Ad-blockers must become a catalyst for change

A lot has been written about ad-blockers over the last couple of weeks.

We all now know that Peace came from nowhere to top the iTunes charts for 36 hours, and was then just as quickly pulled by its creator, Marco Arment.

The end of Peace promptly turned the ad-blocking debate into a discussion about internet morality.  (Surely an oxymoron, if ever there was one?!)

Is it immoral to view content for free knowing that you’re stopping the creator and publisher of that content being recompensed for their endeavours?  Probably.

Are we going to stop people doing it?  Hell, no.  Not unless all ad-blocking products are purged from the market.

So here’s my take on it.  Ad-blockers are a form of consumer feedback.

And the feedback consumers are giving the marketing industry is loud and clear.  Collectively, our work simply isn’t good enough.

Yes, there are exceptions.  I’m sure you can think of a few right now.  But that’s what they are – exceptions.

The majority of online advertising is actually pretty terrible.  Low cost, high volume banners are endlessly churned out, because as long as a tiny fraction of the public click through and buy, the cost-per-acquisition stays low and the agency creates profit for the advertiser.

But what about all the other people, the ones who don’t click, and won’t buy, but are still constantly targeted with irrelevant and intrusive advertising?

What’s the cost of each failed interaction?

When talking about the success of Breaking Bad, Walter White actor Bryan Cranston explains what drove the cast and crew to ensure that every detail of every scene was as perfect as they could make it.

He talks about each little continuity error, each little out of place gesture, each piece of dialogue that a character just wouldn’t say in a particular situation, as a ‘little drop of poison’.

Individually, a little drop of poison is nothing; the audience will accept it and get over it.  But pretty soon, repeated doses of poison will make you sick.  And in TV terms that means you’ll switch over, or switch off.

Well, we poisoned the internet with our cheap advertising, and the public got heartily sick of it.

The rise of ad-blockers is therefore a good time to pause and reflect on where we are as a marketing community, and where we’d like to be in future.

In defining our future we would be well-served to remember the mantra: “brands should serve people, not just serve ads to people”.

It strikes me that in this world of big data and amazing content opportunities, too many advertisers and agencies still seem to be making binary decisions in developing their online ad campaigns..

They either use really smart data-led targeting but deliver woeful creative, or produce wonderful idea-led creative that broadcasts the same experience to everybody, regardless of who they are or what is most likely to appeal to them.

There are very few agencies or advertisers that seem genuinely to be using data to inform the content experience they deliver to people.  Again, there are exceptions.  But they are too few and far between.

With the wealth of data available, and some of the greatest creative talent on the planet, the marketing community should be rising to the challenge so clearly laid down by consumers.

We should be constantly pushing to break down the silos, and finding ways to deliver genuinely engaging, valuable experiences to people, not just lamenting the fact that we can’t spam people to death until they either submit and buy our product or throw their phone at the wall in frustration.

So the question shouldn’t be ‘how do we get around the ad blockers?’

The question shouldn’t even necessarily be ‘what does the rise of ad blockers tell us about the state of people’s relationship with marketing?’

The question we should really be asking ourselves is ‘how can we ally both data-led insight and idea-led content to create meaningful brand experiences people will value?’

Because if we can create meaningful experiences that people will value, we will ultimately build greater value for brands.

A new age of authenticity?

Jeremy Corbyn’s election to the Labour leadership is truly remarkable.

He only made it onto the ballot paper at all because a group of MPs, some of whom cheerfully admitted they wouldn’t actually vote for him, decided at the last minute to nominate Corbyn in order to ‘widen the debate’.

Well he certainly did that!  Even when he made it onto the ballot paper, Corbyn was still a 100/1 outsider with the bookies to win.  But then something truly remarkable happened.

He didn’t just widen the debate, he changed the entire nature of it through a willingness to speak plainly, directly and with obvious passion.  And it had a striking impact.

This isn’t just about Jeremy Corbyn though.  The same could equally be said for the likes of Nigel Farage or Boris Johnson.

Across the political spectrum we find the politicians who have most caught the public imagination in recent years are those who speak ‘plain English’ rather than politicobabble, and have a ‘man of the people’ image (albeit very carefully cultivated in at least one case).

Over the last 20 years or so, certainly since the advent of New Labour and it’s media savvy spin machine, modern political communication has become cliché-ridden and soundbite-driven; an exercise in finding ways to avoid giving a straight answer to a straight question in a ‘Westminster Bubble’ parlour game to which only a closed elite of politicians and media know the rules or are allowed to play.

To the party spin doctors this may have seemed like an exercise in great media management, but the net result has been that the language of politics has become entirely divorced from the everyday language of the people the politicians are supposed to serve.

Against this backdrop it’s no surprise that we have seen a growing disenchantment, not necessarily with politics per se – the Scottish referendum turnout, the Iraq War march, or the number of petitions doing the rounds on social media demonstrate that people still care about important issues – but with the politicians themselves.

I’m not saying that the likes of Corbyn, Farage or Johnson are better politicians than their more ‘on message’ colleagues – the relative appeal of their policies is a matter of subjective personal opinion – but they have each found a way to connect directly with the public, which in turn gives them a more powerful platform from which to persuade people to their point of view.

Enemy isn't conservatism

So given we have seen the power of authentic communication in politics are there any lessons for marketers in all of this, or is the term ‘authentic marketing’ simply an oxymoron?

Is it possible to have true authenticity in a discipline where the primary objective in most cases is to maximise sales?

Certainly some people must think so.  A Google search for the term “authentic marketing” yields 6,590,000 results.

But in a cutting response to one advertiser request, director Johan Liedgren wrote “I don’t view the opportunistic call for “authenticity” as a hope for our industry, but rather as an all-time low point for a trade that is no stranger to constantly lowered ambitions for the communication between organizations and real humans”.

Liedgren authenticity

Liedgren goes on to say: “Authenticity would be a short clip of you asking the audience to buy more of your product so you can keep your job and get a bonus.”

Which brings us neatly onto the current campaign for Oasis soft drinks:

Oasis Refreshing Stuff

Maybe we really have just entered a new age of authenticity?

Planner’s reading list additions

In my last post I started compiling a list of required reading for anyone working in advertising or marketing communication.

Since then I’ve had chance to read another book I would definitely add to the list:

The Anatomy of Humbug: How to Think Differently About Advertising by Paul Feldwick.

In fact, I’d go so far as to suggest that for anyone just starting out in the industry this may even be the best place to begin, given that it’s essentially a book about books about advertising.  Meta.

Firstly, it’s described as a ‘wonderfully sane book’ by Jeremy Bullmore, and frankly any book for which Jeremy Bullmore is prepared to write the foreword has got to be pretty good.

But more interestingly, as Feldwick asserts from the outset, it’s not a book about ‘how advertising works’; it’s a book about ‘how people think – or assume – advertising works.

So in one very short, enjoyable and easily readable text we get not only a summary of all the key theories of how and why advertising works, but also an explanation of how those theories were developed and popularised.  (Spoiler alert: the evidence behind a lot of the theories we now accept as fact was often built on the flimsiest of evidence to suit the needs of the proponent).

If you’re anything like me you’ll come away realising you know even less than you thought you did, but in a good way. Definitely recommended.

Another book I missed off the original reading list that merits inclusion is:

The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You by Eli Pariser.

Written in 2011, Pariser’s view of the computer as a one-way mirror that reflects your interests and reinforces your prejudices is arguably even more apposite today as we move towards ever greater degrees of personalisation and algorithmically generated content.

Following my original post I also received a couple of other interesting recommendations:

Hegarty on Advertising: Turning Intelligence into Magic by JohnHegarty

Where the Suckers Moon: the Life and Death of an Advertising Campaign by Randall Rothenberg

I haven’t actually read either of these myself yet so I don’t know if they’re any good (who is that Hegarty fella anyway?!), but they were recommended by @yazac and @kitchen_sian, both of whom are lovely, smart people, so I’m sure they’re well worth a look.

Happy reading!

The ultimate planner’s reading list

I have started compiling a required reading list for anyone with a serious professional interest in advertising or marketing communication.

I’m sharing the list in its current form, partly because it may offer some useful guidance or inspiration and partly because I’d like your help in adding to it, please.

What’s missing?  If there’s a book you think should definitely be on the list below, please post a comment or drop me a line via email or twitter.

I’m not looking to produce an exhaustive list – even in the fairly narrow field of advertising and marketing theory there are simply too many books out there for one person to get through – but I do want to summarise the most interesting, thought-provoking and useful texts, both directly and indirectly relevant to the comms industry.

I should point out that I’ve not included any IPA texts on my list, but their reports (click here) are also definitely required reading for any half decent or aspiring planner.

Here’s my list so far (in no particular order).  What do you think?

The ‘Classics’

Ogilvy on Advertising by David Ogilvy

Behind the Scenes in Advertising by Jeremy Bullmore

Truth, Lies and Advertising : The Art of Account Planning by Jon Steel

Perfect Pitch by Jon Steel

A Masterclass in Brand Planning: the Timeless Works of Stephen King

The Book of Gossage by Howard Gossage

 

Advertising & Marketing Theory

Marketing in the Era of Accountability by Les Binet & Peter Field

The Long and Short of It by Les Binet & Peter Field

How Brands Grow by Byron Sharp

The New Marketing Manifesto: 12 Rules for Building Successful Brands in the 21st Century by John Grant

 

Human Psychology & Decision-making

How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely

Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism by George A. Akerlof & Robert J. Shiller

Herd: How to Change Mass Behaviour by Harnessing Our True Nature by Mark Earls

Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness by Richard H Thaler & Cass R Sunstein

Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

Thinking, Fast & Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Brand Positioning

Positioning: the Battle for your Mind by Al Ries & Jack Trout

The Pirate Inside by Adam Morgan

Eating the Big Fish by Adam Morgan

Branding only works on Cattle by Jonathan Salem Baskin

Economics & Behavioural Economics

Discover Your Inner Economist: Use Incentives to Fall in Love, Survive Your Next Meeting, and Motivate Your Dentist by Tyler Cowen

The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford

The Long and the Short of it: A Guide to Finance and Investment for Normally Intelligent People Who Aren’t in the Industry by John Kay

 

Creativity & Idea Generation

Sticky Wisdom : How to Start a Creative Revolution at Work : by What If? (Dave Allan, Matt Kingdon, Kris Murrin, Darren Rudkin)

A Technique for Producing Ideas by James W. Young

Where Good Ideas Come From: the Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson

Creative Mischief by Dave Trott

Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative by Austin Kleon

Lateral Thinking: A Textbook of Creativity by Edward be Bono

(Image credit: the original version of the photo accompanying this post can be found here)

What ‘Bad Jews’ can teach us about good communication

“It is my sincere belief that by being incredibly specific, one taps into something which is universal”.

Casually perusing the theatre reviews page in the Evening Standard last week I came across this great quote from playwright Joshua Harmon, taken from the programme notes for his new play, Bad Jews.

Whilst patently true, Harmon’s maxim rarely seems to be followed, particularly in the world of marketing communication.  Too much mass marketing takes a ‘one size fits none’ approach – attempting to appeal to everyone, whilst actually appealing to nobody.

Maybe it’s the desire not to offend, or the fact that too many ads are designed by committee, all the interesting rough edges having been smoothed away in endless rounds of research, but however it happens a large proportion of the work that finally sees the light of day ends up being bland, uninteresting, and – the cardinal sin for advertising – unmemorable.

Every brand wants to have a genuine dialogue with its customers, and ‘be part of the conversation’.  But most of them are too scared to talk to people on a human level, in the language ‘real’ people actually use in day-to-day conversation.

Some people (such as self-styled Ad Contrarian, Bob Hoffman) take this as a sign that people don’t want to have any form of relationship with brands.  And for the most part this is undoubtedly true.  But it isn’t necessarily so.

Mischief-making bookmaker Paddy Power is one clear exception.  It’s not for everyone, but Paddy Power always provokes a reaction, and that makes it a brand that many people want to have a conversation with, and about.

Because it is one of few brands out there that genuinely has character.  It is edgy and provocative.  Sometimes (often!) they go too far and get it wrong.

But by talking and acting like a real sports fan in the pub, they appeal to laddish young (and not so young) men who comprise a large proportion of the betting audience.  This is an amazing success story in such a commoditised and highly crowded market.

Going back a few years, the Yorkie ‘Not for Girls’ campaign was equally distinctive and controversial.  Byron Sharp uses this campaign in How Brands Grow as an example of focusing on too niche an audience, because ultimately more women ended up buying Yorkies than men.

I see Yorkie more as a triumph for distinctive brand positioning than bad targeting.  Nestle made sure to use mass media that would expose the campaign to men and women equally.  In doing so they deliberately created a strong emotional reaction amongst women, forcing them to actively appraise whether or not Yorkie was for them.

Of course the increasing ability to use data to deliver personalised behavioural marketing should theoretically put an end to this issue of irrelevant and uninteresting advertising.  We know so much about who people are, where they go and what they do that we have the ability to always be incredibly specific with our marketing communication.

The problem is that for the most part creativity doesn’t seem to have kept pace with technology where personalised marketing is concerned.

‘Hey, look at this really cool ad that’s obviously been created just for me’, said nobody, ever.

‘How do they know which websites I’ve been on, and why do they now keep bombarding me with ads for things I looked at once but didn’t want to buy?’ say lots of people every day.

Having lots of data at our disposal is a wonderful gift.  But with great data comes great responsibility.

Obviously we have a duty to our clients to drive cost-efficient sales in the short term, if that is the task at hand.

But we also have a duty to the consumer, to ensure we use what we know about them to deliver interesting, relevant and timely communication in a way they will genuinely value.  And we haven’t cracked that part yet.

For the billions of marketing dollars that are spent every year, most people wouldn’t care if the vast majority of brands ceased to exist.

Unfortunately it seems we know everything about everyone, except how to make them care about us.

We’re smart people.  We can change this.  But only if we make data and content work hand in hand, rather than seeing them as discrete choices.

What you see is all there is

How much do you know about the country you live in?

For all the rhetoric about immigration that currently dominates the news agenda, do you know how many immigrants there really are in the country?

Russell Brand is running around urging us all not to vote, but do you know what proportion of the electorate actually voted in the last general election?

These and other questions like them were included in a fascinating study conducted last year by IPSOS-MORI in an effort to understand how closely people’s perceptions match reality.

Before you look at the results why not take the quiz yourself, by clicking on this link.

How well did you do?  Don’t worry if your estimates were way off, the study’s title ‘Perils of Perception’ should give you a clue as to how well most people fared.

What I find fascinating though isn’t that most people have a distorted view of the key issues, but that when confronted with the truth they still refuse to believe it.

On immigration, for example, when told the actual figure is actually much lower than they first thought, respondents either flatly refuted the official figure or defended their answer based on the evidence of their own eyes:

IPSOS-MORI Immigration

Coming to incorrect conclusions based on limited evidence is of course a common problem.  As far as our intuitive mind is concerned perception is indeed reality –  ‘What You See Is All There Is’, as Daniel Kahneman explains in his behavioural economics bestseller Thinking, Fast & Slow.

This perception bias is equally true of people who work in advertising as it is of everybody else.

As Thinkbox found in 2013, most people’s estimates of UK media consumption are wide of the mark, but people who work in advertising are in most cases even further out than “normal people” on what is supposed to be their specialist subject!

Why are advertising professionals getting it so wrong?

Is it because they spend such a high proportion of their time looking at new media opportunities that they assume they carry greater weight with the wider population than they really do?

Or is it simply that advertising folk – most of whom live and work in London – just aren’t representative of the UK population?

Would it improve the ad industry if more ad agencies upped sticks to other parts of the country?

Certainly it might persuade more cash-strapped young grads to join the industry.  And spending more time outside London might help planners understand the ‘real world’ better.

However, proximity doesn’t necessarily lead to empathy.

For example, advancements in the use of technology in ethnographic research mean that geography shouldn’t be a barrier to understanding different types of people.

We can’t change the way our brains work, but we can make a conscious effort to overcome these instinctive biases in order to produce more impactful and effective work.

Firstly we must find a balance between constantly innovating and testing new opportunities that might give clients a competitive advantage over their peers, whilst ensuring we don’t neglect the reality of what works in the here and now.

Secondly it’s not about where we’re based geographically, it’s about remembering that other people’s reality may differ from our own, and constantly seeking to understand and empathise with the way people think and act.