Exclusive Interview: Russel Howcroft Unravels The Past, Present, and Future of Advertising at AWAPAC

Exclusive Interview: Russel Howcroft Unravels The Past, Present, and Future of Advertising at AWAPAC

Yesterday at Advertising Week APAC, Russel Howcroft, one of Australia’s most prominent faces in advertising, took centre stage to navigate the massive evolution of advertising over the past thirty years and to shed a light on its implications for the next industry epoch. Following his fireside session, B&T had the opportunity to sit down with Howcroft to dig a little deeper…

B&T: What are key lessons from past advertising transformations that you think can guide us through the uncertainty of the next three decades?
RH: It’s tempting to say the cliche “the more things change, the more they stay the same”. How we deliver messages is changing, and where you point the money is changing. 

But in the end, we’re in the business of selling, and the motivation to buy is something that the consumer will continue to have. Tapping into that motivation to buy and using your creative skills to do that, that isn’t going to change.

An interesting model to think about is a Venn diagram where there are three circles: the cultural truth, the brand truth, and the human truth. The human truth is something that has always been the case; desire or hunger, the need to find a friend. An enduring brand truth should be the same as well.

Cultural truths are about what’s happening right here, right now. 

In the middle of the Venn diagram, the brand, human and cultural come together. That’s the trick to getting your communication. You need to be able to track what’s happening in culture.

It’s interesting that you mention the cultural truth, because I feel we talk a lot about the influence of tech on the future of advertising. But how do you think cultural or geopolitical shifts might impact the advertising landscape?
Political shifts most definitely influence the landscape. The government has influence on how we go about our business every single day. At a very practical level, politics can influence the landscape because politicians may choose to regulate advertising in some way, shape, or form.

For example, they’ll have a list of sporting events that have got to be on free-to-air television. That list exists right now. So they are influencing how an advertiser can get an audience by ensuring that a test matches on free-to-air TV.

Culturally, for me, that’s more about what is okay to say versus what it’s not okay to say. Or how you feel how you say it. For example, how you would cast for a television commercial or even a magazine print is done incredibly differently now than it was even a decade ago, certainly 20 years ago.

How so?
In the old days, you weren’t that conscious of ensuring it was absolutely perfect. So, two decades ago, it would be a white middle class family. Now, you would make sure that you are attractive to what Australia actually looks like. And of course, what Australia actually looks like is not just white middle class families, they do exist, but they’re just a subset of the total audience that is Australia.

Like in Sydney, English is a second language for more than 40 per cent of households. So, in an ad context, you’ve got to reflect that, which is something maybe you’d argue we’re still not that good at. 

But do you not think that some companies are just inserting themselves into conversations they might not need to be a part of?
Some businesses have a social licence to operate, and I think part of that is being part of the conversation. But just inserting yourself for insertion’s sake? People can see that coming a mile off, and it probably does more harm than good.

As the advertising industry faces ongoing disruptions, what characteristics or skills do you think will be important for professionals to embrace?
It’s interesting. I wonder if the future creator-of-content advertising agency will go back to what it was like in the past?

In the past, the writer would write the idea with a pen and a piece of paper, or a typewriter, and it would go into the out tray. And it would go from the out tray to the studio, and the studio would then construct the ad. Whereas of course, what happens now is we’re straight to the computer. 

Certainly I think there’s an opportunity to go back to the purity of write the idea, sell the idea, and then go to the computer to get the thing made. So putting the computer back to secondary, not primary.

With that in mind, for my final question, I wanted to ask what is one prospect that most excites you about the future of advertising?
I’ve always just liked the business so I enjoy all conversations about advertising, even the difficult ones. But for me, it’s underestimated how important advertising is. The cultural impact of advertising, those who do it, what they’re able to do as part of our society. The people that do it are an important part of how we operate, and that’s not going to change.

What I do hope changes is the role of the writer. I hope the writer comes back with a vengeance as the person that’s at the top of the advertising pack, as they used to be.

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Advertising Week APAC Russel Howcroft

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