At the minute, as well as helping out various agencies on secret squirrel pitches, I’ve started filming for a TV show on Current TV about “The Future of Advertising”.
Now before you say, “well that’ll be a short show then” (along the lines of “the wit of Alan Sugar” or “the genuine respect Simon Cowell feels for Louis Walsh”), let’s take a step back.
The death of advertising has been much reported over the last 20 years. And anybody who writes about the industry must occasionally feel like Cassandra in Troy, wandering around with ashes in their hair, beating their breast and saying “woe is me, we’re all doomed, ow my breast hurts, anybody got any anti-ash shampoo,” etc etc.
But there’s a bit more of a chipper feeling among people in relatively elevated positions in the status quo right now. According to an industry analyst from Barclays who I spoke to last week, advertising weathered the latest Recession with more aplomb than in any previous recession – and there’s a bit of a feeling about that “we’ve got away with it again”.
A lot of major clients have maintained their marketing expenditure through the tough last two years.
Not much exciting new stuff has happened, of course, but the belt-tightening, head-lowering, nose-to-the-grindstone, backs-to-the-wall, shoulder-to-the-wheel approach seems to have worked.
But is there another threat looming ?
From a somewhat unexpected quarter.
One of the people I’ve been interviewing for the show is Siobhan Freegard, the utterly charming and delightful founder of Netmums.
I’d thought before she came in – well, we might get a couple of good quotes about social media.
How wrong I was.
(Not for the first, or last, time.)
What I hadn’t expected was to hear several stories of real clients doing real things in a completely different way – and in a way that actually means they don’t need agencies at all.
Martin Glenn of Birds Eye recently said that the role of any marketer was simply “to understand their consumer”. He then added that the challenge was to “move with the consumer”, as they changed their behaviours and habits.
That was at the very heart of what Siobhan was telling me.
She told me how the Sainsbury’s marketing director had recently come and spent some time on the Netmums forums. He’d fielded a few awkward questions – but nothing that his store managers wouldn’t have had to deal with on a daily basis.
He’d talked about encouraging people to shop online at Sainsbury’s – and he’d ended up making a hugely favourable impression on the almost-a-million Mums who make up the community.
Siobhan had invited the Robinson’s marketing director to join the forums, to discuss Fruit Shoot.
Because there was a feeling going round online that “Fruit Shoot Mums” had an unhealthy meal in one hand and a fruit shoot in the other, and that the drink was just a modern version of the old much-demonised Sunny Delight.
The Robinsons chap did a fantastic job apparently, explaining the product range and the truth about the ingredients – in a way that completely reversed the negative feelings.
Siobhan was then approached by someone who wanted to launch an ethical new washing powder.
He did some research with the mums online to help develop the product, and then encouraged people to sample it and report back to the rest of the community.
A fabulous set of responses was enough to get the product onto the shelves of Tesco and Sainsbury’s, where it’s doing fantastically well.
It’s all about what Siobhan calls “getting out of the boardroom, and getting down and dirty with the mums”.
Which, given the tense and sterile atmosphere in most boardrooms, is a pretty irresistible invitation, I’d have thought.
It also takes us a long way from the 1950s bogey-man image of advertisers as “the hidden persuaders” … which can’t be a bad thing.
So … changing deeply-held negative perceptions … altering buying behaviours … launching new products – that’s what an ad agency does, isn’t it ?
In this instance, no. It’s what a woman does who started a website for mums 10 years ago because she felt lonely as a new mum – and who now has an unparalleled relationship with a huge number of massively influential consumers.
Mums make most of the purchasing decisions in any family. The mums on Netmums are, by definition, going to be among the most connected and social of this group.
I reckon I’ve seen a glimpse of the future of advertising – and it’s not what I would have expected.
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