broadcast interrupted

The 'uncomfortable truth' about TV advertising

If TV advertising is falling out of favour, is this a more sobering message about the power and price of brand advertising itself? asks the BMB co-founder and chair David Bain

By David Bain

To paraphrase a famous Hornby (Nick, not Johnny, definitely not the train sets) - when it comes to understanding our industry, we’re all pretty good at the past. It’s just the present that we can’t understand.

What, for example, are we to make of Kantar’s splashy announcement that TV is ‘no longer the preferred channel for marketers’? Or Thinkbox’s swift and steely reply, ‘never mind the bloody preference, feel the effectiveness’? Is this signal or is this noise? Are either critical clues to the state of our sector or just another flashy, meaningless rally in a game of press release tennis?

I think they are neither, I think they are both - because there is something deeper, though less immediately audible, to be heard around the role and status of TV for marketers, brands and agencies. It’s a story about advertising itself, played out most loudly in TV's diminishing status.

This story isn’t found in surveys or press releases. A large, uncomfortable truth whispers through the slow, almost imperceptible disappearance of famous brands and significant categories from consistent TV advertising (be that on linear or digital). Look at what we still sometimes call an ‘adbreak’ and seek out the famous grocery, fashion, insurance, beer, spirit or brands. Much of the time, mass awareness is a game seemingly too rich for many famous brands (beyond the giants of entertainment, tech, automotive, finance and retail).

Another clue wends its way to us every time a client requests, and an agency pitches for, a project where fee and production budgets are combined. ‘This is my budget. You make it work’. An uncomfortable truth snakes through the back alleys of Soho, as the independent production sector fights over the increasingly sparse pickings coming out of creative agencies.

For those hardest of hearing, the sight of digital adspend year by year chomping up a bigger and bigger share of the global advertising pie chart spells things out pretty loudly.

You see brands aren’t investing in mass reach, brand-led advertising because clients haven’t properly read the IPA’s ‘The Long and the Short of It’ or because procurement won’t let them, or because some brutal commitment to shareholder value has created some nihilistic culture of rank expediency. Spend time in many agencies and you will hear talk of ‘educating clients’ into understanding the value of the long term, of brand equity, the power of creativity as an economic multiplier. If we can only make them see, we can make them act, make them spend.

What if all these signals and whispers are telling us something else, something harder to face and more difficult to solve? What if the truth is this - brand led, perception-driving advertising, be that on TV or elsewhere, doesn’t do enough commercially for many companies to justify its costs? If it did, client FDs wouldn’t be giving it the pinch, creative agencies would have more pricing power and the whole, complex, multi-actor advertising supply chain wouldn’t feel like it has its head in a vice. Advertising’s most fundamental contemporary problem is that its price exceeds its value. And from that everything else, including Kantar’s surveys into client channel preference, all follow.

As to why advertising’s price exceeds its worth, well that’s a whole other story…


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