Nobody reads ads. People read what interests them, and sometimes it’s an ad.

Those words were spoken by one of the heroes of the Mad Men era, copywriter Howard Luck Gossage, and they’ve never seemed more relevant. Gossage was a copywriter based in San Francisco in the 1950s and 60s who these days is seen as one of advertising’s greats. One of his key themes was that advertisers have no automatic right to people’s attention. Now, almost everywhere you look, interactive media are proving him right.

People used to accept that seeing advertising was the price they paid for free television programmes, or a newspaper only costing a pound. But ever since video recorders meant we could fast-forward through the commercials, we marketers have been coming to terms with the fact that most of the time, people don’t want to see our ads.

The problem with online display

For online display, you could be forgiven for thinking that the growth of ad-blocking has turned that problem into an existential crisis. Certainly ad blocking is making some target groups – young males, for example – harder to reach with online advertising than ever. The latest eMarketer research predict 18.5% of UK internet users will be blocking ads by the end of this year; that’s 11m people. And by the end of next year the same research suggests that number will have risen to 27%.

Supporters of online display argue that the solution to the ad blocking problem is better targeting. Taking a lead from Gossage, they say that if ads are more relevant, people will be less likely to block them. The future, they believe, is programmatic and data-based. And I have seen some agencies and brands moving this way.

Hyper-relevant marketing

But there are two problems with this argument. The first is that, to stop people blocking ads, pretty much every advertiser has to start producing hyper-relevant ads right now, and deliver them in a way that’s not only perfectly targeted, but also isn’t creepy, intrusive or just plain annoying. That’s a big ask.

And even if it were possible to get every advertiser on board – no backsliding now – it still wouldn’t solve the problem of the people who are already blocking ads, since they wouldn’t be able to see this new wave of wonderfully relevant and targeted advertising anyway. About one in five of the audience is lost to us already. So while online display isn’t going to disappear, it’s future isn’t what it used to be.

That’s why there’s so much fuss at the moment about native advertising; it’s all about the post-display world and why the top area of investment for pretty much every marketer in every survey is “content” in all it’s glorious forms and buzzwords.

Content marketing that walks-the-walk

But content is a sticky wicket. To be useful and effective it has to Walk the Walk, not just Talk the Talk. It has to be engaging, which means it has to be what consumers actually want to read, watch and listen to.

That means the smart use of massive amounts of data. One of the things that BuzzFeed’s EMEA MD Kate Burns will be talking about at AAR’s next Breakfast event on 27 April will be narrowcasting – engaging with the smallest possible segment to create the greatest relevance in order to deliver the best results. And they’ve had some pretty interesting successes with that approach in the last year.

But what’s important is that this is a step beyond targeting, to really understanding who your audience is. Because Gossage said something else:

Our first duty is not to the old sales curve, it is to the audience.

In other words, it’s no longer about you and what your brand wants to tell people. It’s about what people want to know, and how you can help them find it. You can craft marketing communications that tick all your company’s boxes and include all your key messages, but if no-one reads them, you’ve wasted your time and budget.

It remains to be seen if a systematic approach to “content marketing” is the holy grail it’s being hailed as, but at least it’s a step in the right direction.