The advertising industry is on the verge of an existential crisis. Once so sure of our creative prowess, the IPA has now begun warning of the "catastrophic decline" in creative effectiveness amid the widespread focus on short-term results.
The public is feeling it too. Earlier this year, the Advertising Association found that consumer trust in advertising has hit an all-time low of 25% – just half what it was in the mid-1990s. Among the public’s gripes were the level of bombardment, repetition and volume of advertising messages they were exposed to.
So, if the industry is nearing a crisis point, how can we pull ourselves back from the brink?
Advertising’s technology hangover
First, it’s crucial to understand how we got here.
The biggest change to the industry since the glory days of the 1990s is not the economy, adland’s structure or even the client pressures. It’s technology.
It may be a distant memory to some (and an unrelatable past for others!), but there was a time when instant connectivity was not an option. The problem is that, now that it is, we are growing less connected to our audiences than ever before.
This problem isn’t exclusive to advertising – it’s a societal conundrum that we are all grappling with; loneliness has been described as an epidemic among the young, filter bubbles are deepening divisions and governments are scrambling to regulate platforms they don’t understand.
Against this backdrop, advertising has a responsibility to chart a new path. We, of all industries, have the understanding and tools to get back to the real, human connections we desire – both as businesses and as individuals.
Audiences are humans, not data points
To do so, we must inspire a reset in the way we think about our audiences. For too long, the advertising industry has been going down a technology rabbit hole. And while we’ve been obsessing over data sets and multiplying touchpoints, big tech has been reshaping the way people think, behave and what they expect.
As an industry, we have skewed towards function and process. We have failed to address what we all know; that people’s expectations have been reset within every type of brand interaction and purchase choice they make.
It’s no longer enough to reach the right person with the right execution for the right brand. We must also meet needs more quickly, more intuitively, with more empathy and with more respect to consumers as individuals. We must shake ourselves free of the robotic torpor in which we process consumers as views or conversions, to be parroted back to the client on a performance spreadsheet.
We must also move away from delineating our audiences into neat segments. While received marketing wisdom will tell you there is such a thing as an "automotive customer journey", for example, our own experiences tell us this is simply not the case.
The human decision-making process is complex and sometimes messy, and it’s time our solutions reflected this. So how do we address this?
At Mindshare, we are using a proprietary tool, called DX (decision experiences), to interrogate people’s decision-making behaviours across both the online and offline worlds to help us better understand this complexity.
We have begun uncovering some unexpected truths and exploding the consumer journey myths that we’ve been holding on to for far too long.
The humans behind new expectations
This isn’t to say that people’s fundamental needs have changed. Rather, we must begin to understand how these needs are manifesting themselves in new behaviours and how we can address them accordingly.
Giving and reading reviews, for example, is a behaviour that now feels intuitive as a consumer but is a relatively new challenge for the industry. In fact, from our research looking at TGI data, the inclusion of reviews in the decision-making process has nearly doubled in the past decade, moving down the funnel from high-involvement decisions to even the most trivial ones. This is a fundamentally human shift in behaviour.
Payment technology has also changed people’s behaviour. Six in 10 adults are now making contactless payments on a weekly or more frequent basis, rising to nearly two-thirds of under-34s, according to the latest Mindshare Trends report.
We all know the less "real" money seems, the more comfortable we are with spending it in higher amounts. Again, this is a very human shift in behaviour that is simply being facilitated by technology – and it’s the humans we must understand, not just the platforms and the data they push out.
Embrace the new unknown
There are many more examples where we are seeing innovation and technology reset people’s decision-making behaviours, from voice tech creating new behaviours around loyalty to algorithms facilitating the discovery of digital content.
The entire industry needs to recognise that performance data sets do not reveal the whole picture. They are not the sole window into people’s lives, which are now changing rapidly. The advertising industry was built on understanding and empathy; it must now rediscover these fundamental strengths and bring clients with it.
But first, we must admit where we have gone wrong; that we have lost some of our human understanding at a time when our audiences are changing radically. If we don’t, it may well be advertising that begins to fade into obscurity.
Helen McRae is UK chief executive and chair of western Europe at Mindshare