Native Advertising: Ad Agencies Dip Their Little Toes In The Deep End

Native Advertising as popularly defined (pick one) is nowhere near “the big idea”, and further underscores a dark truth concerning the fate of every ad agency in the business.

As is often the case in the one-upsman world of advertising Native’s definition is still in the land-grab phase. But in short:

In other words, theoretically without employing traditional interruptive tactics, advertisers would deliver brand messages in the form of – gasp – honest to goodness desirable content, products or services that users might be willing to seek out and pay money for, except that it’s probably free.

In yet other words the same old ham-fisted, ad industry bozos are trying (still) to clod their way through yet another little bit of age-old interactive media obviousness as though it’s some big new idea.

In truth, the underlying observations that have inspired today’s “Native Advertising” breathlessness have been openly in place for over 15 years.

And while there is clearly valid intent embedded in the notion of a kind of “native” solution, this current set of native advertising definitions are all somewhat on the incomplete side.

Why should this trickling acceptance of reality have taken a young voter’s entire life span?

I strongly believe it’s because, by their very design, ad agencies are built, trained and honed to do one thing well: interrupt the consumer experience with a message of value that is itself just valuable enough to keep viewers from looking away.

The entire 100+ Billion dollar industry. Staffed, funded, and optimized. That’s what they do.

And that singular capability is entirely misaligned with the very fundamental principles of interactive media. The future of media.

Think about that – Ad agencies are the wrong tool for the future.

It’s just a whole lot easier to sneak an ad in front of a captive audience, an ad that is just good enough while it sufficiently delivers its brand message that people don’t get up and leave, than it is to create something so valuable and magnetic that a regular person will seek out, be willing to pay for, and enjoy it.

Not surprisingly, this truth doesn’t get talked about much in ad circles.

I know, I’ve heard it, “good advertising IS valuable”, “Lots of people watch the Super Bowl for the amazing spots”, “People in the UK go to the theater early to watch the commercials”, and “My wife buys fashion magazines for the ads.”

Memes that keep an industry of frustrated creatives from feeling the need to get into real content industries.

In reality, lots of people watch the Super Bowl (real content), so advertisers spend way more money on those ads which invariably suck less – but those same viewers would be just fine watching the game without interruption. People in the UK are just as annoyed as people in the US when they pay for a movie (real content), show up on time and are stuck watching 20 minutes of commercials. And your wife would be quite pleased if the magazine provided more fashion review and commentary (again, real content) in place of those ads.

At this point in the conversation my advertising friends point at Old Spice Man.

Jesus. Yes, there is a type of freakery along every skew of humanity, ads that become eagerly shared being one of the very rarest. Every 6-7 years there is one Old Spice Man. That is not a repeatable, sustainable solution. A meaningless blip on a radar that is otherwise teaming with actual useful data that is being openly ignored.

Don’t you wonder why there are so few wildly successful ads in the interactive space? Don’t you ever wonder why? I mean these aren’t just random people making YouTube cat videos. These are paid professionals who are theoretically masters of their art form. Why then is advertising in interactive not more obviously successful and coveted?

Periodically advertisers try to acknowledge this disconnect and do tip toe into the deep end with what seem like penetrating PowerPoint decks, that try to sound all hard, hip and anarchic, generally stating that today’s busy, connected consumers are just disinterested in brands and ad messages altogether. And I guess this must feel like a cathartic, even maverick, stab at the truth. But these are ultimately impotent decks, never going all the way. Always falling short of any real disruption. Never willing to upturn their own boat to reveal the utter brokenness of their paycheck. These exercises (and all ad agencies toy with presentations like these) end the same way, with some softball, vaguely nuanced adjustment to the old ad models.

Because those few that do look critically, all the way under the rug with open eyes, see a slightly horrific slippery slope that ends with upheaval. The implication that the industry is no longer built on solid ground. That the very ad agency infrastructure is literally not aligned on the foundation of the future.

That creative directors, art directors, copywriters and producers – are the wrong people. The wrong people to invent the solutions – helping companies evangelize their offerings into interactive media and extend awareness through the social spaces of the future. (planners do have a role however, more on that later)

From where I sit, all this agency hyperventilating of the virtues and potential of “Native Advertising” is just little more than the dozy ass-scratch of a sated, comfortable industry that hasn’t yet felt the crunch of the iceberg needed to rouse from its operational hammock-basking.

Why bother? When we can rely on the apparent solid ground of past innovations?

Yes – there are a lot of hard working creative people in advertising – but they are generally working below this line. They are working within the Matrix, below pointed, self-critical analysis and reinvention of the industry’s very models and structure. It’s reason for being.

The industry chose the blue pill.

A Reboot is Needed
In software, developers of big systems spend a relative long time nursing legacy code over time, modifying and amending to adapt it to a changing world. But there comes a point where it becomes unwieldy and inefficient, where the originating code base is no longer relevant, where its developers have to step back and ask “if we were building an ideal system from scratch today, would this be it?” When the answer stops being “possibly”, then the legacy design usually gets retired.

The same must be asked of legacy business processes.

Clients and agencies need to ask the same question of the existing agency business and infrastructure. Big gains will come from reinventing it, rebuilding it directly on the back of solid interactive principles.

This requires a reboot.

Following such a reboot a lot of good ad people will necessarily have to redirect their careers. And other new skill sets will suddenly be in high demand.

“Whoa, whoa whoa,” you say, “Good lord man, you’re wrong in this, surely. If all this were really true it would have been revealed before now. It would have been obvious. Clients wouldn’t keep paying for interruptive ads. It never could have gone on this long.

“In fact by sheer virtue that clients keep paying to have the same agency conduits create and deploy traditional, interruptive models in interactive media – that must prove that it’s still valid, right?”

No I don’t believe that. The present economics, while very real today, create the convincing illusion that the industry must be right-configured. That it must be aligned with interactive media and therefore, the future of media. But this belief is little more than another kind of bubble. A bubble that was indeed solid at one time. Back when the Men were Mad. Except that today, the center has leaked out.

“But anyway,” you assert, “you’re missing the main point – lots of the ads do work for the most part, we get conversions! Definitive proof that everything is solid.”

For now perhaps, and to a point. So what will pop the bubble? Mere discovery of the “new best” – a true native model. That’s how tenuous this is.

At Lego they have a corporate mantra “only the best is good enough”. We all aspire to that in many things. The implication of that line though is that there must something else, something other than the “best” that is considered by most others to be “good enough”.

And today clients are willing to pay for our current best, which is good enough it seems to do the trick, while convincing us we’re on the right track. But I strongly assert, it’s not the best. There is a best that has been sitting in the wings (for 15 years!). Clients and consumers don’t seem to know this best is an option, I assume because they haven’t seen it yet.

Steve Jobs famously commented on innovating new solutions that “…people often don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” And so it goes here too.

Understanding “Native” – a New Best
To find a new best, we need to align ourselves firmly on the backbone of interactive media. So we need to know what interactive media really is.

That awful definition of Native Advertising at the top of this page (courtesy of wikipedia – the expression of our collective psychosis) illustrates a pathetic lack of understanding.

“…a web advertising method…”

Web advertising? Really?

Is that the “medium” you ad guys are working in? The World Wide Web? Ok, so what do you call it when the user is offline, not in a browser, using an app? Or some new unknowable device? Does the ad method just stop working there? C’mon, you’re thinking too small.

To find what’s right, you have to ask yourself “what functionally defines this medium landscape?” What one feature is consistent across all states of the medium, the web on PC, the web on mobile, apps, socializing on various platforms, both connected and offline etc.? And what attribute differentiates the medium from all other mediums.

The main point of difference and the consistent theme across all states is that the user is in control.

User control is the primary function afforded by the computer. That is what the medium is. It is the medium of users. Usership is what we mean by “interactive”.

Connectivity is merely the distribution of that control.

And we can’t gloss over this: it’s the user that is in control.

Not the content creators, certainly not the advertiser. No. Rather, content creators are just servants.

And that’s why advertisers, beholden for all time to interruption, flounder.

So fundamental is that largely unspoken truth, that the user should be in control, that every single time a user is annoyed with an interactive experience, it can be directly attributed to a breakdown in compliance with this one paradigm. Every – time. Every time a content creator attempts to assert his intent, his goals upon the user – the user recoils with recognition that something feels very wrong.

For well over a decade and to anyone who would listen, I have called this paradigm The Grand Interactive Order. It’s the first axiom of interactive. Really, it’s old – but worth a read, I think.

The second axiom I call the Interactive Trade Agreement.
This describes how sufficient value is necessary for any interaction in the medium to transpire. Sound familiar?

Its another very old idea that nevertheless seemed lost on most advertisers for years – except that they now talk about Native Advertising which is directly rooted in compliance with this axiom.

The age of reliance on a captive audience is falling behind us. We can no longer merely communicate the value of clients and products; today our messages must themselves be valuable. Be good enough that they will be sought out. Today ads must have independent value – in addition to a marketing message. Because for the first time consumers have to choose our “ads” over other content.

This quote above was not part of a 2013 Native Advertising deck. Though it might as well have been. It was actually a thread from Red Sky Interactive’s pitch deck made to a dozen fortune 500 firms between 1996 and 1999. It was philosophically part of Red Sky’s DNA.

In the 90s these ideas largely fell on deaf ears. It sounded good, but it scared too many people. People who were still trying wrap their heads around click-throughs and that viral thing.

Indeed, Native Advertising is just the ad industry re-discovering these basic ideas, once again, 15 years later.

Perhaps you can see why I feel no pity as I contemplate the big ad agencies falling by the wayside. They have had so much time and resource to adapt – had they only bothered to develop a strong understanding of the medium.

Maybe they can still pull out of their disconnected nose-dive.

In the spirit of willingness to beat my head against a wall until they do, I will offer something more than criticism.

Native Marketing

First – we need to drop this Native “Advertising” thing. As I have argued – advertising is about interruption by design – and that’s patently inauthentic.

However, advertising’s larger parent, “Marketing” does make sense. Ultimately what we want to do is find an iconic term that will help us stay on target, and marketing in my mind is much more integrated into the process of conducting business than advertising is. Native “Business” might be an even truer expression, but for now let’s sit in the middle with “Marketing”.

Next, the people. The people working in advertising today are, by in large, just not trained in the disciplines that true native marketing demands.

Planners cross over, however. Planners must still do market research in the future, study behavior and psychographics and develop a strategic insight – an insight that informs the new creative teams.

To wit, gone are teams made up of Creative Directors and Art Directors and Copywriters. That’s about communication of value. They’ll still exist somewhere but they’ll play a small service role.

True native solutions require the skills and sensibilities of the people who are experienced in creating businesses, content and products which – without the benefit of pre-aggregated viewers/users – people will pay for. These are silicon valley entrepreneurs, filmmakers, product designers, etc. These are the creative teams of the agency of the future, and they take the lead in development.

These teams must understand the client’s business. Not just at it’s surface – but thoroughly – every detail of sourcing, production, manufacturing processes and fulfillment. It’s the only way a truly native solution can be conceived. Because remember – this is not about creating a communication of value, the new goal is to create value.

We are further not just creating value at random, We are creating value to help grow a client’s business so the value we create must interlock into the client’s business. To be authentic. To honor the axioms.

So our agency of the future would know enough about the company that realistic implications and cost of operation and fulfillment of any proposal will have been considered.

As such, the agency will supply a business plan – as part of their proposal.

Example – Cool Shoes
Let me put myself out there for criticism.

Below is an example of what I think qualifies as a truly native marketing solution.

Each part of the system I’m going to describe has been done. But never together as a singular execution, and never under the context of marketing a larger brand.

Let’s pick a creative brand of footwear, like a Havaianas, a Nike, or a Converse. Cool brands and admittedly, those are always a little easier.

Part 1 – Product Integration

Today direct to garment printing is a generally straightforward affair. This is where a regular person can create artwork, and as an economical one-off job it can be printed professionally onto the fabric of the shoe, or flip flop rubber, or bag or shirt.

So a tool needs to be created for the products in question to allow users to upload art (and possibly even generate art), apply it to a template, and customize any other colors and features.

The company I co-founded created the first working version of Nike ID way back when, and Nike hasn’t changed it much since. You still basically just pick colors and monogram words.

But this is the full expression of that original inspiration. This takes it about as far as it can go – short of structural design. And beyond color choices, allows for true creative ownership. And that’s important.

This is about personalization, ownership and self expression. Factors that are critical when hoping to inspire engagement and later motivate sharing.

Naturally the user can then purchase their creation.

As I say, this is being done in places. And it’s only part of the solution.

Part 2 – Contracting The Consumer
The next part gets interesting, this is where creators of personal designs can choose to put their design into our client’s online store for others to browse and buy. All the social factors start to kick in here (such as following, commenting, rating etc). This is the platform on which a user can build an identity that raises his status.

But we go further, we allow the user to set a price, above ours, that his shoe design will cost. Normally we sell the product for $30 say, the user chooses $35. That margin on every sale goes straight back to the user.

Note – we are not paying the user to engage with our brand. What were doing is being honest and fair about the value that customer is providing our company.

What we’ve done here is create a platform where consumers are creators of our very products, and even paid employees of our company, albeit working on commission.

Again, all been done, but we are moving away from what has been done under the banner of a big brand, and moving into a business model.

Part 3 – Empowering Our Customer Contractors
Now that our customer has created a great design, and priced it in our store, we need to drop the third leg of the stool – we need to give him tools to further raise his status. To market his designs.

We create a tool that allows the customer to assemble posters, stickers, and movies, ads and spots. How the customer chooses to think of this is his call. But we provide a system that allows him to incorporate his design into artful executions – video of the design being printed on canvas, excellent typography, the ability to upload images and video of his own, access to a huge library of excellent music. In short we develop a small studio in a box. All the tools the customers needs to sell his own product to his own network. We must facilitate that.

Secondarily, like in the App Store, we can offer customers the ability to afford better placement in our storefront. They might even be allowed to trade sales dollars for that placement if they wish.

There are dozens of other ideas that can roll into such a system, but the above illustrates perhaps some basic parts.

I hope you can see that such a thing is a long way from an “ad campaign” even a so-called “native” one. Functioning together all three parts create a functional native ecosystem that centers around our client’s business model with a symbiotic business model of its own. A system that will result in consumers meaningfully expressing themselves and investing in the brand, buying the products, and evangelizing on our client’s behalf, by definition. Word will spread without a media buy because the system quite literally incentivises socializing, distribution of the message, and sales.

Going Native
This is just a starting point. And building in a payment scheme is not a defining feature of Native Marketing in my opinion. Rather there is a wide world of opportunity for smarter people than me if only agencies can wake up real fast to the true nature of the medium. That they will eventually be forced from accepting the advertising paradigm at face value, and the practice of interrupting consumers with creative yakking about the value or brands.

They must rebuild their position on the solid principles of interactive media – even though that means a significant shift in the skillsets required.

The promise of the medium is that anyone can become big, anyone can be in business, make money, solve problems, achieve fame, express themselves, become better, smarter and happier and it is your job as a Native Marketer to facilitate all of that for users on behalf of your clients’ and their business models.

In the Grand Interactive Order you are lowly servants of our King, the User. You must provide him with value. Or you will be cast out.

That’s as “native” as it gets.

And that, Mad Man, is the new deep end.