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Actually, What is Advertising?

By E. Mahony – spotlightideas.co.uk


‘Advertising is dead’ some say. But what do they actually mean by ‘advertising”? Do they mean things such as online banners and pop-ups don’t work? Or that the advertising approach, in general, is ineffective? Depending on their understanding of the word they could be either fairly correct or quite incorrect (I’ll explain later). The point of this article is to explore what advertising is today, and in doing so suggest that it is more useful to be open and flexible rather than black-and-white and rigid about advertising in general, as well as to give an outline of the advertising approach (that can be adopted by all, to one degree or another, on the internet).

Advertising in its most basic sense: promotion

Advertising, in its most basic sense, is about letting people know of the existence of a product or service. As long as people have been trading, advertising, in this general sense, has existed. ‘Letting people know of’ could be something, fairly, passive, or it could be something more direct-sales-focused.

Connecting audiences to brands

But, traditionally, advertising has been more complex than just ‘letting people know of’. It has, also, been about connecting audiences to brands. This idea of ‘connecting audiences to brands’ emerged, most significantly, during the 1950s and was developed in important ways during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s by individuals such as Leo Burnett, Bill Bernbach and David Ogilvy. A whole advertising approach was built up around this.

The Advertising Approach (developed by Burnett, Bernbach, Ogilvy and others)

  • Sophisticated copywriting, art work and creative concepts in general (and of art work being put on a level pegging with copywriting, and also, when copywriters and art directors were joined together to work in teams of two).
  • Account planning (getting specialists to focus on quantitative and qualitative research and to come up with marketing ideas, and think through brand strategies)
  • The big idea (marketing idea) to convey a big message across media such as TV, print and billboards
  • Measurement (of advertising)
  • Big brands (as opposed to just local or national brands)
  • Brand values (brands that represent a unique culture / attitude / personality)
  • Unique Benefit – brands offering a unique benefit to audience
  • Consumer insight (understanding the consumer / communicating to the consumer in the consumer’s language)

Audiences having conversations with brands

Before the arrival of the internet people were talking about ‘audiences having conversations with brands’. ‘Conversations’ are much more powerful than just ‘connecting’ to brands. Conversation is about tw0-way dialogue. This is more interesting and engaging than a brand telling you about itself, even if at some point it is able to make some sort of connection with you. The problem is, though, that you need some sort of technology for conversations to take place. With the internet, conversations became possible (you can engage with brands on the internet, for example, via blogs, microblogs, and so on).

But isn’t conversations more PR than advertising?

Yes, PR people are experts in communication, in particular in journalism and press releases. But conversations have to be rooted in brands – in brand values. They have to be rooted in research and measurement. The person having the conversation must really know their audience and communicate to them in a way that will create some sort of loyalty with the brand. There must be an overall coherent strategy in the communication of the brand values. And more. This is something that people in advertising are, traditionally, experts in. It is advertising people who are experts in coming up with fresh and imaginative ideas (both branding and creative) about how to communicate with audiences. Because of the multitude of ways that audiences can use the internet, it’s even more important than ever to have people who are experts in brands, brand values, and so on. In fact the advertising approach is more important than it has ever been.

But saying this, PR (the skills inherent in PR) does have a crucial role to play in conversations. There is a lot that advertising people can learn from PR people on this score. But there is, also, a lot that PR people can learn from people in advertising in the overall approach of what conversations on the internet are trying to achieve.

And there’s more to the internet than ‘conversations’ – traditional advertising models work on the internet too

As important / crucial as conversations are on the internet i.e on blogs, microblogs, and so on, the internet is, also, about connecting with audiences in the more traditional ways. Take virals, for example – Cadbury’s Gorilla. This was originally created as a TV ad. It was a hit on TV, just as it became a hit on the internet. Cadbury’s Gorilla derived from the traditional, creative ad agency. It derived from the world of ‘connecting to audiences’ as opposed to ‘audiences having conversations with brands’ (although, the viral did then go on to provoke audiences to talk about the ad online – but, nevertheless, it started off as a TV ad).

If virals are the equivalent of above-the-line TV ads in traditional advertising, then email marketing is the equivalent of below-the-line direct mail in traditional advertising. Email marketing has been an important tool for reaching audiences on the internet, and although social media marketing has cut into its potency, it is still, relatively, effective.

Advertising is more than just brands having conversation with audiences, but, also, about audiences, on their own, having conversations about brands

One of the ultimate goals of advertising is to get audiences to talk about brands (without the brands having to pay for that – word of mouth – free publicity). So advertising is about brands having conversations with audiences, but, when it comes to ‘conversations’, advertising is really about getting audiences to talk amongst themselves about the brand – because of a great viral, microsite, website – anything, really, that captures the imagination / interest of the audience.

Digital advertising is similar and different to traditional advertising

The task for people in advertising, now, is that there are a plethora of different ways  / tactics of connecting with audiences compared to the days of pure traditional media. I have already mentioned a few (blogs, mircroblogging, viral, email) but could, also, mention: search marketing, microsites, free content, online display ads, and more. You could have an endless debate about whether these are part of advertising or PR or something else. What is clear, though, is that there are direct similarities between traditional and online advertising in the ways which brands communicate with audiences, as well as there being direct similarities between traditional and online advertising in the advertising approach.

Don’t confuse banner ads and pop-ups or mere ‘promotion’ with equalling online advertising

For some banner-ads and pop-ups, for example, equal (online) advertising (and if they say that ‘advertising is dead’) then they have a strong case for saying this. But promoting something (as in a banner or pop-up), as I hope I have demonstrated,  is only a small part of advertising. And, although banner ads and pop-ups have often been a failure, this is due, to an important degree, to the spammy ways in which they have been used . If they had been used more economically and in more imaginative ways and alongside higher quality content then, perhaps, their reputation would be different. It’s as if some people think, at some level, that the new technology (i.e the internet and banner ads) will remove the hard work of the overall advertising approach. No. People are people. They are only going to be wowed by technology if the technology is in some way relevant to them; is of interest or of use to them in some way.

Amalgmation of Advertising and other disciplines

Advertising is still as important as it has ever been. It’s just that an important part of it has developed into something new. An important part of it has joined up with PR to create social media. An important part of it has joined up with design in the creation of interactive microsites and websites in general. And it has joined up with other disciplines too. Although the core of traditional advertising still remains, it might be more helpful to ditch the word ‘advertising’ in the context of the internet, and adopt ’digital marketing’, instead. But if you are going to do this, then to be consistent you are going to have to ditch the word ‘PR’ in the context of the internet – because, social media, for example, without brand values, strategy, research, measurement, and so on (the things, traditionally, that advertising people are best at) is pretty much useless. Or, perhaps, just leave the word ‘advertising’ altogether, and say that it is still very much alive. The point isn’t really what labels you use, but that you understand all the various ways and approaches of reaching your audiences and gaining their loyalty.

Advertising Approach – 2010

How the advertising approach of 2009 compares to the traditional advertising approach

  • Copywriting, art work and creative concepts - and could now include blogging, microblogging, website design, and more
  • Account planning – the account planning approach has been transferred to the internet and might now be involved in social media strategies as well as digital marketing strategies in general. 
  • The big idea (marketing idea) – although the ‘big idea’ is still important (Cadbuyr’s Gorilla was the product of a ‘big idea’ – basically, big campaigns are often based on the traditional ‘big idea’) it’s often more useful on the internet, to think about a myriad of important ideas rather than just one ‘big idea’. The point is that, often, a more subtle approach is required on the internet than in traditional media. 
  • Measurement – The internet now offers a plethora of measurement tools that simply didn’t exist to the same extent in traditional media. 
  • Big brands – the internet has opened up the possibilities for small businesses (you could say ‘small brands’ although some argue that ‘small’ brands don’t really exist) to get noticed. It is much easier for a small businesses to get talked about on the internet (i.e thanks in large part to social media) than it on traditional media. And it is small and medium businesses that are making the most of digital marketing. Large businesses / brands are relative latecomers to digital marketing.
  • Brand values – as important as ever, with an increased focus on the brand story (the internet allows us to get to know more about brand stories thanks to blogs, websites, microsites, and so on). 
  • Unique benefit – besides just the benefit of the actual product or service that customers would purchase, the brand can now offer free benefits (free content / services and so on) via the internet, in interesting and accessible ways. 
  • Consumer insight – with the focus now on listening. Listening, of course, being a crucial part of social media.


Advertising / PR is now far more complicated for clients as well as agencies than before. A much more holistic approach is required by all. A much more integrated approach is required by all. Clients need to be more more involved in the advertising / PR part of their businesses. They need to work closer with the advertising / PR agencies. Advertising / PR agencies must be integrated too (brand planners must work closely with PR people, creatives, and so on).

Things are, certainly, not black-and-white.

What do you think?

Updated 27 May 2010

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  1. Hi, noticed you’d dropped by at fasterfuture.blogspot.com

    re what is advertising (in the future). I think it might just be the closing of the gap between supply and demand. In more Cluetrain terms: matching the intention to buy with the intention to sell.
    I’ve written a white paper about marketing and advertising models for the networked world which you’re welcome to download via my blog. best dc

  2. Thanks David for your comment.

    As soon as I can, I’ll download and read it.

  3. Makes sense to me in radio.

  4. I think that’s about right. Advertising in its traditional form is an increasingly narrow channel.

    Brand has become the more useful concept for describing an increasingly holistic approach to persuasive communication.

  5. Hi!
    I really really liked the article.
    I’m just about to start univeristy and guess what I’ll study?
    Creative Advertising Strategy
    Absolutely agreeing with the last paragraph and that’s the reason why us (new students) have to be sort of competitive and extremely creative. Not just focusing in the present but being able to predict the future, to see what’s going to come and how we can manage with it.


  6. Julieta and Mark. Thanks for your comments. M: ‘holistic’: yes. J: ‘creative’: yes, now more than ever. Good luck with the degree.


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