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Advertising and you – Part 1 of 4

We all have the same problem – how to engage with our target market

It’s not new. Advertising is known to date back at least as far as Babylonia in 3000 BC. Vendors would promote their wares by taking to the streets and shouting their sales messages. Later promotions became more formalised and an Egyptian papyrus, from around 1000 BC and subtly advertising the wares of a fabric seller, can be seen in the British Museum. (There is also evidence to suggest that this was a very effective campaign and the business flourished)

A business opportunity was created, although it was some time before it was grasped. Expertise in promoting your products and services was not necessarily something you had in-house, but there were plenty of individuals who had ideas and wanted to sell them.

The first record of a specialist advertising agency is attributed to William Taylor in London in 1786, followed some 50 years later by Volney B Palmer in the USA. From relatively humble beginnings, the advertising industry began to grow.

For the next 200 years advertising was almost entirely seen in newspapers and magazines but, by the 1950’s, rapidly increasing growth in electronic devices, in the form of television and radio, had changed the industry for ever. Suddenly advertisers had a route directly into people’s homes and, ultimately, into their thoughts and desires.

Budgets spiralled upwards as the big brands vied for market dominance. Advertising agencies entered a golden era, characterised by the mini-series Mad Men. The rapid growth of television gave agencies a rich-content format to exploit. As budgets grew and agencies expanded, so the advertising became more and more elaborate and sophisticated (therefore more expensive). Campaigns began to take on a life of their own. Think of the aliens in the Smash campaigns, Meercats for Compare the Market and the love story that drew viewers in their millions to the Gold Blend campaign. Catchphrases such as “because you’re worth it”, “it does what it says on the tin” and “wazuuuup” entered our daily language.

Companies were spending millions of dollars per campaign, in order to stay ahead of the competition. It was an arms race in which only the very largest companies could compete. It did mean, however, that advertising was, through necessity, crafted to very high standards of both creativity and production. Adverts became an entertainment format in their own right.

The famous quote attributed to John Wanamaker - “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don't know which half” – began to haunt company finance directors as six-figure cheque after six-figure cheque was raised to ensure they had the best advertising. But they couldn’t stop. Every time a brand launched a newer, bigger and brighter campaign, competing brands had to outdo it to stay in the game. The only real winners were the advertising agencies, whose budgets by then could fund a small country and still leave change to treat the directors to private jets and enormous expense accounts.

But, like all golden eras, it could not go on forever.

It’s 1993. Enter the internet. The great democratiser. The World Wide Web protocol, brainchild of Tim Berners-Lee, was far more than just a communications tool for scientists and nerds. It was going to connect the world and allow people to share ideas, stay in contact with friends on the other side of the world as easily as friends on the other side of the street and, of course, to look at endless photographs of kittens.

It would also enable small companies to compete on an equal footing with large companies. Allow individuals to address a wider market and sell their goods and services globally.

Idea after idea to grab attention and sell products was tried. From 1994, banner adverts, targeted display, pop-ups, bulk email all came, annoyed the general public and mostly went away again. (In 2014 Ethan Zuckerman, inventor of the pop-up advert, publicly apologised for his invention)

By 2000, the buzz-phrase of the world wide web, “content is king”, took hold. Everybody and anybody with a small amount of technical expertise could and did begin to generate content through blogs and websites. They flooded the internet with oceans, not just streams, of consciousness. (To put this into context, in 1993 there were 130 known websites. Within 10 years that number was almost 41 million, with over ¾ billion users)

Just two years after its launch in 1998, Google set out its commercial stall with AdWords. Not a new idea but Google’s rapid market domination, allied to the vast numbers of websites being published and searches being carried out in the content explosion, made it work. For a while.

The next big change began in 2004, after a few social-media false starts had come and gone. Another revolution was about to upset everything again.

The basis was that users (by this time almost a billion of them) no longer needed to be tech-savvy to generate content. Facebook, and a seemingly endless parade of copycat start-ups, made it simple to create on-line content with very little technical ability and even less thought or censorship. The wide uptake of easy to install home broadband and WiFi, enabled people to access on-line content quickly and easily. And they did.

User-generated content began to wash over the internet like a tsunami. A tsunami that had first passed through a landfill site, and a sewage works. The number of internet users climbed rapidly, doubling in less than three years, feeding the content storm and causing a world glut of kitten photos.

Tech giants, such Google and Microsoft, along with a plethora of VC funded start-ups like YouTube, Flickr and Twitter, launched their social media offerings (or bought other people’s) giving internet users an ever-expanding range of ways to upload their thoughts, photographs of puppies now the kittens have run out, videos and dreams for general consumption.

Amid all of the user-generated content, companies and advertisers spotted opportunities to engage with their customers and their target markets. To have a two-way conversation at a personal level and to encourage their customers to become unpaid brand champions was the dream. To be able to do this without spending millions every year made it a totally compelling proposition for small and large companies alike. And everybody jumped on to the bandwagon-towing gravy train.

Then it began to go wrong.

What, why and The Boomerang Curve, are the subject of the next article but, if you want to take a shortcut and find out how to beat the problem, contact David Acton –

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