This week, BuzzFeed downgraded its revenue projections, which sent media and advertising into a tizzy. If even a page-view juggernaut like BuzzFeed was struggling in the current advertising climate, what did that mean for the rest of the online media industry? But that's all missing the larger point.
The future of advertising is about elevation and realization, not engagement and reach.
The problem isn’t about BuzzFeed, or whether its business model is scalable. It’s just one of a number of publishers struggling. And so the real story is about the dark truth at the heart of postmodern media. Its business model is built on a deflationary asset: digital ads. Because digital ads are deflationary, the ad and media industries are in a vicious spiral. Quick! Sell more ads! But everyone has to run faster and faster just to stand still. The truth is that this isn’t a game anyone can win.
Why are digital ads deflating, ever cheaper, less valuable? Because, to put it diplomatically, they suck. I don't mean creatively. Many of them are interesting and provocative creatively. They suck strategically—as a product, a service, a format, a way of relating to people. That’s the simple truth—hence, the abysmally low rates of interest in them by consumers, who aren’t captive to them like TV viewers are. They’re a liability—an investment that yields no real gains, only losses.
Therefore, the industry is trapped: It must push more and more ads that people just aren’t interested in, engaged by, or stimulated by—now that they’re not hostage—in a desperate attempt to keep from shrinking. But there’s a smarter approach. Make advertising matter again.
Brands see their challenge as "engaging" people. But what does that mean, apart from "click our ads"? You can’t tell me, and I can’t tell you. The reason is because it doesn’t mean anything at all to people. It only means "capturing eyeballs" to advertisers. It’s a self-referential idea, which creates a vicious circle of meaninglessness. So, advertisers chasing "engagement" resort to ever more desperate tactics: Yesterday’s inspirational quotes became today’s clickbait headlines. But the cause is this. Today’s ad industry is based largely on a meaningless fiction, which reflects a profoundly superficial understanding of people, life, and the economy.
The simple fact is every dollar spent on a digital billboard, quiz, or clever clickbait headline doesn’t actually do anything to improve people’s lives. To make it more possible for them to imagine, build, create, relate, share, dream, love, grow. Because everyone’s chasing a fiction called "engagement" in the first place.
Hence, the real problem inside the problem is this: Advertising is just another finger in the invisible hand of economic stagnation. It’s yet another industry that doesn’t really elevate us as people or expand our human potential—and when you add up an economy full of those industries, you get an economy that's going exactly nowhere. The economy not growing reflects the deeper truth that we are not growing—not just in material terms ("Dear consumers: Here’s another gleaming designer blender that won’t make you happier, richer, smarter, friendlier, or wiser!"), but in emotional, social, physical, and human terms.
That’s what we’re all really after: growth, as people. Especially in these difficult and desperate times, when every dollar we spend, or moment of our attention that we invest, counts just that little bit more. That the institutions failing us begin to help us live lives that matter, which unfurl into their fullest potential. So to elevate people is to aid them in that quest for human growth, to lift up their potential so that it can be realized.
Let’s face it. That’s exactly what ads don’t do.
The billions of dollars spent on ads desperately trying to "engage" people should be better spent on elevating them instead—helping them realize their potential. Elevation and realization, not engagement and reach.
That’s what digital ads can and should do. There are life-changing tools at our fingertips today. Algorithms, apps, bots, and so on—all these can have a transformative effect on people. But they’re being used in exactly the wrong ways—ways that have little, or even negative, impact, and that elevate no one’s potential. They are merely channels through which the same old, tired marketing messages surge—and then evaporate. They don’t really benefit people, so can we blame people for tuning them out?
Forget appvertising, bots as tools for customer interaction, drones delivering you crap that makes you a little more dead inside.
What if health care providers created virtual doctor apps? What if food companies used bots to teach you how to cook better, healthier food? What if tools like Nike Plus and Fitbit were how lifestyle "brands" actually helped you live a little better instead? What if fast fashion companies used apps to help you trade in last week’s clothes, saving your wallet, the environment, and their bottom line, at the same time? What if the bots that will inevitably algo-recite you next week’s discounts helped you rise to your challenges and live your purpose instead? What if all of the billions invested in the same old advertising no one cares about because it doesn’t do anything to change their lives for the better was invested in that kind of meaningful innovation instead?
Then, just maybe, advertising would have the renaissance it’s so desperately not-quite-seeking. Because they wouldn’t be futilely chasing "engagement." Instead, by elevating people, ads might matter to people again. And thus, media might have business models that thrived again.
The question of elevation, then, is greater, deeper, and more enduring than "engagement." It requires that advertisers see advertising not just as a game of ever more desperate tactics to trick people into clicks—in which everyone loses—but to helping people grow, in which everyone wins.
Elevation and realization. Not engagement and reach. It’s a lesson that’s bigger than just advertising. It applies to every kind of industry, and even to each life. Because each of us, too, who wish to be leaders, must offer people the very same.
Umair Haque is the former director of Havas Media Labs.