What I’ve Learned (So Far) From Stuart Elliott

When I first joined the Direct Marketing Association public relations team in 1988, Stuart Elliott had just left Advertising Age to join USA Today, covering the ad business there. Then in 1991, he took over the ad column, and the advertising business beat, at The New York Times. In December 2014, after 23-plus years, he chose to depart the Gray Lady

When I first joined the Direct Marketing Association public relations team in 1988, Stuart Elliott had just left Advertising Age to join USA Today, covering the ad business there. Then in 1991, he took over the ad column, and the advertising business beat, at The New York Times. In December 2014, after 23-plus years, he chose to depart the Gray Lady. His last column ran December 18.

The Times continues to cover advertising, but the column exists no more.

This week, I had the opportunity to listen to Stuart speak with George Wiedemann, chief executive officer of UMarketing, about the changes that have transformed advertising in the last 25 years. As disruption—digital, recessions, consolidations, consumer empowerment—has been one rule that has governed Madison Avenue (in itself an anachronism), there also is resilience.

Some of Stuart’s observations (these are not direct quotes)…

Madison Avenue may have been late in leading the conversation with clients on digital, social, mobile strategy and such, but many industries—outside of Silicon Valley—never foresaw the new business models, either. We (the ad folks) adjusted. The margins and money-minting might not be what they were, but “boo-hoo”—we’re all still in business.

In fact Madison Avenue always has done what its clients have asked it to do: The rise of the global agencies was to service global brand advertisers, the rise of holding companies to enable a portfolio of services, and the more recent rise of boutiques and start-ups—and agencies buying stakes in these—to enable experimentation and innovation while managing risk. Silicon Valley, and venture capital, is not the only source of startup funding.

While the U.S. economy tanked in the financial crisis—and large players disappeared (Lehman Bros.) or went bankrupt (GM), Stuart asked how many big ad holding companies also went belly up? None.

Data and technology have transformed advertising—and the rush for ad-tech and analytics prowess is an ever-constant concern of agencies and their acquisition of skills and talent. What is “big data”? Stuart said it’s data from more sources, more volume and often in real time—and brands grapple with what to do with it all and the difficulty of sorting through it. But we’ve moved beyond promise here to delivery, even if the integration path is hard. Social media alone prompts millions to interact with branded content, in addition to traditional media touches, and often in coordination. It’s not a matter of doing one thing or another—a brand has to do it all, or a competitor will.

On Millennials—advertising’s newest obsession—branding has become more important, not less. Younger consumers have been marketed to all their lives, and they are comfortable with being targeted, but they don’t connect with brands that they feel are not authentic. Who knew that Pabst would become a cult beer—because of its heritage and history, rather than its hipness, he offered as an example. Privacy may be less of a concern among younger audiences, but marketers risk being the “social outrage of the day” if they make a mistake in their storytelling, or when their actions don’t fit the narrative. Every day there’s examples of hashtag “fails” on Twitter.

Native content is just a new word for “advertorials”—but we need to be concerned that objectivity is not lost among sponsored content. There may be short-term gains, but diluted editorial may lead to long-term questions in the minds of consumers. Blurring news and advertising is not wise, even as large publishing companies launch native content development divisions and businesses. It will be something we need to watch.

Unfortunately, George’s conversation with Stuart lasted just one hour—and the impact of programmatic media buying, the last episode of “Mad Men,” and the rise of the Pluralist Generation—well, there was not enough time to hear everything on his mind.

I will miss reading about such insights in Stuart’s next Times column, but perhaps, after a break, his next endeavor won’t stray too far from ad reporting. After all, our business may be bigger than ever, but how many advertising columns still exist?