‘Native advertising is further proof we’ve lost our way’

Todd Copilevitz is partner of digital strategy at JWT Atlanta

Can we just stop hyping native advertising? It’s not new. It’s not the next big thing. It certainly is not the answer.

Native advertising is just the latest symptom of a system that has lost its way. Rather than honing the craft of building meaningful marketing campaigns, we have become enablers of a system that values short-term gain for minimal investment. And in the end, it will come back to haunt us all.

For those who have been living under a rock, native advertising, or sponsored content, got its moment under the interrogation spotlight recently when John Oliver laid into it on his weekly HBO show. EMarketer projects marketers will spend nearly $2.3 billion on sponsored content this year, up more than 20 percent over last year.

But as Oliver and others before him have noted, advertisers have been wrapping themselves in the credibility of editorial content for more than 60 years. It made for pithy and enlightening commentary, and highlighted that the general public is typically ill-equipped to draw the line between independent editorial content and ads masquerading as stories.

But the point that the comedic piece missed was that native advertising is merely the latest shiny object offered by publishers eager to satisfy the demands of marketers and their agencies. It does nothing for the audience.

The coattails of credibility
If marketing was a public square, then native advertising is nothing more than standing next to someone who knows what they’re talking about and hoping people think that makes you smart too. It may be slightly more effective than billboards and less creepy than trying to butt into conversations. But ultimately, you’re hoping to trade on the credibility others create.

I get it. We’ve been building this perpetual motion machine for more than 100 years now. It’s a relentless drive where the most important thing is amassing the most eyeballs for the least amount of money while assuring the highest possible level of compliance from the audience.

Unfortunately, no one bothered to tell the consumers that their compliance is expected. The one immutable trend is the public’s unrelenting movement toward more personalized choice. From newspapers to radio to broadcast television to cable TV and onto the Internet, at every step the movement has been to fragment their attention across content and formats more aligned with their preferences than advertisers’ needs.

And at every turn, ad formats have chased the audience. Media companies can talk all they want about advertising being the price of free content, but it’s a price the general public never negotiated. Attention is our most valuable asset, and people understandably will go to great lengths to make sure they control where and when they dole that out.

Build something, dummy
So when do we quit trying to prop up last century’s business model and instead show our clients the way forward? You want to connect with an audience? Then build something.

Dig in deep and figure out what your brand has to offer. Presumably, the product or service was created to fill a void in the market. Products that succeed start with hard work, so put the same work ethic into connecting with the audience.

Let’s go back to that metaphor of a town square where brands are trying to draw consumers’ attention. How much more compelling would it be if your brand is that performer that stops the audience in their tracks, draws them close and ultimately motivates them ask how they can join in?

TV commercials, digital campaigns and even native advertising are a fine plea for the consumer’s attention. But they’re never going to create the meaningful connection necessary to succeed with audiences today. That ultimately comes down to real people making real stuff, responding to real customers, and investing in experiences that create brand preference and a propensity to buy.

It’s not cheap or easy to succeed. You have to invest in your marketing just like product development. But why would you do anything less?

Why wouldn’t you expect your marketing team, or agency, to invest itself in learning all it can about your brand, your audience and your customers’ expectations. Then, and only then, will they start investigating what sites are out there, which new gee-whiz technology is offering a trial run or what capabilities publishers are offering.

Why is editorial content so powerful? Because it doesn’t sell. It informs, tells a story, pulls back a curtain. So take a cue from that and figure out what stories your brand has to share.

Look at the brands succeeding today. From age-old giants like Coke to upstarts like Tom’s, every brand that is winning the battle for the hearts and minds of consumers is doing so by enriching the lives of their customers.

Getting there takes traditional creatives, seasoned account teams, sharp analysts and, yes, maybe even journalists all working together. It’s hard work. But it’s work that lasts. And if you aren’t willing to invest that, well then you’re in the wrong business.