HBR Blog NetworkStop Selling Ads and Do Something Usefulby Joe McCambley | 11:03 AM February 12, 2013Banner ads didnt always suck. I should know. I helped create the first one.My children tell me thats like inventing smallpox.It was October 1994, a fantastically idealistic time on the Internet. Many pioneers of digital advertising believed itpossible to create advertising so useful its a service. We knew that if we asked ourselves, "How can we help people?"rather than, "What can we sell people?" we could rewire peoples brains to seek out brand experiences, rather than runfrom them.That first banner that Modem Media, the fledgling digital agency where I worked, built for AT&T, was helpful, and it wasuseful. At a time when people wondered what the Web was all about, it connected visitors of hotwired.com to a tour ofseven of the worlds finest art museums. It demonstrated how AT&T could transport people through space and time viathe Internet — just as AT&T had done 100 years earlier with the first long distance network. Of those who saw the ad,44% clicked.Not only did people love the experience, they loved it enough to share it with friends. We were blown away. "Peopledont share ads," we told ourselves. "They share candy bars, and Coca-Cola, and porch swings." It was the first time Iheard the word "viral" applied positively. We were on to something.For a few wonderful years, while big agencies slept with their backs to the Web, we did incredible work for major brands— not ads, but content experiences that delivered utility. We knew, as my Modem Media boss G.M. OConnell once said,that, "People read newspapers, listen to the radio, and watch TV, but they go to the Web to get things done."By 1998, though, spending on Internet advertising had grown to the point where the established agencies woke up.Innovative shops like Modem Media, Razorfish, and Agency.com were snapped up. Before long, content and utility werecorrupted by the only thing big agencies understood: reach and frequency. We were back to delivering what TV spots,radio spots, and print ads had delivered for years: sales messages. The rest, as they say, is history.But this is a very interesting time. Theres a perfect storm building that will give us all the chance to redeem ourselves,and change the course of advertising forever.
Storm #1Consumers are migrating in droves to mobile devices. And as Clayton Christensen wrote in a recent Nieman Report(http://www.nieman.harvard.edu/reports/article/102798/Breaking-News.aspx) , those consumers are focused on gettingjobs done.We check news on Twitter. We search Google Maps for directions. We compare restaurants on Zagat. We take photoswith Instagram and upload them to Facebook. All those people on the elevator with their noses in their smartphones?Theyre not lazy or anti-social. Theyre getting things done.And do you know what else theyre doing? Theyre sharing stuff that interests them, or helps them, or that they thinkmight help their friends. Mobile sharing is the new word of mouth.Storm #2Advertisers follow eyeballs. Mobile advertising revenues will grow from $4.06 billion in 2012 to $20.89 billion in 2016,according to eMarketer (http://www.emarketer.com/newsroom/index.php/unexpected-growth-facebook-google-lead-significant-uptick-mobile-advertising-us-market-share/) . Unfortunately, ad agencies have been taking the worst adexperience ever invented — banners — and simply shrinking them to fit mobile screens.For consumers who are focused on getting things done, banners are a nuisance at best, and invisible at worst. Recentstudies by Trademob show that about 40% of clicks on mobile banners are due to "fat finger syndrome," meaningconsumers click on mobile banners by mistake, or because advertisers trick them into clicking(http://gigaom.com/2012/08/31/report-40-percent-of-mobile-clicks-are-fraud-or-accidents/) . And nobody is going toshare a mobile banner, because they offer no help, and no value, to anyone. If advertisers thought there was even asnowballs chance in hell that people might share their ads, theyd put "share" buttons on them.Storm #3Because of Storms 1 and 2, many of the companies that produce the content that ads have been traditionally placednext to — especially old-school publishers with print properties to support — are suffering. Heck, even Google has seendeclines in cost per click as consumers migrate from PCs to smart phones (http://www.businessinsider.com/google-q3-earnings-ad-revenue-2013-1) . Ineffective ads on mobile mean advertisers pay less for space than they did on PCs, andmuch less than they used to pay for print or TV. As a result, there are a lot of very talented producers of useful content,especially journalists, on the streets.Learning to help instead of sell"Customer service is the killer app of the Web," Googles Eric Schmidt, then with Sun Microsystems, said way back in1998 (http://www.thefreelibrary.com/SCOPUS+FIRST+TO+SHIP+WEB-ENABLED+CUSTOMER+INTERACTION+SYSTEM-a018078057) . Brands such as Google, Zappos, Amazon, eBay,and others win because they ask "How can I help you?" instead of "What can I sell you?"Advertisers and their agencies, for the most part, dont know how to be helpful. Thirty-second TV commercials, print ads,radio ads, and direct mail are all forms of content. But nobodys addicted to them, because most ads ask, "What can I sellyou?" Thousands of people have saved every issue of National Geographic in their attics. How many have saved everyViagra ad ever created? If you want to use content to build relationships with people, dont turn to an agency — at leastnot a traditional agency.The future of advertising lies not in ads as weve known them, but in helping all those people on all those elevators getstuff done, or entertaining them. The companies and people that understand content, and utility, will be the ones tothrive.Given how many underemployed journalists, directors, designers, and such there are out there, this shouldnt be that
hard to do. But most companies dabble. A three-minute YouTube video here and there does not represent acommitment to content.The ones to watch are the brands and people that have jumped feet first into content and utility. Three spring to mind:Red Bull launched Red Bull Media House (http://www.redbullmediahouse.com/) in 2007. They describe themselves as"a multi-platform media company with a focus on sports, culture, and lifestyle." If you heard or read anything about FelixBaumgartners historic jump from space (http:www.redbullstratos.com) you already know something about Red BullMedia House.Last November, the Coca-Cola Company transformed itself into a digital publisher (http://www.coca-colacompany.com/). The company installed a publishing infrastructure, hired editorial staff, and converted its corporate website into a rich,multi-media magazine. Besides creating a wealth of original content, this platform aggregates content from hundreds ofpartners around the globe. (Full disclosure: My firm, the Wonderfactory, helped them do it.)Nike has mastered the art of utility, and transformed itself into a product and services company. Its lineup of Nike+ appsand devices (http://www.nikeplus.com) help athletes track their performance, providing a wealth of data that can be usedto improve workouts, or, someday, to create highly personalized content experiences that will keep athletes "married" toNike for years.To remain relevant to consumers who spend hours each day focused on smaller screens trying to get stuff done,marketers will have to think like publishers and technology companies. Like Red Bull, Coca-Cola, and Nike, theyll needto transform themselves into product and service companies. Theyll need to ask consumers, "How can we help you?"instead of "What can we sell you?"Can this really happen? A banner-ad pioneer can dream. Welcome to the Future of Advertising Insight The Future of Advertising Center An HBR Insight Center (http://blogs.hbr.org/hbr/hbreditors/2013/02/welcome_to_t When Advertising Meets the Meme (http://blogs.hbr.org/hbr/hbreditors/2013/02/when_adverti Stop Selling Ads and Do Something Useful (http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2013/02/stop_selling_ads_and_do The Power of Real-Time Advertising (http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2013/02/the_power_of_real- time_adverti.html)(http://hbr.org/special-collections/insight/the-future-of-advertising)