Monday, May 27, 2013

Whose line is it anyway?

Turns out, the Line belongs to the CFO.

The ad industry still refers to media as "above-" or "below-the-line". But what are these terms based on? Is it media types, with certain channels forever tagged as "above" and others "below"? Or is it based on media usage, delineating between which channels are "traditional" and "non-traditional"?

It turns out that the origin of the advertising "line" belongs to finance, and separates the services that generated profit from those given away for free. The birth of advertising agencies began with media agencies that made huge commissions on placement buys. In time they started offering creative services to assist clients in coming up with content to fill up their bought ad space. The commissions used to be so substantial that agencies eventually gave away an entire slew of support services - PR, Direct marketing, etc. (Source: "The Future of Advertising". Joe Cappo. 2003.) 

Evolution of the line... Where did it go?

It was a surprise to discover this piece of advertising history as the industry seems to have arrived at a shared understanding of the terms, using them to refer to traditional or non-traditional media. But the profitability angle sheds light on why those characterized as "below-the-line" media have carried a stigma for being less important, more by-the-way and more tactical. The result has been the continued prioritization of ATL in the development process, almost always strategized and conceptualized before BTL guys ever get a crack at a client brief. (As if business problems are so single-minded that only one vector should represent the lion's share of a marketing solution.) As it often happens for us in digital, briefings are often cascades of the thinking and ideation that ATL guys have already done. The first thing that is developed is the TV spot, after which the "big idea" can be carried over into other mediums.

Developing campaigns and starting with an ATL-geared approach may have been all right in the mass media age where the single-minded ad message was enough to drive any and all campaigns. But with the fragmentation of viewers and proliferation of channels, messages (while still very, very important) are no longer enough to drive good advertising. Additional thinking must be done to figure out the roles channels play vs. each other so that they can be most relevant in a brand or advertising ecosystem.

Today people say marketing must be "through the line", which is perhaps correct as agencies now collect fees on all services rendered. But maybe the line has completely disappeared, not in its original sense of fees and profit but based on the more recent need to have to call out which media is the most traditional or essential. What should matter is to be able to understand how channels mix, the roles they play complementary to each other, and how to use and strategize the use of each medium in a context-relevant way.


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