Ad:tech is the self-proclaimed leading ‘global gathering of marketing and advertising technology players’. It happened last week and as someone who has spent 10 years on the earned-media side of the fence, it was a look into a world that appears to be in the grip of a delusion.

Arguably, the ad industry is facing an existential crisis at the moment. Even for the optimists not willing to go that far, most would admit the industry is going through a tough time. Just look at GDPR, the debate around ad fraud, budget cuts from the big advertisers, the attack on digital by P&G and the boycott of advertising by a huge and growing number of people using ad blockers.

But at ad:tech there was a prevailing sense of rosiness. Attendees intently scribbled notes on the most innovative new ways to spam people through whatever new platform tweak promised increased engagement by 0.6 seconds. Yet when messengers from outside the industry offered warnings, imploring the assembled to think about changing their approaches and strategies, no one was listening.

I joined about 20 people to hear Brendan Eich, inventor of Javascript and co-founder of Mozilla, talk freely about the future of online. He is now the creator of Brave, a new browser that has been described as an existential threat to programmatic and pitches itself as the solution to the broken market of ad fraud and the draining of publisher revenues by Facebook and Google. Everyone had a stake in that talk, yet instead of listening to Brendan, the vast majority were elsewhere, hearing how micro-influencer platforms are the next big thing.

In my view, the best talk came from Mark Adams, Head of Innovation at Vice. Not because he was, by some distance, the most entertaining and genuine speaker, but because he was telling the paid-media world to act more like the earned-media world by telling stories.

Earned-media agencies have been built on creating stories. Storytelling has become a cliched term but is an undeniable truth. Stories are what people read, watch and listen to. They are what make people feel something about a brand. They are what create news and what inspire people to the point of sharing. But coming from a brand they need to be relevant and authentic. That is where earned-first agencies have the edge.

Our starting point means our creativity is better attuned to a client’s wider operating context, policy landscape, and stakeholder sentiment, as well as accounting for consumer insight. That means we can create relevant and authentic stories with a commercial edge. We are not bound to any platforms by our business model. We develop ideas and stories to be delivered through whatever channel works best for the message. That’s why we always say no when someone asks us to ‘PR this ad’. If you’re asking that question you’ve started in the wrong place.

The ad:tech agenda hopefully doesn’t represent a wholly true picture of the ad world, but it’s clear from those two days in a den of delusion that plenty of businesses need to change their approach to comms or they will continue to throw good money after bad.

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