I’m calling ‘bullshit’ on bullshit

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By Andrew Roberts - Managing Partner

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Late last year, a new class started in the University of Washington teaching students key skills for judging information.

The name of the course? ‘Calling Bullshit’.

The synopsis is listed succinctly as “Our world is saturated with bullshit. Learn to detect and defuse it”.

And they’re not wrong. From lying politicians, fake news, ‘alternative’ facts and conspiracy theories, the world is full of bullshit and we’re all sick of it. It’s negative, self-serving and worst of all it can be dangerously self-fulfilling.

Recently this has seeped into our industry.

There is a rise in so-called industry experts ‘baffling people with bullshit’, using hyperbolic headlines designed to create impact and unsettle the industry, often without real substance, and mostly without any real solutions.

In response, I thought I would adopt 50 cent’s Fifty law and “turn shit into sugar”, to call bullshit on this bullshit and look at it in a positive light, recognising the fact that we are in the most exciting of times. We all need to ‘hustle like Fiddy’ and “transform all such negatives into advantages and power.”

So here is it.

Bullshit No 1: consumers are avoiding advertising

In 2017 Google removed 3.2bn ‘bad’ ads, up almost 100% from the previous year. This has led to the launch of Chrome’s ad blocking extension, a program that appeals to 11% of the global population who now blocks ads. This is a big deal and growing 30% year on year. But why are people ad blocking? According to Google, unsurprisingly, the main reason is that ads are “annoying”, “intrusive” or “irrelevant”.

In another report, the Meaningful Brand Survey found that branded content is underperforming to such an extent that it’s having little impact on business results or people’s lives. But the report also says that 84% of people expect brands to produce content, yet they felt that over half of all content created by brands is poor, irrelevant or fails to deliver.

So people are not avoiding advertising, just shit content.

And there is a lot of ‘shit’ out there – you see brands using patronising messages, stereotypical tropes, spam, intrusive pop-ups and a heap of annoyingly unskippable pre-rolls.

It’s bad for business, and it’s bad for brands.

So, what do we do about it?

As an industry, we responsibly invented the skip button, and we need to stand by the challenge it brings. We need to be addictive, to tell stories people want to hear in ways they will care about.

This means connecting to culture in the places where they are most open to hearing these messages. We know that that social is this place. This is where people spend their time, where they are open to targeted messages and where budget is truly accountable.

Bullshit no 2: social media is dead

You might have noticed an increasing backlash against social, indeed last year for the first time, there was a 2% decline in trust for social, driven mostly by illegal and unethical practices, bullying and fakery. The recent Cambridge Analytica furore has only made this worse. Many people see this as a sign that social has lost its mantel as a force for good. But, if you read further, the report also said this is an opportunity for businesses to step up in social, to think beyond just selling – to educate, inform and entertain and prove they are trustworthy.

This general lack of trust is exacerbated by the rise in media articles claiming that social makes you depressed. This coupled with the numerous articles about the benefits of quitting social altogether and the fact that teens leaving are Facebook in droves, it would appear that social has had its day. But has it? We now check our phones more than 80 times a day, and 30% of that time is spent on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and other social sites. Social media has become a ubiquitous part of our daily life.

So what’s the solution?

As with all technology the world of social is incredibly fast moving – the platforms change their algorithms as often as they change their executives: from Facebook wanting more meaningful interactions to Instagram’s chronology algorithm. Things evolve on a weekly basis. However the principle of great content, delivered at the right time through the right channel applies more to social than any other channel.

Why? Because in a ‘pay to play’ world you can do precisely that.

Bullshit No. 3: the media model is broken

In 2016, the media industry had its very own Annus Horibilis. Reputations were battered, commercial models criticised and trust was undermined. While many are slowly rebuilding through transparency, including agencies such as our friends at Truth, there is a still a way to go.

The question is which way should companies turn? Marc Pritchard’s recent call to reunite media and creative and to chase the elusive John Wannamaker adage by slashing the money it spends on media by 50% and employing sharper targeting informed by its own datasets points to one solution: social media advertising.

This is especially apposite, when you consider that a recent IAB report indicated that Internet advertising spend surpassed TV for the first time in 2017, with the fastest growing component of Iinternet advertising spend being social media, growing at an average rate of 20% a year to 2019 when it will hit £43.8bn.

So how can social advertising buck the media model trend?

The key to making social media spend count and achieve a transparent and accountable result is an ‘end to end’ approach. An approach where connections and content planning is as important as the consumer and brand planning and content is developed is fit for purpose not retrofitting the traditional techniques of advertising.

Bullshit No 4: clients don’t need agencies

Despite a large slice of Schadenfreude, many agency executives felt a chill when Mr Sorrell announced that WPP suffered its worst year in a decade, and that 2018 was not going to be much better. When the biggest sneezes, we all worry that a cold is coming, right?

And from some areas it is. The threats of in-house, the rise of consultancies and the call for getting more with less is bemoaned everywhere. Some agencies are combating this head on, with Brian Whipple, the chief executive officer of the sixth-largest agency company in the world (Clue: It isn’t one of the traditional groups), claiming: “We don’t believe brands are built from advertising anymore.” He believes “they are built from an amalgamation of customer experiences”.

I don’t believe we should see Martin’s woes as indicative of the agency world as a whole – we need to acknowledge that the agencies need to change, and see this as an opportunity, not a threat.

So, what is the opportunity for agencies?

We need to be fit for purpose, to add significant and tangible value to our client’s business. This means being experts at what we do and not just having a specialism, but doing it in a way that is restless, imaginative, brave, ambitious and entrepreneurial, and nowhere is this more evident than in the independent agency sector.

So what is the solution to all this negativity?

It’s not about reinvention. There are far too many conversations about new models, new eras, agencies of the future – most of it is bullshit.

For me it is simple; do great work that works.

I am hugely excited about the future, so let’s call bullshit where we see it, use new challenges as opportunities, and focus on creating work we are proud of. We can become part of the solution not part of the problem.

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