Fractal Responds To: The End of Advertising As We Know It – By Michael Wolff

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This blog post is a response to an article that came up on my LinkedIn Pulse feed the yesterday (Thursday, July 2, 2015), entitled The End of Advertising As We Know It, by Michael Wolff, excerpted from his book, Television Is The New Television. While I don’t disagree that advertising has fundamentally changed over the last few decades (and continues to change with increasing speed), he seems to make qualitative judgements about the value of contemporary advertising; specifically that it is somehow more lowbrow, more transactional, less creative and less evocative than advertising from the pre-digital era.

I think that’s wrong, and perhaps a tad elitist. And it misses the essential point of contemporary digital marketing: that the creativity doesn’t just happen in one place on one ad, it’s distributed, across channels, messages and devices to create a larger narrative, an interactive experience. And that to me requires as much creativity as any prestige Superbowl spot.

One major caveat here. I haven’t read the whole book yet, but I plan to. Maybe he upends the thesis of this excerpt later on, but for now, this is what we’ve got so this is what I’m responding to.

Anyhow, dear reader, as we’re so fond of doing here at Fractal, let’s look back to the source of Mr. Wolff’s nostalgia, shall we?

It Was All About The Eyeballs



Ah the good old days. The whole family huddled around the crackly, electric, chromatic glow of the television. Even during commercial breaks, their gazes stayed true, fearing that they might miss a minute of their favourite programs. As Wolff would have it, this was a great time to be in advertising. Why?



Because back then, says Wolff, consumers could not choose to skip the commercials or bypass commercial television altogether. They had few options. They were, in effect, a captive audience. This was a time when purchase decisions tended to follow a linear path. A time before search and social media turned the purchase funnel on its side and cracked it open. And for that reason, TV advertising really mattered. The right budget and creative could get you through awareness, opinion, consideration and even preference.

And, according to Wolff, that resulted in better, more creative advertising. Advertising that was itself regarded as content.

Then came this:


And then this…


And now, this.



For Wolff, this marks the end of advertising as we know it:

“Digital media has created, perhaps inexorably, an ever-larger, ever-more-low-value audience. As a response to this, or in tandem with this, advertising agencies have de-emphasized, even hollowed out, what had been their core talent and purpose—crafting vivid and theatrical consumer fantasies—in favor of being operators that profit off the transaction of ad placement, the measurement of response, and even the facilitation of payment.

As the head of a big digital agency said to me: “We don’t do story. We facilitate the handshake by moving the cash register closer to the consumer. That’s much more economical and efficient than trying to create demand and desire.

In other words, the ultimate result is that there will be no advertising, not advertising of the kind that believed in investing large amounts of money to transform attitudes and behavior. Instead there will be more process and efficiency, the stuff that technology is good at, but that undermines the uniqueness of media and hence its value.”
– Michael Wolff – The End of Advertising As We Know It


Respectfully, I Disagree…

While I agree that typically, large amounts of money are no longer invested in a single type of creative for a single channel, I don’t see how this necessarily translates into less meaningful or evocative advertising. It simply means that the vivid storytelling has to be distributed across channels and form a larger brand narrative. It also means that smaller brands or companies with very niche markets, who traditionally couldn’t afford or get sufficient ROI from traditional advertising tactics, can now get themselves out there. Also, philosophically, isn’t our job as advertisers to help businesses make money? It shouldn’t ever really be about padding our own display cases with awards.

Here’s what I think:

1. TV advertising has always had a transactional component.

Remember, TV advertising used to be about branded content. Announcers would turn to the camera and introduce a sponsor. There was no high-art here, it was strictly business: here’s our product, here’s why you should buy it, buy it. Like this 1957 spot for Dove soap:

2. The Medium Is The Message

Advertisers of the Mad Men era convinced themselves that they were making art because their work was shown alongside (and on the same device, in the same aspect ratio) as television programs and movies. It was art-by-association, and yes, some commercials, like the glorious I Want To Teach The World To Sing Coca-Cola spot that we’ve discussed previously definitely have artistic merit. But in no way was TV advertising inherently artistic. Perhaps a shift in perspective is all that’s required; an appreciation that art can and does happen on digital.

3. It’s not just banner ads and PPC (and TV advertising can suck too)

There are just many examples of “bad” TV advertising as there are “good”, and the same can be said for digital. But the opportunities for greatness (and increasingly usefulness today) have changed and I think that’s what he’s mourning.  I get it. Wolff has seen one-too-many annoying banner ads or bluntly utilitarian paid search ads. But there’s so much more to digital marketing. For every crappy banner ad there is an immersive and innovative web experience, an addictive or useful app, or a search-engine result that turns out to be exactly what you were looking for, even if you didn’t know you were looking for it. Websites are art-directed, content is copywritten, omni-channel experiences are designed, creativity still rules. Here are some examples of digital-centric campaigns that are inarguably creative. Some of these had no traditional aspects, and all could only really work on digital, like:

There are countless others. Get a tiny taste at the Webby’s site.

5. The Eyeballs Are There, They’re Just Mobile Now

One of Wolff’s complaints seems to be that the eyeballs simply aren’t there anymore. That our multi-media multi-screen world creates fragmentation in audiences. Check out this experiment from Think with Google where they test three different video ads and discover the weirder, less-TV-friendly, longer one got more traction on mobile.

The reality is, consumers spend more time than ever with screens, it’s just not one single screen. That’s why it’s so important for brands to articulate their value across channels, in a seamless, consistent way. That’s an amazing creative challenge, isn’t it?

Screen Shot 2015-07-03 at 3.05.27 PM


6. It’s not an either/or.

The point is, it’s not some binary situation. Good TV creative can drive awareness but can also have legs online and especially in social media. Remember Wieden+Kennedy’s Old Spice The Man Your Man Could Smell Like spots?

This one has over 51 Million Views on YouTube. That’s free advertising on a massive scale. Hilarious TV creative became highly shareable web content. Wolff’s idea that only in the good old days was advertising treated as content is wholly incorrect. When in the past would people voluntarily share advertising with one another? When would they curate playlists devoted to awesome ads?

7. Brands & The Bottom Line

Remember, brands don’t belong to the company or the advertiser. They exist in the minds of consumers. They don’t exist for 30-seconds during prime-time, they exist in-perpetuity, and have to be nurtured. What digital has done is challenged brands to provide real value (be it entertainment, education, edification or engagement) to consumers wherever they are. Wolff’s idea of creating vivid consumer fantasies has indeed been subverted with the plethora of choice out there. Now it’s about being present, at the right place, and the right time, providing the right value for consumers, across media.

All this means, is that a big media budget isn’t going to cut it by itself. You need better creative and you need to cultivate a real, rich experience. And this means smaller players can get in the game. Yes, advertising as Wolff knows it is coming to an end, but that’s not a bad thing.