The ad industry's struggle to keep up.

While the Pittsburgh Steelers trounced the Seattle Seahawks at Super Bowl XL earlier this month, marketing hotshots kept themselves entertained by judging the 30-to-60-second segments that aired between quarters. Commercials during the Super Bowl are renowned for their sheer entertainment value, but also for their impact–with an average audience of about 90 million, the game is the year's most-watched program. This year, the acknowledged winner was a Burger King entry that featured Whopperettes–showgirls dressed like burger ingredients–flying through the air and landing face first, one on top of the other, until they formed a Whopper. Not exactly Shakespeare, but it's football, after all, and lowbrow mass marketing is a Super Bowl tradition.

This year, though, an ad lover didn't need to glue himself to the couch or videotape the entire production to catch all the Super Bowl ads. For the first time, the all-football NFL Network posted commercials on its website for the entire post-game week. What's more, plenty of advertisers took the commercials that aired during the game and posted them on their own websites. Burger King, for instance, created a website that lets users direct the Whopperettes so as to create their very own BK commercials.

The evolution of one of advertising's most revered traditions hints at the chaos sweeping the industry–and not just in the United States. After more than a half-century of peddling soap, canned soup and cars to middle-class Canucks, advertisers are facing a world in which the 30-second television spot is no longer king. Over the past decade, the proliferation of new technologies–Internet, digital TV, cellphones, PDAs and iPods–has resulted in an explosion of ways for advertisers to reach customers. That means more opportunities. But it also means new complications. As consumers download TV shows (sans commercials) from the Internet, or pass up local radio for streamed online musical offerings, they are no longer congregating in one spot–like, say, in front of the tube. So preaching to the masses is increasingly difficult. “I am really positive about what is going on in the industry right now,” says Peter Oliver, chair of the advertising department at the Ontario College of Art & Design. “But it is also very challenging.”

Industry leaders are attempting to keep up with the pace of change. For example, media buyers are becoming more sophisticated in the online marketplace, and in negotiating cross-platform deals. Most major ad agencies established interactive divisions years ago. And legions of clever executives have launched boutique firms, often specializing in new media. What's more, client-side marketing teams are increasingly willing to abandon traditional media plans in favour of new strategies. Word-of-mouth marketing, online viral campaigns, interactive kiosks and public relations events–all are gaining traction.

But major challenges remain. The increasing role of the media buyer is trespassing on the once-exclusive territory of copywriters and art directors. Turf wars have erupted among creative types, too–between those at traditional agencies, producing generic TV commercials and repetitive radio spots, and those who have migrated to hipper, fresher interactive agencies. What's more, despite piqued interest in new methods among some advertisers, many still aren't that bold.

According to Neil Gunner, a Toronto-based freelance copywriter who started out in traditional advertising at Ogilvy & Mather in New York and now produces online content, “the guys running the advertising agencies, and the guys at the holding companies above them, are clinging to an old business model.” But as the advertising world gets more complex, tensions in the industry are rising. Those who have learned to manipulate new technologies are profiting; those who have failed to adapt to the new advertising regime are stumbling.

Perhaps the biggest trend in the industry over the past decade is the change of focus from the creative to the technical. According to Sunni Boot, president of ZenithOptimedia Canada, a media management company, it used to be that “the creative was given top billing, and would probably consume anywhere from 90% to 95% of a company's time.” Media buyers were considered poor cousins to the creative geniuses. Today, the reverse is true. Marketing execs now believe that determining when and where a target customer will notice their advertising is as important as the advertising message itself. And measuring a campaign's effectiveness has become de rigueur.

Changes in strategic thinking at Procter & Gamble, one of the world's biggest advertisers, are one example of this shift in attention. “The single biggest move we've made at Procter & Gamble, on a global basis,” says Julie Marchant-Houle, director of beauty products for Canada, “is from media planning, which was basically just building a TV plan, to communication planning, which is thinking about who my target is, and where they are going to be receptive to a message.” If you don't get it right, consumers are going to click through the ad. Or ignore it. Or hit fast-forward.

Increased focus on strategic planning has been, coincidentally, a major boon to media companies. (ZenithOptimedia and Starcom MediaVest have been major growth contributors to owner Publicis Groupe–one of the world's largest communications companies, with close to US$5.1 billion in revenue in 2005.) But the trend is posing some problems, too.

For one thing, the job has become more difficult. Media buyers used to say “I'm a TV buyer” or “I'm a newspaper buyer”; deep knowledge of a particular medium was valued. Now, media strategists are expected to understand, and make recommendations about, every communications channel. Richard Ivey, vice-president of customer service at the Toronto office of Media Experts, an independent media-planning company, says that “you need to be a much more well-rounded individual.” The biggest challenge, he adds, is just keeping up with all the new advertising options. What's more, with increasing pressure on planners to rely on numerical data, the limited research available about the effectiveness of new-media advertising can be especially troubling.

Tough as keeping up may be, it's critical, considering that the mass audiences of yesterday just don't exist anymore. Sure, TV still has its hits, like Desperate Housewives, that produce big ratings numbers. But even blockbusters don't deliver the same audience they used to. Industry insiders like to toss around the fact that, in the 1950s, an advertiser could run three 60-second TV ads and reach 80% of the North American population. Today, to reach that many people, it would take more than 118 commercials. Audiences are fragmenting, self-selecting into communities–Golf Channel watchers, Internet radio listeners, and e-mail news junkies. Buyers are expected to know what type of media will reach what type of person, and when. And what those buyers are finding is that, more and more often, the young people that advertisers want to reach are turning their backs on TV.

While media planners and buyers scramble to stay ahead of the curve, ad agencies are dealing with a different reality. Solid creative is still required for a product to get noticed, and some would argue that outstanding creative is more important than ever. But the rise of boutique agencies, like Taxi in Toronto or Rethink in Vancouver, combined with the increased power of specialized Internet agencies, such as Calgary-based Critical Mass, has turned the industry on its head. Jealously held for decades by giants like J. Walter Thompson, Ogilvy & Mather and Leo Burnett, the creative power in the industry is shifting to those who push boundaries with new advertising initiatives, and are thus able to engage with the large number of consumers for whom old marketing techniques just aren't working.

Agencies that can brainstorm across media will be the ones winning industry awards–and clients. After all, consumers, particularly young ones with pliable minds and disposable incomes, are now talking on their cellphones, surfing the web and watching TV all at once. Marketers hoping to reach the coveted 18-to-34-year-old demographic have a much better chance if they can speak to consumers on their preferred media channel. What's more, while young people are still society's early adopters, it's not just kids who are plugged in. A broad societal shift is underway, and even advertisers targeting the boomer set might be smart to look to new media. “Canada is moving to being a digital country,” says Boot.

That cross-platform integration, however, isn't reflected in the corporate structures of many large advertising firms, where the Internet and interactive divisions are distinct from traditional operations. Often the webbies don't even work in the same building. “In most other agencies,” observes Rob Guenette, president of Taxi Toronto, “[the corporate structure] is in silos. And the people doing new tech solutions often inherit the campaign idea from the mother agency.” Guenette suggests Taxi has been able to avoid this by operating on a principle of media neutrality–his staff are encouraged to promote a variety of creative solutions–and by being structured as a single financial unit.

Gunner points to the same problem. “In terms of steering creative development,” he says, “the power still resides, unfortunately, in the hands of what I call traditional agencies. Too often, you get traditional teams that are not interested in talking to the web people. They do a campaign, slap a URL on it, and just tell the web people to make a website.” There are exceptions. But he suggests that clients would be better served if there was more talking between departments, and more co-ordination of their efforts.

Part of the problem is that not every creative type has the skills or training to work across channels. “We've got two solitudes going on,” says Oliver. “You've got very smart, talented, young creative people who are able to embrace the full range of media. Then you have senior creative people, who are strategically brilliant.” Oliver thinks many of the industry's senior executives are flexible enough to embrace new technologies, even if they don't fully understand them. But “there are some very large agencies that need to do some adapting and morphing,” he adds. “The writing is on the wall for them.”

On top of all the internal agency turf wars between the TV gurus and the techies and the print snobs, the creatives now also have to contend with media planners and buyers. In the past, they all worked for the same full-service ad agency, and were usually on the same page from Day 1. Outside media buying services were the exception 20 years ago. Now they're the norm, which speaks to their increasing specialization and clout, but also makes collaboration between the two sides more difficult and, potentially, more contentious. When media buyers start dictating to the creative types, the relationship can get tense. It also gets complicated when the ad agency belongs to one holding company and the media agency is part of another. “We've had to make strange bedfellows,” remarks Boot.

One key industry advance: clients, who control the purse strings, are starting to take more risks. In other words, both the buyers and the creatives are getting permission from above to be more adventurous, especially on the Internet. Wendy Muller, head of advertising sales for Google in Canada, says that a few years ago her team spent most of their time educating advertisers about the web. Now, “agencies and advertisers are really getting smart.” According to a study by the Interactive Advertising Bureau of Canada, online advertising revenues for 2005 are estimated at $519 million–a 43% increase over 2004.

Today, Chrysler is sponsoring podcasts. In the United States, advertisers like Anheuser-Busch, Cadbury Schweppes, Levi's and Ralph Lauren have hired Boston-based BzzAgent to run word-of-mouth marketing campaigns. Sean Moffitt, of Toronto-based marketing firm Agent Wildfire, has partnered with BzzAgent to bring its techniques to Canada. “I'm a bit of a zealot when it comes to alternative marketing vehicles, particularly word-of-mouth,” says Moffitt, who spent 15 years in senior marketing positions for brands like Molson Canadian and Tide. “No grudge against [traditional] advertising, but it really does have a narrower role to play in today's marketplace.”

Even so, it could be a while before things like podcast advertising move from marginal to mainstream. Despite all the talk of niche marketing, Ivey points out that most advertisers still want to reach as many people as possible. “The ad world won't catch up,” says Ivey, “until a significant portion of the population that you're trying to reach is doing something.” Marchant-Houle points out that P&G is still a big television advertiser. “The industry is still fairly TV-dependent,” she says. “Marketers don't know where else to go.”

But it's clear that the power of traditional media to reach a mass audience is dwindling. “Commercial avoidance,” admits Boot, “keeps everyone up at night.” Ironically, perhaps, TV's declining impact is not all bad news for TV networks. P&G's Marchant-Houle says many marketers are tacitly “acknowledging the declining reach of TV by buying more of it, to get reach back up.” The question is, how long can that strategy work–for the TV industry, or for advertisers?