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The Definition of Advertising Has Never Been More Unclear

Source of both opportunity and crisis

For most of the past 100 years, if a marketer said he needed a new advertising campaign, everybody knew what that meant. The machine turned on. The marketer called the agency of record’s account team. The account team composed a brief capturing the strategy and called in the wild and wooly creatives to bring it to life. The writers and designers applied their art to one or more of these four finite canvases: the television commercial, full-page print ad, radio ad or billboard. Maybe they would sprinkle in a few coupons. The public played along, too; with no ad blockers or DVRs, they just consumed advertising (or ignored it) en masse. It all just worked.

But it doesn’t anymore. Now, there is no machine or even consensus on the basic definition of advertising. And that is the source of both opportunity and crisis.

Today’s media landscape keeps getting more diverse—it’s broadcast, cable and streaming; it’s online, tablet and smartphone; it’s video, rich media, social media, branded content, banners, apps, in-app advertising and interactive technology products like Sherwin-Williams’ Chip It! It’s even physical interactive gear, like Nike+ Fuelband. Pushed an inch farther, the new Google Chromecast dongle could fit under that marketing classification, and the smart watches on the horizon will be yet another platform.

Meanwhile, what we might term the ideological landscape of advertising has become so varied it’s downright contradictory, even contentious. There are those who insist advertising is and must be social—absent social connectivity a message can no longer be heard. There are those who say advertising is and must be mobile—without a connection to place, it is irrelevant to the sales process. Others say advertising is and must be a utility—it must serve a consumer’s needs, and not just inform. Still others say advertising is and must be liquid—it must create experiences that cross media platform barriers, or else it will barely cross consumers’ awareness threshold.

These perspectives are not only divergent from each other, but each also shapes a particular way of thinking—not just about communications products, but about what advertising and marketing do, how they relate to consumers, and how (if at all) they influence consumers’ attitudes and behaviors.

Digital technologies have put the very definition of advertising and marketing up for grabs. Now, when a marketer asks for a new campaign, the response from the team is literally a question mark. “What kind of campaign?” “Which agencies should we ask for guidance?” “What do all these technology companies do?” “Is anyone right?” “Is everyone right?” “How do we measure success?” Every campaign, if it can even be called that, begins with a blank slate. There are just too many ways it could go.

So what is advertising anyway? Last year during the closed-door judging of the IAB MIXX Awards, the judges fiercely debated just this issue. This year, it’s what we’ll focus on at the 2013 IAB MIXX Conference and Expo, themed appropriately “Advertising is _____?” There, on Sept. 23 and 24, we will showcase these warring points of view, highlight their differences and look for points of commonality.

While it’s true the abundance of ways companies are able to reach consumers and consumers are able to experience brands is great, there’s also a dark side. Imagine if whenever you decided to go someplace new, you were forced to choose whether to take a car, bus, train, plane, bicycle or boat. Imagine if the wrong decision would result in significant extra costs and major problems. Or imagine if the wrong decision meant you couldn’t get there at all. That’s what it’s like for marketing decision makers today. Marketers, agencies and media companies are constantly facing high-risk decisions. They can easily find themselves paddling a boat to China or zipping around the world in a hyperloop.

This nerve-wracking circumstance is a product of the industry’s rapid advancement, but it’s also an inhibitor that the industry, in unison, should endeavor to overcome.

Everyone is being forced to propel themselves beyond their comfort zones. The old way, the traditional way, is obsolete. There’s no place to go but toward the new. Deciphering the truth from the chaos will be hard. But it’s a necessary task. Advertising needs to be redefined; let’s get at it.

Randall Rothenberg (@r2rothenberg) is the president and CEO of the Interactive Advertising Bureau.

Illustration: Miguel Porlan

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