The future of advertising is content … maybe


Okay, so I admit the last bit of the headline might be seen by some as a cop-out. But to make things clear, I’m not a futurologist, whatever one of those is. I have no crystal ball to help me see how the future will pan out.

I do have 20 years observing the digital marketing scene under my belt – since digital marketing started, really – and the fortunate benefit of having interviewed many people much more insightful and knowledgeable about this stuff than myself.

The headline, as far as I can see, is where we are headed.

Let’s be clear: There will always be a place for brands with the budget to spend big on big brand awareness advertising – television spots, billboards around the side of football pitches, all that sort of stuff.

So when you’re next looking for a camera – assuming stand-alone cameras don’t fall victim to the multi-functional capabilities of the mobile phone – Canon will probably spring to mind as one of the brands you consider because the name has been drilled into your subconscious, thanks to the millions upon millions it has spent on brand advertising.

But both for those brands that have the luxury of big media budgets and those that don’t, I believe a significant proportion of the advertising they run will migrate to a content-led approach.

Personally, I find it hard to believe that anyone chooses to listen to commercial radio, given how intrusive the advertisements are on the experience. In a strange way, I think this is less of a problem with TV advertising, as the viewer can zone out or do something else while the ads are running. The ads are background noise that we have all learned to cope with, and, on the rare occasions they are done well, actually enjoy.

On a mobile device, bad advertising is even more intrusive, given how personal the device is and how in your face the advertising is, presented to you typically when you’re in an app session or browsing a Web site.

For this reason, it has come as no surprise to me to witness the seemingly unstoppable rise of native ads on mobile. Native ads look and feel much more like editorial content than a traditional banner ad, so it’s no surprise that engagement levels are higher. This, in turn, leads those brands that have seen the native light to increase the proportion of the budget they allocate to it, and those that haven’t to start getting involved.

A couple of weeks ago, while in Barcelona for Mobile World Congress, I got the chance to interview Sarah Mansfield, who, as vice president of global media for Europe and the Americas for Unilever, shoulders much of the responsibility for deciding where and how Unilever’s brands should spend their advertising money.

I was keen to get her views on the Internet of Things, the idea of lots of devices around the home and on the street (cars, billboards, wearables) having connectivity and interactivity built into them. After all, I put it to her, we have all been used to interacting with TVs, refrigerators, T-shirts, etc., all our lives, without having to put up with ads on them.

Her answer was illuminating. She told me: “Branded content can be useful to consumers, so it’s about delivering relevant content at the right time, something they will find engaging, informative, or entertaining. It’s less about ads, more about finding the right route in and thinking smarter around it.”

One example of this, she added, could be a recipe of the day delivered to the screen of your refrigerator by Knorr. That, she argued, would be more useful than intrusive, so would likely be well received by consumers.

I think there’s a lot of sense in that. I have thought for a long time that advertising on mobile has to be either useful or entertaining. I think now that will apply increasingly to all marketing channels, and that advertising as content is the best chance we have of making it happen.

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