Everyone take a breath: Pritchard was likely just playing to a tech audience

P&G’s chief brand officer Marc Pritchard sent an involuntary spasm through the advertising industry last week, when he suggested during a CES panel discussion that the days of advertising as we know it are numbered. “We need to start thinking about a world without ads,” he said.

When the P&G brand chief makes a comment like that, it’s likely to produce the type of  stomach-churning unease among agency folk that might have them reaching for the Pepto-Bismol.

Pritchard’s remarks weren’t intended as an indictment of advertising per se; instead, they were more an observation about how embedded technology is irrevocably changing the way brands connect with their consumers.

But because of P&G’s enduring reputation as one of the advertising industry’s standard-bearers, they were also perceived as an important signal about where the industry could be going.  When the world’s most powerful marketer wants to lead the industry somewhere, it often has no choice but to follow.

But before we start writing advertising’s obituary, a couple of important contextual points might be useful here—chief among them the fact Pritchard was speaking at what is arguably the world’s pre-eminent business tech event.

During his on-stage conversation with Kathy Fish, P&G’s chief research, development and innovation officer, Pritchard cited a number of examples of how P&G is striving to grow its brands through technology and innovation rather than advertising. That includes a heated Gillette razor and a toothbrush that tracks how its user brushes, providing AI feedback for superior performance.

To make the connection to advertising, Pritchard pointed to Olay, which, he said, once ran as many as six ads a year in an attempt “to tell everyone about every product.” Olay is now engaging in what he described as “more one-to-one” engagement through tech-enabled products like Skin Advisor.

“What it’s doing is engaging with you every day, helping you learn about your skin,” he said. “The algorithm gets smarter with every selfie and it’s not an ad at all—it’s a useful and engaging experience.”  It is, he concluded, “a lot more useful than an ad.”

All of his examples, particularly the DS3 product line, were impressive; but as important as it is for P&G to be innovative, it also wants to be seen as innovative. That’s why Pritchard was in Las Vegas in the first place, and likely had something to do with his remarks.

Pritchard’s comments about advertising were in keeping with the general tenor of his commentary in recent years, during which he has become much more vocal about his frustration with the existing ad system. He has called out everything from its inefficiency and fraud, to a flawed programmatic system that frequently sees advertisements unwittingly end up in toxic—and decidedly brand unsafe—environments.

That P&G is radically transforming its relationships with the traditional advertising world has been clear for some time. The company has dramatically scaled back its agency roster, from 2,500 to approximately 1,250, while shaving a reported US$750 million in agency and production costs from its US$7.2 billion global ad budget.

It’s not hard to see how P&G overhauling its agency roster could be perceived as an indictment of the traditional agency model. But Pritchard has also acknowledged that advertisers themselves are least partly responsible for the mess they find themselves in by repeatedly accepting, and running, poorly conceived—and often just plain bad—advertising.

This is what he said just two years ago: “Advertising is a skill. It requires mastery, technique and imagination to make brand ideas meaningful and memorable… Craftsmanship is visual artistry, verbal poetry, design aesthetics, and it’s the work of masters. It belongs in the hands of serious professionals. Don’t ever accept mediocrity. Don’t be seduced into the crap trap of just getting something out there.”

Last week provided two wonderful illustrations of that point—advertising that was not only welcomed, but celebrated. Walmart’s “Famous Cars” spot for its Grocery Pick-up service is exactly the type of “big” TV ad viewers seldom see outside of marquee events like the Super Bowl. Featuring 12 iconic vehicles from TV and movies, and backed by a cool soundtrack, it was 90 seconds of escapist, smile-inducing fun. Disneyland Paris’ “The Little Duck,” meanwhile, is a 75-second encapsulation of every Disney movie ever made, featuring a ridiculously lovable protagonist and a hint of melancholy before the obligatory happy ending. The two spots have a combined 18 million views—and 95,000 likes—on the brands’ official YouTube channels alone. They are being celebrated and shared, not shunned.

During the same session where he talked about a world without ads, Pritchard also previewed a powerful new spot for Gillette that reimagines the famous “The best a man can get” tagline. “Gillette is now redefining masculinity,” he said. “This is not a product ad, this is a point of view ad.” That spot is an attempt to directly connect the brand to the zeitgeist, a powerful moment of historical importance. A heated razor blade can’t do that.

In retrospect, Pritchard’s headline grabbing quote wasn’t as radical or scary as it was first perceived. It was a version of the narrative the ad industry has been hearing for years now, albeit carefully calibrated for a receptive audience. He wasn’t actually saying we should start thinking about a world without ads, but a world without bad ads. And what advertiser—or agency—wouldn’t endorse that sentiment?

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David Brown & Chris Powell