As the world of tabloid journalism continues to destroy itself, the lengths to which it is alleged the NoTW went seem increasingly sordid and desperate.

But the convulsions that are consuming NI are not merely a result of a press high on its own supply of power. The desperation, I would argue, is a result of the bigger structural upheaval that’s been facing the publishing industry for some time now.

As circulations decline, the pressure intensifies to capture eyeballs and imaginations with ever more lurid stories. Unfortunately for NI and others, both are less easy to capture, having migrated to the shiny, exciting digital playground where information is always new and fresh, content is available for free, in three dimensions, and where readers can become users, contributors even.

News titles need to react, and it’s timely that, just before the Guardian’s phone hacking scandal went crazy, the same title announced the codification of its ‘Digital First‘ strategy.

This article by Jeff Jarvis outlines what it means in more detail, but the key out-take for me was the death of ‘the article’ as the “atomic unit of news”. By no means yet irrelevant, its position as the default format for organisations who gather and share news is no longer assumed.

There are now countless other formats available: live blogging, linking and sharing on Twitter, open source data, interactive reader tools, crowd-sourced primary evidence, micro-blogging feeds, longer-form essays…  The boundaries of news narrative are now less fixed, more bespoke, and more in service of the best way to communicate, involve and engage the audience.

The article still exists of course – but as a way of fuelling or framing the narrative, rather than enslaving it.  But just think how much is left out from a standard article – “on the cutting room floor” as Jarvis refers to it.

It struck me that if we replace ‘the article’ with ‘the ad’ then those of us in brand communications are in a remarkably similar place.

The tools, formats and products with which we can engage audiences have never been more various. The amount of stuff we choose to leave “on the cutting room floor” through our default to a 30″ TV ad is quite some sacrifice – just think how much we’re opportunity we’re missing to engage and involve.

But, just as the article isn’t dead, neither should the ad be. Jarvis talks about how formats should be chosen based on the best way for journalists to add value – undoubtedly in our parallel marketing world that may well be a TVC. So, just as an article becomes something to frame or fuel more interactive or spontaneous elements of the narrative, perhaps the ad should become more informed or defined by what’s going on around it.

Too often, convention dictates doing it the wrong way around: Get the ad right, then work out the other stuff

If the ad is the first thing that clients try to get right, this immediately limits its potential to truly leverage all the other stuff that a campaign might feature. Instead of an ad that can change and reflect the way people are engaging with a campaign, the engaging bits become bolt-ons to the ‘core message’.

I understand the draw to the ad. For a brand marketer it represents the most intoxicating way of bringing that brand to life. Everything else seems slightly intangible. Plus, I imagine, it remains a sometimes glamorous world.

The net effect is that, still, ‘online’ is another line on the plan, that probably still has TV at the top. And we need to change clients’ default setting.

We need to put digital truly first.

The spirit of digital first isn’t just that articles appear first online, then later in the paper. It goes deeper than that.

It’s that stories get told more organically.

They don’t arrive fully-formed, they’re improvised, as further details emerge.

They’re co-created, as interest builds over time, with less obvious boundaries between publisher and user.

The narrative finds its own voice.

And I think brands need to find their own voice.

If brands found their own voice through their own improvisational version of ‘digital first’, then maybe the call of the ad would be less intoxicating.

Because there’s really no excuse not to these days. The means of digital production are owned by whoever wants to own them.

We’re all publishers now.

And anything that individuals can use for networking and communication, so too can brands.

Twitter and Facebook, obviously.

But photo-based networks like Instagram and Zapd let brands allow customers into their world in a new way.


 

Storify is a fantastic tool that brands could use to curate the story of themselves, as told by fans. Below, for example, is the the story of the first couple of days of Spotify launching in the US.

BBH Labs new video tool Vidazzle, despite the whiff of Essex its name brings, could do a similar thing. You watch a video, and in real-time little bits of the web fly past you, drawn by the references of the film itself, creating a richer, multi-dimensional experience. The curated experience becomes not the destination, but one more stepping stone in users’ journeys.

These are not ads, but communication products.

Blogging, too, I think is an underused platform for brands. I met with Say Media recently, who talked about bloggers and communities as ‘Influence Media’. This is true, and the blogosphere can provide fantastic advocates. But blogger outreach is hard, brands can risk looking like they’ve co-opted credible voices, and bloggers who tie up with brands are open to sell-out accusations.

What if brands blogged themselves? I’m sure some do, but I’m willing to bet they end up very corporate, or faux-cool, or else written by employees full of disclaimers about how their views don’t represent those of the company etc etc.

A phrase Ben Malbon used here stuck with me: don’t blog to lecture, blog to learn. Brands could really find their own voice through blogging, as well as throuhg all the other channels outlined above. And they would find their own voice in a way that’s far more authentic that a script that’s gone through 8 rounds of feedback and 5 layers of hierarchical approval.

Too often ads define brands for their own good, not the good of the customer.

Brands, know thyselves! Don’t make the mass consumer your sounding board.

Just think what kind of briefs agencies would get if brands already knew more about – and had tested in the real world – what they stood for! Maybe clients could worry less about every ad being a comprehensive summary of what they believe, and instead focus on the ads bringing to life what they do.

Maybe then the use of ads could become more like the use of articles advocated by The Guardian.

They would serve a purpose. They would help capture the narrative of the story at a certain point. They could help frame what’s going on right now as the brand continues to engage its customers.

But they wouldn’t ever be the end in itself.

Because in the end, an ad is just an ad.

But everything can communicate.