OpEd: Is General Market Advertising Dead? Try Contextually Relevant Ads Instead

By Kiran Aditham 

While AgencySpy has been more than glad to provide our POV on the ins and outs of the ad world over the years, we figured that every once in a while it’s good to leave the insight to the professionals. As promised, we will be slowly rolling out more op-eds from agency folks as the weeks and months progress. Here is the first of what we hope are many, from Brian Tolleson (pictured), founder/creative director at Atlanta-based shop Bark Bark, which has done work for clients including Bank of America and Home Depot. Here, Tolleson discusses the state of general market advertising, brand integration, the need for contextually relevant ads and more.

A familiar cry used to be that the :30 spot was dead. But we only got it half-right: in fact, the :30 is alive and well, still successfully delivering on just about every media platform, it’s the general advertising market that’s given up the ghost.


Shockingly, we’re seeing a large number of advertising campaigns airing in the general marketplace (the three major networks), that don’t connect to what people are watching. It’s pretty tragic that many advertisers still imagine that creative can be generic across different channels, when programmers have, for the last decade, painted bulls-eyes on their uber-targeted audiences. Why haven’t people realized the opportunity to create messaging content that is as specific as the programming or content surrounding it? Well, some folks have.

Here’s what we know: media itself is splintering so much that people are not just engaging on 3 broadcast networks or even 100 cable channels. In fact there are more than 500 cable channels plus all of the broadband channels and program content. For advertisers, this means the more the media splinters, the more that marketers must refine and define the target.

(Read on after the jump)

More: “OpEd: The Good and the Bad of Banned Ads

Rethinking the Brand, Agency, Network Relationship

Within the maelstrom of ineffective general market advertising, there exists a real opportunity for brands to change how they work with their agencies to ensure more effective advertising in a media-splintered environment. Brands need to recognize that what they really require is more brand managers–to ensure their brand messaging is consistent from outlet to outlet–and not necessarily more agency support.

For example, rather than go to one agency to create one message that’s supposed to somehow miraculously work everywhere, brands should think about beefing up their staff and thinking power in-house–then allow their partner networks and media brands to figure out the rest. In other words, the new task of brands is to make the gift better (clearer, smarter, more engaging) and lean on programmers to wrap the gift in an incredibly tailored package, using the incredible insight they have into their audiences. Programmers know how to wrap things to get their audiences to open boxes.

Many of the bigger and better cable networks are establishing or further building their own in-house integrated marketing teams, which help advertisers reach their audiences using the network’s full-developed and research-backed creative team. These networks now have fully staffed, in-house agencies that service advertisers. In other words, there’s already machinery in place to help brands create contextually relevant ads!

Some advertisers have benefited from smart networks who say to them “Hey, don’t sweat it. We will actually create your advertising campaign as part of your media buy with us. Don’t worry, your creative is going to be contextually relevant for our channel because we’re going to make it ourselves.”

Guidelines for Ensuring Impactful Contextually Relevant Ad Campaigns

Here’s an approach to creating an environment where contextually relevant advertising can survive and thrive:

-Redefine what the brand manager does.

-Drill down to the core message you want to deliver. Ask yourself, is this the message our seven media partners can deliver seven different ways?

-Don’t rely on your creative agency to tell you how to generically market your product. Boil down the true benefits that you believe that your product offers (which is the same brief that you would send your agency)

-Go to your buying agency or go directly to networks and say, “These are the five things that we want the people that watch your network to know, and you tell us how to do that.”

-Respect the viewer. Successful spots provide the viewer with true entertainment or interesting information about the content they love, about their lives, or about the world around them. Don’t be annoying.

-DO NOT think you are smarter than programmers when it comes to speaking to their audience.

-DO NOT go into auto-pilot. Fighting for one more logo, one more product shot, one more inauthentic line, when it’s against the advice of the experts at the network, might actually have viewers hating you, rather than loving you.

Successful Scenarios, Specific Demographics

On the plus side, we’re seeing some companies be very intelligent–for example creating one version of their ad campaign for Facebook and others tailored to each network. Allstate has done a great job being aggressive about creating contextually relevant marketing campaigns. They’re one of those financial services businesses that understands their customer demographics are very narrow and very tonal–they’re going to speak in different ways to young motorcycle drivers than they will to retirees.

MediaVest, as one of the largest media buying agencies, has been a true leader in helping clients like Proctor & Gamble maximize their potential for conjuring incredibly targeted, relevant messaging that’s connected to what people are watching. MediaVest takes each P&G product line and pulls it through an integrated marketing filter to tremendous effect, targeting specific networks that fit the profile of their potential buyers and truly partnering with each. Of course they do a lot of the market research on their end to ensure they know what messages resonate with a specific customer demographic, but they strike a very successful balance with their network creative partners.

The Future is Brand Integration

Media is going to splinter more and more. In tandem, we are receiving more and more information about the people who are watching. Now we see through the cable box though the DVR into the households and remotes of viewers. And, there will come a time in the very near future that we will know even the eye color of the person who is watching the show, and the last 10 things they purchased.

The power in the future of live research, from a marketer’s standpoint, is not just the obvious ‘big brother’ negatives. What would it be like to watch your favorite show…and every commercial was something that you were interested in, or cared about? What if commercials could feature the shows, the characters, the actors we already watch and care about? What if we, as marketers could truly say to our clients, “We’re not wasting all this money flashing annoying crap past these people that have no interest.”

We don’t have to feed masses when we know what people like to eat, and we’re only serving donuts. Time to reach out to the green-eyed donut-eaters who love Law and Order.