Ravi Kiran – Advertising in 2020: The rise-again of Message

Ravi Kiran, Co-founder & Managing Partner, Friends of Ambition

There are several complications in trying to predict the future. First, the time frame within which our current state may change is shortening rapidly. So if a prediction earlier was expected to take ten years to be proven right or wrong, increasingly it is taking about three years. This means, between now and 2020, we would perhaps see three versions of future, as can be seen today. Second, the number of people who are asked to predict the future has gone up significantly, leading often to multiple predictions clashing with each other. This means each predictor has to assume that unless she is attempting to predict what is already visible and therefore tread a safe path, there would be conflicting predictions made by someone sooner or later. Realization of this necessitates the predictor taking a ‘personal stand’ almost independent of what may really happen in the future. Three, sometimes the pressure to predict a unique future is so high that the predictor ends up indulging in wishful thinking instead of painting a likely picture.

As part science, part art, Advertising has always been vulnerable to subjective reading by different kinds of experts. In general, it has benefited from sociology, behavioral sciences and sometimes neuroscience. Today, as technology collides with design in all aspects of life, that vulnerability is perhaps at an all-time high. If Advertising and its stake holders play the game well, the biggest vulnerability of the discipline may be its biggest strength.

It’s possible to see the future of advertising in terms of form [Video], devices [mobile], consumer interaction [social], control over content [consumers] and while all of these represent key parts of the future, today, I choose to talk about what the brand manager always thought is hers and hers alone – the Message.

Through its history Advertising has seen cyclical debate between the Message and the Medium. The last three odd decades have seen the rapid rise of Media in the hierarchy, as media choices have exploded beyond recognition and the Message and its creators have tried to play catch up, and often chided for being outsmarted by consumers.

I believe that the wave will change its direction again, over the next decade.

This does not mean media channels will not keep changing their shape and character, or the shift of control to consumers will reverse. It means pretty much the opposite. Because of the very explosion of media, personalization of access to information through mobile devices and shifting control from marketer to the consumer, the way we look at message and messaging today will need to change.

Not because it’s a good thing, but because it’s the only practical option we have left.

Combined with the fact that peer-to-peer communication and advocacy will decide how people choose brands in future, the continuing need of marketers to influence how people behave will mean Marketers will have no choice but to understand messaging in new ways, not least because understanding of media will be of little use otherwise.

Who creates the message?

The last few years of rapid growth in UGC sometimes makes it look like marketers are losing control and even brand messages in future will be made by consumers. I don’t believe that is a practical forecast.

Marketers will never run out of the desire [supported by money] to create their own message and distribute it the best way possible. That said, in future, they will take cognizance of the consumers’ ability and willingness to either create original messages about a brand, sometimes in anger, often for fun, or at least repurpose brand messages originally created by a brand.

As Conversation becomes the primary currency of Marketing and Communication as we know it now, loses its relevance, the reference to people as Consumers will cease and Persons and People will take over. As people either reject or even some times lampoon classical brand messages, marketers will learn to loosen up a bit and redefine their roles in the context of getting their brands accepted.

Brands as Publishers

The signs are visible already, but as always marketers are too slow to act. They continue to misread the signs and call sponsorship of content or production of heavily in-you-face branded content as publishing. That is not correct. Publishing means making information available, not pushing it down via some pre-defined channel. Tomorrow’s consumers will be so technology comfortable, that any form of marketing or advertising that does not embrace technology will be punished. Subsidization of good content by marketers will be tolerated, but not rewarded.

The Context of Consuming Creativity

There was a time advertising provided the high to many people that content couldn’t. People waited for ad breaks and emulated what they saw. Pony tail sporting creative stereotypes inspired a lot of young people. In future people won’t wait for creativity to be delivered to them through an ad, as we know it today. They will consume what they want and what is available easily, and most of that will be videos nevertheless, and they won’t care who produced those videos. Creativity will be truly democratized and marketers and their agencies will need to run double fast to absorb, assimilate, and repurpose a creative thought that emanated elsewhere and make it available so it can be found easily.

Clever coming from a peer will be cool

But not from a Company or brand. In the past a lot of clever messaging passed off as creative. Not in future. People will be harsh on cleverness unless it’s really intelligent. Simple why-I-am-smarter-than-the-other-guy kind of logic will fail. People will demand and reward creativity in product design and value delivery and will want intelligent, respectful information, not clever packaging, from the marketer. More often than not, when Marketers try to be clever in advertising, people will produce many more versions of that message, which will come up stronger on search results and kill the clever ad.

Traditional Media Channels will be suspected

Traditional media, which was the marketer’s and the agency’s partner, in pushing thousands of mind numbing messages at consumers, is already being punished. In future, celebrity content creators, not big media will be lauded, whether they come from peers, star bloggers or on-the-fly individual content creators or brands. Brands must learn how to be a celebrity without spending a lot of money.

From Message @ POP to POP @ Message

Messages in future will need to be smart. If they do not integrate fulfillment and payment mechanisms so that people can take decisions immediately, a lot of sale will be lost. Brands and agencies must look at each message as a potential point of purchase.

What we can do to prepare

  1. Embrace collaboration, really: Collaborating with people we described as collectives in the past won’t be easy to learn, but marketers and agencies must. It involves giving up control, pretending you don’t have money power, respecting someone who was an object to be ‘targeted’, and segments of whom were to be ‘captured’ till now.
  2. Replace ‘Communication’ with ‘Conversation’: Some words remind us of our legacy and take us back in time. No matter what adjectives we may use, ‘Communication’ will remind us of advertising the way it was. Simply replacing it with ‘Conversation’ in our vocabulary is simpler and more practical.
  3. Dive into technology as if you were a geek: Technologists are after design and human insights, the design people must understand technology and how they can use it to design new experiences and create genuine value, not hype. In 2020, the word geek may not exist, because everyone may be a geek.
  4. Develop an appetite for data: It’s not about consumption data any longer, it about all data about each person who want a conversation with. Data cannot be delegated to the statisticians alone; it’s something the CMO must breathe. This is a big problem in emerging and evolving advertising markets such as India, where too many decisions get taken based on intuition and subjectivity. If we play it well, tomorrow, data will help us manage messages better.
  5. Forget Entertainment; think Gamification: Today smart marketers and their agencies try to entertain through their messages. In future, marketers won’t be expected to entertain. But if they can turn interaction between the brand and people into game experiences, people would find it useful and like it.

As all of us know, being useful and being liked, is all that Advertising was supposed to be. Ever.