Scoota Guest Blog Series #1 – Antidote’s Henry Chilcott on the ‘Ad Block-eclipse’

Kicking off Scoota’s series of guest blogs, Antidote partner Henry Chilcott looks at how the ad blocker narrative is getting in the way of the real debate: 

I’m in this business because I believe in the power of great storytelling to influence people and build brands. And I’m excited by how today’s technology allows us to deepen, target and share those stories in ever more powerful ways.

However the twin forces of the post-financial-crisis budget squeeze, and more significantly the continued momentum of a digital revolution that too often steamrolls creativity, has led to an ever-growing sea of mediocre content from brands.

But, ironically, the very same digital revolution is empowering consumers to edit this mediocre content from their lives (through the likes of Sky Plus, TiVo, and more recently, ad blocking software). So it follows that brands will have no option but to invest in producing content that people actually want in their lives at the same time as harnessing technology to deliver that content; to become the masters of both agility (efficiency through tech) and craft (impact through creativity)

Or become increasingly ignored.

Problem is – I can’t hear anyone yelling the importance of craft, of storytelling, from the rooftops. And if anyone is, it’s being drowned out by talk of programmatic, cross-device sequential targeting and the ironically named ‘people based marketing’.

Why the silence? Well, I’ll offer a view from ad agency land; it comes down to a loss of confidence.

Despite being filled with heaps of bright and talented people, too many ad agencies have allowed their craft to be depositioned. As a consequence, the flag bearers-in-chief of storytelling aren’t championing its importance for fear of appearing passé in a discourse dominated by data and tech. This is exacerbated by agency group’s historic efforts to solve the issue of their outdated ad agencies by creating ecosystems of digital / data driven specialist verticals and demoting the dear old ad agency to a kind of strategic ‘loss leader’ – like milk in the supermarket (sold at a loss in order to bring customers in to spend money and create margin in other areas). This is supported by a recent chat with a CEO from one of the big name London ad agencies – with over £25m of revenues and (admittedly after a touch year) a full year profit target of…wait for it…zero – but with a flourishing and profitable ecosystem of specialist digital / data driven agencies in the broader agency group.

Now, I’m at risk of generalising here, and of course there are a bunch of ‘ad’ agencies creating content that you might even rewind to see (as you spin past the guff with your Sky Plus remote), or maybe even seek out on YouTube on your phone or tablet or phablet or laptop or laplet. Great ideas, great storytelling, brilliantly executed and distributed. Of late, Jude Law swanning around on a yacht with Giancarlo Giannini for Johnnie Walker springs to mind (Anomaly), or the beautifully drafted “To the pub” for Greene King (Grey), or that incredible dual-narrative Type R work for Honda a year or so back (W+K). But for these and a handful of other sunny outposts, there’s still far too much content responsible for the faded FFWD button on your Sky remote, or for sending you scrambling to the app store to download a free adblocker.

Meanwhile, the loudest voices are still banging on about relevancy and the power of programmatic to deliver highly relevant content to people in real time, at scale. But I don’t care how relevant something is if it’s crap. Relevant crap is still crap. And then of course there’s cross-device sequential targeting permitted by clever tech/media owners who get you to sign into their platforms on all your devices – Sky, Facebook, Google et al – meaning they can pronounce the crumbling of the cookie (sorry), smug in the knowledge that only they can deliver a bespoke message to the right people at the right time across all their devices. Again, this is all marvelous – it really is, but I come back to the same point – if I don’t like your story I’ll still ignore you.

Technology is our industry’s greatest opportunity but also our greatest threat. It’s distracting us from a fundamental (if not particularly ‘du jour’) truth – that it doesn’t matter if the data says I’m a white hot target gagging to get my credit card out and buy a miserable looking people carrier, if the story doesn’t grab me, I’ll be back to my butternut squash curry and X-Factor in the time it takes Simon Cowell to give one of those weird winks. Sorry, it’s just more interesting.

Just to be very clear, I love technology and the astonishing pace with which it’s changing everything before it, laying waste to tired business models and opening more opportunities than Bob Monkhouse in his Saturday night heyday. But, in my view, we must balance this with a renewed and vigorous respect for storytelling and craft. Surely only those who manage to bring technology and storytelling into a lover’s embrace will truly hold the keys to the promised land.

One last thought; creative and media agencies have historically felt threatened by the obvious ad-avoidance impact of Sky Plus, TiVo, ad blocking software and the general ‘on-demand’ lives we all now lead. But this is entirely the wrong way to look at it; these technological advances might just prove to be our industry’s salvation. Ad blockers exist because people want to block crap ads. In putting the-power-to-edit-out-mediocre into the hands of consumers, these technologies have inadvertently declared war on mediocre content. Now is the time for creative agencies and their clients to do the same.