If the future of advertising lies in direct marketing, then that marketing must return to delivering content worth consuming, instead of an endless stream of sales messages based on previous purchases, Faris Yakob believes.

Late last year, the decision-maker behind the world’s largest advertising budget made a pronouncement about the future of the industry. Marc Pritchard, chief brand officer for Procter & Gamble, heralded a new age of personalised relevant communication he calls ‘mass one to one’: “It’s not as reliant on mass marketing, it’s not reliant on mass advertising, it’s much more reliant on connecting with her – and then him, because dad becomes part of that process. I think that’s the future.”

This fusion of intimacy and scale is to be delivered by personalised content, informed by data and enabled by technology. Not coincidentally, these were the three pillars of Sir Martin Sorrell’s vision for the future of agencies, adapting to service the needs of their biggest clients. At least before his ‘extraction’ from WPP. Since then he has said that “the world’s largest corporations, such as P&G, now want advertising partners that can respond to briefs in an agile manner, free from the legacy constraints of ‘old media’”, which is just the most recent reminder of the old adage that our vision often seems tied to our business model.

Mr Pritchard understands that ‘mass one to one’ is direct marketing, not advertising, but his statement seems to belie his role as champion of P&G’s brands. Brands are not simply assemblages of customers’ experiences of companies because they exist at a sociocultural level. That’s why broadcast advertising has, historically, been so good at building brands: it exists in culture. When you see advertising, you intuitively understand that many other people are seeing it at the same time and it’s this sense, along with the reliable nature of that expensive signal, which allows a brand to have a set of loosely agreed upon meanings that drive defensible price premiums over time.

A vision of the future of advertising as direct marketing is, no doubt, driven by the measurable returns on investment that it allows for. In the most developed markets in the world, growth has sputtered since the financial crisis. In the absence of growth, which is the ultimate proposition of advertising in the short term, advertising spend has come under more intense scrutiny. The promise of mass reach and measurable returns is tantalising to the financially oriented managers and shareholders of large corporations.

Something about the model sounds oddly familiar and it was the recent spate of GDPR emails that reminded me what it was. ‘Mass one to one’ is what Seth Godin made his name, and first fortune, on: permission-based email marketing. Upon selling Yoyodyne to Yahoo! in 1998, an analyst explained the rationale for the purchase: “Yahoo! is betting that the one-to-one (direct) marketing promos will be more valuable than flashing banners indiscriminately.”

Permission-based marketing was the future of advertising in the last millennium and it’s the future of advertising again today, 20 years later. So why wasn’t it the future of advertising in between?

One of the first great digital pollutants was unsolicited commercial emails that came to be known as spam. The alternative, as Godin explained in his book Permission Marketing: Turning Strangers Into Friends And Friends Into Customers, was “permission marketing [that] is anticipated, personal, relevant”. He went on to point out that “the biggest secret of the internet is that it is inherently a direct marketing medium”.

In this tension lies the answer. Permission marketing was based on the idea of earning the attention of prospects and customers, appearing in their inboxes, building a relationship over time. That required delivering content worth consuming. Instead, email marketing became an endless stream of sales messages based on your previous purchases. It is direct marketing, which is not usually regarded as a relationship that builds over time. Who has ever opted to receive more direct mail?

In response to the European General Data Protection Regulations, marketers have been forced to seek explicit permissions. It has become an opportunity to purge one’s inbox because brands failed to deliver on the promise of valuable content and sent only sales exhortations. Subscribers were often kept thanks to inertia. Being forced to take an action, they are opting out, demonstrating their discontent with masses of one-to-one marketing.