Clutter, fragmentation, competition from mobiles and the internet: brands have never faced a more challenging landscape to get consumers' attention.
But could the never-ending quest to achieve "standout", especially by creating shocking and controversial advertising, actually be overlooking a far more crucial factor in creating campaigns that inspire response? Namely, the importance of the media channel.
There is plenty of proof suggesting that not only is the media channel of great importance, but that it should even be governing what ad executionss brand owners create to promote their wares.
It may seem obvious to some. And yet if it were so, why is there still much poorly planned advertising?
Simon Cohen, founder of PR agency Global Tolerance, which exists to help organisations put out a positive social message in media, is one who firmly believes the industry is only paying lip service to this concept.
"The advertising industry is suffering to the advantage of things like PR," he says. "It blames external forces, but one of the main reasons is that the industry has not been living up to what it promises."
He argues that a philosophy of risk aversion and only thinking of clients' accountability has led to the industry using more shock and sensationalisation, but without creating more impactful ads - which is ultimately detrimental to the media.
The importance of context
The importance of the context in which advertising is shown is not new.
Richard Bedwell, consultant at research body BMRB, believes it really came to the fore in the UK when Channel 4 launched in November 1982.
"From that time, there became a need to 'prove' that small-audience TV programmes had a value that made them saleable alongside the more obvious and easy choice of the then huge, all-things-to-all-men audiences being delivered on the existing station - ITV," he says.
"The 'superior' audience profile that C4 offered was an obvious wastage-reducing benefit, but size was still seen to matter and, especially with ITV selling the airtime, C4 was seen as a cost reducer and not the premium product it is seen as now."
Traditionally, media planners and advertisers have not taken channel context much further than assessing the opportunities to view.
Now, though, planners are considering what the advertising's purpose is and how context affects that - the content and the emotions that are likely to be produced by it. Does it want to inspire people? Create a buzz or a sense of fun? And how does that connect to where it runs?
All the planners who contributed to this feature agree they must consider the environment when they plan clients' media schedules. And researchers, both in-house and within research agencies, and media owners are keen to get to grips with how context influences impact.
Obviously, mountains of research into who is reading and watching what is readily available. But this information is starting to be superseded by research that shows not only what is being consumed, but when consumers are doing it and how they are feeling when they do.
IpsosMori, for example, has a research project called Emotiscape, which set out to understand how sub-cognitive, emotional and personal insights shape consumers' response to advertising.
James Mundell, director of Ipsos ASI, says the research showed that context - be it the television show, magazine or even the location of a billboard - influences the perceptions of the ad itself, not just of the brand in the ad.
He gives the example of a Save the Children ad. Run during the evening world news bulletin, the ad is likely to engage with its audience because it will evoke similar emotions of concern and guilt.
"But the same ad run during a comedy programme runs the risk of being perceived as a 'downer' or guilt-mongering by an audience whose emotional response to the media had been quite light-hearted and positive up to the point of viewing the ad," he explains.
But context isn't just affected by the mood of the programming or nature of the content at any given time.
Martin Thomas, head of strategy at MPG, strongly believes the media brand also has a huge impact on how the advertising is received.
This is potentially hazardous news for those media brands which aren't quite managing to get their brand right, or don't really know what they stand for.
"Strong brands will have a strong future, like C4 and the Daily Mail," says Thomas. "But it is hard at the moment to say what ITV stands for, and that could be one reason it is in trouble."
However, Steve Hobbs, head of planning and integration at Carat, warns that for terrestrial television, it is still more about the programme than the channel brand.
"ITV and C4 programmes define the channel and planning is not quite as in-depth for spot placement, because fame and mass awareness are still two of the reasons for television advertising," he points out.
Some see the movement toward context-based planning as in its early stages. But the ramifications could be enormous - if not for planners, then for creative agencies, who could find themselves shunted down the production line as brand owners really begin to take notice.
Thomas sees a future where advertisers could potentially end up producing different executions for different media, given that an ad in The Sun and one in The Times, for example, are not going to have the same effect.
"Digital is bringing down the cost of production," says Hobbs. "It's no longer a case of people jumping on a bike to get a piece of artwork across London to meet a deadline."
Considering the mood
MGP's Thomas gives the example of Heat, Emap's phenomenally successful celebrity mag.
Its demographics tell advertisers that it is a magazine popular with mothers of young children, among a huge number of other groups.
Further research shows it is often purchased in the supermarket after the morning school run, as a weekly fix of celebrity news and a bit of a treat - almost in the way a chocolate bar might be bought.
It doesn't take expensive research to realise that Heat is a fun brand and a light-hearted environment for brand owners to run ads in. But Thomas says it's important to remember the context in which it is read - because it is considered by mums to be a bit of "me time", it's not about families.
"If you understand the context, then you understand who they are and how to talk to them," says Thomas.
So ideally, planners would consider how to make their clients' advertising more effective by choosing a media channel complementing the emotions of the ad and brand.
"So much advertising works through peripheral cues and associations, and because the average consumer is exposed to thousands of branded impressions a day, the ones that make the most impact often relate to the emotional context in which we view the brand, and the channel is critical in shaping this," says Ipsos's Mundell.
The consumers' relationship with a brand can also be influenced by their relationship with the media channel.
For example, BMRB has created a channel planning tool called Compose, assessing consumer engagement levels with specific communication channels and vehicles.
It has revealed, for example, that under-34s have a vastly different attitude when it comes to what media they think is trustworthy, compared to those aged 55 and over.
It found that 22% of young people trusted internet search results - the third most trusted medium for the age group. But the internet didn't even feature in the over-55s' top five.
It also showed age groups considered television advertising the most trustworthy medium - but at greatly differing rates. More than a fifth of under-34s said they thought TV ads were "good" or "excellent" at delivering trust - only 12% of the oldies agreed.
In fact, the over-55s are a rather cynical bunch and only four media even received double-digit ratings for being "very good" or "excellent".
This creates a potentially tricky situation for a category such as cars or opticians, because the same research revealed a high percentage of consumers said "a lot of trust" was a very important factor in driving their decisions.
Viacom has gone even further with research into the context of how television viewers receive advertising, by wiring them up to monitors and seeing what happens in their brains.
Agostino Di Falco, director of insight and research at Viacom Brand Solutions, says the research has revealed some good news for advertisers: the brain is quite active during advertising, which appears to be more stimulating than programming.
It used the example of a Red Cross Tsunami appeal ad and an ad for the alcopop WKD, both screened during an episode of South Park.
Interestingly, research showed brain activity was 24% higher when ads deemed to be congruous with the programming were shown, compared with incongruous ads. The neuroplanning research is of interest to the top strategists, but at this stage, it seems unlikely that it is about to revolutionise the way media campaigns are planned.
"Neuroscience was laughed at four years ago, but now everyone's very excited about plugging people's brains in. However, the studies are still quite small and there's a danger of creating a pseudo-science," MPG's Thomas says.
More creative planning
All of this prompts a number of questions. Is research really revealing anything common sense doesn't already suggest? And if the best way to plan campaigns is based on research, does that mean planners will one day be replaced by computer programmers?
In fact Russell Place, chief strategy officer at Universal McCann, thinks the opposite - that planning is getting more creative.
One effect is that smarter clients are already putting planning at a much earlier stage in their campaigns, he says: "There's very little benefit for clients to go away and create a set of ads without knowing where they're going to be used."
Unfortunately, there's no guarantee that when ads that are created with the audience in mind the industry will finally rid itself of lazy or bad planning.
VBS's Di Falco says: "It may be common sense thinking that ads would be placed that way (within appropriate programming) but if that's the case, why do a high percentage of ads just chase the audience?"
Some planners believe a likely result will be more advertisers using media owners' expertise to help create campaigns, based on the fact they know their audiences best.
This can already be seen in the growing number of advertorials and promotions in, for example, magazines.
Clearly it is yet to be decided what is precisely the best way of quantifying and qualifying the impact of the channel on advertising's success. What is not in question is that it is time for planners to argue their case and persuade clients who are turning away from traditional media that there is another way forward
HOW EMOTISCAPE MEASURES UP THE AUDIENCE
Ipsos' Emotiscape research sets out to help brand managers and advertisers understand how audiences feel when they watch an ad. The idea is to let market researchers analyse consumers' emotional reactions and work out if new campaigns will have an emotional impact in line with the brand's strategy and position.
James Mundell, director of Ipsos ASI, identifies four measures to pinpoint pitfalls before it is too late to rectify them.
- Know what emotion your brand relies on. If a luxury brand relies on the sense of pride or confidence it evokes, new ads invoking humour, irreverence or anything too light-hearted should be developed with care
- Every yin has its yang - for every emotion an ad portrays, its opposite must be considered. For instance, ads that highlight a product's health benefits through energising, feel-good creative may be seeding an inappropriate feeling of doubt or unease in audiences concerned about their health. Understanding whether this unease is an encouragement to buy, or a deterrent from the brand, is key
- Overt plays on consumers' emotions tread a fine line. If audiences can sense an ad is aimed at producing a certain emotional reaction, they are likely to feel taken advantage of, or cynical towards both the ad and the brand
- In ad terms, emotion is instinct. Ads producing a strong emotional response - positive or negative - can have a lasting impression on consumers' subconscious feeling toward a brand.