Advertisers are Not Worthy of Being Charlie – Brian Jacobs

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There can surely only really be one topic front of the mind with any media person this month, and that's the terrible events in Paris. The murder of journalists, cartoonists and editors for upholding their right to free speech overshadows everything else in the media business.

The advertising media business exists in a bubble whose walls are so well insulated that those of us inside it rarely pay any attention even to those in the bubbles next door. Take journalists who inhabit a nearby bubble. Advertisers prattle on about "content" as if somehow we could deliver material as insightful, or cutting-edge, let alone as powerful as that delivered every day by our professional journalist neighbors. We convince ourselves as we talk to others within our own bubble that we have mysteriously suddenly acquired skills we never till recently knew we even needed.

At the same time we talk about "native" without giving much thought to whether or not it's fair game to hijack someone else's creation, or at the very least their concept for commercial gain.

We often forget that it is journalists, feature writers, film-makers, cartoonists, editors and the rest, and not us, who create the content people actively search for and consume. We piggy-back along, placing ads, stating rather loudly that "it's us that pay for this stuff in the first place" (thus confusing, and not for the first time, our money with that of our clients) and just assuming that the only thing that really matters in the media eco-system is us as we control the money (a doubtful claim in itself).

Once upon a time, very many years ago, I became embroiled in a mighty row with our then largest client. One of the TV broadcasters had referenced this company, and not in a good way, in a documentary strand. I got told by the Marketing Director that his CEO had decreed that we should "punish" this broadcaster by pulling all our spend forthwith from the channel (naturally we hadn't placed ads anywhere near the documentary strand in question). I argued and argued and eventually I won the day.

I felt then, and feel equally strongly today, that journalists have to be allowed to say what they like in whatever way they like. Audiences then buy or don't buy the result, and advertisers then decide whether or not to spend money reaching those audiences. Of course advertisers can quite legitimately decide to avoid their material appearing in amongst content they consider in any way contextually inappropriate or damaging, but it's a very long way from that to saying the material shouldn't appear in the first place.

It is quite wrong for advertisers to try to pressure journalists and editors -- as some do. In October 2013 I wrote here about this very thing, pointing out that although I personally loathe and detest The Daily Mail I would never condone any advertiser threatening them in order to try to get them to change their stance on anything (as was happening at the time over their piece on Ed Miliband's father, with the cheerleader-in-chief on this occasion being that beacon of moral rectitude Sir Alan Sugar).

Content is not a commodity; or at least content that anyone wants to read isn't a commodity. Great content is not easily produced, and we do our editorial peers a dis-service by even suggesting otherwise. Furthermore, the power of content can't be assessed purely on the gross number of eyeballs it attracts.

Sometimes I think we forget our place. We are advisors. We advise. We help our clients make better spending decisions. We get paid a great deal to advise, certainly rather more than by far and away the majority of the people who create the material that attracts the audiences we crave.

We don't attract the audiences. We don't spend our lives worrying about every line, every word, every squiggle like the best journalists and the greatest cartoonists. We don't risk attack, even of the verbal kind. We certainly don't put our lives at stake for a principle.

And yet thank goodness for those with strong principles. Without a free press we would all be worse off -- professionally as well as personally.

We are not worthy of being Charlie.

Brian Jacobs spent over 35 years in advertising, media and research agencies including spells at Leo Burnett (UK, EMEA, International Media Director), Carat International (Managing Director), UniversalBrian JacobsMcCann (EMEA Director) and Millward Brown (EVP, Global Media). He has worked in the UK, EMEA and globally out of the USA. His experience covers shifts from full-service ad agencies to media agencies; from traditional single-commercial-channel TV to multi-faceted digital channels; and from media planning to multi-disciplinary communication planning. Brian can be reached at

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