted from mass media and advertisers, to social media and its user communities. Because social media can bind together crowds that were once quite isolated, it dramatically increases the speed and effectiveness with which communities that are involved in particular subcultures can collaborate. The result is that cultural thinking and ideas form far more rapidly, and can diffuse much faster through networks back into society.

What this suggests is if our relevance in traditional media is under threat, due to the low value people now place on content sponsorship (advertising), then perhaps social offers a better starting point for thinking about how a brand goes about achieving relevance. It advocates, essentially, for a change in our starting position with regard to media usage. It suggests that a media strategy born from social is likely to find more relevance translated into mass media than one that starts in mass channels and is translated into social. 

How we think about the starting point for media planning may well need to flip from traditional approaches to recognise the change in how we achieve relevance. And emerging from this change, how we translate activity across media, and the order of this activity may need to change as well.

But before this happens, we must consider how this fits with what we know about the factors that are known to create marketing success. So we need to question how well a social-originated media approach to work would fit within our empirical knowledge.

Backed by theory

Perhaps the most widely considered authority on marketing communication success is the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA), which has conducted a number of long-range studies into which elements of advertising and media create growth for businesses. In particular, a paper by Les Binet and Peter Field, The Long and the Short of It, which examines 996 campaigns, shows that the most effective ones over the long run share some key qualities: they are emotional in their approach, they are consistent in their application and they are broad in their reach.

Considering the role of emotion, it is easy to see how a marketing play built from an emerging crowd culture would work well to generate emotional brand connection. We understand and make sense of the world through story and metaphor. When we can identify with real people and stories, mirror neurons fire off in our brains heightening emotional connection – this is why we love reality TV. It is easy to see how a brand campaign originating from social spaces, translated into other mediums might connect better with us than ones working in the reverse order. 

Indeed, within Binet and Field’s findings on emotional response, they note specifically that it is ‘fame’ campaigns that produce the best long-term results of all, ones where the consumer is so emotionally connected that they are motivated to share their views on it with others. It is very easy to see how a media approach that uses a social base to translate into mass media, rather than the reverse, could work well here.

Consistency and reach, the other critical dimensions, speak to qualities long considered in media. Regardless of where marketing communications are seeded, it is important channels create breadth and consistency in how messages are distributed. Both in terms of the media they cover and the length of time they cover. Again, considering this in light of a social-originated media approach, there is a natural evolution and longevity to a campaign basis which forms from human cultural movements and evolves with these over cultural flashpoints. By applying creative to interpreting these, rather than tasking it to create them, a brand’s communications are much more likely to seamlessly evolve than they are to step-change with the creative shifts forced by a mass-media originated campaign.

So where does all of this leave us as we grapple with our new playbook?

First, we cannot expect traditional approaches to media planning and management to work in our new world. The fundamental change in media supply and demand mechanics mean that old fashioned ‘content sponsored’ advertising offers little value to people anymore. They no longer value the intrusion enough to tolerate it, especially in emerging digital and social channels which have weaker historical context for their presence. We can already see the behavioural consequences to this in adoption of technologies such as adblocking.

Further, we must accept that brands and their marketing no longer have the cultural relevance they used to, thanks to social media’s ability to connect crowds and rapidly disseminate cultural change. The upshot of this is marketing communications that originate from internal ideas and are disseminated via mass media will no longer find traction as easily. A new approach will be required to find cultural relevance.

If we work with changes in cultural dissemination, we may find more success flipping traditional media models to start marketing thinking from a social space. Identifying emerging crowd cultures, aligning with cultural change rather than leading it, shifting with flashpoints to remain relevant. And translating this into how we approach mass media, rather than the other way around. 

This new approach may well improve our ability to create activity which truly resonates on an emotional level with people. Developing messaging that resonates on a human level, allowing us to connect via story and metaphor.

What we learn, above all else, in looking at how the media playbook might alter to support marketing success under a new paradigm is that it must change if we are to be successful. And that if we can get over our biological aversion to the idea, we may actually find greater success and deeper connection with people than we have ever seen before.

We may find growth in confronting the sabre-tooth tiger.