Meaningless words are leading our industry to an identity crisis

Advertising agencies became creative agencies. Media planners became connections strategists. PR agencies went from media relations to earning attention. Words have lost their meaning, argues Magnum & Co's Carl Moggridge, leading to what is potentially an industry-wide identity crisis.

A lot of smart people have proven that language affects behaviour. Unfortunately, a lot of people take advantage of that fact, and our industry is now at a point where words have lost their meaning.

Take Frank Luntz, who advised the US government, as well as big gas and coal companies, to stop talking about ‘global warming’ and start talking about ‘climate change’. It’s the same, but creates fundamentally different behaviour.

‘Global warming’ is clearly something to be worried about. Something human made, that requires immediate action. ‘Climate change’, on the other hand, sounds slow. Something that has always been going on, that you don’t have to worry about it, that can wait.

Adland is pushing itself towards an identity crisis

The unfortunate reality of words, and specifically the labels we give to things (like marketing, advertising, media and public relations to name a few), is that once they’ve lost all manner of meaning, it’s next to impossible to get back to the more helpful, original definitions. Definitions that lead to more effective and efficient action.

Marketing has become solely about promotion. This led to the rise of chief customer experience officers and growth departments. Essentially parts of a marketing function, but now seemingly not marketing.

Advertising agencies used to mostly do TV advertising, but once other things became more fashionable, advertising felt like a dirty word, so they became creative agencies.

And, as a reaction to management consultancies, creative agencies quickly became creative consultancies. In just 12 months, the very same art directors and copywriters have gone from creating blockbuster TV ads to fixing an array of intractable business problems.

To offset the big investment in marketing technology and providing clients with smart programmatic media buying solutions, it was important media agencies did something to make strategies feel less techy and more human. This meant communications plans; media planners became connections strategists. Planning, of course, is a lowly word and beneath a strategist.

PR agencies focused on media relations, only to find out clients and ad agencies simply saw them as the people that got stuff in the papers. As traditional media shrunk, to put the genie back in the bottle, instead of, I don’t know, maybe building relationships with the public, they started earning attention. Earning attention is of course much more difficult and moral than paying for it, meaning it must be more desirable?

This has led to a very confusing state of affairs. Potentially, even an industry wide identity crisis. Unlike Frank Luntz, I doubt I’m going to have the same impact on the communications industry as he did on the environment. So, while an industry wide game of marketing scrabble rolls on, we’re simply going to stick to words that make sense, if that’s okay?

We certainly won’t be told where our work can and can’t live in culture. Or how we build relationships with people. We will use the best idea and method required. Maybe even a TV ad, if that’s the right thing to do.

To finish, here’s some very old (1948), but very wise words about PR from another dodgy chap Edward Bernays, but it’s hard not to agree with his common sense. Thanks Ed.

“The three main elements of public relations are practically as old as society: informing people, persuading people, or integrating people with people. Of course, the means and methods of accomplishing these ends have changed as society has changed. In a technologically advanced society like today, ideas are communicated by newspaper, magazine, film, radio, television, or any other method.”

Carl Moggridge is managing director of Magnum & Co


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