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Advertising agencies used to create impactful messaging, then plan and buy advertising to reach desirable audiences. Most still do. But agencies have had an increasingly difficult time proving value to their clients even while executing smart, targeted advertising, and communications or promotional programs — simply because the targeted audiences are no longer available or receptive.

Consumers in the last few years have executed brilliantly on a disruptive strategy to elbow their way into the advertising ecosystem as an equal player alongside marketers, agencies, tech companies, publishers and others.

The same ordinary consumers of shampoo and cars, healthcare and software or As Seen on TV gadgets have rebelled against their historical role as passive consumers of (often) untargeted, irrelevant and disruptive ads online and off. With an increasingly robust set of tools that allow consumers to time shift ad viewing, remove ad viewing, selectively accept ad viewing or make other trade-offs for ad viewing, the consumer has accumulated enough power to call the shots. They have emphatically declared that the old days of advertising are gone.

Empowered consumer

Consumers have evolved from their passive position at the center of the ad universe where other actors created, delivered and attached value to ad encounters with them — to a more empowered role as one of the actors determining what is created, delivered and how it is valued.

This power shift impacts publishers most directly as they have long relied on the ad supported model that trades free content for ad viewing. This value exchange worked pretty well for centuries, probably starting with the first hand-delivered news flyers, but certainly continued through newspapers, radio, magazines, TV and the early days of digital. This exchange no longer works because more consumers are spending more of their media time in digital mediums and digital tools have handed them the ability to avoid ads. As online and offline publishers fight for the consumers’ attention in an increasingly crowded content landscape, they are also scrambling to readjust their business models to address shrinking ad revenues.

Clinging to the old style, marketing that puts a target on passive consumers in the center of the ad ecosystem just won’t work any longer. Marketers are experiencing more and more consumer resistance that in recent days has overcome even the smartest of ad targeting options. You simply will not get past the consumer’s growing sensitivity to ads even if you can temporarily get past the technology that blocks them.

There’s no mystery surrounding the change in consumers’ attitude. Ad proliferation, increasingly jarring, intrusive, creepy, and disruptive ad types, and privacy and security scares linked to ad exposures have left consumers feeling targeted and vulnerable. In an expanding universe of available content sources and channels with technology options that can reduce consumer risk and pain they have choices. More and more consumers are making the choice to reduce or avoid ads.

While consumers gain options, marketers are faced with fewer options to reach their audiences effectively. And while they still have access to consumers, it is increasingly on the consumers’ terms. The best way to create “brandtime” with consumers is to offer them something of value. That could be relevant info, access to deals, engaging or entertaining content, vibrant communities or useful tools. When orchestrated and supported effectively those branded experiences can build over time to create consumer preference, purchase, loyalty and advocacy. So marketing still works, but we have to work it differently.

The art of persuasion, of the big idea delivered with impact and repetitively conveyed with blunt force in the form of neon ads or jingles or catch phrases was dependent on a structure that guaranteed access to deliver. This is old thinking, Marketers and the whole ad industry will need to listen and adapt — taking the scenario of passive consumers out of our heads so we can fully prepare for our future.

Marketers should be looking deeply at what they bring to market because there is no snappy jingle to hide behind anymore. True and authentic value and innovation are the only things that will differentiate. And marketers should be looking for agencies who understand the new realities and how to facilitate positive customer interactions today in an age when consumers get to choose when and how to interact with a brand; in an age when brand value is vulnerable to a bad review online and when a stranger’s opinion may mean more than a million dollar ad budget.

Brand experiences still have the potential to cement relationships, build company and brand value as marketers increasingly play the role of brand facilitator, instead of persuader. Our new job is to plan, develop and facilitate beneficial brand interactions with consumers, harnessing the power that consumers already possess.