How Advertising Works Now: Insights from Big’s New President

Big President Mark Ervin, left, with founder, chairman and CEO John Montgomery

Big, one of the leading Alabama-based advertising and public relations agencies, announced, on July 9, a change in its top leadership. John Montgomery, who founded the company in 1995, moved to chairman and CEO, to focus on business development.

Mark Ervin, chief strategy officer and partner, was promoted to president. He has been with the company since 2010.

Ervin gave Business Alabama insights recently into what companies should be shopping for in the current digital marketplace.

The two biggest changes in the last few years, says Ervin, are the migration to mobile devices and how data has changed the way media is purchased. Mobile usage has surpassed all other streams of communication, especially for younger people. “If you are not focused on their mobile device, you will not be able to reach them for the large part.”

As a function of mobile phones comes another big change: “People’s attention spans. You have six-second and 15-second commercials. Almost never 60 seconds. All are 30 seconds or shorter.”

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A related phenomenon affecting advertising is multi-tasking.

“Usage has changed so much — people are watching TV and on a computer and on the phone simultaneously — you have to attend to the multiple ways and multiple streams your commercial will find to interact with them. You can’t fight the desire for multiple streams, and you have to use data to shape that. We look at the performance of the data streams we create. We tailor different messages in different places, and we seek to optimize the campaign based on that.

“When I started in advertising in 2000, I worked hard on one message in radio, outdoor, TV and print. Today, you have to be flexible enough to have a slightly different message for what is best in different streams, and then you can test a whole new set of variables.”

That analysis of the data is a new service of advertising companies, something called “reporting.”

“Five years ago nobody paid us for reporting. Clients with larger budgets are more and more asking for reporting. When you have so much data at your disposal, the more they can interact in this world. They are hungry for data. The larger they are, the more they are pushing us for data rather than our pushing them.”

Data analysis, he adds, is “also a matter of understanding the audience up front. You do the research up front, learning about what the audience believes about a brand, and that helps you optimize, to get real brand-specific for the needs of a customer.”
Is the audience more sophisticated and more skeptical of advertising?

“Absolutely,” says Ervin. “The audience is more aware of the advertising message than ever before, and what you have to figure out is how to do things that are less likely to feel like advertising. That’s why influencers are effective. You have to create things with your advertising that people will want to consume. Consumers are more savvy than ever. The sniff test of the younger audience is even stronger. You just have to look at the 2016 election cycle to validate the importance of the source of content. It elevated people’s doubts in a good way. You have to come up with smart, creative ways to add value, so that the audience doesn’t just run right by it.”

A more refined approach, says Ervin, is now required for some of the oldest aspects of advertising, such as branding.

“Most people think of a brand as that graphic identity or logo,” says Ervin. “But there are a lot of other elements in the relationship that results in how it makes you feel. There are a thousand other encodes beyond just the product on the shelf.”

Identifying those encodes takes research, and one of the best examples he has participated in, says Ervin, is the brand research his company did to promote Alabama seafood following the BP oil spill disaster.

“The Alabama Gulf Seafood project started with deep homework and insight that we learned from our partners with the Gulf and Atlantic Fisheries Foundation, to understand perceptions. We picked five markets and got to hear what consumers felt, from New York to LA to Birmingham. We spent time visiting the Gulf. We spoke with people whose relatives used to spend summers at Gulf Shores. You’d see such strong emotions tied to the seafood, so much more optimism about things getting back to normal, as they desperately wanted it to be so. Another insight was that they trusted the fishermen. Every single day, we’d hear and learn about the time they fished a red out of the Gulf to take home and feed the family. It was all the validation the consumers needed to trust that it was going to be OK: that the fishermen wouldn’t sell anything they wouldn’t feed their families first. That little nugget. In many ways we encoded that into the campaign. That has been around since 2012, and it still shows up. It was one of my favorite things to work on.”

Clients often come with definite plans they want executed from the start, says Ervin. But “if they come with an open book, we can bring all the tools to study and really understand what we know. That’s where we start, with research, understanding people and test and market and on the back end measure it and test it again.

“Client expectation now versus three or four years ago means that what we as an agency have to work harder and be better prepared and be constantly studying the landscape and what the trends are out there. And we also have to study our own work and not get stale and not get stuck on things that once worked.”

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