Who’s Selling Who?

Who's Selling Who?Recently, one of my colleagues introduced me to a friend in the advertising business. We were roughly the same age, had similar backgrounds and had similarly worked for both Global Fortune 100’s and Internet Startups. Our commonalities made for an easy conversation and quickly we were jumping into the topics of business, technology and disruption.

While I’ve often worked on the periphery of branding and marketing, particularly over the last decade, it is not my area of focus or depth.  Similarly, he had worked around technology and customer engagement, but wasn’t really a data nerd.  Nevertheless, our conversation converged on the topic of how much things are changing in the business world, so quickly, and how the same old rules that we all used to follow have become dramatically ineffective.

He spoke of the old way that advertising and marketing used to work.  You’d collect a team of really creative people, spend a month or two looking at a client’s strategy, brand, value proposition, and so on, and then try to come up with some innovative way to push their message to their customers, Mad Men-style. I pointed out that the epitome of this model might have been the creation of the “Just Do It” slogan for Nike, which likely earned the advertising firm Wieden + Kennedy a billion dollars per word, if not per letter. The 1980’s and 1990’s were the heyday of this Big Bang advertising.

Yet none of these approaches seemed to work any longer. Not only has the branding and advertising play book changed, the game itself is now entirely different. As we continued to discuss the challenges he faced it became clear that his industry, like every other, was facing the reality that the very rules that had made advertising agencies successful for decades were now working against them.  It appeared that customers were not only showing an immunity to their efforts, they indeed were showing an anti-viral response; the harder you try to ‘sell’ them, the more they recoiled from your sensory assault.

How did this happen?  How did we get to the point that the hundreds of billions of dollars spent every year on advertising seems to grow less and less effective, particularly with Millennials and Generation Z?  I pondered on this a bit, applying some of the research I performed in writing ‘Jerk’, and came up with the following hypothesis.

Millennials and Generation Z are the first two generations who spent nearly all of their lives with access to two key channels of advertising: cable television and the Internet. They probably cannot recall life before these two innovations.  For Millennials, the notion of scheduling your week’s evenings around your favorite prime time television is a distant memory.  Ask a Gen Z’er what a ‘rerun’ is, and they’d likely give you a quizzical look, and then ask Siri.  I’d argue that the two innovations of cable TV and the Internet are significant contributors to the lost effectiveness of Big Iron Advertising, as these two technologies completely changed how we identify our place in the world, and what it takes to connect with us.

A Thriller of a Decade

After decades of evolution the Marlboro Man, Soap Operas, “Snap, Krackle, Pop!”, and Spaghetti Westerns from 1950’s, TV eventually led to Tony the Tiger, “It’s the Real Thing,” and “Where’s the Beef?” of the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s.  Lifestyle advertising yielded to sloganism in ever more persuasive leaps, and developing a particularly punchy tag line was a sure path to advertising success.

This was also the era that canonized the celebrity endorsement.  Arguably, this was spurred on by MTV, which turned musicians into TV personalities, and dramatically extended the influence of these merged entertainment channels. MTV was a revolution in audience engagement, and yet it was only the beginning.  For those that remember, the TV series Miami Vice was a hit not only because of its high quality production (at the time it was the highest-cost-per-episode show ever produced), but also because of its steady flow of musicians, actors and celebrities as guest stars (which is probably why it cost so much).  They used contemporary Top 40 music in their sound track, which was practically unheard of before its time. They also used the latest clothes, cars, boats, toys and so on, in a breakthrough of comprehensive product placement.

In its own way, the TV series Miami Vice was an early example of omni-channel advertising, long before there was such a thing as the Internet, Oprah Winfrey or Howard Stern.

Unplugged, And Plugged

Shortly after Miami Vice ran its course, we entered the grunge age of the 1990’s.  This era stood in stark contrast to the flashy 1980’s, with flannel shirts, torn jeans and optional personal hygiene being the norm. MTV caught this wave and added to it, bringing on its ‘Unplugged’ series of performances.  These presented contemporary music stars without their normal towers of amplifiers, hairspray and strobe lights.  This reduction in flash from the ‘80’s also brought with it a new sense of cynicism about modern life.  The grunge movement established a tone of minimalism and counter-culture. Music groups like Nirvana, TV shows like ‘Twin Peaks,’ or ‘The Simpsons’ called into question the notion of the idyllic American Family.  No doubt, the popular culture of the early ‘90’s had a darker, more dystopian tone.

This was also the decade when cable television went from being a luxury item to a mainstream service. Prior to cable, people were used to having three or maybe four channels of programming to choose from.  You scheduled your day or evening around the programming available, and advertisers tailored their messaging to reach as broad an audience as possible.  Again, catchy tunes, slogans and endorsements were the name of the game. Cable blew up this model.  Suddenly, viewers had hundreds of channels to choose from, and could spend their viewing hours watching what they wanted, rather than what the major channels chose to broadcast.

This deeply fragmented the viewing audience, which was both a boon and a challenge to advertisers.  With cable it was possible to understand and target audiences much more precisely, but it also meant that broad campaigns lost much of their leverage. A commercial that may work great on prime-time network television might have flopped when used on an all-sports network like ESPN.  In the 1990s’ people grew used to having more choice in how they were entertained, and how they wanted to be addressed. The trend towards customer-centricity began to pick up pace, at precisely the same time customers were introduced to an entirely new way to interact with the universe: the Internet.

I Want It Free, I Want It Now

The early 1990’s saw the birth of the Internet. What initially was a new way for college professors to communicate quickly turned into the world’s largest and fastest-updating encyclopedia.  By 1995, if you wanted to find out something about anything, the Internet was increasingly the best place to look. As more and more of us dialed into the internet at the blazing speed of 56,000 bits per second, we found an entirely new channel for information, if not yet entertainment.  The early Internet was a one-dimensional ‘pull’ platform and from a branding perspective, engagement largely consisted of print advertising digitized for the computer screen.

Before the Internet, finding something out required actual effort.  You went down to the public library and you looked it up.  By the latter 1990’s, you dialed into America On Line and just looked it up. But, the generation of kids growing up at this time, the ever-popular and ever-mysterious Millennials, were the first to experience the notion of instant and nearly-free gratification of their desires. This, combined with the now-growing past-time of video games, meant that consumers became the center of their own world.  They experienced having answers to their questions come to them with remarkable ease, and in being the central heroic figure in their own in-home video productions. By the mid-1990s we no longer had to go see Luke Skywalker or Princess Leia because we could be Luke or Leia in our video games.

Near the turn of the century Millennials experienced yet another revolution; obtaining licensed content for free.  File sharing platforms like Napster allowed consumers to get digital music, and later movies, for free over the internet.  This radically undermined the music industry, which just enjoyed a strong uplift in business from the MTV revolution. Now, once again, Millennials were taught that content could be had for free, simply for the asking.  In participating in these sharing networks, people were both getting something for nothing and also ‘sticking it to the man,’ in the form of corporations that earned profits through their control of content channels.

Me, Me, Me

Many older generations complain about Millennials.  They claim that they’re narcissistic, self-absorbed, selfish and have unreasonable expectations.  They expect instant recognition for a job well-done, they expect rapid promotions without “earning them” and they quickly move from job to job, or task to task, like hyper-caffeinated hummingbirds. When one considers how they spent their childhood in the 1980’s and 1990’s, is it any wonder that this would be the case? Their video games told them they were masters of the universe, the Internet told them they could have anything they wanted, instantaneously, for free, and their constant bombardment by cliché- and celebrity-centric advertising dramatically desensitized them to traditional forms of engagement.

The lifestyle branding that really hit its stride in the 1980’s and 1990’s became anti-social by the 2010’s when Millennials reached their adulthood.  The Porsches, Rolexes and trips to the Cote D ’Azure so popular to boomers were replaced with Facebook friends, Twitter followers and doing volunteer work in sub-Saharan Africa. The materialism that was the engine of lifestyle advertising was suddenly gauche. Millennials didn’t want to identify with a lifestyle, they wanted to actually live it.  To older generations Millennials may seem deeply self-absorbed, and by comparison, they are.   Millennials are self-absorbed about defining their own lifestyle, living it, and sharing that experience with the world, rather than embracing someone else’s definition of a lifestyle.

When ‘Just Do It’ No Longer Does It

My new-found friend reiterated how much all of this has changed the world of branding and advertising over the last ten years.  Brand used to be about making the company or its products look attractive.  But, even with lifestyle branding, the emphasis is on the lifestyle the company stands for. For half a century this method worked and worked well.  Millennials were saturated with this sort of messaging their entire lives; relentless, optimized, focus-group-tested messaging designed to make consumers feel connected to a brand.

So why has this approach failed to engage Millennials?  Blame it on how they were trained in their youth, and how their early experiences framed their expectations as adults.

The Advertising Inversion

To advertisers, Millennials seem different because they are different. The old rules just don’t apply to them.  They are massively desensitized to traditional techniques of celebrity endorsements, product placements, event sponsorships, and campaigns.  They don’t watch TV, they don’t read the paper, and they likely don’t know where their mailbox is located. To engage them, advertisers actually have to engage them.  Meaning understanding each individual and endorsing those aspects of their lives that are meaningful to them. Now, companies need to sponsor their customers, rather than celebrities.  They need to embrace the lifestyles of those who buy from them, demonstrating a far more sincere form of connection, engagement, and yes, flattery.

Millennials long ago reached their advertising saturation point: nothing more gets in. They notice advertising as much as they notice the air that they breathe or the traffic all around them while they ‘like’ their friend’s latest Facebook posts while driving.  They know it’s out there, but it’s just part of their surroundings, their environment.  To engage them you need to make them the star of the show.  You need to make them the hero in the story, just like they learned while playing Donkey Kong, Super Mario Brothers, or Age of Empires. They grew up playing the hero in any number of computer games and fantasy worlds online.  Supporting their crusades as adults is a key to rising above the din of mass-market advertising.

Rather than spending millions of dollars for a celebrity endorsement, you’d be better served spending a few dollars each promoting millions of them directly.  Don’t show them super models on a beach, dreamily drinking a sweating bottle of beer, instead show them a person just like them, enjoying a beer after restoring a forest or cleaning a highway median.  After growing up in a virtual reality, smothered in advertising, is it any wonder that this age group wants to feel validated and alive right here in the real world?  The fact that savvy advertisers can achieve this engagement at a fraction of the costs of 80’s-style advertising makes this transition both more palatable and more urgent.


So, to connect with younger generations, you must invert the advert.  Don’t get people to embrace your brand’s lifestyle.  Instead, embrace customers who you identify with and make them your brand ambassadors.  Make them the hero in their own story, and be their plucky sidekick. Let them play Hans Solo or Princess Leia, and be content to be their Chewbacca.  You’ll have a much better chance of keeping them engaged, and it still beats being Jar Jar Binks.