Whatever happened to advertising?

When the last episode of the seventh and final season of Mad Men aired in May 2015, it was like the last bunch of grapes being lovingly twisted from the vine. A sign that something good had come to an end, and that a period of retrenchment – and a whole lot of fertilizer – was necessary before new growth would come again.

I’m not talking about the literal ending of an epic TV series playing out on US cable network AMC, centred on the lives and loves – physical and pharmacological – of the adman’s adman, Don Draper. Nor am I talking about the end of watercooler moments in advertising, media, and digital agencies around the English-speaking world, catching up on Don’s latest pitch or Peggy’s latest creative or Roger’s latest lip weasel.

I’m talking metaphorically. About the state of the global advertising – the global communications – business, trying to come to terms with the serial disruptions that digital and social technologies have wrought on it since the mid-1990s, accelerating at key inflection points.

1998 – the birth of Google.

2004 – The Facebook.

Valentine’s Day 2005 – YouTube.

2006 – Twitter.

2011 – Snapchat. I could go on.

For it was about the time that Mad Men ended that the wheels started to come off the shiny new digital and social media behemoth. Entirely coincidentally, companies and brands started to question the lemming-like trajectory they’d all been on to spend larger and larger – and suspiciously-round – percentages of the marketing budgets on digital and social. Marketers – whose pounds, dollars and euros fund the entire marketing ecosystem – began to bite back.

I’ve been reflecting on this process of transition – of questioning – since I first heard Matthew Gwyther’s Radio 4 essay “Whatever happened to advertising?” for In Business over the Christmas break. It’s been brought to front of mind time and again during the first quarter of this year because this pace of change is accelerating.

First off, Marc Pritchard – Mr Marketing at the advertiser with the world’s deepest pockets, P&G – dubs digital marketing “murky at best, fraudulent at worst”.

Then Google and Facebook say (and I’m paraphrasing): “OK, you know what, we WILL bring in some independent, third-party validation of our claims about where advertisers’ money goes and ads are placed. Have you met our friends the Media Rating Council?”

But not before The Times runs a two-part, two-day series in which it gave over its front page, a double-page spread inside, and a hallowed Times leader editorial slot to show that big brands are unwittingly funding extremist Islamist, white supremacist, and fake news sites through programmatic placement of ads. For as we all know from the success of vloggers from Zoella down, when lots of people watch your videos on YouTube, you make money from YouTube. Extremist videos often garner millions of views, and Social Blade calculates that a YouTube account generating a relatively modest 100,000 views a day could clock up $150K in revenue in a year.

As a result, lots of big advertisers have got properly pissed off, and ads have been pulled from YouTube and Google by Channel 4, L’Oréal, Argos, Verizon, AT&T. Oh, and the UK Government. On the eve of this week’s Advertising Week Europe, hosted in London, the Cabinet Office announced it was stopping all Government advertising on Google and YouTube. They hauled the head of Google in the UK into its wood-panelled offices to explain how it planned to clean up digital advertising.

Pritchard voiced the concern that many marketers had dared not speak. Now the stampede away from digital – until and unless it sorts itself out – appears to be every bit as fast.

In Matthew Gwyther’s intelligent and wide-ranging half-hour – still available on iPlayer, here – he and BBH’s Sir John Hegarty reflect on how easy advertising seemed to be in the 1980s; how it attracted the best graduates, ahead of investment banking. And how different things appear to be in the stroppy adolescent years of the 20-teens.

Hegarty’s prescription is beguiling. He describes the marketing industry as pathetic; giving up too easily in the face of new technology, in a way that – strikingly – TV hasn’t and doesn’t. Look at the multi-season epics like Game of Thrones; look at the new distribution models like Netflix.

But he hasn’t thrown in the towel for marketing. It takes time for creative people to work out how to use creative technology. Gutenberg, he points out, only ever printed one book (the bible) and that was enough for him. And look where he (and Caxton) took us to with publishing, including to the door of Sir Tim Berners-Lee. He also cites the Lumière brothers, who actually gave up on their invention, the camera, which has ultimately led to Hollywood and Bollywood. And, yes, Netflix.

But truly, as digital technology and media platforms ride out a rough storm, what Gwyther’s essay made me realise is that this isn’t a debate about technology at all. It’s actually little more than evidence of teething troubles in people’s understanding of how to communicate many to many through the power of this new technology.

One to one is fine and easy and doesn’t need much mediating or technology.

One to many needs technology, but there’s no recourse from the many.

Many to many – where many more voices matter, and everyone with a smart device and a WiFi connection is an editor and a reporter – has exponentially more rules attached and so a broad array of unintended consequences. That’s what we as individuals – as citizens – as marketers – as brands are working through. The same game of communication, but with a whole new set of rules.

That’s what happened to advertising.