Our Collective Failure

our collective failure When you turn on your TV or radio; when you walk the streets or sit on a bus; when you go online on any device; or when you even print out a-ticket; you can conclude only one thing: the world is full of advertising and almost all of it is shit. It’s blunt, mundane, boring, brainless, annoying and it’s offending our intelligence. And on top of that, it seems it only is getting worse year after year.

Why is this? Why have we as an industry not yet been able to turn ‘intelligence into magic’, as John Hegarty puts it so simply? Why are there only so few great communication ideas out there while many more are doing the same meaningless processes over and over, while each time expecting better (business) results?

One would think that in our current day and age, any industry or topic of knowledge becomes a little bit better day after day. Each time, a little piece of the puzzle is discovered and with the reach and access of all information available, more people are able to profit from such discoveries and everybody (and each industry) wins. This is true for medicine, technology, engineering, and science. Yet it seems that for marketing and advertising this is far from the case. While we have so much brilliant information and knowledge at our fingertips, we fail miserably to understand even the simplest rules of thumbs to make any of our work slightly better and more relevant to people. Let us quickly go over a few basic yet all so important and fundamental findings we have been celebrating in our industry:

We know from the writings of Jon Steel (1998, 2006) that the storytelling we do in our communications should be focused on a single-minded proposition that comes from an insight from the consumer, business or category. We have learned from his case studies that we need to mine for this insight, not from behind our office desks, but in the world our consumers live in. He has again and again reinforced the power of storytelling and the commercial impact it has.

We know from the IPA databank that emotional ads are far more likely to drive sales than rational ones. The work that Les Binet and Peter Field (2007, 2010) have done for our industry is probably to best argument we have ever received in proving that what we do when we’re at our best, works. We have learned from them that the most effective advertising campaigns are the ones that are more likely to: be creatively awarded, set a hard objective, focused on brand fame and used emotion over information to tell their story; to name a few.

We know from the work from Byron Sharp (2010) that market penetration and customer acquisition is far more effective for a brand or business to grow than driving loyalty and retention. We learned that only a very small portion of consumers is brand loyal and many more switch between brands within the same category. We have seen that these loyal consumers are not different from one another and that therefore distinctive advertising and branding should be far more important as an objective that trying to differentiate your brand based on personality and attitudinal traits.

We know from the brilliant research from Daniel Kahneman (2011) that people are irrational beings who are driven more by intuition and instinct than by thought-through decisions and arguments. Kahneman has introduced the System 1 – System 2 framework that has given us a better understanding in how people consume and process information, and why the bullet points above are more likely to work. This System-framework has given our industry a great argument against creative concept/idea testing, because it has taught us the situation in which information is received is so dependent on how it is processed later on. There should be no surprise here that Kahneman was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics for this work, rather than psychology.

All of this should be nothing new to you. If you are in the marketing and advertising industry and hold a strategic responsibility to the work, all this above should be conventional to you, rather than new state-of-the-art thinking.

But while we might think all this above has only come to the surface in the last 15 years, it is not. We might have better numbers and data to support our claims today, all this has been known for a very long time, be it more intuitively. Brilliant creatives such as Bill Bernbach, David Ogilvy or Steve Harrison have always operated under these principles and it is exactly because they understood them better than anyone else, their agencies succeeded. And more importantly, their client’s businesses succeeded as well.

Now, it might feel there’s almost a perfect formula for creative work, when taking in all those findings above. Luckily there isn’t. For great work only derives from unique creative brilliance and magic. Great work comes from truly understanding the brief and the unique problem. Our job as planners is merely to create the best possible conditions for that to happen. And therefore it’s our responsibility to keep track on these findings; to know them; and to pitch and sell them to our clients.

So why are we failing on even this basic know-how professional marketers should be able to understand intuitively? Despite all the knowledge, research, data, case studies, awards, books, blogs and events, why is almost all we make not worth talking about, let alone staying late at work for and slaving away our younger years?

shitPierpaolo Ferrari & Maurizio Cattelan, 2014

Having only been in this industry for not that long, and knowing there are so many people out there far more intelligent and brilliant in their work than I will ever be, I will try to be humble here.

I don’t believe it’s individual agency people who are responsible for this. After all, nobody starts in this business to make below-average work. People that have made it to the senior positions and hold some strings, have far more bigger ambitions. We all want awards (be it strategic or creative), recognition and fame (for ourselves and our clients).

I also don’t believe it comes from individual clients. If we could sit down with each one of them separately and just go through on what we know about great ideas, how they work and how people react to them, we would be able to do so much greater. We would also be able to do so much more, since less time is wasted on convincing these basics.

Because, and this is the fundamental paradox of our industry I still can’t get my head around, agencies and clients want the same things. We both want to produce great work that will transform a business, work that is embraced and loved by people, work that drives sales through the roof and work that people will actually remember and talk about. Our relationship should be a painless and straightforward one, for a win-win outcome actually becomes one single big gain for both. But it seems while the goal between client and agency might be the same, the path on how to do that seems to be very disparate.

I’m afraid clients are stuck in their own business and political structures. Either their personal short-term prospects at one company are not long enough to make any fundamental changes before they move on to the next job. Or their long-term prospects are focused more on pleasing their boss and having a straight-A performance review, rather than challenging anything or taking a particular risk. Especially when this risk is consumer-facing. And that develops a company culture that becomes more rigid and slow to adopt. That’s why, over time, you are left with two types of clients: those who have a clear vision and are willing to make sacrifices for it; and those who don’t. While everybody wants to be the next Nike, barely anyone is willing to take the risks for that to happen. On that note, I do strongly agree with Dave Trott who once wrote: “Clients get the advertising they deserve”.

I am not insinuating that if we take care of the few points mentioned above, great work would flourish everywhere. What it could change however is that the likelihood of great work increases. And a lot of time, (client’s) money, people and resources would not have to be wasted as they are right now.

Nor am I saying that the sole responsibility lies in the strategic camp. It would be naïve, self-deluding and plain stupid to think it is. Great creative work is rare for the simple reason that it’s hard to do and only a small portion of people in our business are brilliant at it, and can do it properly and consistently. You can have the best clients, accountants and planners in a room, if the creatives don’t live up their promise, all is lost. It’s the reason why creatives should have the last say and why they should be paid the most.

So where does this all leave us? It would be easy and dumb to put all this on the client’s lack of willingness and the anomaly of creative brilliance. For now, I can only think on doing what lots of us (but not enough) have been doing already, and fulfilling our responsibility agencies should take up: to keep track of what has been proven to work and what hasn’t, to keep on convincing everybody in the room on these findings, to keep on being resistant and critical of anything people claim to know without any data or support; to keep on trying to liberate creativity instead of restricting it. I would also suggest trying to talk to the clients who actually have control and those who make the final call, make them understand, make them passionate, make them fucking care.

Our Collective Failure

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