Brad Grossman: Are Brands Taking Back Marketing?

Brad Grossman: Are Brands Taking Back Marketing?

Cultural think-tank founder and publisher of the Zeitgeist guide examines the behavioral shifts that advertisers are currently experiencing.

Brad Grossman, Grossman & Partners
  • 17 march 2013

Brad Grossman, of ‘cultural think-tank’ Grossman and Partners, shares a few ideas with PSFK featured in their publication The Zeitguide. In our second post of the series, we look at the changing behavior of today’s advertisers.

What gives in the world of marketing? It’s a frenetic industry but even so there appear to be serious changes afoot. Brad Grossman of Grossman and Partners discusses these developments in the field with PSFK.

These days, if you’re a senior executive at a corporation, a creative producer or an entrepreneur trying to create a new business, you know exactly how hard it is to keep abreast of everything as the world continues to rapidly change. And no part of our culture exemplifies that pace of change more than advertising and marketing.

One of the key insights that emerged from the 2013 Zeitguide—Grossman & Partners’ annual state-of-the-zeitgeist report on 11 segments of the culture, such as science, food, music, education and media—was the sea change washing over advertising. For years, consumers empowered by the internet had the upper hand, quickly and easily comparing products and prices online and on mobile devices. But now, the tide is turning: brands are snatching that power right back, both from customers and the media channels they use for their ads.


Programmatic bidding is the primary reason. That’s the system that lets shoe ads or car ads follow you from one website to the next, as Tanzina Vega explained in The New York Times. Rather than reach foodies by advertising on food and cooking websites, companies use algorithms to bid for surgically targeted ads in front of one specific consumer in real time. “It’s allowing advertisers to assign value to media rather than publishers,” Ben Winkler, chief digital officer at OMD, an agency in the Omnicom Media Group, told the Times. Already about 10 percent of online ads are sold this way, and major brands such as Nike, Comcast, Progressive, and Procter & Gamble are using it. For mainstream publishers, this will mean getting an even smaller share of more widespread ad dollars.

At the heart of this concept, of course, is tracking consumers and wrapping them up in tidy, if not always accurate, “customer profiles.” The clients of one company, BlueKai, track more than 80 percent of the U.S. online population. Founder Omar Tawakol told The New York Times that “once we figure out the privacy rules” hyper-targeted ads will follow us to TVs and cellphones.

It’s enough to make you call your senator and demand he or she get around to dealing with Do-Not-Track regulations, or DNT. But the working group W3C, charged with improving user control over online privacy, hasn’t gotten far. Marketers aren’t taking proposed DNT rules lying down, either. Eric Wheeler, CEO of “social graphing” (read: tracking) firm 33Across (yes, they will track you if you click that link) and formerly of Ogilvy, said DNT will send us back to the age of dancing monkey ads. “Consumers themselves would end up suffering,” he wrote on CNET, “gaining ‘privacy’ (whatever that means in the context of anonymous data collection) at the cost of online subscription fees, less interesting and innovative online experiences, and less relevant advertising.”


Adding insult to injury for media companies, advertisers are themselves becoming content creators. Coca-Cola made a huge splash with the relaunch of its brand website in a Web-magazine format called The Coca-Cola Journey. Of course that can’t keep up with the super-caffeinated, glossy The Red Bulletin put out by Red Bull since 2011. On a smaller scale, we started getting a weekly newsletter from AT&T. In other words, content marketing (creating your own content in house) is making a real run at replacing branded content (entertainment funded by brands). That may make sense for IBM, which sells its ideas and consulting. But for Coke? Consumers may watch a video or read a short tweet, but will they really invest time in a brand ecosystem?

Ross Martin, who heads Scratch, a new division of Viacom that enables partners to tap the power of its networks such as MTV, Comedy Central, and Nickelodeon in new ways, told us he sees brand marketers becoming more like programmers. Martin told us: “The most effective marketers are programming their brands into the lives of their consumers, creating an experience consumers feel and then share because they just can’t keep it to themselves. More and more, brands are counting on their closest media partners to help them win.”

Of course, companies have bought content studios before: GE and Seagram’s bought Universal. Sony bought Columbia Pictures. But the primary aim then wasn’t driving commerce at an affiliated business.

Meantime, some media companies seem willing to sell advertisers whatever they want to buy. ABC recently aired an episode of “Revenge” during which all the commercials were for Target and Neiman Marcus starring the show’s cast. Conde Nast editors seemed to endorse Windows 8 in a “content promotion” pasted over the covers of 14 of the company’s magazines. Three editors opted out—Vogue’s Anna Wintour, Vanity Fair’s Graydon Carter, and The New Yorker’s David Remnick. It seems there are still a few journalists out there with the power to stand up to advertisers.

But there are also artists who are getting new opportunities to generate genuinely creative work. These brands act as patrons, giving artists more freedom than record companies or studios ever did. One success story: OK Go’s video for Chevy, now with over 24 million hits on YouTube.

Brad Grossman is the founder of Grossman & Partners, a think-tank do-tank that explores cutting-edge ideas and produces custom content designed to stimulate curiosity, innovation and growth. To learn more about the Zeitguide, go to for a digital sampler of three chapters from the 2013 Zeitguide. Access to the whole thing—including a print edition tastefully dressed in emerald green (Pantone’s color of the year)—is also on sale on the site. 

Image designed exclusively for the Zeitguide.


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