Letter to My Colleagues: We Can Do Better

What if we all made a radical resolution this year? Let’s resolve to stop the adness! Let’s resolve to create advertising our clients’ customers actually welcome and invite into their lives rather than advertising that’s damaging the brands we’re actually trying to build.

After backpacking around the world several years ago, I vividly remember reentering the U.S. I was slapped on the wrist for taking a photo in customs on U.S. soil and then I felt immediately smothered by the amount of advertising that hit me—even though I actually love advertising. Data today suggests ad agencies help their clients bombard consumers with 3,000-5,000 ads per day depending on the study you cite. Technology allows us to understand the people (not targets, these are people) who receive our messages better. It also provides better platforms to reach those people more directly. With all this technological help, we can do better.

Adness is advertising that gets in the way of the content a person is trying to enjoy. Think about page take-overs. Consider AOL just started serving me a huge ad when I send an e-mail. I’ll probably switch to my g-mail account very soon. Consumers understand that advertising lets us watch our favorite shows or enjoy an article (maybe even this one) for free. But they’re sick and tired of being interrupted, insulted and, frankly, annoyed by our messages when they get in the way. We need to rethink our approach and begin delivering advertising that is useful, relevant or, at least, entertaining.

Approximately a year ago, we conducted a study for the Associated Press to understand the world of advertising today. Because its business model benefits from advertising, the AP has a vested interest in our industry. On the surface, the learning seemed expected, but the methodology engaged anthropologists to understand the deeper influencers. The study showed how extremely fatigued consumers feel encountering advertising. Consumers understand the need for advertising, but we’re breaking the social contract. We’re not giving them enough for what they’re getting in return. In fact, the study indicated, consumers even feel angst.

Video data from the study highlighted a woman describing her experience using a mapping engine. She said she needed to get from point A to point B. The mapping engine returned her directions, yet it pointed out all the places she could get Dunkin’ Donuts along the way. “Like I can’t live without a Dunkin’ Donuts!” she exclaimed in the video. She implied that she thought less of Dunkin’ Donuts for getting in the way of her directions. The implication is that if we don’t do better, we’re actually going to start harming our clients brands rather than helping them.

We need to change. And we need to modify our behavior before government regulates us. Just look at legislation like the CALM Act that has created rules around the volume level of our TV spots. That’s relatively minor legislation, but we all know it’s a slippery slope, and watchdog groups every day seek to ban us from all sorts of ways to get messages to people, especially children. Most recently, legislators expressed support for a recommendation for a “Do Not Track” initiative that could change the way we monitor user behavior online and measure campaign results.

I think we need to change our industry from the inside before government regulates us from the outside. A year ago, our agency launched stoptheadness.org as an experiment based on the AP study. We attempted to engage four audiences at the same time: consumers, agencies, clients and the media. We asked people to sign a pledge to create better advertising for consumers, and we received hundreds of signatures from around the world. Since the launch we’ve learned a lot that will roll into a relaunch of the initiative early in 2011.