AdMan: What we're seeing is mega-merger madness!

Steve Henry waxes lyrical about why Adworld is scarred and running for the hills, or the safety of their competitor’s arms

What an odd industry advertising is.

During a week when the mean temperatures have reached highs not seen for a decade, we have also witnessed the odd prospect of two elderly gentlemen huddling together for warmth.

I’m not talking about some disenfranchised Darby and John here, I’m talking about two very rich and successful men. And their latest deal – the mega-merger between the two mega-groups, the French Publicis and the American Omnicom – will make them even richer.

Since it was announced, there has been much discussion in the blogs of Adland, as to the reason for this sudden conjunction. I think it was the sci-fi author Philip K Dick who proposed the notion that ultimately the universe would be the play-thing of two giant ad agencies. And people who run ad agency groups are notoriously ambitious.

But I think the reason for the merger is due to the scary fact that absolutely nobody in advertising has any idea where the future lies. The conventional media have been derided for some years now. And for good reason.

Interruptive media is inherently annoying, like the charity muggers outside your local commuter tube station. Or indeed the local drunk, who buttonholes you with his slurred and meaningless words. So, most so-called consumers can’t be arsed with it.

A friend of mine once bumped into Francis Ford Coppola in a restaurant and asked him what he thought about advertising. “It’s second-hand smoke,” remarked the great director and then, turning to the waiter, asked “who made these pizzas? They’re good.”

You’d think the industry would embrace new media, but actually it keeps burrowing back into conventional media – because nobody has figured out how to use the new techniques yet.
(I’m reminded of the Editors track – “Smokers at the Hospital Doors”.)

There was a promising dawn with the arrival of a commercially open internet and people thought – great! I’ll just plaster computer screens with banners in the same way I have plastered city walls with meaningless messages, only it will be cheaper.

Sadly, that didn’t work. The click-through on banner ads is less than the response rate for junk mail.
The industry soon found that it had regressed instead of progressed - it was less liked, and less engaged with, than ever before.

There was another tantalising sunrise with the arrival of social media. People thought, great! I can just put my messages out there and everybody will be delighted to see them – and hey-ho I’ll save money again.

The fallacies in this are beginning to become obvious to even those people who run social media agencies. A friend of mine, Richard Stacy, has written a brilliant book about how few people in social media engage with brands. The figure, he reckons, is about 3%.

Hence the title of his book, Social Media and the 3% Rule. In it he says “Facebook is a very good way of not reaching 97% of your audience.”

After all, why should people be interested in brands and their messages? As the blogger adliterate has put it: “Some exceptional brands enjoy some exceptional relationships with people but, by and large, the vast majority of the business that we do is with people who have far better things to think about than whether they should ‘engage’ or ‘participate’ or ‘join conversations with’ brands.

“The exhausting -sounding concept of ‘always-on marketing’ seems little more than a crude legitimisation for brands and their agencies to pollute the real and virtual timelines of normal people with utter drivel.”

And now we’re seeing the scandal of the so-called click farms, so that the meaningless currency of Facebook Likes has become devalued further. 

What about viral videos, I hear you ask? 

Well, as Richard Stacy says, what are the odds of creating a genuinely viral video? At best it’s 1,000 to one. Maybe 10,000 to one. It’s maybe even higher than that. If you want to launch a business with those odds – good luck to you.

So the ad industry - which has seen its clients poached on one side by management consultants and on the other by producers of content, while the biggest threat of all remains the clients just taking it all in-house – is pondering one of the biggest questions it could face. How the hell does it even talk to the people it claims to influence?

Four years ago, apparently the answer was Second Life. Three years ago, it was viral videos. Two years ago the answer was a blog. Last year the answer was Facebook.

None of those are, actually, the answer.

Against such a background it makes sense, while the wind is whistling icily from the north, to huddle together in herds and hope that something, anything, will come along and save you.

Like those penguins in that nice film from 5 years ago.

Except I’ve just noticed one big flaw in what I’ve written: the collective noun for a multitude of penguins isn’t ‘herd’, it’s ‘colony’ - presumably as in colonic irrigation, which can be very uncomfortable in sub-zero temperatures.

But when it comes to the mega-merger, I don’t know whether we should be thinking about a murder of crows, a tittering of magpies, a bellowing of bullfinches, a crash of rhinoceroses, or a shrewdness of apes.

God forbid it’s an ostentation of peacocks or a lamentation of swans.

Steve Henry was founder/creative director of Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury, the agency voted Campaign’s Agency of the Year three times and Campaign’s Agency of the Decade in 2000. He has won most of the major creative awards, including the D&AD Gold Pencil, the Grand Prix at Cannes, the Grand Prix at the British Television Awards, and the President’s Award at Creative Circle (twice).

In 2008 he was included in Campaign Magazine’s inaugural Hall of Fame, a collection of the 40 most influential people in British advertising over the past 50 years. He now works as a creative consultant.

Steve has just launched Decoded, a ground-breaking programme that promises to teach anybody code in one day.

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