More science, less art

At the end of last month, the global advertising industry met in Cannes for the international advertising festival, Cannes Lions. Battered and bruised as much as any sector of business - and in some cases, even more - the industry executives were clearly looking for any reasons to be optimistic. From all the feedback it seems that there were very few.

What there did seem to be though was a sense that the industry has to wake up even more to the reality that consumers are changing, the media channels are still in a state of revolutionary change that shows little sign of settling down and that the old traditional rules have gone.

This was best summarised at the Cannes debate chaired by WPP chairman, Sir Martin Sorrell. The assembled senior marketing heads on the panel, including the senior president in charge of marketing at McDonalds, Mary Dillon, accused the advertising industry of not understanding the rules of the digital age. She argued that agencies remained obsessed by the standard of creativity, when what they as major brands and advertisers wanted was fast, detailed and accurate data on response rates, traffic flows and conversion. It is what the digital age can deliver and it seems from the evidence of this debate, that the major global consumer goods industry is running ahead of the pack. They want less of the art and more of the science in understanding how their advertising is working.

Where are retailers in this new digital age? It would be true to say that they have always taken a different approach to customer understanding compared to consumer goods groups. But there is no doubt now that the world’s major retailers have woken up to the digital age. Talking to executive search companies, they all say the same thing - they have never been busier with instructions to find retail talent to help develop multi channel strategies. And this is the difference between them and many consumer goods businesses. Retailers are still struggling with how you bring together their bricks and mortar arms with their fast growing on line business. It demands a different set of skills from a pure play digital expert.

It all goes to reinforce the scale of change going on with any consumer-facing industry. No-one has all the answers, simply because no-one can see the end game. It is still in such a state of change. But it is definitely where much of the action is and at a time of false dawns in economic recovery, it remains the most exciting and dynamic sector of retail.

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