What is the point of advertising?

Communicators are taking more notice than ever of paid media as marketing disciplines converge, but many question the future of traditional TV advertising. Is it quickly becoming a busted flush and what does that mean for PR pros?

Image via Kars 4 Kids / YouTube
Image via Kars 4 Kids / YouTube

PR’s sole jurisdiction used to be the environment of earned media and brands and agencies would do everything they could to get coverage in print and on television – or to mediate the way issues were covered therein.

And that is still the case to a certain extent. Media relations is an important part of any PR pro’s arsenal and few things beat the impact of a positive piece on the front page of The New York Times, in Vogue’s September issue, or a segment on NBC’s Today show.

However, times have changed quickly and communications and marketing now encompasses paid, shared, and owned media just as much as earned.

But let’s consider that paid element for a moment. When was the last time you actually watched a TV ad? Or do you, like me, actually find them painful to view?

Do you consume most of your programming on-demand or on catch-up, specifically so you can scroll quickly through the ads at high speed?

On those occasions when you simply have to watch TV live, such as during a sporting or entertainment event, the advertising is a necessary evil that grates intensely as part of the consumer experience (and yes, I know the programming relies on advertising for much of its funding.)

But come on, when that super-annoying Kars4Kids ad comes on screen surely you, like me, dive for the mute button on the remote control to avoid another "assault on the senses" foisted upon us by those spelling bee rejects (word picture courtesy of the San Francisco Chronicle’s Peter Hartlaub)?

A survey of this newsroom also uncovered particular disdain for personal injury and medical negligence no-win-no-fee lawyer ads; the 666-6666 Carmel limousine ads; the Christie Brinkley Vacation ads for Infiniti; and the Peyton Manning Nationwide Insurance jingle ads. Then there’s 877-CASH-NOW, the Kia hamsters, or the #It’sATrap anti-smoking PSA – I’ll spare you the links and I’m sure you all have your own personal pet hates.

During ad breaks (and programming as well to be fair) most people head straight onto their cell phones to check email, social media, or anything but the TV spots. Last week I was following a – prerecorded - poker tournament on ESPN and during the ad breaks fired up Periscope to see what Daniel Negreanu, one of the participants, was saying about the hands over the live-streaming app.

This is a sample of one, I know, but this sort of interactive and enhanced content experience is much more attractive to viewers nowadays than watching a series of irritating TV ads.

There’s clearly still a role for these activations, or else why would brands still invest millions of dollars in continuing to deploy them. But I sense the mood is shifting.

Film and video, from six-second short-form treatments on Vine to long-form 60-minute films, is central to most effective modern branding campaigns – but the focus is no longer on broadcast TV advertising.

A survey by media management software firm Strata found that, in Q2 2015, 20% of agencies are likely to allocate 11-25% of their clients' budgets to social media advertising, up 24% from Q1 – and 93% of agencies are using Facebook in the ad campaigns they create. Strata also discovered a 66% increase in interest in advertising on streaming and online video in Q2 2015 compared to 12 months previously.

Data from Standard Media Index for the nine-month period to June 2015, the so-called "broadcast year," found that spend on digital advertising was up by $3 billion year on year. The report suggested about $1 billion of this was organic growth and that the majority of the other $2 billion had been shifted from traditional broadcast TV advertising.

Meanwhile, there’s a clear correlation between paid advertising on social media networks such as Facebook and increases in sales. And in-house and agency PR pros are often leading on the construction, planning, and buying of these campaigns, alongside the shared, owned, and earned parts of the activations.

The ability to analyze click-through trails, especially in a retail environment, and tie those journeys to actual revenue is a powerful story to take to the C-suite – and it’s becoming less easy to replicate this effect in a broadcast TV environment, an environment where PR has never really played and has no particular desire to play.

To be clear, there are a whole new set of questions about digital advertising and its effectiveness, including debates around programmatic, ad fraud, ad exchanges, mobile video, and so on, which are beyond the scope of this piece. But the fact remains the tide is shifting from TV to digital and not even King Canute could hold back those waves.

Clients have recognized this. That is one of the drivers behind the recent unprecedented spate of media reviews. But they are pushing for different relationships with all of their agency partners. They want different services, new perspectives, and big ideas implemented creatively, from whichever discipline steps up to the plate most effectively.

TV advertising is still part of the communications and marketing mix, but its influence is declining fast and that trend is only set to continue, which by extension means PR pros have the opportunity to play an even greater role in brands’ communications and marketing activity.

This theme will be under discussion at PRWeek’s annual conference in New York City on September 16, notably in a session entitled "Is the agency model broken?" Michael Farmer, author of Madison Avenue Manslaughter, will be part of the debate. We’ll also be reflecting this in a big feature in November, particularly in respect to the impact these trends will have on agencies.

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