Advertising’s creativity problem

Written by Sean Fleming

Is the advertising industry about to fall off a cliff?

From Hulu to Netflix, from Spotify to the New York Times, a growing list of service providers are offering ad-free subscriptions.

There are two main reasons:

  • Ad revenues are failing to bring in huge amounts of revenue across the board.
  • Users dislike ads - in fact, the ‘skip ad’ button on YouTube is probably one of the most clicked things on the whole internet.

But how can this be? Surely one of the great promises of online advertising is the extent to which everything can be tracked, measured and improved upon? Why then aren’t ad revenues a healthy reflection of the benefits of better targeting?

I’m not for one second suggesting it isn’t important to be able to measure effectiveness and prove your worth; creative agencies are hired by their clients to achieve an objective and more often than not that objective is tied to increased sales.

But if the creative heart and soul of what we do - or what we should be doing - is constantly at the mercy of a hard-edged commercial imperative, what happens to the quality of the work we, by which I mean the whole creative agency world, produce?

And more importantly, what’s the effect it has on the audience it is directed at?

It’s naive to think there is no compromise.

Watch out… nostalgia incoming! Back in the days before the internet dominated advertising, TV was the main outlet for the ad industry and its clients. Recording the impact of an ad on TV has always been harder than anything used online. There was a greater emphasis on creativity. Apart from anything else, in the days before it was possible to search for and find whatever you wanted, or watch a piece of content when you felt like it, making things memorable was what counted.

So, is creativity being sacrificed on the altar of ROI?

Maybe that’s a bit too dramatic. But I do wonder if there needs to be a bit more balance again in what the creative industry does; when the focus on outcomes is too dominant the outputs may suffer from a little neglect. Having the two in equilibrium is surely going to lead to better all-round results.

If service providers are increasingly offering subscribers ad-free access they’re doing it because the demand is there. People are irritated and turned off by boring adverts that detract from their online experiences. Ads need to be re-elevated to the status they used to enjoy - enjoyed, remembered, and shared because of their creative flair.

Surely one of the most enduring results of any of the work that comes out of the creative industries is when you affect a positive change by way of an emotional response to your work. It’s not a binary choice - you can be creative and results-focused simultaneously; I’m privileged to work alongside talented people who strive for that balance in everything they do.

There will always have to be a business rationale for investment in advertising and marketing, and so there should be. But I worry sometimes the pendulum has swung too far; even industry awards for creative work are looking for little more than numbers for assessing the worthiness of a creative execution.

The focus on ideas, on true expressions of creativity, has diminished. Which leaves me questioning what we will become without that emotional connection.

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