"Advertising is a tax you pay for unremarkable thinking."
In the vast chamber, high ranking marketing executives, attending a conference organized by industry paper Advertising Age, shuffled nervously in their foldout chairs before a couple of stifled chuckles drifted over the room, mingling momentarily with the familiar buzz of twitching BlackBerrys. Breathe everyone, breathe.
The damning words came from Robert Stephens, the charismatic founder of Geek Squad and builder of one of the growing number of brands that have been built without the help of Madison Avenue. I think it would be safe to say he's done a pretty good job.
Remarkable Year for Marketing
A few weeks earlier I'd heard Scott Cook, founder of Intuit (INTU), speak. Intuit produces Quicken and QuickBooks financial software. "A brand is what a friend tells a friend it is. Not what a company tells them," he said firmly.
Shuffling executives, nervous chuckles, more twitching BlackBerrys. You get the picture. This year hasn't been a wonderful one for advertising professionals—unless your business is advertising conferences entitled "The Future of Marketing"—but 2007 will prove to have been a remarkable year for the marketing profession in general.
The best stories of well-marketed businesses and brands have come from companies that haven't spent their money on conventional media but have adopted new approaches. Take for example the plucky crew at Blendtec and their wonderful Will It Blend? viral video series that has been viewed more than 70 million times. They're actually making money from their marketing by selling advertising and taking commissions to blend things, all while enjoying exponential growth in sales of their iPhone-obliterating blenders.
Thinking Differently About Brands
Or look at the grassroots efforts of a sports journalist in Britain who created My Football Club, a Web-based initiative that galvanized more than 50,000 soccer fans to become owners and managers of fledgling football club Ebbsfleet United. These new owners get to vote for who is on the team and who gets bought and sold. All of this was done with a marketing budget of essentially zero—yet they've already attracted big-name sponsors such as EA Sports (ERTS) and Eurostar.
This may well be cause for concern if you're an advertising or media agency whose business model is predicated on clients spending lots of money on creative work, and then buying media. But it may end up being good news for the people who actually buy products and services—or those who care to think differently about what's really needed from brands these days.
The money hasn't disappeared; it's just that some of it is being invested in places other than "traditional" advertising—primarily in products and services themselves. The creativity that was once the preserve of advertising has surfaced in rapidly expanding research and development departments at a new generation of creative innovation businesses. And a fair chunk has found its way to ambitious Gen Y'ers who have their hearts set on following the example of Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg.
A Business Imperative
We've moved past the point where bragging rights belong to the creators of articulate analogies or metaphors for why one generic car drives better than another.
Instead we're beginning to see a greater focus on something that is not even a new idea—that the products and services businesses create should be fundamentally good.
This is not some romantic notion of a utopia where only good or useful products exist—it is a business imperative. Where we used to advertise 'at' people, technology now creates more opportunities for people to answer back—not just to the advertisers themselves, but to everyone.
If your product is not as good as the competition, or if it fails to live up to your claims, the world will soon know about it and no amount of cleverness will save you—nor should it. Businesses ought to welcome the feedback and dialog. Harnessed correctly, it will make things better for everyone.
Learning From Facebook
Pick any industry and there are people experimenting with innovative new models—in many cases bypassing traditional channels on the way to marketing their thinking. Radiohead's "pay what you want" album release or the recent launch of rcrdlbl.com, a brand-supported model for free independent music, are just the latest rounds in the music industry's creative destruction. Both represent creative thinking that bears little resemblance to the models of old.
And then there's Facebook, unquestionably the media and marketing story of 2007—and the plot continues to thicken. A bold move earlier in the year moved the audience beyond the college heartland, and the opening up of application development has helped to expand a passionate, vibrant community populated as much by affluent young professionals as by students. But the community can also bite back.
A Remarkable Opportunity for the Industry
Days after announcing the innovative new Beacon advertising model, a hastily formed group on Facebook accused the network of abusing user privacy. Fifty thousand members later, the model has been changed and the faltering start may be enough to demand a more radical rethink. In this instance, Facebook put an advertising model—and pressure to show quicker returns—ahead of its community. To its credit, executives do appear to be listening. And listening may just be the most important skill for marketers and the media in 2008.
The year that saw São Paulo ban outdoor advertising for being a "blight" on the city has been a difficult and confusing time for the industry. But it really represents a remarkable opportunity. Technology has, intentionally or not, given us open channels to millions of people, and with them instant feedback on the products we make and the messages we deliver. Choose to ignore that and we will certainly fail. Choose to listen and we can deliver better products and services in a genuine way. That seems like a good idea.
For a look at Vulkan's pick of the year's top innovations and trends in advertising, see BusinessWeek's slide show.