The death of modern advertising

SaatchiThere a couple of ways to look at the future of advertising.  With clarity or with panic.  Lord Saatchi has chosen to panic.

In the pages of the Financial Times, he warns of the death of advertising.  Lord Saatchi believes that advertising has been extinquished by a change in culture and commerce:

nowadays only brutally simple ideas get through. They travel lighter, they travel faster.

WhatI am describing here is a new business model for marketing, appropriate to the digital age.   In this model, companies compete for global ownership of one word in the public mind.

This is "one word equity".

In this new business model, companies seek to build one word equity – to define the one characteristic they most want instantly associated with their brand around the world, and then own it. That is one-word equity.

Lord Saatchi believes that the work of advertising is now clear.  It is to find the one word,

the word that guides everywhere. And once it is found, never to forsake it. How do you find that   word? There are 750,000 words in the English language. How do you know which is the right one? It is difficult.

The pain comes from the ruthless paring down of the paragraph to the sentence and the sentence down to the word. One-word equity is the most priceless asset in the new world of the new technologies. Discover it and you have the route to salvation and eternal life.

To call this stupid, well, is this really the one word I’m hunting for? Moronic?  Brain damaged? Sorry, that’s two words.  Insensate?  There is one priceless word for what Lord Saatchi has written, but I need to do a little more paring.  I’ll get back to you.

In the meantime, let’s examine Lord Saatchi’s claim.  He believes that the hunt for the one, true word is driven by a change in culture and the consumer. Culture has got faster and more complicated.  Check.  The consumer is now a digital native who thinks in new ways.  His branin has rewired itself, responding faster, recalling less.  Check.  The consumer suffers CPA "continuous partial attention."  Check.  So advertising is dead.  Check, please.

The premises are sound.  The conclusion is insane.  Lord Saatchi peers into the future and loses his nerve almost immediately.  Hold, Lord Saatchi, might the new consumer offer new life to advertising?  After all, this is a creature who can monitor several media, detect tiny messages, accomplish acrobatic acts of analysis thereupon.  The evidence collected by the likes of MIT’s Henry Jenkins points to the emergence of a consumer with extraordinary powers of assimilation and understanding. 

But of course, advertising cannot remain unchanged in the face of this consumer.  But it is not clear that it has died, nor that it should now be confined to the capitivity of single words. I think that the new consumer releases the agency from all that old USP [unique selling proposition] and KISS [keep it simple, stupid] nonsense  I believe that if we could climb in our Rocky and Bullwinkle time machine and ask the adverisers of the 1950s London and Manhattan if they might like to have the new consumer or the old one, that would be unanimous in their enthusiasm for the new.

Lord Saatchi has two choices in the face of the new consumer.  One was to change advertising to give it new power.  The other was to kill it, first by declaration in the pages of the Financial Times and then with his new "one word equity" model.  Fine work, Lord Saatchi.  We will carrying on the revolution without you. 


Saatchi.  Maurice. 2006.  The Strange Death of Modern Advertising.  June 22, 2006.  p. 13.  here

10 thoughts on “The death of modern advertising

  1. grant

    I think advertising is only enhanced now. It’s just harder to get your message through the rest of the noise. If you can get your product featured in a fan video that catches on, what better advertising is there?

    Burger King comes up with those goofy websites, the dancing chicken for instance, and people flock to them.

    Advertising definitely not dead, you just have to be more creative and produce a message people enjoy.

  2. Tom Guarriello

    Why do I watch the Apple Guy/PC Guy ads? First and foremost, they’re fun. They also resonate with my beliefs. And, they’re well produced within clear brand parameters. Did I mention they were fun?

    Why do I watch the Geico gekko ads over and over? They’re fun. Listening to the way they’ve managed to capture that British speech thing with the letter “R” gets me every time. And, the animation is terrific. Did I mention they were fun?

    How about the Vonage ads? Fun. Especially the one with the idiot husband dancing in the background (we LOVE ads that portray men as idiots.)


    Maybe that’s the word Lord Saatchi was searching for.

  3. Max Kalehoff

    Lord Saatchi = fuddy-duddy nonsense. The reason advertising is broken and failing advertisers is precisely because of the “one word” one-way, top-down broadcast mentality, which worked in the 1950’s but not now. A single unifying marketing theme is critical, but in a growing world of niches and interactivity, most often too complex and irrelevant to any single word, “one-word” advertising is just a doomed model from the start. And to think that a corporation would have the nerve to market to me as a moronic idiot — only receptive to one-word ideas — is downright insulting. This Saatchi guy needs to retire and start volunteering at the advertising museum.

  4. David Armano

    Found my way over here from Chroma.

    I have to say, this whole matter is disturbing but not surprising. Individuals like Saatchi tend to react by seeing a situation as so complex, that it can only be boiled down to that “one thing”.

    Meanwhile consumers, customers and users will relate to the “many things” and many ways they CHOOSE to engage brands.

  5. Anonymous

    Maurice Saatchi… one of the most successful advertisers in history and Grant McCracken?

    “Moronic”? “Brain-damaged”?… I’m sure Maurice is rattled now!

  6. John Grant

    Hi Grant,

    I agree, very well put.

    Did you think he really meant that advertising was dead? I read it several times and came away assuming that was a rhetorical device; ie ‘people say advertising is dead’ but the speaker knows better. It reminded me vaguely of something like Octavian’s speech to the senate in the movie Cleopatra 🙂

    Another thing that seems confused to me is whether the one word is supposed to be your internal understanding only or something you actually trumpet in ads (which he implies in most of the examples he uses). He said this in the follow up chat on the FT site:
    MS: “And bear in mind, one word equity does not mean a one word slogan. The word may not even appear in the slogan.”
    Whereas… My hunch is what they are really picking up on and getting carried away with is the modish tendency of names and slogans to coalesce – a stylistic trend to one-wordedness, like you can see in agency names and other neo brands (Mother, Naked, Innocent, Believe…) I could half agree that is a current way of putting things, a style or fad. You could probably trace it back to things like Hal Hartley movie titles, but it is now official policy at Saatchi towers. I bet it was that which buoyed them up with confidence – if one wordedness feels ‘cool’ and ‘in’ at the moment, then it must be right????

    I also wonder if this and similar projects (like Lovemarks) which repackage the old 1950/60s messaging models are most interesting as processes of (potentially catastrophic) reform; acknowledging that the world is changing and that a few reforms are needed can be fatal as de Toqueville pointed out: eg in pre 1917 (and pre 1989) Russia?

    Moronic is too good a summary btw, it plays to his case.

    John Grant (& not remotely anonymous)

    ps thx for the link btw

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  8. George Nimeh

    Just found your blog (via John Grant) and am enjoying it …

    Totally agree that Saatchi comes off as quite the dinosaur. He and Martin Sorrell are quite the pair these days, in terms of sending mixed messages and making dim-witted statements.

    When I read the article a few weeks ago, I too found fault with the logic and thesis of Saatchi’s argument. As I wrote on my blog:

    Couldn’t the problem be due to a general decline of creativity in advertising, especially in large shops? … It isn’t about simplicity and speed as Lord Saatchi suggests. It is about value and choice.

    More here:


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