Advertising in times of disruption

A plea for cheating

The advertising industry shows all the symptoms of an industry that doesn’t have an answer to disruption.

In The Innovator’s Dilemma Clayton Christensen perfectly explains how every industry reacts to disruption in the same stereotypical way. Disruption of an industry always comes from new players who solve consumer problems in a new way. Most of the time, this happens by making clever use of various, existing technologies.

But what’s more interesting, is the stereotypical way market leaders react to disruption. Firstly they don’t take the disruptive players seriously; consequently they try to fight them. When it’s already too late, they respond to disruption by adding more features; while disrupters are focusing on making things easier and cheaper.


When we look at our industry in this way, it is easy to see that we are the living proof of Christensen’s thesis*. We are totally obsessed with originality and we invent endless variations of the exact same irrelevant innovations.

Who remembers the award-winning interactive billboard of British Airways? The billboard that could tell you which airplane flew overhead and what its destination was.

Nice, cool, but British Airways doesn’t have an impact problem. It does have a heck of a problem with a business model that’s made totally obsolete by the disruption in their industry. It has no answer to the rise of low-cost airlines and price comparison websites.

KLM is another marvellous example. We, in the marketing branch, reward this brand year after year for their creative digital campaigns; while in reality the company is balancing on the edge of an abyss. I’m not saying that KLM doesn’t make fun social media campaigns, but at the end of the day, I’d rather let myself be treated a little less creatively by EasyJet in exchange for cheap airline tickets.

“Conversion farmers”

Another symptom visible in this sector is that we don’t take the origins of disruption seriously. Advertising people try their best to depict conversion specialists as “conversion farmers” who understand nothing of how creation and seduction work, or how to build brands. Data specialists on the other hand believe that traditional advertising people are trusting too dogmatically in their own right.

The discussion between data-driven advertising people and brand-driven advertising people is irrelevant however, because disruption never comes from the sector itself. The hotel industry was first shaken by, then by Airbnb and is now being hollowed out by TravelBird.

EasyJet and Ryanair caused a disruption in the aeronautical industry by disabling the travel agencies as middlemen. The design agency Apply has transformed the computing market, the music market and the telecom market. To deny that something similar will happen to the advertising sector is a sign of great naivety.


The biggest fallacy is to assume that the future of our industry lies in the creation of more innovative advertisements. In technology terms, this is the equivalent of the first cars that looked like a carriage with an engine underneath.

If the advertising industry wants to survive the disruption, it will not have to create smarter or more original advertising. It will have to innovate more radically. And the inspiration for that is within reach.

To understand where all the interesting innovations in the influencing industry are coming from, we only have to zoom out a bit. Because the essence of our sector is not making advertising, that is only one possible instrument of persuasion.

Persuasive industry

Our industry exists to creatively influence decision-making and buying behaviour. We are just a small part of a much bigger persuasive industry, which in turn is part of marketing and applied economics. There has been an explosion of innovation within the persuasive industry in the past few years, which we seem to have ignored completely.

If you are looking for impactful creative work with a tremendous ROI, it’s enough to look at the innovations in the technology industry and the world of start-ups.

Rei Inamoto, the ECD of AKQA, explained it during a presentation in Cannes as follows:

Business ideas from the least expected angles and players will disrupt your business faster than advertising can save it.

Two innovations

In recent years, a large number of disruptive technology brands conquered existing and new markets. They owe their success to two innovations:

Process innovation: The Lean Start-up. The Lean Start-up describes a method to develop propositions by means of experimentation instead of strategy. Start-ups are searching with creative, data-driven experiments for the right combination of strategy, creation, tactics and technology. To discover how you can create profitable customers for the brand.

Working according to the Lean Start-up is a creative process, in which data will tell you if strategy and creation are delivering what they should deliver. However, lean should not be confused with cheap. Lean literally means flexible. Start-ups are constantly adjusting their strategic and creative hypotheses.

Psychological innovation: Behavioural Design. Disruptive brands distinguish themselves from other brands by building the brand in behaviour first and in communication second.

Behind every successful service or app stands an army of persuasion designers and behavioural psychologists who perfect every interaction you’re having with their brand. They see every email, every webpage and every notification as a unique opportunity to keep you enthusiastic about the brand.

Interaction points will not win a prize in Cannes for their genius way of taking away our doubts about booking an unknown hotel. Or for the smart email notifications which make us return to their website every single time.

And if you study Airbnb from a persuasion design perspective, you begin to understand how the smallest design patterns and interaction details have helped Airbnb conquer the market at the expense of the other 50+ start-ups with exactly the same proposition.

The brand Airbnb is not only popular because the business model is so smart, but because the brand looks and feels amazing in all its interaction points.


The simple reason for our collective addiction to our smartphones is that the best behavioural designers in the world are occupied with inventing hundreds of experiments luring us back into their apps.

The real innovation in the influence industry is not technological, but psychological. Politicians, populists, revolutionaries and corporations are also using these innovations on a large scale.

If you know anything about choice architecture and perverse incentives, you can understand the banking crisis as the predictable result of a poorly designed system that provoked risky behaviour.

Disruptive start-ups

What can we learn from these observations?

Firstly, you can find a lot of clever creativity outside of our field, having great impact on behaviour and growth. Disruptive start-ups aren’t merely successful because they are data-driven, but because they are very creative with insights brought forth by data.

Secondly, that disruptive technology brands develop their brand in behaviour first and in communication second.

Thirdly, that we as an advertising industry completely missed the boat by not indulging ourselves in all the innovations that came from psychology such as behavioural economics, framing, persuasion design, game theory, etc. We are to blame for the disruption in our industry.

Economic discipline

To live beyond the disruption, we need to redefine our industry. Let us define ourselves as an economic discipline rather than a creative one; because it is our duty to translate insights of human behaviour into business advantages for our clients.

We are making a fool of ourselves by rewarding creativity which has no relation to the business growth of our clients. Tom Goodwin expressed this very eloquently in an article in The Guardian:

I know Cannes is not the Effies, but this doesn’t mean we should be happy looking like idiots.

Therefore this isn’t a plea against creativity. On the contrary. This is a passionate plea for more, much smarter and impactful creativity.

Beyond the disruption

What will advertising look like after the disruption is over? I can imagine that the disruptive advertising agency will look more like a design agency in which behavioural designers, interaction designers, copywriters, art directors and conversion specialists are engineering every little detail of the brand and every point of contact with the brand.

The idea is not too crazy when you consider that a large consulting firm like Accenture bought a renowned design agency like Fjord last year.

There has been an explosion of innovation going on in the influence industry. In order to see it at work, we only need to look past the boundaries of our field. Instead of getting lost in our obsession with original advertising ideas, we will have to work hard to really innovate. And for that sole reason, this is the best field to be working in.


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