In the content world, Andrew Essex has done it all: He was a magazine journalist; he co-founded the celebrated advertising agency Droga5; and now he is the CEO of Tribeca Enterprises, the company behind the Tribeca Film Festival. This month he published a smart, provocative book called The End of Advertising. Inc. caught up with Essex to probe his thinking about this rapidly changing industry.
You titled your book The End of Advertising. But, obviously, advertising hasn't ended--it's all over the place. So what gives?
Good point. I guess "The End of Bad Advertising" would have been a more accurate, if less memorable, title. But that's essentially my point: Advertising is indeed all over the place. And because there's so much of it, not to mention all the noise and new platforms competing for our already-limited attention, the places where advertising is annoying, intrusive, and useless--e.g., mostly everywhere--is accelerating its extinction.
You talk about the growing popularity of ad-blocking software. But aren't smarter media companies finding ways to keep its use to a minimum?
That all depends on your definition of the word smarter. Sure, there will always be clever ways to block blockers. But is that really smart? Do you really want to penalize people who self-selected to block adds, which implies they don't want to see ads, by forcing them to watch or hitting them with a guilt trip? Do you recall the scene in A Clockwork Orange in which the protagonist's eyes are pried open with creepy clamps? That metaphor would seem to apply here. Let's face it: Once people have seen an ad-free Paris they ain't going back to the pre-roll farm. Just look at the music business penalizing students for file sharing. Are these people trying to rip off publishers or just seeking out a more pleasant experience? I'd say it's the latter, and it's on us to solve for that problem. I prefer creative solutions to playing sheriff or suzerain.
Until pretty recently you were in the advertising business yourself. What do people in the industry think about the trends you describe? Are they just in denial?
The ad business is filled with some of the smartest, most wonderful people you will ever meet. And like any massive industry, the range of existential awareness among executives ranges from visionary to clueless. So my quick answer is that the industry is constantly thinking about these issues and also in denial. Much of this is the standard tension between future, present, and past, with the people in power incentivized to hang on for dear life rather than swallow the terminal diagnosis and seek out new remedies. This is why, to quote Barry Diller, incumbents don't win.
A huge portion of the media business--publications like Inc., for example--depends heavily on advertising. What is going to happen to that industry?
I am bullish on any media that produces a product worth paying for, or that has an authentic and engaged audience who can't live without it. Many who can hang in there for what is sure to be a wild and terrifying ride over the next few years will eventually master other revenue models or actualize their costs into something a generation habituated to not paying for media will be able to swallow. And they will partner with their endemic advertisers to produce something that adds value to their product, rather than noise that interrupts it.
When the next wave of let's call it "post-advertising messaging" comes along, where is that change going to come from?
My kids. Your kids. Or truly creative people who reject the current model. Or it might come from going back to the ideas and formats that reigned from the 1930s to the early 1950s. It may come from enlightened brands or enlightened executives who are truly consumer first and who reject the model of command and control with every fiber of their being. It will more likely than not come via the work of nimble startups or impatient entrepreneurs who were born to create new models or disrupt old ones. Two of the biggest companies on earth--the so-called duopoly--started out this way and now make all their money via advertising. I'd think about deflating those plump targets.
What are some examples of companies or products that you think have successfully transcended the obsolete advertising model?
My two favorite models of advertising at its most inspired are Citi Bike and The Lego Movie: One created an entirely new media channel out of metal, rubber, and connectivity and literally replaced uselessness with something that reduces my waistline and carbon footprint. The other made the real thing, actual entertainment, often referred to as "content," not the thing that interrupts the thing. And both generated direct revenue.
Do you worry about the quality of editorial product in the future that you envision--is there a way for publications to stay independent of the people who pay the bills? Or is that something that only increasingly irrelevant editorial people care about?
I reject the premise of the question. I come across so much editorial product that is tarnished by the infelicitous adjacency of annoying ads. And how did it come to be that "editorial" people are only charged with overseeing one part of the experience? Are you that easily corrupted? Of course not. So if you begin with the covenant that the customer must come first, and that people will mostly reject a bad product, then you simply adhere to that policy and produce a holistic experience in which the entire product is cohesive. Many people misunderstand this and automatically make the leap to a world in which sugar companies will be dictating news reports on obesity. I'd like to believe that smart people will recognize anything that it's inherently inauthentic. The future I envision is inherently utopian and optimistic, perhaps too much so, and maybe a little elitist, but so be it. But please be clear: I am advocating for a better experience for the buyer and seller, in which there is a holistic commitment to quality and everyone wins.