The Circus Barker and the Acrobat: Revisiting the Relationship of TV and Digital

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ADOTAS – It’s something that is exclaimed fairly often around digital advertising companies: “Digital is not TV!” This seems pretty straightforward, and would be a good segue into a conversation that illuminates the respective strengths of the mediums. But if you listen closely to the arguments we make next, it becomes clear that we aren’t touting our respective strengths as much as we are pouting that we aren’t getting the same kind of attention (read: “brand dollars”) that television is getting. Those of us who can see around corners, however, understand that the real trick to seeing digital take its rightful place in the advertising world is not to convince advertisers that we can do branding better than television, but to educate them on how they can stretch their branding dollars by adding digital to the mix and incorporating its unique abilities into the campaign strategy itself.

When the industry was young, digital advertising needed a way to position itself against the current “big man on campus” in order to create its own niche. We emphasized measurement and left branding to television, hoping that by not staging a direct assault we might slip under the radar. In order to attract major branding campaigns, though, we now find ourselves having to rebrand our positioning to convince advertisers that we can do something we always could do, but never boasted about. But what if instead of trying to rip branding away from television, we started talking about it as the two pieces they really are: awareness and engagement.

Think about the classic Barnum & Bailey Bros. era circus stories. The barker stands outside the tent and uses his charismatic, aggressively persuasive personality to convince passersby to come on in and see the show. Part of the excitement that the barker stirs is the feeling that if this message is worth shouting about in public, then it must be fantastic. The excitement increases as strangers come together to listen to the message bellowing out of the megaphone; each person’s curiosity and anticipation feeds another’s. Once the barker gets his message across and draws a paying crowd into the tent, it is up to the acrobat to deliver the awe-inspiring performance that makes them say this really is “The Greatest Show On Earth.” The barker created awareness; the acrobat engaged the audience. Using their very different skills, together they create the full experience perpetuating one of the most well-known tag lines of all time.

Digital advertising lacks the ability to create a “Super Bowl Moment,” where everyone stops to listen collectively to the barker. But television’s “30 seconds and it’s over” format doesn’t allow for real engagement and the awe-inspiring feats of the acrobat. The branding synergy created in a classic circus atmosphere eludes us because we continue to look at them separately. If the advertising world is going to truly maximize the evolving tools at its disposal, campaign strategy development will have to merge the strengths of both digital and television. We can imagine, for example, messaging on a television spot that urges the viewer to go online and create personalized videos about his use of a product and then share it with friends on social media. The television spot drives the awareness, and the social media aspect drives the engagement. Together these pieces create a user experience that would not have been possible by either piece on its own.

This kind of circus synergy can only be created if advertisers and agencies start thinking of digital as part of the strategy, not simply as a tactic. The barker will tell you that he is what drives the success of the circus, but no one will pay if there isn’t an acrobat performance.

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