Bob Dylan once sang, “The times they are a-changin’.” In today’s hyper-connected world, these words ring truer than ever, particularly for marketing and advertising. Advertisers were once the authority on idea generation. Their words, by way of taglines, planted cognitive flags in the brains of would-be consumers and remained on the tips of tongues. Marketers were the best mass storytellers and the best attention-grabbers. But these days, that’s not necessarily the case.
The ubiquity of new technology means anyone with a phone, tablet, or computer is now a content creator. The pervasiveness of social media propagates these ideas from person to person. Meanwhile, new analytics capabilities empower anyone with an affinity for quants to direct placement and inform content creation, thanks to free tools like Google Trends and Twitter Advance Search.
All of which sets the stage for dynamic shifts that will fundamentally change the way advertising agencies do business.
Sound too apocalyptic? Just look at the music industry.
At one point, record labels drove the music industry. They funded handpicked hit makers for long sessions in big, and expensive studios. Top-notch sound engineers guaranteed pristine sonic quality and A-list directors were hired to make lavish, over-the-top videos. Singles had long given way to albums with “filler” songs, meaning fans wanting a hit song had to cough up $17 for the entire album.
"The ubiquity of new technology means anyone with a phone, tablet, or computer is now a content creator"
Business was booming until a viable alternative came along — the world wide web.
The Napsters and Limewires of the world, and ultimately Youtube, iTunes, Spotify, and Pandora, ushered in the disruption in music in a newly networked world.
Here’s why history may repeat itself, this time within the world of marketing:
Ubiquity in Technology. The spread of broadband internet and CD burners allows more and more people to experience free music access (peer-to-peer exchange). For advertising, the devices in our pockets, bags, and desktops allow anyone to be a content creator, not just a consumer.
Medium Shift. The product the music industry was selling — CDs — was no longer the medium people wanted. CDs were a secondary medium to the music itself. Likewise, advertising was once dominated by TV, print, and radio. Today, content relevance is far more important than the channel by which it is delivered. In fact, there's often more credence awarded to content delivered via Facebook, Twitter, or Youtube because it was curated for me, by my people.
Access to Tools. Programs like Fruity Loops and Cakewalk reduced the financial barrier once presented by expensive recording studios. In advertising, firms once provided access to expensive software like Photoshop or InDesign that now can be accessed for free via Reddit or BitTorrent.
Decreased Learning Curve. The web allowed music makers to learn from each other, which reduced the need to apprentice for years before ever creating anything. Today, content creators share learnings about the craft through channels like Youtube, removing the need to being an apprentice at a big firm.
Democratization of the Internet. Broadband internet removed the middleman — radio, MTV, etc. — and allowed these new, non-major-record-label producers to reach music fans directly. Advertising content also needed TV, radio, and newspapers to be seen. Today social network platforms and search engines allow non-agency content creators to reach the public directly.
Content Parity. It turns out people were fine with the varying quality of MP3s. Expensive sonic quality ceased being a discriminating factor for music fans, which leveled the playing field for amateur musicians and producers. While marketers tap big directors to shoot high production campaigns, the content that gets people talking the most is produced by amateur makers. Name your favorite meme that has been shared millions of times and it is likely pixelated with crude font. Production values are no longer a key differentiator.
Distributors as Arbiters of Value. The launch of iTunes told the world — and the buying public — that it didn’t matter if a song was recorded in fancy studios or in someone’s bedroom with free software. It was all 99 cents. Big ad agencies charge for the time it takes to create content while publishers like Vice and ATTN: charge per piece of content, not the time it takes to make it. Again, all content is valued the same no matter what the investment to create it.
Bypass the Traditional System. Online music outlets like iTunes, CD Baby, and TuneCore allowed amateur musicians to reach customers, often sitting shoulder-to-shoulder on the screen with some of the biggest names. In advertising, we’re seeing consultancies like Accenture, IBM, and BCG leverage their strategic expertise to inform creative work once reserved for ad agencies.
Overwhelming Supply of Content. The influx of so much content in the market, from amateur content creators to superstars, with reduced time between album releases, means there’s more desired music than there is time to consume it. That greatly reduced the half-life of a song. Same is true in advertising. There’s so much content in the market now that brands see a greater supply of content than they need.
Access over Ownership. The oversupply of content means fans don’t feel the need to own music anymore. They want to hear music they like on demand. Likewise, brands are wondering why they need one source of ideas from a singular agency of record. As a result, more brands are writing “jump ball” briefs to access the best ideas from a wide variety of potential partners—traditional agencies, YouTube stars, or aggregators. These implications have led to new vehicles for discovery (Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat), consumption (Vice, Complex, Buzzfeed), and creation (influencers, agencies, publishers), which sets the stage to disrupt the status quo of the advertising industry much like the music industry.
Indeed, the times they are a-changin’, and these changes require advertisers to calibrate the way they operate in this ever-evolving media landscape. If the core function of marketing is to influence behavior, then agencies must provide recommendations for their clients which facilitate behavior changes among the target population. To do this successfully, advertisers must widen their aperture and deepen their skillsets—moving from being outsourced creative hands to applied scientists who can leverage the casualty-based theory of human behavior and transform these insights into cultural catalysts that excite people to take action. To most brands, I am sure that sounds like music to their ears.