2016: not apocalyptic, but a grim year for adland

December 20, 2016

 

It's that time of the calendar when we look back on 2016 and conclude that, across the piste, it was a pretty bad year for advertising. I can't think of much that went right, but I see a whole lot that went wrong. 

While there will be individuals and certain agencies that can look back with a degree of satisfaction, the industry as a whole will be happy to turn the page. 

 

From media agency practices to the decline of print, and from adblocking to sexism and trust, the industry is facing an almost perfect storm of threats - mostly internal, mostly self-inflicted and often the result of self-delusional thinking. Let's look at some of the big issues. 

 

 

1. Adblocking is here to stay

 

There's a lot of wishful thinking and hot air around adblocking, but the truth is that the industry has been woefully slow to tackle the challenge. If only the ads were better...if only the targeting was more precise...if only publishers weren't so desperate for money they would decrease the digital clutter...if only publishers could charge for content then they wouldn't cram their pages so full...if only the ads were quicker to load/used up less data allowances. Yeah, if only pigs could fly. 

 

The issue, it seems to me, is that it's everyone's problem and no-one's directly. Meanwhile the opportunists (like Adblock Plus) sniff money and pile in with solutions that appear to have the industry's interests at heart but in reality only serve their own agendas. 

 

I laughed when I read last week about yet another initiative, this time from programmatic specialist the Rubicon Project and its super new wheeze, risibly named Project Awesome. 

This is effectively a consumer-oriented white-label exercise in which they can choose which ads they wish to block and which they wish to allow. So far, so good. Except that most people won't be bothered to spend the time doing a pick-n-mix list when with one click they can block them all. 

 

Just to make matters worse, Rubicon believes (its words) "the more a user utilizes the solution the better it gets at delivering more of the ads that the user wants". Insane. Say I like travel ads. Do I want more? Of course not. I'm already bombarded.

 

Anyway this has been tried before. Anyone remember Adam Freeman, between his times at the Guardian and Bloomberg, and his AdPlus adventure? 

 

 

2. Agency transparency...media and creative/production

The US Association of National Advertisers report into media agency practices landed just before Cannes (great timing) like a hand grenade going off in a crowded room.

As it was a closed room, we still don't know the extent of the casualties. Many in the agency world wish the problem would go away and do their best to bluster, deflect and dissemble. They claim the fall-out so far has been minimal, and that proves the report was a damp squib. I’m not so sure. It’s like jumping out of the 30th floor; until you hit the ground no harm is done. 

 

Next year may be the one when the damage is felt. And there are reasons to think it won't be just a US problem: one, the ANA members are mostly multinationals; two, the UK now has its own local whistleblower in former Havas executive Scott Moorhead who seems to know where the bodies are buried; and three, in ISBA executives Debbie Morrison and Mark Finney, the UK advertiser body is getting its teeth into the issue. 

 

A word of warning though. It's important, as Brian Jacobs points out here, that media agencies aren't tarred with the same opacity brush as the holding company trading desks. Equally, though, it's important to remember that it is the holding companies/trading desks that, these days, hold the whip hand. 

But it is not just the media side of things that is under the spotlight. As of last week, the US government launched an anti-trust probe into creative production. The accusation - that the holding companies, their in-house production arms and their creative agencies, have been rigging the bidding process against independent production companies - is a big one. 

 

Production has long been a lucrative and high-margin if, to the clients, largely unseen, revenue stream and the investigation could drill a hole into agency profits. Other than IPG, which admitted it was in the frame, we don't know which groups are being investigated, but the market reacted immediately to the news by marking WPP shares 2 per cent lower, before rising again after an analyst estimated production accounted for 2-3 per cent of its revenues. 

 

Whatever, this is serious in two ways. One, it's potentially another way in which clients can lose trust. And two, when the US government sticks its nose into something it can bite hard. Just ask the banks fined billions for malpractice. Or FIFA. 

 

 

3. Pervasive sexism

 

Oh dear. Despite the best efforts of the industry to put sexism behind it and embrace, you know, the modern world, JWT communications director Erin Johnson's allegation against then chief executive Gustavo Martinez proved a tawdry tale and suggested that, for every step forward, pockets of recidivism remain. 

 

The case is still ongoing, but at least JWT (seemingly reluctantly) did the sensible thing and replaced Martinez with long-standing WPP-er Tamara Ingram, a byword for decency and integrity. Which is more than you can say of the way JWT behaved in the immediate aftermath of Johnson's allegations. 

On the subject of recidivism, we need to talk about Kevin...Kevin Roberts, that is. 

 

This is the man with the job title 'head coach' whose responsibility was to develop Publicis talent, but who claimed that the gender war was "so fucking over" - in other words he could disregard about half the people he was supposed to be coaching. In the end, after much theatrical humming and hawing from Publicis, Kevin was suspended and then fell on his sword - helped by a generous 'going-away' present of a few million. 

According to Publicis' annual report for 2015 Roberts, whose salary was north of $4m, performed his tasks in an "remarkable way..in addition to the individual support he provided the [senior management group] P12 members". Note that, of the 20-strong P12 group, just two were women. I wonder what this year's annual report will say.

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