Thursday, 30th November 2023

Advertising is dead, but long live advertising!

By Charles C. Okigbo and Kelechi S. Nwosu
25 March 2021   |   3:08 am
Many advertising teachers, practitioners, users of this important genre of persuasive communication say that it is now dead, although we dare say that this is hardly the case.

Many advertising teachers, practitioners, users of this important genre of persuasive communication say that it is now dead, although we dare say that this is hardly the case. Advertising is resilient enough to withstand all the knocks and shocks, and will indeed become stronger and more useful to the media, marketers, governments, nonprofit organizations, and the wider publics of consumers.

Yes, advertising as we taught and practiced it before the millennium appears to be dying, but gloaters eager to sing its dirge or compose its obituary are likely to be disappointed because the soul and spirit of advertising, its life essence will be with us for a long time, if not forever. The essence of advertising has become more ubiquitous and nearly omnipotent than we can imagine, and so it is folly to think that advertising is dying. Yes, there is disruption, convergence, fusion, some confusion, realignment of roles and functions, some usurpation, disintegration, disaggregation, and many other new developments, yet the essence of advertising remains.

Teaching advertising to mass communication students at the University of Nigeria and the University of Lagos in the 1980s and 1990s, we emphasized the traditions of the classical models of the full-service agency, represented by the pioneering A. J. Ayer, and later David Ogilvy, and closer home Messrs. I. S. Moemeke of Lintas, ‘Biodun Shobanjo of Insight, and Akin Odunsi of Rosabel, among others. It was this classical model that held sway in the founding of our advertising agency Concept Unit in Lagos in 1984, and even up to its affiliation with the global advertising and publicity giant TBWA in 2000. Advertising was simply managing the tripartite relationship among the agency which produced the advertisements; on behalf of the client who paid for these; and placement in the media which exposed it to the public.

Whereas advertising was traditionally seen as the creation and distribution of persuasive messages by or on behalf of the clients, there is now a new sense in which it is largely seen from the practitioners’ perch to be “a moving set of interlocking pieces and parts involving multiple players/promoters who are constantly and continuously evolving, emerging, and adapting so that the field is being reinvented on almost a daily basis” according to the American Northwestern University Illinois’s emeritus professor of advertising, Don Shultz. 

Shultz traces how he was influenced by the AAA (American Advertising Association) in 1993 to understand how, the then disharmonious communication instruments of Public Relations. Advertising, Direct Marketing, Media etc could be harmonized as an orchestra for the benefit of the brands and ideas.

It was in this search for harmony that Schulz changed the Medill School of Communication, Northwestern University’s advertising course. The new aggregate? Integrated Marketing Communication. While we speak today of total communications solutions, across (or even beyond) the line thinking, and customer-centred communication among others, advertising remains at the core of persuasive communication.

Every new medium engages advertising in not-always accurately predictable encounters to yield challenges and opportunities that characterize historical periods. So, it is with the internet which by the mid-1990s showed itself with other e-brand promotions to have the capacity to change the entire advertising landscape. 

These changes are still with us leading to the phenomenal new developments, which have come to be described by various sobriquets, including the TBWA characteristic philosophy of Disruption. To some observers, disruption is evidence that advertising is dying or in fact dead because it is a strategic move away from the tradition of agencies producing marketing messages for clients who are often not much involved in the process.

But to others, disruption is evidence that traditional advertising is dead because the impactful agency of the moment must be more than the producer of staid messages. As Jean-Marie Dru, Chairman of TBWA Worldwide agencies explained it, disruption is actually “disruptive innovation” which means more than the formulaic “thinking outside the box” to include focusing on products, services, platforms, and messages that are not necessarily linear, tradition-based, and reflective of linear thinking.

The old ways should be supplanted by different and more appropriate innovative methods. For any company, especially an advertising agency to perform excellently in our new world of constant change, it must think disruptively, create disruptively, and act disruptively in everything it does. In his words “We must try to avoid anything that leads to linear or incremental growth. We seek disruption.”

In a 2016  paper “The future  Advertising or whatever we’re gonna call it” published in Journal Of Advertising, Prof Don Schultz suggests that challenge for predicting the  future of advertising also lies in the fact that there is no acceptable definition for  advertising . He suggests that a set of three postulates will be responsible for the definition of advertising in theory and practice in future.
“Three scenarios are proposed for the future of advertising: (1) creeping incrementalism; (2) reversal of buyer/seller roles, and (3) reinvention of the field. The author suggests that those scenarios will develop and play out based on the developmental speed and acceptance of the various technologies identified.”[ii]

Similarly, Sarah Begley in an article in Time Magazine makes the following assertion:
 “In the future, advertisers will ask not what their customers can do for them, but what they can do for their customers. Or so argues Andrew Essex, the former CEO of advertising agency Droga5, in “The End of Advertising,” which highlights how brands must do more to break through in the age of ad blockers and commercial-free streaming. Consider Lego and American Girl, which sell toys through movies designed to entertain their target audience, or Citibank, whose sponsorship of New York City’s bike-sharing program did wonders for its brand. (During the two years following Citi Bike’s launch in 2013, the number of people who said they would consider giving their business to Citibank rose by 43 percentage points, according to company data.) Eventually, Essex writes, it may even become commonplace for corporations to sponsor infrastructure projects, like highways and bridges, as consumers continue to applaud brands that are “looking to add value to people’s lives rather than annoy them.”[iii]
Core to the disruption philosophy are the three pillars of creativity, curiosity, and diversity, which are still the immutable markers of success in advertising. They were front and center in the days of A. J. Ayer, David Ogilvy, I. S. Moemeke, ‘Biodun Shobanjo, Akin Odunsi, and all the other traditionalists. They still hold sway in this new age of internet advertising and marketing, showing that some advertising practices may change, but the spirit, soul, and essence of advertising, even in the age of disruption, still remain.

Advertising is a profession for creative, innovative, unusual, curiosity-engendering, and multifaceted ideas. As long as these are not out of fashion, the essence of advertising will live on. In a broad sense of the term, from its pioneer days to the current age of virtual communication, everything we do as people is advertising.  Advertising may appear to be dying, but don’t mourn it yet.

Professor Okigbo teaches strategic communication, advertising, public relations, and mixed-methods social research at North Dakota State University (USA).
Nwosu is the MD/CEO of TBWA Nigeria. He is also a volunteer teacher at the Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria, APCON.