Thursday, April 10, 2008

Advertising's Purpose Is No Longer To Sell

When I first uttered this phrase a year ago in a marketing meeting with one of the big car companies in Detroit, I was thanked for coming and politely showed the door.

They weren’t quite ready to hear what, to me, had become obvious. Can’t really blame them, actually, as it is a fairly frightening thought. After all, if the purpose of advertising is not to sell something, then what the hell is its purpose?

And, even more importantly, why is so much money being spent on it?

Not the type of questions people really want to attempt to answer if they don’t need to. Simpler, really, just to ignore the concept all together. Which is why I got “Thank you for coming. And don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”

But the fact is, as digital technology shifts control to the viewer, it also shifts the purpose of advertising. Which is why the role of advertising is no longer to sell.

Is to help people buy.

“Oh, I see, semantics,” some of you will argue. Buying and selling after all, are the same thing.

Are they?

I don’t know how many of you saw the brilliant article that ran in Ad Age last month? In the article, Jakob Nielsen, an ex-Sun Microsystems guy, and now a consultant for Fortune 500 Companies for all matters digital, said the following. “The basic point about the web is that it is not an advertising medium. The web is not a selling medium; it is a buying medium. It is user-controlled, so the user controls, the user experiences.”

That he said this over a decade ago only makes it more extraordinary. Which means for more than ten years, we’ve been looking at reality for what we want it to be, rather than for what it actually is.

“The web is not a selling medium; it is a buying medium.” Why? The user is in control.

If Jakob is right, then advertising’s job, when the user is in control, is not to sell. It is to help people buy.

Now, name a digital medium that ten years from now, the user will not be in control of.

You see the problem.

And when you don’t immediately dismiss it as semantics, it starts to sink in how deep the problem really goes. If sales aren’t going to be the yardstick by which we measure the effectiveness of all advertising dollars spent, then what will be?

Do reach and frequency measure how we have helped people buy? Hardly. Reach and frequency measure what advertisers bought. Not how the advertising has helped people buy.

ROI measures how much was sold versus how much it cost to sell what was sold.

How do we create an ROI for buying rather than selling?

This week, at the International Advertising Association’s World Congress, heads of agencies were saying that the traditional model by which ad agencies made money was no longer valid, no longer relevant.

No, none of the agency heads went so far as to say that the job of advertising was no longer to sell. That would be consider blasphemous to all that they hold dear. And, no doubt, they would have been shown the proverbial door.

Which, in retrospect, wouldn’t be all together bad. After all, as my experience has proven, you have to go through one door before you can open another.

1 comment:

  1. You are definitely right, and it's unfortunate that most people don't get it.

    I think that people are always looking for a sincere person (company) to help them. Instead of figuring out which consumer do we want to target our product to, I think we have to start looking at the consumers we have the most understanding of, figure out what they need, build the solution that they want, understand the reasons why they want it, and give it to them where they have time to listen.

    This allows us to tap in to the emotions that they are feeling, and make them feel understood. A high call.

    The reason people want something isn't physical - it's emotional, so the advertising has to play on those emotions, whether it's a pain point, a desire to fit in, to be elite, or popular.

    Metrics merely help us measure

    1) Whether we've done a good job at touching our target audience
    2) If it pushes a percentage of them to take a monetizable / valuable action
    3) If the client / company is making money off of those actions

    (Obviously, ad agencies are primarily involved in #1).

    But the bottom line, it's not even selling that we are there to do, we are there to help consumers find solutions, however, we are only going to help them find solutions if we can make money...