Advertising’s historic pivot point

Johnny Ryan at the Grand Finale of The Irish Times Digital ChallengeThis is a piece I originally published in Contagious.

An understandable malaise in ad agencies surrounds all things digital. Low revenues on the one hand and a new answerability to metrics on the other are accompanied by a sense that digital formats remain largely underdeveloped, and that new, possibly unwelcome, surprises await. This is a moment of uncertainty. But it is also an opportunity to build an entirely new avant-garde.

The advertising and branding industry is at a historical pivot point between the established print and video formats, which are ‘flat’ in the sense that they are looked upon or heard, and new digital formats, which are ‘experiences’ in the sense that they are used rather than merely observed. The stars of this new experience-building avant-garde will be engineers and inventors. As the impact of the advertising engineer/inventor grows, the advertisement will begin to look more like a product in its own right, much as some advertisements came to be identified as art in their own right over a century ago.

Coopting the engineer at the right hand of the art director requires a radical shift in thinking. Advertising has form in embracing the new. In the 1920s, for example, advertisements were quick to exploit the work of the surrealist artists, employing them to call to the consumer’s subconscious. This latest shift can be made by pairing advertising creatives and agencies with tech startups.

The relationship benefits both parties. The startup brings new, compelling experiences to the market. Some of these may provide new and unexpected channels for brand messages. Yet the startup must reach consumers, and has limited funds to do so. The ad industry, which commands market penetration, can solve this problem. The startup must learn the correct market fit, validating its offering through feedback from users and accumulated metrics. Established industry players can facilitate this and become master of metrics in the process.

At The Irish Times we have launched Irish Times FUSION as an experiment to match the energy of the startup community with the market access of the branding and advertising industry. We are working with startups whose focus is not on new advertising solutions per se, but all varieties of new, compelling experiences for end-users. FUSION brings startups working on products as varied as apps, widgets, communities etc. into The Irish Times where they will work with creatives to develop experimental inventory, and test live on our digital platforms to gather metrics.

Working with startups that have no prior interest in advertising will not comfortable, but it will produce shockingly original forms of inventory, and will guide us to a new confidence in experimenting. It is invention, alone, that will remove advertising’s digital malaise.

Dr Johnny Ryan is Chief Innovation Officer at The Irish Times, and an associate on the emerging digital environment at the Judge Business School, Cambridge. @johnnyryan 

More about Irish Times FUSION at

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