How Henry Ford Ate Your Advertising Brain

By Jonathan David Lewis

In 1913, Henry Ford famously debuted the automobile assembly line, an innovation that transformed the American economy by showing us how to drive down costs while increasing production.

According to, Ford reasoned that to lower the price of cars and make them available to the masses, “he would just have to find a way to build them more efficiently.”

Business leaders then learned to harness Ford’s “efficiency” to commoditize the world’s most complicated industries. And as you and I stand here today, we are witness to a monumental shift in our industry – the great industrialization of advertising.

Industrialized Advertising

A commodity is a basic good that is so undifferentiated that it is easily interchangeable with another good of a similar type: Think milk and eggs, most tax preparation, and the majority of website development. When an industry is focused on efficiency, it is already commoditized. Just ask taxi companies.

But commodities don’t just appear out of thin air. They are a by-product of industrialization, a process that, according to Investopedia, is marked by two qualities: “Individual manual labor … replaced by mechanized mass production, and craftsmen … replaced by assembly lines.”

For anyone in advertising, that might sound familiar.

The modern consumer is overwhelmed by the sheer amount of media noise while simultaneously more empowered than ever to tune it out. But instead of seeking new relevance, the advertising industry has responded, as Seth Godin put it, by trying to get better at spamming consumers.

Attend any industry conference today and you’ll find the topics all revolve around big data, programmatic, marketing attribution, and lowering costs while increasing production – exactly what you’d expect from an industry obsessed with efficiency but running out of creativity.

It’s as if we’ve convinced ourselves that the answer to commoditized advertising is to create even more commoditized advertising – “only this time it will be even faster and cheaper!”

The commoditization of advertising doesn’t make it irrelevant. But it does mean we’re industrialized. The only way to make a lot of content both faster and cheaper is to be extremely efficient. Thus, creative quality goes down and quantity goes up. Add in growing access to “good enough” freelance communities, dashboard design tools like Squarespace, and the coming artificial intelligence revolution, and you have the dawn of assembly line advertising.

Thanks a lot, Henry.

Creativity On Fumes

The first thing to suffer in an industry obsessed with efficiency is creativity. Creativity, by its very nature, is the opposite of commodity. You can’t template creativity, find it on a spreadsheet, or build it on an assembly line.

Advertising agencies are fighting a two-front war against cost pressure and the enormous volume of demand that fragmented media channels place on them. Not only are they expected to develop smart ideas; they then must execute them across hundreds or thousands of channels for a fraction of the historic cost. This war forces agencies to choose between pursuing creativity and surviving.

Guess which one is winning.

What Ford Started, Silicon Valley Will Finish

The industrialization of advertising may have been born on Ford’s assembly line, but it is being perfected by Silicon Valley’s obsession with turning humans into 1s and 0s. Silicon Valley is working hard to turn your marketing job into a dashboard.

Facebook’s Ads Manager and Google’s AdWords dashboards are just the beginning. IBM’s Watson and Google’s recently announced AI tool will change your life. Who needs an ad agency when a dashboard can combine big data and artificial intelligence to solve your marketing problems for you?

Silicon Valley’s robotic fever dream imagines a nirvana where the last vestige of imperfect humanity is made clean by artificial intelligence and the ultimate merging of man and machine. Man, after all, is only a machine. And a benevolent Skynet is our rightful god.

Advertising legend Bill Bernbach would be rolling in his cryo-chamber right now. Admonitions from Bernbach, like “I warn you against believing that advertising is a science” carry an extra sting in the context of our science-obsessed modern marketing industry.

But piercing quotes won’t be enough to save advertising from commoditization.

Zombie Advertising

Soon, much of the advertising industry will become an industrialized assembly line led by an army of low cost, low-quality freelancers and automated dashboards. The rest of the industry will merge into a handful of large companies that compete with tech giants for the advertising dollar.

Today’s traditional advertising agencies, the historic gatekeepers and priesthood of creativity, will evaporate as margins disappear and talent is recruited by tech companies and clients that realize creativity is an essential in-house skill set.

The only creative agencies that survive amidst the smoldering piles of the once glorious ad industry become small, nimble, niche innovation labs serving tiny slices of the marketplace by solving very specific problems. As advertising joins milk and eggs on the commodity aisle, niche creative agencies will increasingly adopt design thinking principles that focus on non-advertising solutions to unique marketing problems.

In this not too distant future, advertising doesn’t die. But it doesn’t really live, either: It continues to exist like a zombie, ever cheaper and faster, reproducing itself by feeding on the remaining agencies until no one is left to stop the inevitable, brainless advance of commoditization.

We can’t run from the facts anymore. Advertising is commoditized. Industrialization has outmoded the traditional business model. Agencies that cling to the past will struggle like zombies on Ford’s assembly line for every desperate, incremental gain. And barring a few rare standouts, the advertising industry as defined today will never return to its former creative glory.

Artistry in advertising is so 1913.

Originally published on Forbes

Jonathan David Lewis

President and author, Jonathan specializes in the spirit of the matter. Call Jonathan when problems feel ambiguous and morale is low. He’ll know what to do.

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