A World Without Ads? Be Careful What You Ask For - Tom Phillips

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I was at a social gathering last weekend with some friends, and one of them asked me about my job and how I thought the digital ad industry was faring these days. We talked a bit about the growth in the industry, what Microsoft was doing compared to Facebook, Google, Amazon and others. The conversation – as it inevitably does when talking about advertising with “civilians” – turned to the pervasive nature of ads on the internet.

I asked my friend, “Do you like being served ads when you’re online?”

The answer, of course, was predictable. “Are you kidding? I hate those things… they’re just so annoying!”

I reminded my friend that it’s the ads that pay for the digital content she seeks out, and the alternative could be a world where everything is subscription based. And that if she hated ads that much, she should have no problem paying for content, news and entertainment that she currently gets for free.

That argument resonated to some degree, but only partially so. It only served to rationalize something that she really doesn’t like. And that is a shallow victory indeed.

It then dawned on me that maybe we were having the wrong conversation.

For everyone who professes to HATE online advertising, we should rephrase the question and then paint as vivid a picture as possible: What if there were no ads at all? What would that look like?

Here’s what I think it would look like:

In New York, Yankee Stadium would just be a bunch of seats, blank walls and a scoreboard. Times Square would be dark at night. Broadway would look like any other street.

The more than 50 percent of people who tune into the Super Bowl every year just for the ads would have no reason to watch the game.

Hundreds of thousands of people who are currently employed, either directly or indirectly, by the advertising industry would be out of a job. The unique skill set of combining business with creativity would be lost. The world already has enough accountants and lawyers.

Reporters who work the media and advertising beat would be out of a job because there would be nothing to critique, honor or debate. No whispers about who’s in or who’s out at this agency or that. No speculation about who was going to win the ad review du jour.

We would never have another discussion about which ads that we hate and which ads we love. Those quick snippets of creativity that make us laugh (K-Mart’s “Ship My Pants”), cry (Budweiser’s “ Brotherhood”) or quote in perpetuity (“Got Milk?”).

We would lose all memory of ads that conjure up happy, simpler times in our lives – like “I’d like to teach the world to sing” or “Where’s the Beef?” or David Ogilvy’s beautiful but exquisitely simple Volkswagen ads that inspired a generation of copywriters.

We would lose a huge part of our culture – with no ability to easily look back and see how much things have changed in our society. Remember how women used to be portrayed in ads? Or how cool we thought cigarette smoking was? Ads give us the perfect lens through which to view our own cultural transformation.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t like that world.

All of this is to say that I think the people who claim to hate ads – especially digital ads because that’s the business we’re in – are actually not haters of ads at all. What they hate is BAD advertising – stuff that just contributes to the preponderance of “digital noise.”

And that is a perfectly reasonable POV to have. We should all hate bad advertising – especially those of us who work in the business.

In my opinion, a bad ad is one that:

· Has the characteristics of an uninvited guest

· Is intrusive and distracts or blocks people from content

· Has no intrinsic value or relevance

· Isn’t smart enough to be invisible when every signal the consumer sends is to “go away”

· Is boring

· Feels like it was served up by the ton instead of the ounce

As an industry, we should make it our mission to kill digital ads that bear these characteristics.

And for all the companies today in digital advertising who claim that they are re-inventing advertising to be more consumer-centric (yes, including Microsoft), we need to ensure that we’re not just paying lip service to a hot new catch-phrase… that we’re living it, and delivering on that promise.

It’s the best way to provide an effective counterpoint the next time our friends turn up their noses when we ask them what they think of advertising today, and they tell us how much they hate it. We need to be in a position to say that maybe it’s not advertising they hate, but bad advertising.

Tom Phillips is Senior Director of Communications for Microsoft Advertising. In this capacity, Tom has global responsibility for external communications and Public Relations for the Microsoft Advertising Business Group (MSA BG). Follow him on twitter at @tphillips59.

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