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How to build a promising future for the ad industry

LinkedIn presentation on stage at Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity

LinkedIn CEO Ryan Roslansky gave his insights during the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity

Every year around the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, the collective hand-wringing of the advertising industry reaches a crescendo. How do ad agencies attract and retain talent in a low-margin, high-inflation world? This year at the event, LinkedIn CEO Ryan Roslansky took the stage and shared the migration trends of creative talent in the advertising industry and highlighted a worrying stat from our digital map of the global economy, the Economic Graph: While the tech industry has gained 23% more people than it has lost over the last five years, the ad industry has lost 5.5% more people than it has gained. And that was during a bull market.

Given the increasing exodus of employees from advertising, how do we build an industry that attracts and retains great talent?

Instead of fixating on new trends and “flavor of the month” innovation, better understanding the past can help guide us in the future — and it can certainly help us to attract and retain talent around the world. The biggest value of advertising comes from creating credible promises that generate broad reach and make the unfamiliar familiar.

Building tomorrow’s promises

For a century, ad execs have been in the promise-making business for new, emerging industries — not creative optimization and tech implementation services for mature categories.

Building tomorrow's promises for the high-growth categories of the future is how ad professionals can reap outsized rewards. Future-proofing our industry with new business models and the talent they attract creates new economic value. If done well, advertising actually improves our quality of life by conveying information that helps us make better decisions and embrace change. 

A quick economic history refresher: Only 200 years ago, 90% of humans lived in extreme poverty. The life expectancy globally was barely above 30 years, and had hovered at that level unchanged for millennia. What changed?

The modern world exists because of thousands of cascading waves of technological advances that were revolutionary at first, and were then gradually adopted across the globe. How does this happen? The invisible hand of economic markets is a big part of the answer. 

Brands and credible promises help us make sense of the world

How do you convince people to buy something new that they don’t know, don’t understand or trust? You make them a credible promise of value, and then you deliver on it. If you do that successfully and frequently enough, customers will take you at your word habitually, and your company will become a valuable brand. Brands are shortcuts for developing habits we don't have to think about because our unconscious minds remember them. Brands and their promises help us make sense of the world.

To succeed, every new product needs a corresponding promise that resonates with its audience and connects to a human need. And that is what makes marketing the only core entrepreneurial function other than product R&D, as Peter Drucker famously observed.

100 years ago, GE, Hoover and Frigidaire brought washing machines, vacuum cleaners and refrigerators to the developed world. These brands promised households a new way of life powered by technology, and cut the amount of time spent on domestic drudgery from 58 to 18 hours a week. The number of women in the workplace almost doubled in roughly the same time. 

The history of economic growth and human progress over the last 200 years is the history of enduring brands. For each of these brands, there were hundreds of competitors that are no longer around. Many of them had good products, but they didn’t build enduring brands. Even the greatest products get commoditized — only great brands built on great promises endure.

Through mass media, advertising built the world’s dominant consumer brands, deploying their promise-making abilities reliably at scale. The promise makers on Madison Avenue profited handsomely, providing the creativity, empathy and cultural attunement that most product-obsessed companies lack. 

Why big, bold, credible promises are important

But over the last 20 years of digital transformation, advertising has taken its eyes off the promise-making ball. As its biggest consumer brand clients matured, the promises became smaller and smaller. The focus becomes efficiency, not effectiveness. This is neither the way to have an outsized impact, nor is it a sufficient draw for the best and brightest talent, who, like any buyer, also want to be on the receiving end of an exciting, credible promise.

While building a shoe store in the metaverse can be fun, that is not how you create true economic value from advertising. You do that by developing big, bold, credible promises for making obscure but high-growth categories, like workflow optimization software, blockchain payment systems and new healthcare services, household names among all its relevant potential buyers. Most of the high-growth, technology enabled new categories are in B2B or B2B-adjacent industries. They are the ones with the deep pockets and the clear need for promise-making. They haven’t fully figured out that they need brand advertising, and advertising by and large hasn’t nailed how to sell to them. This requires a mindset shift in the industry from B2C to B2B, from household consumers to business customers, and a new empathy for buyers of highly complex products. Well, here’s your opportunity.

The opportunity to attract talent

B2B is where the money is going to be. That is why the B2B Institute at LinkedIn partnered with Cannes Lions to help create the first-ever Creative B2B Lions. If you measure your worth as a creative by winning awards, which is common in the ad business, B2B is now in the club. Let’s face it — many people still think B2B is uncool and can’t compete when it comes to brand building, but that presents the greatest opportunity for eager advertising professionals to build successful careers that drive economic growth for their clients and themselves.

Jann Martin Schwarz is the cofounder and global head of the B2B Institute, a think tank funded by LinkedIn. The Institute’s Edge program provides B2B innovation strategy consulting to clients such as Oracle, HP and SAS. 

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