Lack of old school strategy is the reason for digital advertising’s struggles

Adland veteran Roger Pugh argues that the digital ad industry's problems are down to one simple thing: a failure to understand its clients.

“Never submit a strategy or an ad to a client before you and the creative team know everything about the client and you have all used, experienced and understood the brand.”

It was the best piece of advice I ever received, a welcome gift from David Abbott, creative director at Doyle Dane Bernbach in London, at my first job in advertising as group account director.

When I joined the world of digital advertising in 2016, you could imagine my surprise when I discovered that some clients and media agencies aren’t interested in advertising strategies, they merely want somebody to write some advertising content and get it into Facebook news feeds.

At the risk of appearing like a dinosaur, I expressed a view that this was hardly good advertising practice. The subsequent news, therefore, that some practitioners of this art were finding the going hard was not a shock.

The practitioners who succeed in it will almost certainly base their operation on principles not all that dissimilar to the ones drilled into me in London and New York in the 1960s.

Online advertising is designed for a vast and growing market comprised of people always poised to click through to the next page. It is also relatively complex for marketers who seek more traction. Experiencing and understanding the brand inside out can be the difference between a unique selling proposition and merely saying the same kinds of things as everyone else.

At DDB in New York we won the Burlington Socks business. The account and creative teams weren’t happy about being obliged to wear the socks, but it resulted in the highly decorated campaign about Burlington Socks never falling down.

I’ve spent many pleasurable hours at the Sara Lee headquarters in Deerfield Illinois sampling new frozen baked goods with a view to reinforcing yet again that ‘Everybody doesn’t like something but nobody doesn’t like Sara Lee’.

All these activities underlined an absolute belief that if you don’t get the message as right as you possibly can, then even the most brilliant communication will be undermined.

Digital advertising, especially the native variety, has a huge potential for disruption, but if we don’t apply the same high professional standards practised by leading offline advertising agencies to the digital world it will neither be competitive nor offer value for money.

You wouldn’t believe how disruptive the VW Beetle advertising campaign was when it launched in the US relatively soon after the end of WWII. It took ages to sink in that it was possible to sell cars with a campaign that poked fun at them.

Digital publishers who meet high standards in advertising development are uniquely equipped to succeed in the digital advertising market. They are logically the only source of genuine native advertising created to exactly the same style and quality as editorial content.

When digital advertising doesn’t work as well as clients would like, the diagnosis is often the lack of strategy behind the content. Perhaps a team that would prefer to be doing television created it, or think the client would be better off using social media.

Or maybe it’s because the client believes the role of digital advertising is to attract eyeballs rather than engage and convert minds.

Roger Pugh is director of native advertising for The Big Smoke Australia. 


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