When the head of a major trade association characterizes the industry that his members work in as "unproductive, unsustainable and undesirable," you know you've got problems.
And when he lays the blame for this dilemma at the feet of his own members, you know you've got even bigger problems.
That's the situation the advertising business finds itself in today. Bob Liodice, president-CEO of the Association of National Advertisers, unloaded a barrage of litanies on the failings of the marketing community at the ANA's annual conference in Orlando two weeks ago.
"As we acknowledge our industry's brand-building creativity, it is also important for us to take a step back and candidly assess our industry's direction," Bob said. "Yes, there has been quite a bit of progress to leverage technology—as evidenced by our expanding media platforms. But is that progress getting us anywhere?"
He said the answers are "troubling." Total business sales for the past three years have shown less than 2% annual growth. Nine of 10 big brands are declining and losing share to store brands and smaller brands.
One reason for the sluggish sales pattern, Bob surmised, is an "unintelligible digital supply chain." He said only 40¢ to 50¢ of every digital dollar reaches the publisher.
Dealing with all this complexity is a talent pool that is "overworked and undertrained. About three-quarters feel incapable of mastering digital, social and mobile marketing—which is the future of our industry."
But Bob contended that marketers aren't "sufficiently engaged" to lead the industry's agenda. "It's abundantly clear: Marketers must take their industry back. We need CMOs to turn up the leadership dial. We cannot leave this to others to do. We must get involved and take the action we need to build our brands and drive our business results."
Brand-building efforts need a lot of work, judging from conversations I've had of late. Before the start of the ANA conference in Orlando, I gave a talk at Advertising Week D.C. in Washington. One of the leaders of the event was Cary Hatch, CEO and Brand Advocate at MDB Communications, and we got to talking about the state of the business.
She, like others I talked to lately, bemoaned the sorry state of brand building. "We live in a time when a certain desperation has crept into marketing," Cary told me, "and the notion of creating long-term brand preference has been supplanted by erratic, oftentimes knee-jerk activities based on daily ROI reporting. The 'My product is better than your product' mudslinging that is going on seems more appropriate for a political arena than in any serious plan to grow a brand over time."
"I find it heartbreaking," she said.
She added that any kind of "harmonized and synchronized" effort at brand building was often stymied by "an environment of providers and specialty disciplines—with competing financial interests such as digital, social, mobile, programmatic—that are now driving brand decisions."
This "chaotic supply chain," as one ANA conference speaker put it, is making it very difficult for marketers to regain their leadership position, as Bob urged.
Just how difficult was made abundantly clear in an Ad Age article on the enormous clout of Facebook and Google, which together control 72% of digital and mobile media revenue outside China.
As our Jack Neff reported: "And they are gaining even more sway, thanks to a legion of employee teams dedicated to most of the largest U.S. and global advertisers, sometimes embedded with marketing departments and always closely aligned. These teams are operating on a scale no other media players have ever achieved."
Jack reported that Google and Facebook are helping marketers learn the intricacies of the constant changes in their platforms, get advanced looks at new technology, test what works and doesn't work and even develop ads.
"Some people in the industry liken these teams to sales reps and other client handlers at media and creative agencies or even category-management teams that big suppliers assign to major retailers," Jack wrote. "But they're not quite any of the above, or maybe a combination of all those things giving them a role unlike anything the marketing world has ever seen."
So what's a marketer to do? On the one hand, companies don't want to allocate the funds for long-term brand-building, especially when bonuses are based on hitting quarterly profit numbers, and on the other, the big digital providers that marketers are already spending three-quarters of their money with are willing to provide almost unlimited support.
Bob Liodice wants to establish a Masters Circle to pursue an "aligned agenda" to allow marketers to "take back the industry." But it seems to me that marketers are content to pour more and more money into the new order of things without much verification that it's being well spent, and neither they nor their companies really want to take over something they don't understand or can't control.