The End of the Ad Campaign As We Know It

By Baba Shetty and Jerry Wind [1]
Originally posted on the Harvard Business Review Blog.

A fascinating thing happened at the Super Bowl this year.  Typically Super Bowl advertisers meticulously plan every aspect of their presence months in advance of the big game.  But this time, Coca-Cola, Audi, and Oreo didn’t just limit themselves to pre-packaged creative – they also had in place rapid response teams that adapted to events as they happened.  So when the rest of America was reacting to the power outage in the stadium, the brands were too – appropriately and in their own brand voice.[2]

Recently the Wharton Future of Advertising Program asked over 175 industry leaders to describe their vision of what advertising would be like in the year 2020.  Based on our analysis of the responses, the Super Bowl case isn’t just a once-a-year stunt – it’s a preview of a model that will scale and become a foundational characteristic of major brand advertising.

The industry experts had a varied take, but a remarkably consistent theme emerged: the rigid campaign-based model of advertising, perfected over decades of one-way mass media, is headed for extinction.

For messages to be heard in 2020, brands will need to create an enormous amount of useful, appealing, and timely content. To get there, brands will have to leave behind organizations and thinking built solely around the campaign model, and instead adopt the defining characteristics of the real-time, data-driven newsroom – a model that’s prolific, agile and audience centric.


The campaign model, relatively speaking, is miserly.  Ad units like TV spots are produced in small batches and doled out across channels.  Even digital advertising is versioned with relatively minor variations that most human beings would have a hard time evaluating as ‘different’.

As Jacques Bughin and David Edelman of McKinsey & Company predict in their submission to the 2020 project.[3]  “The need for relevance will drive consumer demand and shape advertising supply. There will be billions of interaction points that will place enormous demands on brands to create and deliver just the right piece of content.”

This previously unimagined scale of content production will require brands to adopt every option available to them to increase their content output – from building internal content teams (like Red Bull Media House[4]) to extensive media company partnerships (like the Intel Creators Project with Vice[5]), to large-scale agency initiatives (like The Responsibility Project from Liberty Mutual and Hill Holliday[6]).


The traditional campaign model is rigid.  Ad units are created at a point in time and don’t generally adapt to emerging themes in culture.  In contrast, the newsroom metaphor suggests that content has to be produced and delivered in a continuous stream rather than only through a ponderous, slow-moving process of months of campaign development. Wieden+Kennedy understood this when they produced 200 Old Spice YouTube videos in 48 hours.[7]  Calle Sjoenell, Chief Creative Office O&M, predicts that by 2020 at least half of the production budget will be spent while the campaign is running to adapt it in real time instead of blowing it all in one go, before the campaign runs.

Ad agencies and creatives will need to work more like a news organization, constantly adapting existing material and creating new content across all media.  As Ian Schaeffer of digital agency Deep Focus[8] puts it: “The process of arriving at the best social content looks more like “Newsroom” than “The Pitch”.  Creative and social staffers merge the zeitgeist with the brand ethos all day, every day.


The campaign model has for decades been decidedly brand-oriented.  Typically, brands tell stories about themselves.   In the shift to a newsroom model, we ask “what will our user be interested in, and what can the brand credibly talk about?” And then we’ll check that expectation with evidence: in a modern newsroom, data circulates continuously about the relative performance of each unit of content produced, from tweets to text-based stories, to images and video served – and future editorial content decisions reflect consumers’ response to previous content.  Just as the news content that meets the audience’s needs rises to the top according to various performance metrics – think of news organizations’ “most emailed” lists – brand-publishing content that meets consumers’ needs will similarly get top performance ratings.

Getting There

Consumers have new expectations. Social media and digital news offer a continuously updated reflection of the culture consumers live within.  The overwhelming consensus from the Wharton Future of Advertising panel is that the current campaign-based model is ill-equipped to deal with this new reality.   We believe the newsroom metaphor offers a powerful way to rethink the way advertising content is being developed and delivered, the roles of the advertiser, agencies, the  users and other  content generators, and the entire organizational architecture of advertising and marketing.

The road ahead certainly won’t be smooth – we know the transition will be culturally and operationally difficult.  If your brand, agency or media company has useful insight for the marketing community on your experiments with a newsroom model, we invite you to share them with us at the Wharton Future of Advertising Project.

[1] Baba Shetty, CEO at Newsweek / The Daily Beast Jerry Wind, The Lauder Professor and Professor of Marketing, The Wharton School; Director, SEI Center for Advanced Studies in Management; Director, Future of Advertising Program; Academic Director, Wharton Fellows