The Zero Moment of Truth
People just love to speculate or wax dogmatic on how different the world of advertising is nowadays but no one has quite hit the nail on the head. I don’t profess to be the one who will finally strike it but I read this article about the future of advertising and I got to thinking about what it all meant. There’s a lot of vagueness and jargon abound today and I have doubts as to whether many of the pundits and pedagogues know what they are talking about when it comes to describing the state of the advertising industry today. I myself can only venture a guess based on what I’ve seen and experienced but in no way do I have the arrogance to suggest that I’ve figured it all out.
I’ve always been close to the ad game and a lot has indeed changed while some things remain the same. The difference to keep note of is that all the change in the ad game is due in large part to external factors while, internally, agencies stay more or less the same. What do I mean? Internally, it’s business as usual in terms of how an agency operates and services clients. Same old story, where agencies hire senior talent mixed with some scrappy juniors and people still change agencies like they change socks. Creative directors and partners still pitch clients as they compete against other agencies for accounts, etcetera, etcetera. If you watch MadMen you can get a general picture.
The big change, I think has been in how agencies approach the market and the people in it. Simply put, people don’t trust brands out of hand anymore and are researching the facts thoroughly before buying anything. Google calls this the Zero Moment of Truth (ZMOT) and it’s one of the big reasons why Adwords and online campaigns in general are part of the frontier now. Furthermore the community itself is setting the trends faster than any agency can come up with and the paradigm has shifted from push strategies to mostly pull.
Before today, say in the heyday of the Madison Ave firms, agencies would help clients sell their product by pitching tailor-made campaigns with the goal of setting and popularizing a new trend or, in some cases, creating a new market altogether. They would push product at you. Using the Mad Men example, Don Draper-type Creative Directors used to think of the general social condition of the public and design a campaign that would at once be palatable to current tastes while also subtly introducing new ones. In effect ad agencies, due in part to their complete control of mediums such as TV and print, could almost tell you what you want, create trust in a brand or company by putting a face on it that lauds its benefits (“they’re grrrreat” or “it’s toasted!”) and, in a lot of cases, do more for a brand’s image than any PR firm could do at the time. People listened to the TV, the Radio and Print, and that was the arena in which brands contended. The prize that agencies fought for in the name of their clients was the hearts and minds of the public on those channels.
In the words of the fictional Don Draper, “What you call love was invented by guys like me, to sell nylons.” Not an easy thought to accept but there may be some truth in that. Think about the range of emotions you experience on a daily basis and the limitations of how you express them and you may notice that how you behave is heavily influenced by the society/milieu you grew up in. If you happened to have grown up in a media-rich environment, the ad game has at some point help socialize you to fit into society as we know it. But where they lose control is word of mouth, writ large: social media.
The game has changed today because ad firms do not have complete control over the digital space and the truth is that many firms, especially the legacy agencies alluded to above, don’t seem have a full understanding of the space. Instead of pitching tailor-made campaigns, we see more pitches make heavy use of credential decks and past work examples with nods to web campaigns. The brainstorming, ideation, and campaign work starts after that, a lot of the time only once the agency nails AOR (Agency of Record) for the client. You can’t blame them, though, because while print and TV advertising does work the channels have diversified. What tends to happen nowadays is that firms are playing a game of catch up and are designing campaigns that are more reactive to trends that have appeared completely independent of their control or planning. Viral content, grass root movements, memes, public sentiment on social networks, and a generally more critical public have all but done away with the days where agencies could dictate the market. The Zero Moment of Truth says that your potential customers will now research the crap out of your product before ever setting foot in the store or whipping out their credit card to buy what you’re selling online. So in effect, they’re not listening to you right away, at least not unless your brand jumps headfirst into the social and digital space with effective social campaigns or banner ads (the modern billboard). What drives me nuts is that many agencies seem to think that running a contest on Facebook or Twitter is the new way to create a market for the product and get into the community, but does it really create brand loyalty the way it was done in the past with traditional pull and push strategies? I think not.
Why are the highly successful ads completely absurd and escapist – like Old Spice. Well, the new human condition seems to be escapism, tech-savviness, Google searches, the Boomerang Generation (A.K.A. Peter Pan syndrome) and pseudo-expertise.
Is this the human condition created by ad agencies who finally “get it” or have the agencies been forced to conform to sell more deodorant?