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Image of Chief Creative Officer for EssenceMediacom Stef Calcraft - Background image of dinosaurs and an asteroid

Advertising’s Great Evolutionary Jump is Upon Us

Welcome to the New Age of Relevance

Evolutionary jump theory suggests that evolution does not follow a smooth, linear path, but instead progresses through rapid, large-scale jumps – moments of discontinuity and accelerated change – separating periods of relative stasis.

These jumps are driven primarily by rapid environmental change, the most celebrated of which brought an end to the dinosaurs 65 million years ago after a giant meteor strike plunged the Earth into a decades-long catastrophic winter. This lethal new environment made fossils of the giants that once ruled the planet and paved the way for warm-blooded mammals to inherit the Earth.

Back in 2021, I wrote about the "seismic detonation of social media" changing the media and creative world forever. Add to this the volcanic eruption of generative AI, coupled with the cultural climate change being driven by the inexorable rise of creators and influencers, and we have a lethally inhospitable new media and creative environment. Lethal, that is, to “old advertising economy” thinking.

The Old Advertising Economy

For decades, our industry has operated on a 'more is more' philosophy, bombarding people with a relentless stream of ads across every conceivable medium. This deluge of marketing messages has increasingly acted like an invasive species breeding widespread irritation.

Ad blockers have become the online equivalent of pesticides and evidence, by their very existence, the uncomfortable truth that half of the planet now thinks advertising - in its legacy incarnation - is no longer relevant (70% of people find digital ads annoying, according to a YouGov-backed survey last year).

However, we are not facing an apocalyptic end, but rather advertising’s greatest evolutionary jump forward. All driven by the survival of the fittest – the adaptation to a new cultural and media platform environment where relevance rules above everything else.

The Rise of Relevance

Relevance, defined most simply as “something that has inherent personal value”, has always been driven by the evolution of creativity, inspired by media leaping forward. Radio, cinema, and TV – media innovations all – gave birth to the "old advertising economy". But the inspiration of the biggest media innovations of all time – addressable and social media – have not been followed by a corresponding evolution in all things creative... yet.

But that is now dramatically changing. Why? Because people respond far more positively to work that is relevant to them. Media and creative co-designed for the right time, place and life stage. Not one message everywhere, but multiple messages everywhere. This is driving reintegration and new ways of working that are sweeping away old advertising economy lore.

The same is true across the social platforms where old-economy siloed thinking is being driven to extinction by far more evolved and relevant creator and influencer work. With the seamless integration of AI, a new 21st-century era of media-inspired creative evolution is finally taking off. This will ultimately consign the misguided industry separation of media and creative to history. The "great re-integration" that we are now seeing all around us is profound and irresistible. And all who seize the opportunity will thrive; agencies, clients, and partners alike.

But the imperative to do this is an urgent one. Gen Z, the most economically powerful generation in recent history – relative to millennials and baby boomers, based on household income – are voting with their eyes and their wallets. The future of all brands, agencies and the wider business world is in their hands. Or, more accurately, in their phones. And so, the survival of the fittest works on every level. The fittest brands working with the fittest agencies and fittest partners, working to secure a shared future in a changed world.

The Future of Advertising

This changed world is already giving rise to creative work that does not feel like advertising at all. The result is a more discerning and sophisticated marketing model, where people are engaging on their own terms by choice, not by interruption. Today the line between content and advertising is increasingly blurred, but the distinction between relevant and irrelevant has never been clearer.

Advertising's great evolutionary jump is a testament to the power of people-first thinking and media-inspired creative evolution. In an online age where feedback loops are instantaneous and culture ebbs and flows, brands can no longer afford to pay lip service to the wants and needs of the people they need to win over. The brands that adapt and thrive will be those that have a human understanding of what people find most relevant; and how culture – from popular to intimate sub-cultures – is created and evolves.

Banner image showing campaign thumbnails

The Cannes 2023 Grand Prix-winning “World Cup delivery” for Pedidos Ya by GUT in the Mobile Lions category is an inspired example of this, as is Dove's cultural and social intervention, which takes a stand against the Bold Glamour digital beauty effect. Created by Ogilvy London, David and Mindshare, it won the Media Lion Grand Prix.

While the majestic orchestration behind the Barbie launch last year is the latest masterclass in an evolved marketing model.

More recently, the much celebrated 'Back on 74 Tyla Collaboration' for Gap could simply be seen as a return to form for the retailer and the renaissance of the “hero ad anthem” format. After all, Gap has a history of partnering with iconic music artists; LL Cool J, Madonna, Missy Elliot.

Thumbnail images of Back on 74 Jungle Video, Back on 74 Jungle at The Brits, Back on 74 Tyla Gap

Watch the playlist here.

But to understand its success we need to look to its inception as a cultural phenomenon.

This began with the release of British band Jungle's Volcano last August. Followed by a full-length Volcano Movie release on YouTube in December, a TikTok explosion fueling a similar Spotify explosion, followed by last month’s Brits live experience. All generating tens of millions of fans. Which seeded and primed the perfect cultural platform for Tyla to then re-imagine the Jungle video.

The video itself is performing so powerfully that other brands have been running pre-roll ads in front of it. Tyla, one of the biggest 2023 breakout stars in the world, is dancing – not singing – to another artist's song, in a video that reworks Jungle's original video, while linking to Jungle's album and all the communities and fans invested in the idea.

Kudos to Gap for feeding and inspiring these fan communities to create cultural brand presence and business success that most can only dream of.

But here’s the thing: these celebrated "exemplars" are just that. No-one doubts their brilliance or extraordinary effectiveness. Every client and agency wishes they had made them. And while it is true that we see examples of similarly brilliant, evolving work across many brands and agencies, it still tends to be parceled off in "innovation" streams or as "add-ons" to conventional plans. Reminiscent of the small furry mammals of prehistory running between the legs of the lumbering, gargantuan dinosaurs they would one day usurp.

To realign and invest in far more inspired and effective work is ultimately a matter of changing perspective and mindset.

When the advertising and media industry realises that only about half the media with which people spend their time is ad-supported, it changes mindsets and raises this simple question: how can we be welcomed into people's lives holistically?

When people understand the growth in popularity of user-generated content (39% of consumers are watching more, compared with 22% of studio-produced content, an IAB report found) it sets new expectations of what "great work" looks like.

When we see new "long-form shorts" mushrooming up online it changes mindsets. Search TikTok for the Oscar-winning The Zone of Interest, and you will find this new format everywhere. Is this an ad? No, not really. Is it content? Yes. But a new, evolving creative format, not seen that widely until now. Expect to see a lot more of it.

When people realise that TikTok is the second biggest search engine for Gen Z (behind Instagram, according to a US study by marketing tech company SOCI) it changes mindsets.

All this can be quantified and planned for. But it starts with people, communities, fans, their passions and behaviours, not media channels and ads.

Simple enough to say; a blinding glimpse of the obvious, in fact. So, despite all this, why is this clear evolutionary path not being followed more quickly? The answer is invariably overlooked: measurement.

A Brave New World

Our industry already knows that measurement needs to evolve. This is despite the brilliant minds and teams of people working across agency groups, clients and partners. Most have inherited ad-centric legacy models focused primarily on paid media. This has left the measurement of what people care about most – far beyond linear ads and the impact of ideas in wider culture – sorely underinvested in.

But this is now changing. The online behaviours of billions of people are starting to be leveraged in new measurement models being transformed by AI, across different holding companies. For example, at WPP, its “Audience Brain” (a system trained on specific audience groups, segments, mindsets or demographic data) and “Performance Brain” (trained using business and channel performance data) are being developed.

When we close the loop between what we can see behaviourally online and what people care about most, the certainty of what, where and how much to invest to maximise growth will be transformed. With a social commerce tsunami – and the direct connection of creative to sales – already surging across platforms, measurement itself will undergo its own evolutionary jump. The consequence being that we will produce far more evolved, relevant work at a scale that works for everyone. Brands, agencies and most importantly the billions of people on the planet who we all serve.

Changing perspective and mindset to see what is really happening all around us will enable all brands, agencies and partners to learn and evolve far more purposefully. Together.

As we embrace advertising’s great evolutionary leap, we are not just witnessing the end of an era, we are participating in the birth of a new one. This is a new age where creativity, innovation and people-first thinking are the driving forces behind a new creative communications economy. It is an age where people are not targets or consumers, but people. Acting as partners in a dialogue. Where communities and fandoms will be fed, so that the resulting audiences will be increasingly built through co-creation, as much as bought. And it is an age where the most successful brands will be those that enrich our lives, not just our shopping carts. Advertising’s great evolutionary leap is upon us. Welcome to the new age of relevance.

Original article appeared in Campaign Magazine - subscription required.