How we can save advertising from ourselves

This post is sponsored by TMRW.

The usual frenzied pace of life that most of us were accustomed to came to a halt last year when the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded around the world.

Many workplaces were shut down. Restaurants, gyms, theatres and shopping malls closed. Before we knew it, many of us started spending days and weeks sequestered in our homes.

Even as our economy started opening up late last year, the way we now live has remained largely the same as when we were suddenly forced to contend with restricted public activities, cancelled events, and virtual everything.

We are now in what everyone calls the “new normal”; a situation where we are witnessing drastic change in consumer behaviour, and in turn, advertising. Wherever consumer behaviour has shifted, advertising spend has adjusted in response. In-home media usage went up. TV viewership has climbed, but digital consumption has increased even more: use of social platforms and streaming services have risen almost everywhere; gaming has also grown dramatically.

Our response to all this was to double down on hyper-targeting, re-marketing, cookie tracking and other digital marketing tools that help brands connect with their audience, hoping that with healthier metrics such as increased reach and impressions, conversions will return to pre-pandemic levels.

What we may have forgotten during this time is that with more quiet time, more privacy, and more stillness, we have an opportunity to think about who we are, as individuals and as a society. But this was no kinfolk moment or getting on the slow living boat. It is the restoration of a sense of self and people starting to remember they are more than just their work or a number on a page.

And this is also exactly why the “new normal” will be just like the old one in many ways. People still react to the one thing advertising used to be when algorithms didn’t design and serve the ads: feeling good about themselves, and their choices.

Our Instagram and TikTok feeds are evidence enough that people have rediscovered past ways of doing things, to their delight – and the joy of millions who have found new accounts to follow, uncovered fresh interests, and fashioned original outlets of expression.

This presents us with a great opportunity to recognise the value of creativity generated by these time-tested activities and be reminded of what we always wanted our work to do, which is to talk to our audience and make them feel something, except bored.  

We have done very well in the past few years in the digital space. Brands took every chance they had to leverage the medium to create better and more immersive experiences, going off-grid to make better things. Like how Wendy’s kept Fortnite fresh by destroying burger freezers, and when Carlings launched the world’s first digital fashion collection just a little over a year ago.

However, as digital tools proved their worth on monthly reports, we were lured away from connecting with our audience and finding out what makes them tick. In the words of Howard Luck Gossage: “Our first duty is not to the old sales curve, it is to the audience.”

Things then escalated quickly while the pandemic showed no signs of slowing; brands were chasing numbers, agencies were hard-pressed to boost campaign performance, and tried-and-tested methods did not seem to measure up to expectations.

Why is that? Because “manufactured creativity” wasn’t the way to go. People didn’t want to be talked at, people didn’t want to be served typical marketing messages. They have had lots of experience in discerning real from fake when some brands used the COVID opportunistically to express humanity, only to be called out. They demand to know if you have an authentic story to tell, and that you hear them out before sharing what you want them to buy from you.

But the way out of this situation was always right under our noses. The advertising industry knew all along what it takes to turn things around in our favour, we just got distracted along the way. All we need to do is go back to basics and crack briefs with good old classic creativity and a side of intuition and bravery, plus the humility to listen to what people actually desire.

At TMRW, our creativity has since gone as far as imagining what role our clients’ product or service can play in the health economy. Simply because we believe almost every experience, product and service will now be reassessed by people by whether it will affect their health and of those around them. And, as we hear how more of our friends and family wish to continue spending more time at home than out, and connect largely with their immediate community, community empowerment ideas are also finding their way into our brainstorming sessions.

There is no better time than now to put this power of creativity into action and push out work that is relevant, authentic, and hopefully, also entertaining. Building connections with people while tapping into real insights. Because in a pandemic, people shop with who and what they trust. Trust that comes from relationships built on familiarity: familiarity from stories and experiences we continue to design with them in mind.

That’s how we can continue creating great campaigns, and in turn, move lots of products and services again. 

 

The writer is Mervyn Chan, executive creative director, TMRW and Different (part of the Better Together Consortium)

TMRW is an independent boutique agency founded in Singapore.

Guided by a media-neutral philosophy and digital-forward vision, we bring strategy and heart together in ways that connects brands with people, and today, with TMRW.