We've been kidding ourselves for a bit too long. What ails the advertising industry isn't the economy, it isn't talent, it isn't falling standards of creativity and it certainly isn't panicky clients, as we're led to believe.
The problem is simply that as a body of practitioners, those in the advertising industry have lost sight of what the business is all about. Ask any 10 advertising veterans and eight of them will tell you that advertising is in the business of communication. That's as misguided a view of the business as some of the work the industry is producing.
Advertising most certainly is not in the business of communication .
Newspapers are in the communication business.
Magazines are in the communication business
TV channels are in the communication business
Websites are in the communication business
So, what business is advertising in ? It is in the persuasion business. Or better still, in the pride and prejudice business. This is because advertising builds pride in the brands it works for, or prejudices for them and against their competitors.
And this is the reason why the industry is in trouble. As it gets more and more preoccupied with selling product benefits, the practitioners' are getting systematically worse at building the prejudices (or 'predispositions', for the more squeamish) that give the clients' brands the unfair advantage they seek and for which they come to advertising agencies.
In fact, the notion that advertising helps sell 'product benefits' may be the single most limiting factor in the evolution of the advertising business. Especially when it is common knowledge that brands are much more than their product benefits.
Prejudices - the currency of the advertising business
Prejudices are a kind of emotional learning that take place early in life. Once these are encrusted in the mindset of a person it becomes very hard to eradicate them - even in people who, as adults, may feel it is wrong to hold on to them. These prejudices become facts for the people who have them, and this, in turn, fashions and limits their perception.
Isn't this exactly what is required for brands? In fact, creating a strong prejudice may be the greatest gift one can give a brand - as a brand manager, a PR person, a direct marketing person, a creative person or an account manager.
And prejudice creation is an art that has taken some of the worlds' biggest brands to where they are. What is common between Nike, Volvo, IBM, Sony, Marlboro, BMW, Hallmark and the like. It is the favourable prejudices these megabrands enjoy. Prejudices that have grown their businesses, insulated them from pretenders to the throne and made them iconic in stature - to the extent that some of these brand names have gone on to become category names. They become larger than mere products by engaging not just their consumer's thoughts, but also their feelings.
Rajeev Sharma is the national director - brand planning, at Chaitra Leo Burnett, one of India's leading advertising agencies. He is involved in very unorthodox studies to create 'brand miracles' for the agency which handles some of India's most well-known brands.