Adland's past can help brands answer today's big questions

A classic ad: Sony's "Balls"
A classic ad: Sony's "Balls"

The last decade has been a period of tumultuous change for our industry.

Many of us, brand owners and agency folk alike, have suddenly found ourselves in no- or low-growth markets. The digital asteroid has ripped up business and communications models. Many media owners, agencies and brands are still picking the jigsaw pieces up off the floor all these years later.

There have been winners as well as losers, of course, as is the norm when creative destruction kicks in. Their stories have been told over and over again, the corporate tea leaves forensically examined. Two more subtle losses have gone under-reported and under-corrected, however, and both lie at the heart of the Advertising Association’s inspired Advertising’s Big Questions initiative.

First of all, the ad industry seems to have lost its understanding of, or even interest in, its past. Philosopher George Santayana’s observation that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" is itself often repeated but rarely given its fuller and more nuanced context. "Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness," he ventured, "and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual." 

Santayana was no nostalgic. He simply believed that instinct should be tempered by experience. That the learnings of the past could and should nourish the future. He would, I suspect, have given short shrift to the "EVERYTHING HAS CHANGED" school of thinking and encouraged us to drag the things we know with us as an industry. It’s why advertisers and agencies should read Byron Sharp, Paul Feldwick, Les Binet and Peter Field, even if you disagree with their conclusions.

Mission-critical industry initiative

Second, the ad industry has lost altitude, finding itself too often in the executional foothills rather than sunny strategic uplands. Small questions dominate our discussions. Which Greek god best represents our brand of detergent? Is magenta too quirky for a building-society logo? Should we call our new variant
"coconut and raisin" or "raisin and coconut"? (All real-world examples, by the way.)

Overheard less often in ad agencies and marketing departments: How does advertising work? Does advertising affect market size? Does advertising increase prices? Yet these are things we really should know the answers to. Not just for our immediate audiences – the sceptical sales director, the penny-pinching finance director, the chief executive in a hurry – but for our wider stakeholder base also of government, opinion-formers and citizens.

Advertising’s Big Questions began life as an exercise in exhuming and re-examining the intellectual foundations of our industry as first laid down in the AA’s groundbreaking series of publications from the 1970s and 1980s. It quickly morphed into a much more mission-critical industry initiative, restoring the big questions to centre stage and striving manfully to answer them.

Each new essay isn’t just a brilliantly updated exploration of a time-honoured question about our business. Each one is an answer to have in your professional toolkit, whether you agree with it or not. Each one helps to restore a little of that lost altitude. They happen to honour our history but that’s not the point. They inform where we go next and with how much authority.

Advertising 101

What is advertising?
Advertising is any communication, usually paid-for, specifically intended to inform and/or influence one or more people.

How does advertising work?
Advertising may influence behaviour through signposting, seducing, shaping social reality and simply creating fame.

Does advertising grow markets?
Sometimes advertising does grow markets but, much more often, it doesn’t.

Does advertising increase consumer prices?
Advertising can support premium pricing but has a downward impact on prices overall.

How does advertising affect innovation, quality and consumer choice?
For companies, advertising incentivises investment in innovation. For people, it creates consumer literacy and so aids choice.

Is advertising a barrier to market entry?
By building mental availability and reasonable margins in a market, advertising can make the idea of market entry more attractive.

Laurence Green is a founding partner at 101. Advertising’s Big Questions is a Credos initiative. Read more at

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