We’re back from our annual pilgrimage to Ad:tech and are suitably invigorated. It’s not just from pressing our noses up against what’s new in marketing. There’s just too much of that, and to be honest, after the fifth or sixth revolutionary CRM platform or AI-powered eCommerce solution, they start to look the same.

Instead, the real benefit of making the trip each year is to reset, recalibrate and get inspired at the seminars. We’re so immersed in client work during the week that the chance to step back and see if we’re on the right track in the greater scheme of things is invaluable. Especially when those ideas chime with what we’re trying to do as an agency.

In that respect, fuelling the echo chamber as it were, two seminars stood out.

The return of long-form content

Any copywriter reading this will no doubt agree that there’s been a steady shift away from long-form content towards the tyranny of the social media character count. It’s what clients want, not least because they can see the results instantly and measure the ROI. In the last few months, we’ve produced some tidy lead generation content for Visa, Montezuma’s Chocolate, RNLI, Aruba Networks and more.

Writing short-form copy for social media is its own discipline, fraught with insecurity. There’s the nagging doubt that a distracted teenager could probably do it quicker and better, not to mention the fear that all those beautiful words are disappearing into the black hole of the news feed, never to be noticed.

Addressing content fatigue

That’s certainly the climate that Joe Smith from Social Chain set out in his ‘Bold is Beautiful’ seminar. It’s a landscape of content overload, with the average person belonging to 8 ½ social networks and being exposed to 4,000 adverts a day. Are we loving it? Not at all. Searches for ‘digital detox’ have spiked.

But there’s hope. It’s not that we’ve sacrificed our autonomy as consumers. We’re not blindly feeling around in a whirlwind of content. Far from it. We’re getting far more done, not least because algorithms allow us to filter out the chaff and focus our attention on what is most relevant. It’s understood that organic reach is negligible, but engaging, targeted personalised content retains its value.

It’s important to have the words last

And here’s the bit that cheers any copywriter’s soul: long-form content is back in fashion. Yes, we’ve been focused on 10 to 20-second viral content and 100 or so characters, but that’s not where our audience is spending their time. Consumers with the attention span of the apocryphal goldfish don’t binge-watch Netflix, listen to 85% of any podcast on average, or spend hours on Twitch immersed in Minecraft.

At the risk of hearing only what I wanted to hear, I left ‘Bold is Beautiful’ with ‘We’re in the Golden Age’ of content creation ringing in my ears. But it’s a rallying cry with a caveat. That content has to surprise and delight, give people a reason to care, and be relevant. It’s not just enough to be invasive. To quote Joe Smith: “Barriers to creating content are so low that brands are going to be forced to be creative again.”

Mythbusting with Tom Goodwin

Grabbing an empty chair at Tom Goodwin’s keynote was the golden ticket. An hour wasn’t long enough to listen to him burst the bubble of popular marketing myths with dry, wry common sense. One by one, he pulled apart the received wisdom that:

  • We should be encouraging consumers to be passionate about brands (because that’s just odd).
  • Brands are dying (by pointing out that brands have taken over music, film and politics)
  • Millennials are hard to reach (everyone is on their phones. It’s just harder to get people’s attention)
  • We have shorter attention spans (see earlier revelations).

All these points were music to a marketer’s ears. But the most thought-provoking part of the seminar came as a refreshing antidote to the innovation worship going on outside. In short, there’s no point in celebrating digital transformation if we can’t find a relevant use for it.

Getting Digital Transformation wrong

The evidence is damning. To (badly) paraphrase Goodwin, we’ve given children in schools iPads, but we’re still lining them up in rows in front of a teacher. We’ve shifted retail online, but we’ve done little more than turn catalogues digital. Worst of all, we’ve created the illusion of choice, but packaged it along with a mess of duplication, apps, platforms, rights and regulation issues that didn’t exist before.

In the pre-digital age, we created one thing to do one job well, like a phone or a camera. Now we’re in what Goodwin calls the ‘mid-digital’ age, we’re overwhelmed with multi-purpose technology, without finding a useful purpose. In most cases, we haven’t created anything new at all. This is digital augmentation, not transformation.

We need useful data, not more data

The solution, according to Goodwin, is to give consumers ‘less choice, but more confidence’ and to use data to help people, not serve ourselves. For marketers, it means we need to stop simply advertising to customers, and to take care of them better instead – an approach that has already been mastered by the direct to consumer brands.

Call it cynical, but there’s sometimes a suspicion with marketing conferences that ‘clickbait’ speakers will dominate. It’s in our blood, after all. By clickbait, I mean sharp-suited thought-leaders and futurists spouting untested visions through a headpiece, eyes fixed firmly on a mythological future. That wasn’t the case at this year’s Ad:tech. If anything, we came back to the agency with an even greater resolve to create content based around simple truths, designed to appeal to genuine, relevant consumer needs.