Saturday, December 26, 2015

boxing day

Festive best wishes to all who have read, commented, shared and inspired this year.

Also special thanks to mumbrella and warc who have republished from here.

Next year is ten years since I first started writing this blog. As it's a milestone of sorts we shall endeavour to recapture some of the prolificity of earlier years that was missing a bit in 2015.

Monday, December 07, 2015

cultural fossils

‘Stranger from another planet welcome to our hole.
Just strap on your guitar and we'll play some rock 'n roll’

If some band of galaxy-wandering aliens should indeed stumble upon this planet earth, our species has one thing worthy of their attention and study.

And it’s not our science and technology, as you might immediately imagine.

Yes, we’re the only species to have achieved civilization on this planet - so far - but we would have nothing to teach them about science.

The mere presence of these extraterrestrial visitors proves that our technology must be vastly inferior. Or else we would be visiting them.

So what would aliens learn from us that has any value to them?

The biologist and author EO Wilson poses the above questions the in his tome ‘The Meaning Of Human Existence’.
Professor Wilson is Emeritus in Entomology for the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University - amongst other chairs - the world’s leading expert on ants and generally regarded as the ‘godfather’ of sociobiology (aka evolutionary psychology).

Wilson argues that the only thing humans have that would interest the little green men is the humanities.

Our history, philosophy and politics.
Our languages, literature and other creative arts like drama, painting and music.
Our design, architecture, our media, communications and other cultural products.
Electric guitars and that. Rock’n’Roll.
Human creativity.

Oh yeah, and advertising.

These same products of human popular culture are to present-day anthropologists and psychologists what fossils and skeletal remains represent to paleontologists.
Although human minds do not fossilise, the cultural products created by human minds do.

Even so, most scientists would agree that the total sum of everything that humans know about (or can meaningfully, label) science is less than five hundred years old and perhaps our major cultural/technological achievement to date - the internet - has only existed for around 20 years then it’s safe to say that it’s early days in the era of science and technology on this soggy planet.

‘Theoretical physics consists of a small number of laws and a great many accidents’, according to particle physicist Murray Gell-Mann.

As a planner, and one who subscribes to the evidence-based approach, of course I lean on science to shape the development of strategy. But - similarly to theoretical physics – the very best work done in advertising and marketing has always been based on a small number of laws and a great many accidents.

The cultural fossils of advertising have been, and always will be, the creative ideas and executions.

If this all sounds misty-eyed for advertising’s past, maybe it is.
However it’s worth noting that much of the cultural fossils produced by the likes of, say, Gossage and Ogilvy in the 50s and 60s, would stand head and shoulders about most of what passes for branded content today.

If that sounds argumentum ad antiquitatem to some I’d say go look at the work and read Gossage. Many of his ideas took 40 years to permeate.

Yet I would challenge a large chunk of the marketing business with excessive argumentum ad novitatem. Routinely and repeatedly overestimating the new and modern, prematurely and without investigation.

At this time of year we are traditionally dumped upon with the predictions around which game-changing revolutions we should expect in the next 12 months. These predictions are typically prefaced with some variant of ‘technology is disrupting everything rapidly, and as a marketer, you need to be one step ahead. Or die’.

(Less headline-worthy but more accurate would be to predict that 2016 will be very similar to 2015 with the only changes being so small you’ll barely notice.)

If any little green men had landed in 2014 or 2015 then one doubts they would have been particularly impressed with how we’d been handling the business of brand building lately.

Let’s hope that one small shift is that we re-straighten our heads around the false dawn of adtech.
It’s a long way from idea-rich For Mash Get Smash to the idea void of tracking pixels and data leakage. No doubt any intergalactic visitors would chuckle at our marketing automation systems in a similar way that those celetoid alien robots did at our rudimentary potato mashers.

The rise and fall of the current version of adtech positively correlates with the false belief that communications can succeed through technology alone. This has never and will never be the case.

There are certain web companies and (nefarious) adtech and data companies who would prefer it to not be so. Former four-term Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards could just as easily be talking about them.

"Without the humanities to teach us how history has succeeded or failed in directing the fruits of technology and science to the betterment of our tribe of homo sapiens, without the humanities to teach us how to frame the discussion and to properly debate the uses-and the costs-of technology, without the humanities to teach us how to safely debate how to create a more just society with our fellow man and woman, technology and science would eventually default to the ownership of-and misuse by-the most influential, the most powerful, the most feared among us."

The ongoing search to unravel the human condition is based on uncovering and analyzing the products of human creativity.

In the advertising/marketing/content business, this is the stuff we produce.
The humanities and cultural fossils.
It needs to be great and creative because it’s a reflection of us.

‘But the money's no good,
Just get a grip on yourself’

Thursday, December 03, 2015

to brand or not to brand? is that a question?

[This post originally appeared in November as one of my regular articles for]

In 1934, the young Rosser Reeves left his small town home in Danville, Virginia, for the bright lights of New York City, following his dream of working as an advertising copywriter.

Within a few years he had landed a plum job at the Ted Bates Advertising Agency and by 1950 he was vice-president and head of copy, rising to chairman of the board in 1955.

Then in 1961 he published his first book Reality of Advertising, a large portion of which was devoted to Reeves’s principal legacy (and the ‘secret’ to the phenomenal success of Bates in the 1950s) – the unique selling proposition (USP).

(Incidentally, the Don Draper character from Mad Men is generally agreed to be an amalgam of several of the leading ad figures of the time, including Reeves. George Lois and Draper Daniels are the others most often referenced.)

Anyway, Reeves defined a USP has having three main parts. Each ad must contain a proposition – ‘Buy Brand X and you get this specific benefit’. The proposition must be unique to the brand – something that competitors can’t offer. The proposition must sell – it must be something that will, for example, convince consumers to switch brands.

To this day the requirement for and persuasive power of a USP is perhaps the most commonly held belief in agencies of all flavours.

Almost any variant of a creative brief will contain box for the ‘proposition’. Or the ‘one-thing-we-must-say’.

It sounds confident and plausible, but the truth of the matter is that the idea of a USP was simply something Reeves made up, was based on exactly zero evidence, no research and – as Paul Feldwick points out in his Anatomy of Humbug (a must-read for those with an interest in the history of these matters) – not even on a semi-coherent theory.

Slightly less well known is that propagating the USP notion was a deliberate strategy employed by Reeves to distance his own agency, and the industry as a whole, from a more dangerous idea being touted by one Vance Packard via his 1957 book The Hidden Persuaders.

Packard’s best-seller ‘revealed’ for the first time the psychological manipulations and mind control techniques that the evil ad industry – aided by foreign psychologists and subliminal advertising – used in order to make Americans want stuff they didn’t need.

This fear was possibly a lingering by-product from the Cold War with Russia that had unfolded from the late 1940s, the concern that America was being infiltrated by communism – the ‘reds under the bed’ – and their stock-in-trade mind-control techniques.

Reeves was clear in his point of view: “There are no hidden persuaders. Advertising works openly, in the bare and pitiless sunlight.”

In a way Reeves’s USP notion may simply have been a strategy to defend the entire industry against the scare tactics of the likes of Packard. He didn’t believe in it particularly, but if it got the ‘investigative’ journalists off the scent then it was all good.

Yet the USP prevails to this day and, what’s more, it has spawned several other equally unquantified yet stated-as-fact marketing theories like ‘differentiation’ and ‘positioning’.

Sadly, consumers are not up to speed with these theories and tend to buy popular brands they have heard of and/or used before. And brand loyalty – while it absolutely exists – is, for the most part, a simplification strategy employed by consumers to avoid having to think too much rather than having anything to do with brand-love.

Many marketers still also believe that changing customer retention rates is cheaper than improving customer acquisition, and that asking customers their likelihood of recommending the brand is a predictor of brand growth. This is known as the Net Promoter Score devised by Frederick Reichheld, also responsible for the prevailing and widely believed myth that a five per cent drop in customer defections leads to 80 per cent plus increase in profits.

There is scant scientific evidence to credit any of these theories (in the Reichheld five per cent defection case – the maths proves it to be absolutely false), and yet they are widely believed to be facts.

In this world of content marketing I’ve noticed another curious idea often present – that native advertising or sponsored content should not explicitly promote or reference the brand sponsoring the piece.

This is believed by some practitioners to be overly ‘shilling’ or inauthentic, and therefore will be rejected by readers as ‘advertising’.

But is there any evidence to support this view?

A recent report commissioned by AOL and presented at ESOMAR Congress Dublin in September 2015 titled ‘What normative data says about effectiveness’ looked at sponsored content (native/advertorial) within Huffington Post and some of its other digital publishing properties.

On the topic of branding within sponsored content, and after scrutinising the data, author Christian Kugel came to the conclusion that: “Not only do activations with heavier brand integration perform better to drive higher recall and consideration, the content itself is also rated directionally more favorably.

“One would expect that content with less brand presence would be more favorable, so the fact that this shows an equivalent measure is excellent news for brands as well as publishers involved in content marketing. It means that we do not have to be afraid to push for heavier brand presence and integration. It is a fascinating revelation and a counter-intuitive insight coming out of the data.”

Kugel’s findings in the area of content marketing and sponsored content seem to correspond with what we’ve begun to understand about the science of sharing in the video space thanks to Dr Karen Nelson-Field from the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute.

In her landmark 2013 study, Nelson-Field found there was no detrimental impact on how much sharing across the social web a video achieved relating to the level of branding used.

Not only that, the evidence suggested that overt branding has no impact on a video’s ability to illicit an emotional response.

These findings also run counter to the industry’s conventional ‘wisdom’, which suggests removing branding or keeping it to an absolute minimum.

“It turns out that consumers have a higher threshold than many practitioners initially assumed,” says Christian Kugel.

It turns out that a lot of what the industry believes is based on assumption, received wisdom and a complicated set of Chinese whispers dating as far back as the 1940s.

Just because certain beliefs are popular, doesn’t mean they are right.

This situation isn’t helpful for poor modern brand marketers. Let’s not forget they are grappling with all kinds of new problems in 2015, many more than their predecessors in past decades.

These new problems include making sense of new-fangled ideas like 'digital disruption', 'big data', navigating the implications of programmatic media buying and getting their heads around the ever-growing number of channels available to potentially reach consumers.

Luckily, recent developments in marketing science and behavioural science are giving us a much better view of how categories typically behave, models to better understand the patterns that underpin what people buy and the types of strategies buyers use to simplify buying decisions.

And it turns out that creativity and science are much better friends than many would have you believe.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

virtue signalling

“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.

It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies.

The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

- C.S. Lewis