Transcending Customer Expectations Is How Advertising Will Survive

How the new market conditions change our mandate

Most people will do whatever they can to avoid the things we pour our collective hearts into. The generalized tolerance for advertising to get what we really want—our guilty-pleasure TV show, our daughter's favorite YouTuber's latest upload, the scathing new op-ed on a national newspaper's site—is diminishing. 

Rather than delude ourselves into thinking this is exclusively a matter of storytelling quality, narrative structure, ad placement, or data layering and fight the progress as reductive and self-defeating, we must acknowledge and embrace these new conditions. 

No lusting desire to return to "the things that made advertising great in the first place" is powerful enough to stop the relentless tide of changing customer expectations and behaviors. 

As Bob Hoffman reminded us, the first principle of advertising is to attract someone's attention. This remains as true now as it ever has. 

While our most elemental directive is unchanged, the dynamics that allow us to live up to that first principle have changed. Understanding just how profoundly these new conditions change our mandate in this epoch of advertising demands exceptional nuance, a willingness to accept change, to call bullshit, and to take calculated risks. 

A brief departure from the confines of adland offers tremendous insight into the source of these new dynamics. 

In many of the most omnipresent and foundational aspects of our lives—food, transportation, entertainment, commerce—we have more control, more access, and fewer barriers to our desired outcome than at any point in history. 

Endless ink has been spilled on the ways the titanic forces of Amazon, Netflix, Uber, Apple and their ilk have made it their unrelenting mission to narrow the gap between what we want and how we get it. They endeavor to overdeliver on every aspect of the customer experience. 

In this mindset of "customer obsession," things like hardware, software, fulfilment, supply-chain optimization, customer service, personalization and speed are not cost centers to be managed down to the lowest acceptable levels. Obsession with the customer is the means of survival. 

With more alternatives and new upstarts vying to own the customer relationship, this customer obsession doesn't treat the relationship like a commodity. It treats it as something to be nurtured, rewarded, improved and built upon. 

These giants are setting, surpassing and resetting the expectations people have of them almost daily. 

The effects of this phenomenon they have unleashed are immeasurably profound and wide-reaching. 

As Jeff Bezos so poignantly articulated in his 2018 annual letter to Amazon shareholders, which assessed the "divinely discontent" customer, "today's 'wow' becomes tomorrow's 'ordinary.'" 

People's expectations increase, in perpetuity, with no ceiling. For the smart marketer, this is a good thing. 

Most critically, at the same time these expectations are being elevated in some of the most frequent and important places in our daily lives, they increasingly do not remain isolated in the minds of the customer to those siloed places. This, again, is a good thing. 

These new expectations that began as a wow become the ordinary, and we expect every company we interact with to meet, then exceed, these expectations. 

This is where modern customer expectations and our most common means of advertising have begun to clash. 

When our ad interrupts the video we were in the middle of watching in our social feed, or we're forced to watch a full :30 unskippable commercial before watching a brief clip, it feels like a burden. It's a tax levied on our attention. 

We're used to being able to scroll by anything we don't want to see. We're used to instant, on-demand, get-me-the-thing-I-asked-for-now. 

The hotly debated skippable ad formats are one of the representative battle strategies we're employing in this war for attention. The customer gets what they want, and we advertisers have the opportunity to quickly earn someone's attention before they hit that looming "Skip Ad" button when the brief countdown completes. 

The challenge is clear: We used to have more time and space to build narratives through linear story arcs because people didn't have a choice to skip us. We now have that luxury less often, and in fewer places. This leads to a few questions:

• How do we live up to the first principle of advertising, to attract our audience's attention, with such little time and so many other things vying for their attention?

• How do we get their attention while living up to the most important business imperative for advertising—to convert that attention into a feeling, an interest, a preference or an action that creates and realizes value for the advertiser?

• Doesn't frontloading the logo or product exacerbate the issue, signaling to the savvy viewer that the ad they're seeing is definitely an ad, and we don't even give them a chance to fall in love with the story we're trying to craft? 

Tweaking digital pre-roll to skip to the end versus skipping after the first few seconds to combat the constraint of reworked story arcs? Let's give it a shot. 

Short-form side-by-sides during live programming to combat the impossibly quick audience attention diversion that occurs when the game's transition-to-break sequence begins? I'm in. 

Thoughtful, nuanced exploration of proposed solutions, adjustments and tools—free from pride or tunnel vision—should be celebrated and embraced. Picked apart and pressure-tested. This is how true value creation occurs.

This active, relentlessly curious dialogue of discovery is the critical first step. Rolling up our sleeves and doing something about it is how we will survive and thrive. 

Our challenge and opportunity are rooted in people. When advertisers approach our duties with the same fervent customer obsession that the Amazons and Netflixes of the world do, we will stop making "ads" as we know them today. We stop making things that people must tolerate or begrudgingly endure. Things that, as Tom Goodwin has so simply articulated, people "only occasionally fail to ignore." 

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Mike Dossett
Mike Dossett is director of digital strategy at RPA.

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