If It Isn’t Advertising, What Is It?

Many companies that used to call themselves advertising agencies have fled that term over the past decade or so. They’ve labored mightily to redefine themselves as “idea factories,” “marketing,” “communications” or “branding” agencies, or in other terms that exclude the word “advertising.” The new generation of industry practitioners tend to blanch at the latter term because they feel they’re creating something different from—and more “attuned to” consumers—than advertising. 

There is a growing chorus of people who contend that “advertising” is an old-school term that hopelessly denotes only “traditional” advertising. According to this view, the current ways brands convey their messages, create and nurture customer relationships, and, dare I say, sell their products and services—things like social media, customer-generated commercials, videos-hoping-to-go-viral, games, whatever the device du jour may be—need to be distinguished from the more passive “traditional” modes of advertising (print and broadcast). The term “advertising,” it’s argued, doesn’t do the new world of advertising justice.

So, what do we call the totality of communications that collectively includes traditional, nontraditional, alternative, digital, experiential, viral, guerilla and so forth? What word identifies this entire spectrum of vehicles, modes, tactics, techniques, devices, manners of connecting, relating, endearing, entertaining and bonding with customers?

Surely these all still fall under the broader banner of marketing. But, under that umbrella, they’re not necessarily part of any of the other components generally assigned to the marketing mix—product development, pricing, distribution, market research and public relations. That leaves advertising.

Do we need to coin a new umbrella term?

I think not. Advertising is not defined, delimited or determined by the media over which it travels or the tactics it employs. These particulars are irrelevant to the meaning of advertising. When, way back when, radio and then television advertising revolutionized what had been an exclusively print world, the term “advertising” was broad and flexible enough to absorb these then-radical new forms. No new word or category was required. So, why now?

It is the function or purpose—the why, not the how or where—that defines advertising. And the “why” behind every type of advertising remains what it always has been: to sell stuff, however divergent the means may be.
Perhaps an updated definition of advertising will help remove the onus from the stigma. Let me suggest that advertising be defined simply as “the delivery, in any manner, of entertaining and/or informative messages on behalf of brands, with the ultimate goal of increasing sales.”

Whether this is done by nurturing customer relationships, triggering impulsive onetime purchases or anything in between has no bearing on whether any of these qualifies as advertising or not.     

In the context of this definition, “message” broadly includes vehicles that engage an audience (games, videos, etc.) by offering some positive, often social, experience or attraction associated, however loosely, with the brand delivering the message. This is true even if there is no specific, clearly articulated commercial message, no stated benefit or call to action. I would argue that even event marketing and experiential marketing fall under the general purview of advertising.

For those who continue to see “advertising” as an outdated term, I suspect it is not any limitation of the word per se, but rather their calcified perception of the word that is the problem. “Advertising” is an ever-evolving, elastic term that denotes the entire mix of persuasive communications being employed at any given time, regardless of which elements comprise that mix.

Old habits die hard, but I suggest embracing, rather than apologizing for, this rich word that is more than capable of identifying our industry, our discipline and the phenomena we create.