Entertainment is the answer to the “bad men” of ad tech


We are hearing a lot these days about social media echo chambers and two names that seem to be cropping up increasingly on my own timelines are Bob Hoffman and Mark Ritson. I’m frequently alerted to reports and transcripts of the latest well-informed tirades from these two learned gentlemen about the false promises of online advertising. 

Prompted by people whose opinion I value I recently took delivery of Bob Hoffman’s new book BadMen. It’s a passionate and knowledgeable diatribe about the perils of ad tech, the sinister implications of tracking, the hidden dangers of bots and how advertisers and consumers alike should be arming ourselves against industrial scale ad fraud.  Meanwhile, down in Australia, Professor Mark Ritson is stealing the show at conferences with his savage skewering of current marketing obsessions.  Digital video dismissed as “a tsunami of horseshit” is a characteristic headline grabber.

Undoubtedly Hoffman and Ritson are doing us all a service by declaring vigorously that the new “emperors” of online advertising may not be as fully clothed as they would have us believe.  But wait.  Is their crusade, however unintentionally, leading all of us who still enjoy working in the advertising industry to question what we do for a living?  Are we in danger of missing something obvious and losing sight of the timeless and essential truth that there will always be a place for advertising that’s truly entertaining?

Let me illustrate that with four examples of advertising content I have stumbled across on my own social media feeds over the past few days.  In no particular order:

A video from BBC Radio Four on my Facebook timeline to promote the Today programme with a few snippets from the captivating story of 91 year old Renee Glynne, the most credited script supervisor in British cinema history.  Today is not my morning listening of choice but the video held my attention and nudged me a little towards reappraisal of its content. 

A YouTube pre-roll video from Converse, part of their Public Access series, featuring Maisie Williams interviewing Millie Bobby Brown.  Now, I’m at least a few years beyond Converse’s bullseye target audience but, as with the Radio Four video, I was sufficiently hooked to keep watching and to learn (appropriately close to the release of Stranger Things season 2) what a dazzlingly natural screen presence Millie Bobby Brown has (a huge star in the making, I’ll wager).  Clever content marketing from Converse, and nicely executed.

A trailer for Blade Runner 2049, in the form of a Pinned Tweet.  Not just the latest “regular” trailer for a movie that, as a firm fan of the original, I have been actively seeking out for weeks, but accompanied by a looped GIF from IMAX encouraging me to enjoy the extra 26% of the movie I can only see on one of their screens.  A perfect little demo, just a few seconds long, that prompted me to swap the local Everyman for an IMAX on this occasion.

And finally, again on Twitter, the full length version of the latest Guinness ad telling the remarkable story of the Compton Cowboys.  Not the first in a long line of “must see” Guinness ads to be promoted aggressively on social media at the time of their launch, but on this occasion a retweet from someone I follow, and one I was grateful for.  The line “did I save the horse or did the horse save me?” would be intriguing enough to kick-start any short story writing contest.

Each of these examples, in different ways, entertained me, stirred my emotions and made me feel that little bit warmer towards the brands that produced them.  As far as I am aware they reached me either via recommendations from people I know and people I follow or through appropriate media planning (although Converse perhaps less so).  Beyond that, honestly, I really don’t care.  The point is, they crossed my online path and I chose to watch.

As a content and design agency born in entertainment, you’d expect us at Red Bee to believe that entertaining advertising gives brands a competitive edge.  Countless research studies have proved that over many years.   To quote just two examples, the IPA’s definitive The Long and Short of It study, with its overwhelming evidence of the power of emotion in advertising and the long term effects of creating fame for brands, and System 1 Group’s FeelMore50 ranking of emotional ads that “drive the greatest share growth by building fame, fluency and feeling.”

These are not new revelations.  Remembering that the legendary UK ad agency Lowe Howard-Spink once produced a study of the power of “likeability” in advertising, a quick search led me to a report from the time in Campaign.  It’s well worth a read.  Lowes had cottoned onto the emergence of a new breed of audience behaviour, “ad avoidance”, made possible by new fangled channel-changing remote controls.  This feels like an innocent age compared with today’s jungle of intrusive clickbait online ad formats, as described for example by Bob Hoffman.  But the antidote proposed by the agency is as appropriate today as it was back then:  “making ads that people are prepared to give time to.”  Delving back into even older research, Lowes built a convincing case that the most effective advertising is “likeable” advertising.

The date on the report?  1997.  So we have known this stuff for at least 20 years.  To frame it in a contemporary context, Mark Ritson asserts that “social media is media for people where brands aren’t welcome.”  I beg to differ.  I think brands can be welcome, just as BBC Radio Four, Converse, IMAX and Guinness were welcome on my own feeds.  But for that to happen (and to avoid avoidance) brands need to be likeable and they need to entertain.

Andy Bryant, Managing Director