How much should we worry about sexism in tech?

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While browsing for distractions on my way to the airport, I stumbled upon Kat Hagan’s post “Ways men in tech are unintentionally sexist”, hosted on Anjani Ramachandran’s One Size Fits One. The post is part of a larger debate about women’s presence and recognition in tech, a debate that at its worst sums up the way socially relevant issues could be discussed and they’re not: we could make a smart use of the wealth of bright minds and insightful data made available by the digital age, and instead we pursue click-baiting headlines and artificially inflated scandals.

To her credit, Kat Hagan has a much more thorough and thought-through approach, referencing scientific theories and academic papers, to illustrate how men can be unintentionally sexist when approaching/designing/managing technology and its development. We need more of that.

 

She then makes a list of behaviours that should be avoided, some of which are very reasonable and uncontroversial, such as not using “guys” when addressing a group of mixed genders, or ignoring women’s needs (the example of the lack of period tracking functionality in Apple’s new Health app is particularly spot on).

Other recommendations, though, may sound entirely sensible at first (as confirmed by readers’ comments), yet hide a logical flaw that often recurs in discussions around sexism and other forms of discrimination:

you can’t scale linearly from individual to mass.

While there are great variations between individuals, as you get to big numbers you see statistically significant similarities between people of the same gender. We all agree that we should treat each individual on their own merit, but should we extend that to millions, or hundreds of millions, of people in the face of these similarities? Should we ignore them? Or worse, deny them?

 

I’m going to make some increasingly uncomfortable examples to show that things are more complicated than the sexism debate seems to account for, and there are difficult questions worth at least asking ourselves.

 

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1. Assuming gender identity

Kat argues that using avatars that are male by default is a form of sexism that should be avoided, but the underlying issue is whether we should allow ourselves to assume that a user is of a certain gender, and at what cost. The avatar example is an easy way out of the problem, because you can always go for neutral (although when I registered to Pinterest, with its overwhelmingly female membership, I’d have had no issue being presented with a female icon). Things get trickier when it comes to design choices that don’t always have an optimal neutral solution: colour palette; sizes; font; images of a user, such as a face, or a hand. If the numbers proved that there are significant differences in preference among the genders, and our platform were skewed male or female, should we ignore it? Should we opt for a neutral solution even if it doesn’t please anyone, as long as it doesn’t displease one or the other?

 

 

2. Assuming gender differences

Kat’s point no.8 is “Stop denigrating things by comparing them to women or femininity”, like saying “you fight like a girl” or “you like chick flicks”.

This is a campaign by Always. Who couldn’t like it? Who couldn’t agree with it?

Unfortunately it’s hypocritical, because it hides an uncomfortable empirical truth. In our experience (and there may be times and places where things are different) most girls fight “like girls”; most “chick flicks” are viewed and liked by girls; just like most “jerk” acts and comments are made by stupid males, and most horrible sex comments are mouthed by male “pigs”. Is it true that “like a girl” tends to be an insult whereas “like a man” is celebratory? Yes. But we have other derogatory terms for men: jerk; pigs; a**-hole; wanker… They’re all unequivocally male.

Should we replace “fight like a girl” with “fight like a bitch”? Is this what we’re talking about?

On the other hand, we can decide that we’re better off as a society by being hypocritical and treating these uncomfortable empirical truths as if they didn’t exist, but facts tend to be stubborn things, and in the long run hypocritical conventions end up damaging the broader issue they’re supposed to protect because they make it come across as artificial and false.

 

3. Assuming gender interests

Kat argues that “assuming the women they meet are in non-technical roles” is a form of sexism: this is certainly true if you meet them at a tech conference, the (once again too easy) example that she chose to illustrate her point; it’s a lot less true if you’re introduced to a new team of mixed roles, or if you’re meeting students at a grad fair. You can legitimately assume that someone interested in Computer Science is more likely to be male because the numbers prove you right, so if hypothetically you only had time to speak with one applicant with no knowledge of their background, picking a man would not be a form of sexism, it’d be weighing your odds.

Of course that doesn’t mean that you should rule female applicants out:

it’s ok to prepare for the usual, as long as you welcome the unusual with open eyes and mind.

But this is an easy-to-agree principle, so let’s move on to more troubling questions: if you’re a parent of a young girl, and you have to enrol her in an extra class of either literature or coding, knowing that right now she’s interested in both (or neither), what should you do? And if you were to build a new dorm for your future Computer Science students in a country where men and women can’t share facilities, would you split the space half and half?

 

4. Assuming gender capability

Kat contrasts the prejudicial view that “Women just aren’t interested in programming/math/logic” with evidence that “the variation between individuals dwarfs any biological difference”. Although counterintuitive, both statements are true: there are massive variations between the capabilities of any two random individuals, and that’s why we should always be judged on our own merit; but at the same time when it comes to large numbers, men are marginally better performing and significantly more interested in mathematical and technical disciplines.
We design technology for millions, sometimes billions of users, and even a marginal difference in response can amount to a dramatic increase in adoption, revenues, and success. Should we ignore that for the sake of equality? Should we do more than that?

 

A famous experiment from a few years back showed that what we consider an absolute (eg. how good someone is at something) is everything but: female Korean-American students were given a math assignment, after going through a process that would remind them either of their gender or of their heritage. Participants who were primed on their Asian roots (positively associated with math skills) performed statistically better than equivalent students who were primed on their female gender (often associated with being bad with numbers).

If we’re pursuing equality, should we actively design technology requiring quantitative skills in a way that makes women forget that they’re women? Are women actually better off in a “sexist” office that calls everyone “guys”?

 

I’m not suggesting an answer to any of these questions, but I think it’s worth asking them. Human behaviour is counterintuitive and complicated: individually, we’re very different; in groups, we influence one another and form clusters; when you have to design for large groups, you inevitably sacrifice the uniqueness of each individual.

 

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The point is not how to avoid discrimination.

We always discriminate: when a newspaper publishes an article with a certain font size; when a supermarket places a product on an eye-level shelf and another one high up; when it was decided to use certain colours for traffic lights.

We always discriminate in technology, too: when we decide what operating system we develop apps for; what apps we preload onto a device; what features we include in those apps.

The point is how to discriminate well.

If we look at the world we live in, we follow a few principles:

  1. Discrimination must have a purpose: newspapers were printed in only one font size because, before digital came along, it would have been economically inefficient to do otherwise
  2. It should be optimal for a sufficient majority: traffic lights are a bad solution for the blind and color-blind, but because most people don’t have such problems, it is the solution we chose
  3. It should not make things too hard for the minority: if you’re too short to reach a product on the top shelf of a supermarket, you can ask someone to help you
  4. Sometimes, it requires people to adapt: if you move abroad you can’t expect people to learn your language, you have to learn theirs. It’s a discrimination against new immigrants, but the alternative would be so inconvenient that they just have to comply.

 

When it comes to technology, we need to be aware that these trade-offs are an inevitable part of the job regardless of how uncomfortable they are, and so are the questions they bring along.

If Apple didn’t include period tracking in their Health app because it would have come at the expense of another feature or of a faster performance that would have made the product better for most of their users, would it still be wrong? And would it be an ethical question or a commercial question?

Would the answer change if there were fewer alternative health apps on the market?

 

How much worrying about sexism is too much?

And if we say it’s never too much, let’s rephrase that: how much disregarding of statistically different behaviours among genders is too much?

How much gender-neutrality can we pursue, without being counterproductive to the success of what we do?

How much equality can we enforce without being patronising?

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Common Sense is killing business

“For every complex problem there is a solution that is simple, neat and wrong”.

This slightly bastardized quote from H.L. Mencken comes as close as anything to explaining a lot of the world we live in, at a time where rapidity trumps solidity, and every day we hear calls for acts of “simple common sense” from politics to business.

While politics occasionally manages to resist this form of populism, business culture seems to instead have taken up an attitude of “act first, think later” in an effort to be lean, agile and to give customers and shareholders what they want every quarter.

Nowhere has this process been more enthusiastically embodied than in marketing departments.

Just as marketing became more complicated, with more competition across categories, more platform and distribution options, more media clutter, fewer barriers to entry and more opportunities to juggle, we started looking for a shortcut to make sense of it all: The One Answer that would have changed the rules of the game forever and bestowed success upon those who embraced it.

We discovered loyalty and thought that the future of marketing would be about communities of superfans; we saw branded content and decided that we should all be publishers; technology made us think that every brand should be a hacker-mashupper-remixer; and when social media emerged we concluded that we all had to join the conversation, crowdsource our brand and revel in a future where people would engage with us, become evangelists of our brand and eventually, possibly, buy our products.

The one thing we haven’t asked ourselves enough is: why?

Right at a time of increased complexity when critical thinking would have been more important than ever, we decided to suspend it altogether and replace it with clichés. We did this over and over across blogs, conferences and tweets, until clichés became conventional wisdom and conventional wisdom became common sense.

Common sense has its own way of reinforcing itself: it sounds reasonable, everyone is doing it, so it can’t possibly be wrong, can it?

It can, at least if we bother to take a look at the real world outside our conjectures.

Brands failing

Brands in 4 out of 5 categories are seen as increasingly homogenous, with 80% of brand buyers knowing little or nothing about them. (Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science, 2012). According to the 2013 “Meaningful Brands” worldwide survey by Havas Media, people wouldn’t care if 73% of the brands disappeared. And we’re talking about major brands that a global advertising network keeps track of.

These are today’s facts, and facts are stubborn things. We can’t treat them as someone else’s problem, and keep doing things the same way because we have deadlines to meet and expectations to conform with.

It’s time to stop chasing common sense shortcuts because, quite simply, they don’t work. Shortcuts mix cause and effect, and generate assumptions that are proven wrong by reality.

Common marketing sense states that since loyal customers are already sold on your products, they’re an easy source of growth: the truth is that in most categories loyal customers are already spending as much as they can, and growth generally comes from acquiring completely new customers.

Common marketing sense says that you have to convince people of something first in order for them to take action, whereas in many cases it is changing people’s actions that changes their mind.

The more we understand human behaviour, the more we realize that it’s way too complex to grasp it just with common sense. Add the potential for reengineering pretty much anything that the digital age provides, and you’ll see how we need more than shortcuts.

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Remember when we used to ask questions about everything?

It’s time for something different. It’s time for un-common sense.

Un-common sense means not taking anything for granted and instead starting questioning our assumptions, large and small.

It means once again learning to ask: why? Just like we did when we were children, but with the skills and insight we have developed over the years.

It means taking a step back, looking at the bigger picture, and knowing that what we’re seeing is not the way things are meant to be, but just the way things are until someone acts otherwise.

Un-common sense marketing requires time, talent and an uncompromising effort in everything every one of us does. If professional pride is not a reason enough to do it, here’s another one: according to a survey by Fournaise Group, 80% of CEOs don’t trust their CMOs and accuse them of losing sight of the real job, while 91% of them trust their CFOs. The professional background of most CEOs is further evidence of this.

Acknowledging that the challenges faced by marketing are at least as complex as the intricacies of international corporate accounting and much closer to the people who directly influence the business, and that they should be approach with sophisticated, inspired, clever uncommon sense, can go a long way towards regaining that trust.

P.S. Not only was no lemming hurt in the production of this post: they don’t really follow one another into oblivion. Neither should marketers.

(A version of this post was first published in The Business Times (Singapore), 16 July 2014, page 22)

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Marketing and the sharing economy: get smart before someone else does.

ChooseLife

(An edited version of this post first appeared on Campaign Asia)

Here’s a revealing exercise that we never do: the next time we go home, let’s take out pen and paper and start making an inventory of everything we own. How much of it do we use? How much do we need? How much do we want?

This is not a clichéd hunt for the pair of trousers we haven’t worn for the past 7 years, or for the picture frame that we never even unpacked. It’s something more fundamental than that.

Dating back to when our personal understanding of the world was formed, we either had something, or we didn’t.

Of course there were services that we had access to and never really owned, such as public transport, schools and streets, but they were exceptions of such a large scale that we instinctively felt they belonged to a different category. When it came to goods we consumed, we either owned them and used them, or didn’t own them and didn’t use them, apart from occasionally borrowing them from a friend.

As a staple of my formative years goes, that’s how we ended up owning “a fucking big television, cars, fixed interest mortgage repayments, leisurewear and matching luggage, DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on a Sunday morning”.

Some of it makes perfect sense, but do we really need to own a drill that we use once every two years, and generally with embarrassing results? How about a lawnmower?

It’s not like we thought it was a good idea at the time:

we knew it wasn’t, but it was the only one we had.

The emergence of the sharing economy over the past decade was built on the hypothesis that the ownership model was not the commercial equivalent of the end of history, but rather an incidental situation dictated as much by the alternative opportunities that we were missing than by the wealth we had acquired: the advent of a networking technology and culture is providing the platform to test this hypothesis and investigate what goods we’re willing to part from, and what instead we will still like to call our own.

While this process is still in its infancy, as changes in human behaviour are much slower than the marketing news cycle, we can already identify some driving forces.

It’s natural to desire

Croesus and Solon — 1624; Gerard van Honthorst; Kunsthalle Museum — Hamburg

 

Let’s start by dispelling a common myth: the literature blaming advertising for making us “buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like” is as large as it is superficial.

The truth is that, despite what we may think of ourselves, advertising is not that all-powerful, and it was never about “inventing desire” as it was about inventing responses to desires people already had. The fundamental human motivations are always the same, and they’re not going to go away: the network economy offers the opportunity to design new solutions to fulfil old desires. A service like “Bag, Borrow or Steal”, for instance, still gives you access to high-end designer handbags that make you stand out, but letting you borrow them on a monthly basis instead of buying them.

Of course, there’s a reason why we could have done this 10 years ago, but we’re only talking about it now.

Events change minds

Economist

Environmentally-conscious activists spent the best part of the last decade trying to persuade everyone who’d bother to listen that we should buy less, eat less, consume less: they failed.

Then the financial crisis hit, and the middle- and lower-class in the West found itself forced to downgrade and downscale. When that happened, our brains played a trick on us:

Behavior often shapes attitude more than the other way around, so finding ourselves unable to own more due to financial circumstances made us post-rationalize it into a better option in the first place.

This accelerated our critical view on consumerism, to the point that now, according to “The New Consumer and the Sharing Economy”, a global survey by advertising agency Havas Worldwide, 46% of people in 29 countries ranging from Argentina to Vietnam prefer to “share things rather than own them” and 56% resell or donate old goods rather than throwing them away.

While we’ve been forced into this disposition by events beyond our control, it’s entirely possible that it will leave roots deep in our minds, and we won’t necessarily revert to the same old habits even once we have the means to do so.

After all, just like the financial crisis gave millions of people the motivation to experiment with a new behaviour, that same new behaviour is in turn giving thousands of marketers the right motivation to experiment with new go-to-market strategies.

Flightcar.com gives you free airport parking by letting you rent your car while you’re away.

IKEA ran a two-week promotion turning its Facebok page into a digital flea market where people could buy and sell used furniture.

UK’s DIY leader B&Q created “Streetclubs”, a service that helps neighbours come together and share tools and other household items.

While these three examples are all enabled by digital technology, it took a double shift in mindset to make them happen: without a crisis that generated talk of a “new normal”, ideas like these might still sit on the fringe of what’s acceptable by mainstream consumers; and in turn, a decrease in traditional spending paired with an openness towards new models gave the most innovative marketers a licence to pursue innovation more radically than they would allow themselves to when the economy was growing.

If anything, what’s holding back more of such experiments on a larger scale is a conservative corporate culture that is fixated on selling the same products rather than fulfilling the same needs, and that underestimates how radically different alternatives can reshape whole industries and leave consumers better off in the process.

A call for “smarter marketing”

This is our brain when we hear the word “New”

This is why the popular call for “smarter consumption” is somewhat misplaced. Consumers respond to the environment they’re provided with, and while they now have a greater power to affect it than ever before, it’s at the same time irresponsible and dangerous for marketers to wash their hands of the problem.

As we said, people’s desires don’t change, and if we don’t find new ways to fulfil them, they’ll stick with the old ones. In particular, as we humans constantly long for all things “new,” fans of sustainability should not delude themselves into thinking that consumers can be convinced to keep what they have until it breaks.

They don’t replace the old with the new because we manipulate them into doing it against their instinct; they do it because it makes them feel good.

We should find ways to generate that same feeling without turning Earth into a waste bin, or we’ll be responsible for it because this is our job, not theirs.

Nobody needs a new tablet every three months, so how do we make old tablets feel new? How do we make a new use of tablets without making new tablets?

And since nobody needs 100 different tablet models, how do we produce just enough to keep people happy and the market innovative, and make a better use of the time and resources we liberate?

These are marketing questions for marketing professionals, and eventually someone will answer them: that’s why “smarter marketing” is not just a moral call, it’s a competitive requirement.

While hotel groups were busy building more hotels because that’s the business they saw themselves in, Air BnB created millions of accommodations without laying a single brick.

H&M increased their inventory without a stitch being sewed by collecting 7.7 million pounds of used clothes to be resold or converted into other products.

The Walgreen drugstore chain partnered with Taskrabbit, an online small jobs marketplace, to deliver over-the-counter cold and flu medicines to customers unable to make it to the store, effectively growing an ubiquitous sales force without hiring a single new employee.

Zopa, the UK’s leading peer-to-peer lending service, has issued loans in the amount of 500 million pounds without branches or upfront capital.

These examples are not about the clichéd “doing more with less”,

they’re really about “doing better”.

An old marketing quote states that “people don’t buy quarter-inch drills, they buy quarter-inch holes”. There are now more potential alternatives to drills than ever, and people don’t even need to buy them. So what’s the smarter way of giving them that hole?

“The advertising industry is a failure, but the interesting question is: Why?”

This is an interview I gave to the nice folks at Gapjumpers, who in turn edited in a way that made me sound a lot smarter.

Q: Stefano, first of all how did you get started in advertising and specifically Planning?I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I’d grow up. Now, it just so happens, I find that to be the right mindset for a career in planning.I studied economics in college because it was a subject I knew nothing about, with a specialization in international relations and a dissertation on sociology, simply because they were both interesting to me.

I was also working for one of the big names in Milan nightlife — I hated house music, but clubbing was such a fascinating microcosm.

I stumbled upon planning while doing my masters in marketing, and it made sense of everything I had done until then.

Q: What are some of the risks and opportunities facing the advertising industry in 2014 ?

The main risk is in continuing to ignore the fact that too often we, as an industry, literally don’t know what we’re doing.

The whole purpose of advertising is to influence people to do or not do something, and our results, if we care to look at them, are appalling. Most markets are stationary. Most communication is negligible.

People wouldn’t care if 73% of brands disappeared; and I’m talking about major brands that a global network like Havas keeps track of.

Any industry that took itself seriously and was faced with stats like these would spend a lot more time trying to figure out what’s wrong than obsessing over the implications of the latest Facebook redesign.

We instead discuss these figures as though they are always someone else’s problem, and we think that we’re going to fix it with a little more creativity and an app. If all else fails, we blame the client.

Now, we’ve all met plenty of clients who are their own worst enemy, but that’s our problem to solve. I find it troubling that we can’t sell our own product to our own clients, yet we expect them to believe that we can sell theirs.

So, are we, as an industry, a failure? The answer is “Yes”, of course, but that’s not the interesting question. The interesting question is: “Why are we a failure?” Answering that question is the opportunity.

Q: One of the biggest changes in how we think about advertising, in the last few years, has been through the work of Byron Sharp and the Ehrenberg Institute. How has their work influenced you?

I think they ask the right questions but sometimes draw the wrong conclusions. They suggest that most communication is under performing because the theoretical foundations of our industry, such as differentiation and persuasion, are flawed.

I disagree: I’ve seen successfully differentiated brands, and successfully persuasive communication.

The point is that we’re talking about the human interpretation of a human discipline: we’re not bound to a law of marketing the way an apple is bound to the law of gravity.

My explanation for our ineffectiveness is that in general we’re a dysfunctional industry.

We’re tasked with influencing a multitude of behaviors, of a multitude of people, across a multitude of events, but instead of doing justice to this complexity, we’re taking shortcuts and embracing cliches under the false pretense of “common sense” on one side and “nothing will ever be the same” on the other.

For instance, the idea that consumers of 20 or 30 years ago could be so stupid that you could throw a TV ad at them and they would do anything you asked, and that today, they have been replaced by genetically modified, dedicated and hyper-rational consumers who only make conscious and well-researched choices — this is the kind of patronizing silliness that can be easily exposed by a 10-year-old.

Yet, I see too many professionals my age repeating it and perhaps even believing it.

Q: How has founding an agency influenced the way you think and work today?

I didn’t really found an agency from scratch, I simply helped open the first Asian outpost of a London-based boutique.

Initially it feels like launching your own start-up with someone else’s money, a.k.a. the ideal business, but then you realize that you’re still subject to a multitude of constraints.

It was less like building your own vessel and more like standing in the crow’s nest of a ship that is already at sea: you get to see wider and further and you may spot the storm in advance, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to avoid it.

The experience made me aware of the intricacies and contradictions of running a creative business across international borders.

New technology has amplified old and created new forms of consumer behavior. How do you and Havas Worldwide extrapolate which behaviors to invest time and money in to build company skill sets around?

Let me first say that digital has disrupted everything it touched, but since it hasn’t (yet) touched the human brain, the fundamentals of our behaviors are unchanged.

Jeff Bezos makes a great point when he says: “I very frequently get the question: ‘what’s going to change in the next 10 years?’ I almost never get the question: ‘what’s not going to change in the next 10 years?’ And the second question is actually more important — because you can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time…”

Having said that, we do study emerging behaviors, keeping one thing in mind: advertising is a mainstream discipline. Agencies get easily sidetracked by niche trends and “adopters praecox”.

Even if we could successfully identify the few trends that will eventually scale (and we usually fail to), they would take three to five years to achieve significant numbers. This is not a time horizon that agencies can work with, when our clients change seat every two years, and so does our staff.

Havas has a different approach, which you can call “later but bigger”We focus on a larger minority of people — about 20% of the population — who already represent a sizable market and whose behavior has been proven to be statistically predictive for mass adoption over the following 6 to 18 months. That’s a time span we can work with.

Q: Mike Arauz of Undercurrent wrote, with regards of what a strategist should be/know: “The typical ‘T-shaped’ team member is no longer adaptable enough to keep and maintain their value in a market that evolves as quickly as today’s market does. The ideal evolving skill set for today’s (digital) strategy world is shaped more like an expanding square than a ‘T’.” What is your take on this?

I was never a fan of the T-shaped idea because the people that I valued most didn’t quite fit with that, but I’m even less of a fan of the expanding square.

The idea that we can be great at everything is somewhat delusional, and when you pair it with a significant ego, which many of us have, it leads to the “I’ll just do it all by myself” recipe for disaster.

Even the best of us are more Michael Jordan than Elon Musk: he was great at many things in basketball but when he took on the big guys at baseball, they crushed him.

If we want to play with metaphors, I’d suggest that we need octopus-shaped talent: a strong core competence, with many thick and thin tentacles that help you reach out; the stronger the core competence, the longer the tentacles. And I’m pretty sure that that’s true for Elon Musk, too.

Q: You’ve mentioned that the single most important contribution an agency can make to a brand is to make it distinctive amongst the choices a shopper has to make. What distinct elements do you look for when hiring?Well, that point about differentiation applies to many brands and many industries, but not all. Our job is too broad to be captured in any one rule.

When it comes to hiring, I must confess that I don’t really know what I’m looking for until I find it.

In general, I look for someone that can change my mind: just enough similarity with my mindset to understand one another, but then a preponderance of experiences, points of view and interests that are alien to me.

There’s nothing I fear more than like-minded people.

Q: What should students and graduates, looking to up their chances of breaking into the creative/comms industry, focus on, in terms of skills and knowledge topics?

Watch The West Wing. Half of what I know about advertising, I learned it from The West Wing.

Then read, research and experience as much as you can outside of advertising: screenwriting, physics, sociology, ancient history, music…

Everyone else will learn the ad part, and so must you, but it’s the dots that you can connect outside of advertising that will make a difference.

Finally, learn to be a compelling story-teller: great thoughts deserve great words. If you want an example, go to the West Wing; season 4, episode 6.

 

Q: With the way that tech, design, comms and product development are merging, what would you advise 22 year old Stefano, who, asked you where to work: ad agency, startup, something different?

Start broad. Spend two years in a very good creative agency, possibly one where you have access to the media side like here at Havas, and then one year in a really good digital or design agency.

Be everyone’s bitch, and do more than you feel prepared for. When you have a good sense of the big picture, go deep and join a startup where you can make a difference.

Make experience and connections. Try to anticipate why it’s going to fail (chances are, it will), and when you have a good idea of it, start working on your own business in your spare time. At that point you’ll have to choice to sell it internally or do it on your own.

This plan is going to pay you in knowledge more than in cash, so find something that you can sell on Etsy for a ridiculous amount of money to pay the bills.

Time for retailers to shape their own future

[This article was first published on the Singapore Business Review: thttp://sbr.com.sg/retail/commentary/its-time-retailers-shape-their-own-future]

There are two ways to predict the future: the first one is to turn to the experts and trust their wisdom; the second is to look at the gap between what people expect and what they’re able to do, and see in it the shape of things to come.

After 20 years of research with 284 experts producing 28,000 predictions, Philip Tetlock concluded that “the average expert was found to be only slightly more accurate than a dart-throwing chimpanzee”.

While the object of his study was Political Science, it could as well have been retail marketing: ever since the time of dial-up modems, analysts have been anticipating the day when brick-and-mortar shops would be made obsolete by a new generation of shoppers that would buy everything, from avocados to Z4s, from their computer/smartphone/Facebook page/twitter feed.

Of course that day hasn’t come yet, and chances are it never will, so when we decided to investigate the face and fate of retail in the digital age for Havas’ latest Prosumer Report, we focused on real habits and expectations.

The state of commerce in the digital age
Surveying over 10,000 people across 31 countries, “Digital and the new consumer” discloses what we’re getting right and wrong about digital commerce and what the challenges are for online and offline retailers. (Spoiler: this is an example of what we’re getting wrong…)

Bill Gates once said that “we always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years”, and this seems to be the case with mobile commerce: despite all the talk of it, only 22% of mainstream respondents have used a smartphone to shop online.

Things are about to change, though, as that figure climbs up to 38% among Prosumers, a relatively small cohort of influencers who have been proven to give a good indication of what the majority will soon think and do.

Moreover, if we take geography into account, mobile is confirmed as the new frontier: in Singapore, where shopping is almost a competitive sport, 48% of people have made purchases from their smartphone and 26% from their tablets, a figure that, given the category penetration, shows that virtually every tablet user is a tablet shopper.

Having said that, before we rush to stick miniaturized versions of our stores into an app, we should be aware that we are not just talking about another screen. It’s the shopper that is mobile, and that is fragmenting the purchase process across multiple real and virtual steps: the smartphone is only the glue that keeps it all together.

A transition towards a new form of shopping
51% of Singaporeans say that for major purchase decisions their first stop is usually the internet; that’s far from being their last, though, with 66% “showrooming” (i.e. visiting stores to see/try-out a product before buying it online) and 58% checking for price and customer reviews online while in a shop.

This blend of on- and off-line has unlocked the e-commerce potential of non-commoditized goods, such as clothing, shoes and accessories, which is now the most popular category of online shopping in Singapore (65%), well ahead of books (37%).

The most important insight offered by the Prosumer Report is that we’re not in a transition from an age of brick-and-mortar to one of bits-and-bytes, but rather from one of confrontation between the two models to one where retailers can create a hybrid model to respond to what is already a fluid experience in the minds and habits of shoppers.

Singaporean retailers have been waiting for too long
Unfortunately, the local industry seems to be lagging behind: some retailers are still very hesitant to create an online presence, leading to nearly half of all Singaporeans feeling frustrated; at the same time, e-stores have problems of their own, with 70% of online shoppers feeling overwhelmed by the amount of choice and information, and 64% still preferring to buy certain products in person for the tangible benefits of touching them and trying them on.

Real innovation seems to be coming from local start-ups, who understand that the best use of new technologies is not to support old business models, but rather to invent new ones: companies such as Swiff, MOGi or ERN are determined to unleash the full potential of mobile commerce, while Tate & Tonic is suggesting that we could rid of shops altogether, replacing them with a monthly subscription to a curated, personalized fashion collection delivered to your door.

While this is certainly good news for entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, established retailers should start worrying, as they cannot expect to leave radical innovation to smaller competitors and still stand to benefit from it.
Whatever commerce will look like ten years from now, it will reflect the objectives and needs of those talented and ambitious enough to shape it, and it will surely be more disruptive than just more windows on more screens.

After saying that “we always overestimate change that will occur in the next two years”, Bill Gates went on to add that “we underestimate change that will occur in the next ten.”

It’s time for retailers to stretch their imaginations and start shaping the retail industry of 2023, to ensure that they will play a part in it.

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Three things I still don’t understand about Obama v Romney

I’ve been doing my homework, diving into Nate Silver‘s stats every morning for breakfast, reading Real Clear Politics’ “A time for choosing” and “The battle begins“, Politico’s “Obama’s last stand” and even “The race to 270“, and with a few days left before the election there are still three things I don’t understand:

1. WHY IS THE ROBOTIC ROMNEY NOT BEING CALLED A ROBOT?

All pundits have noticed and remarked a shift in how the Obama campaign depicted Romney, going from decrying him as someone who’d say everything to get elected to painting him as a hardcore conservative. The problem is not that the two strategies are contradictory, it’s that they both don’t work: voters think that virtually any candidate is going to lie to part of the electorate to win their vote (but they never think that it’s going to be them), and the former governor of Massachusetts doesn’t really come across as a dangerous conservative, particularly after a primary season when the Republican base stubbornly supported the most unlikely series of candidates rather than endorsing him.

The only attack that produced any result was about making him the embodiment of corporate America’s cynical and irresponsible greed, and that may  be enough to cost him Ohio (and the election), but it’s not a rounded strategy: it’s only about the economy, and voters might actually welcome a Gordon Gekko, as long as they think that someone else will pay the price (just like with candidates’ lies).

Ironically, a much better strategy was right before everyone’s eyes: Romney is an incredibly efficient robot that pursues the interests of whoever is behind him. A single strategy that can be adapted to target different groups of voters:

- Blue-collar workers. When Romney was serving the interests of Bain and its shareholders, it made companies bankrupts, fired people and shipped jobs overseas.

- Women and civil right activists. As validated with his pick of Ryan as his running mate, Romney is going to serve the interests of an extremist Republican congress, and will efficiently pursue a radical agenda.

- The middle class. Romney would be a great middle class advocate if that’s where his supporters came from. But they don’t. He’s a candidate of the 1%, and you can rest assured that he will very effectively serve their interests, and their interests only.

- Independents. There is no denying that Romney can be a good person and a good manager: his community service and his record  at the Salt Lake City Olympics testify to that. Moreover, a Democratic Massachusetts General Court helped him be a relatively successful governor. He just can’t be trusted to be the President of his irresponsabile party and extremist contributors.

This strategy would have allowed the Obama campaign to weave Romney’s weaknesses as a candidate to the White House (his appearance and demeanor,  his history at Bain, the general disdain for the GOP…)  into a consistent narrative, while preserving a personal respect for him, and avoiding silly canine-related issues. I don’t know why it was never tried.

2. MID-MITT

This, courtesy of of is.R(), shows exactly how fast and how strongly the Republican Party has been moving towards radical positions in the past couple of decades. How the candidate for president of this GOP can make claims of bipartisanship is hard to believe, but why he’s being given a free pass on this is even more past my understanding.

This is not just a lie: it’s the lie that could win him the election.

There are many voters who know that key Republicans are irresponsible extremists from another planet who are alien to logic and common sense, but they consider Romney a competent businessman and would like to give him a chance. Reassuring them that he could reach across the aisle and bring together reasonable minds from both parties may just be what swings their vote.

Moreover, this plays into a cynical but ultimately solid reasoning: early in his term President Obama tried to reach across the aisle and collaborate with Republicans on a range of issues from the economy to health care, only to be met with categorical oppositions, calls of socialism and anti-americanism, and a declared intent to make him fail, all else be damned. This Republican party has no intention of working with President Obama, to the point of entertaining the thought of a sovereign default.

Democrats, on the other hand, are in the inconvenient position of having repeatedly proven to be much more responsible, so that now a rational voter can acknowledge the current attitudes of the two parties and consider a Romney Presidency as more likely to break the gridlock in Washington. They should make it perfectly clear that as long as Romney is the standard bearer of the GOP, no compromise is possible.

3. WHERE IS HILLARY?

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Crack for nerds (or, the hidden correlations of everything)

I love how sometimes A+B=C, and then all hell breaks loose. Case in point:

A: Google knows everything

+

B: Google has the talent, tools and will to make sense of that knowledge

=

C: Google Correlate.

What was born as Google Flu Trends is now a holistic tool that lets people discover all sorts of unexpected correlations.

Have a go at it, maybe starting the intuitive and pleasantly childish “Search by drawing“. But watch out: it’s seriously addictive!

Here is what I discovered while I should have been busy doing something else:

Yet more evidence than Blackberry is dying

I started by drawing a simple curve that would grow steadily from 2005, peak in 2010 and then collapse:

Google Correlate returned the 10 most-correlated search queries. 4 of them are about Blackberry.

The Diaspora that never was

Remember Diaspora, the open-source social network that was born to address the widespread (?) concern over privacy and offer us an alternative to the corporate, intruding, profit-driven Facebook?

Well, this is a curve drawn to peak late in 2011 and then disappear back into oblivion:

And here are the 10 most correlated search results.

It shouldn’t come as a big surprise, but it seems that Facebook won our love back.

Have fun drawing your own curves, while I’ll be busy finding out everything about “sesural genda phool”…

(hat tip:  Joan Arensman)

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Is Salient the new Viral?

Do you know someone who seems to regularly say exactly what you’re thinking, but using better words? To me that’s (Jed Bartlet and) Martin Weigel. Good thing he has the good taste to voice his opinions before I do, so I can at least avoid the embarrassment. (Although that also implies that he’s either way more efficient than I am to find time for it while producing brilliant work, or he’s just as lazy but gets to those ideas faster than I do. Both scenarios are rather discouraging.)

Case in point, his list of “Words I hate” that I would sign with my own blood (except for strategists: I don’t like “planner” because it leads to an abundance of plans and a shortage of ideas), and his general disdain for Adland rhetoric.

That’s why I’ve been scratching my head over his two long posts about Differentiation v Saliency. He makes a great job of combining an extensive range of sources to make the argument that:

  1. Consumers are just not that into brands. Virtually any attempt to engage them in a relationship, join a conversation or expect them to respond to the intricacies of your brand are futile, delusional and egotistic. (Spot on!)
  2. Shopping metrics show that consumers are highly unloyal, purchasing from a basket of brands for each category, and disproportionately rewarding the market leader. Consumer segmentation models that distinguish between the Brand-X woman and the Brand-Y woman are a work of fiction.  (Can’t argue with that…)
  3. This is backed by research showing that consumers can’t differentiate between brands, across almost all brands and categories. Differences in brand attributes are overwhelmingly explained by scale. (Hmm….)
  4. Consequently, our efforts towards differentiation have been misplaced. If consumers don’t spend enough time in their purchase decisions, then there is no point explaining the differences between products. We should get out of the persuasion business. (Hmm hmm…)
  5. We should instead find creative ways to turn our generic, un-ownable products into something exciting and worth remembering. This is what it really takes to trigger a purchase. (Ouch…)

When I first read the articles I couldn’t reconcile how much I agreed with their initial points and how unconvinced I was by their conclusions. I thought it boiled down to a contradiction (Did we fail to create brand differentiation or did we succeed but it was proven worthless? You can’t have it both ways…), but there is more to it. So let’s complicate this:

Brands are not people, my friend

Let’s get the first two points out of the way: most normal people want to engage with other human beings, not with commercial abstractions.  They don’t want to own your brand, nor are they keen to join any conversation with it. Virtually all segmentation models produced by the corporate world are bull-s**t. End of story. I know it, you know it. Let’s move on.

Spot the difference

There’s a difference between saying that brands are undifferentiated and that most brands are undifferentiated. While it’s true that we have plenty of examples of interchangeable brands, we also know some that are wildly recognized as different, with research to back it up: Volkswagen v Chevrolet, Barclays v The Cooperative Bank, Innocent v Minute Maid, Jil Sander v D&G,  Singapore Airlines v American Airlines…

There’s more: there’s a difference between saying that “consumers don’t differentiate between brands” and that “according to research, consumers  don’t differentiate between brands”. The output of a research is only as good as its input. Most brand equity researchers test fundamental category attributes with very traditional questions, and what you get out of it is not very insightful. Take sportswear: if you run a traditional test on items such as “modern”, “athletic”, “successful” you probably get very similar results between Nike and Adidas, with differences explained by the relative size of the user base. But if you instead ask them who would win in a street fight, you get much more revealing results. I know because I asked.

Let’s face it: we’re really not that good

This is a point I feel very strong about. Martin looks at how central “differentiation” is in the marketing textbooks, and concludes that if we failed despite all our efforts, then it must be unattainable. I have a very different point of view: we’ve been rubbish. You only need to walk into virtually any meeting room of virtually any company in the past 40 years to see the same words written on virtually any brand identity model: how many banks are about “fulfilling dreams” and being “by your side”? How many mobile operators about “being better together”? How many posters have we seen with headlines such as “Capture life”? Or “Never miss [X]”? And how many “Inter-racial-urban-young-adults-raising-their-hands-at-a-gig”?

We should take a good look at ourselves as an industry and admit it: garbage in, garbage out.

Of course, some brands make the opposite mistake: in an effort for textbook hyper-differentiation, they look for the tiniest granular ownable property (2% more whatever-unpronounceable-ingredient) and expect that people will care. This is true, but we shouldn’t benchmark our strategies on this kind of rubbish. The quest for ultimate ownability should have been pronounced dead ever since the question “But can’t our competitors also claim X?” first received the answer: “Yes, but they’re not.” Let’s move on.

Let me entertain you (?)

The traditional Christmas cake in Italy is called “Panettone”. It’s a very simple product: a sweetbread filled with raisins and candied fruit that is mostly produced industrially and, to be perfectly honest, is not what you would call an unforgettable culinary experience. It’s mostly produced industrially, and it’s the kind of product you only think about once a year: every Italian family buys one for Christmas lunch or dinner, with an attitude that is more about ticking a box than anticipating a festive delight.

You can now understand the challenge that a friend of mine was faced with a few years ago, while working on a brief for a brand of Panettone that was going to spend the same budget of its 4-5 major competitors, who were targeting the same consumers with the same message (ie. “Yummie!). The fans of “saliency” would advocate saying pretty much whatever you want as long as it’s not repulsive (“we’re not in the message business”), but doing so in a compelling, exciting, memorable way. My friend did something different and, well, complicated things a bit. He bet on the hypothesis that even though Panettone is a tick-boxing purchase, it can be about more than taste: while everyone else claimed yummie, he put all his chips on “soft”. He believed that the weekend before Christmas shoppers would flock to supermarkets and, faced with a half dozen equally legitimate brands and similar packages that all claimed to taste good (who wouldn’t? and how can you believe it anyway?), they wouldn’t know where to turn to. He knew they’d want to buy something that their children wouldn’t complain about, and there was his answer: “soft.” Children like softer cakes more than harder ones. And not just that: old Panettone gets hard, so you can desume that fresh Panettone is soft; as for another non-negative, soft also makes it seem less likely to be dry.

Did he convey that in a memorable, compelling ad like the Cadbury Gorilla? Not really, as you can see below. But it was enough for Panettone Motta to achieve record sales that year. And the following. And the one after that.

What’s the big deal?

So why am I writing a ridiculously long post about something that was written months ago by a guy whose other opinions I agreed with before and since? Because I see a risk hidden behind that argument, the same I see in Dave Trott’s words advocating that being interesting is more important than being relevant. It’s not just that there is no silver bullet (but it’s always worth repeating that); it’s also that we fail to grasp the complexity of our job.

I believe that the single most important contribution a creative agency can make to a brand is making it distinctive. Not just distinctive among all the other distractions we’re exposed to today: I agree with that, but it’s not enough. We must also make it distinctive among the competing options that shoppers are forced to consider, especially when they’re frustrated about it.

No one  is happy about how electronics retailers are displaying tens of tens of TVs forming an endless black wall. But this is how things are, and we can’t pretend otherwise. We also can’t pretend that shoppers will walk into an electronics shop and not be shaken by such a wide choice, no matter how preeminent brand X was in their head before they walked in. “Sony Balls” was a great ad not just because it was memorable, but also because it gave shoppers a cognitive shortcut to navigate through that choice: “Colour”.

Martin Weigel recognizes this when he quotes Romanuik and Sharp (Conceptualizing and measuring brand salience, 2004) and their recommendation to consider a range of attributes associated with the brand in any measure of salience, but we should also be aware that this is not very different from what we’ve been trying to do for the past few decades. We simply haven’t done it very well, for many reasons.

If we instead celebrate “saliency” as a Copernican Revolution, the process of dumbing everything down that has been dooming our industry will more than likely turn it into a new buzzword like it did with “viral”, and we’ll soon hear clients asking us to give them something “salient” like they used to ask us for a “viral”: this terrifies me, because the quest for the “new exciting wonder” coupled with the unlimited creative possibilities of the digital age is more likely to produce the the most amazing collective waste of resources that Adland has ever seen than anything really valuable.

I’d rather do what we should have been doing, and do it well: investigate our product; explore what makes people tick; see if there’s a connection between the two; make it easy for them to find it; get them excited in the process, but not more than they’re willing to be.

If we do all this, and we do it well, we’ll make our brands salient. Chances are, we’ll make them viral, too.

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Why the Dark Knight doesn’t rise high enough

Let’s get one thing out of the way: The Dark Knight Rises is one of the best films of the year, and one of the best superhero movies ever. However, it fails to live up to the expectations generated by the first two films, and that says a lot about the ambition of a franchise that has deconstructed super-heroism and addressed complex philosophical and sociological themes, while at the same time making more than 1 billion dollars at the box office. (“Lost” is the only other example of such an intellectually ambitious yet commercially successful project I can think of in recent years…)

The most common criticism of TDKR you can find around the internet boils down to one word: the film is “bloated”. Christopher Nolan is accused of having tried to pack too much into a story that ended up running at 165 minutes.

That’s true, but only at a superficial level. I believe Nolan should have added something more into the film, something of critical importance, but talking about it requires a big deal of spoilers.

[SPOILER ALERT]

[ No, seriously. If you haven’t yet seen the film, go watch The Daily Show or something…]

What Christopher Nolan didn’t include in TDKR, the one thing that would have tied up all loose ends, is Bane’s motivation, and the story behind it.

Is Bane a populist or a terrorist?

In the film he’s both at the same time, and that not only makes him a superficial and foggy character, it also makes his job harder: “I’m here to free you, and I have a nuclear bomb!” is not exactly the most compelling rallying cry.

Had Bane been given a clear motivation, he’d have come across as a stronger, driven figure, and this would also have made his interactions with the other characters more natural, helping them develop their own narrative arc.

So, what could have Bane been?

A terrorist

Bane as a pure terrorist pursuing the destruction of Gotham City would have borrowed from the two previous movies: here you’d have a character who wants to see the world burn like the Joker, but does so out of a moral imperative like Ra’s al Ghul, rather than for pure madness.

While not very original, this take would have still raised interesting questions: Does Batman’s choice to spare his enemies result in them coming back with new, stronger faces? How will Gotham react to widespread, asymmetrical war after 8 years of peace? Will the already tough Dent Act be made tougher, and how will people react? Will common citizens invoke the return of the Dark Knight, so that the devil they know can save them from the devil they don’t? Will Bane and Miranda Tate destroy Bruce Wayne’s reputation framing him as the reclusive, paranoid mastermind behind the nuclear threat?

A populist

This is when things get more interesting. As a populist intent on bringing down the old order, Bane can be the perfect Batman mirror: a charismatic figure that challenges Gotham’s established powers and inspires people to follow his example and rebel. This take would also make many other characters more credible: it would give Selina Kyle a compelling reason to help him and bring Batman to him (in the film she seems to do it just so that the plot can move on); it can offer the citizens of Gotham an interesting role, instead of just fading in the background; it would cause an underprivileged Blake to struggle with what side of the law to stay on; it would also make Batman even more of  a troubled anti-hero, as for once he could be seen as an instrument of Bruce Wayne’s wealth, instead of the other way around.

However, doing this would require setting up an underlying social struggle, between a wealthy class that has been taking advantage of the economic growth that we can expect following 8 years with no organized crime, and a middle- and lower- class that may not have seen its quality of life improve since the days of Falcone and the Joker. Building this setup within the context of a super-hero movie and the limits of an already stretched script would have sure been a challenge, but it’s one that I’d have loved to see Christopher Nolan tackle, as it’d have brought out the best of his talent as a storyteller and a visionary director. Given how much the trailer hinted at this (“A storm is coming…”), and the narrative and genre-subverting potential of such a framework, I believe that this is THE missed opportunity of TDKR.

A populist that is later revealed to be a terrorist

This might have been the most coherent solution, in light of the previous films and the characters’ development. Bane could have introduced himself to the people of Gotham as a populist leader, offering them freedom and inviting them to overturn the establishment; with the violence spreading, he’d prove to Batman that Gotham is beyond saving, as ordinary citizens are turned into vandals, robbers and killers; at this point he’d be ready to unveil the bomb, having broken Batman’s faith in his city and given Gotham citizens’ a glimpse of hope before the despair.

This character evolution would also give Miranda Tate more time to develop a proper relationship with Bruce Wayne (as opposed to rain/kiss/sex), introducing her as a fellow member of the establishment at the mercy of an angry mob, before revealing her to be Talia al Ghul when the bomb is announced. It would also make Selina Kyle’s arc more credible, going from sympathy towards a populist to fear of a terrorist, with no need for an unlikely Mac Guffin such as the “clean slate”.

While this seems a more complex arc, it would have actually resulted in a more linear and credible plot, that would have laid the basis for stronger character interactions and compelling moral dilemmas: Is inequality a moral or a security issue? What are regular people willing to do when there is no law? Who are we willing to believe in?

At the end of the day, the catalyst for action in super-hero stories is the super-villain. If that character is not perfectly crafted, everything else will tend to fall apart, and it’s a testament to how good a director Christopher Nolan is that he still manages to make The Dark Knight Rises a really good film.

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Does advertising even work?

(This is the third, much delayed, and last post in a series comparing political and brand communication)

Let’s get to what really matters: does political advertising work? And what can it teach us when it comes to brands?

Last things first: it can teach us a lot. Firstly, it’s a stress test: political campaigns are the most sophisticated form of persuasive communication. Secondly, we have more and better data: very few marketing organizations put as much effort and resources into research as campaigns do; those who do are not as consistent, regularly varying methodology, scope and object of the research depending on quarterly marketing plans; finally, the very few companies with a consistent record of research that allows for historical comparison tend to keep their results confidential. (Data from political campaigns is widely available because it comes partly from academic institutions and partly from organizations that tend to dismantle after one or few political cycles.)

So, back to the original question: does political advertising even work? Or are the billion+ dollars that are going to be spent in a presidential year just a huge waste to keep the networks happy and the pundits employed?

***

John Sides at George Washington University has summed up decades of scientific research to show what advertising has been proven to do and what it has not, in 6 points. (I dream of the day when Millward Brown will produce something this insightful, concise and solid). Here is what he found out, followed by my considerations on what it means for brands.

1. Campaign ads matter more when the candidates are unfamiliar

Not so surprisingly, we are more influenced by ads when we haven’t had a chance to formulate our own opinion on candidates. As time goes by, one of our many cognitive biases makes us more receptive to information that reinforces our opinion and less to that which would challenge it.

2. Campaign ads matter more when a candidate can outspend the opponent

Again, not such an original finding, but one we should take into account more: no matter how much we like the idea of underdogs defeating established leaders with smart tactics, share of voice still carries a huge weight.

3. Campaign ads can matter, but not for long

Folks in Madison Avenue and DC can recall every detail of an advertising campaign for years, but the truth is that regular people are exposed to an amazing amount of information every day, and even the stickiest ad won’t have a long-lasting effect. According to Sides’s study, “the effects of television advertising appear to last no more than a week”.

4. Negative ads work, except when they don’t

While negative ads are more easily recalled and can generate intense debate, there is no conclusive evidence that they can win votes.

5. Campaign ads don’t really affect turnout

This is easy to understand once we take a healthy distance from the Madison Avenue mindset: something you see on tv today, no matter how brilliant, is unlikely to make you get up and go to a polling station a few days or weeks from now. Direct communication on election day, whether door-to-door or over the phone, is much more effective, and exponentially more so when coming from sone you have a personal relationship with.

6. There is no secret sauce. Really.

Are successful ads about policy or a candidate’s biography? Should they raise fear or hope? Are stats and numbers interesting or boring? Like with so many other things in life, it depends. If there was a silver bullet, both candidates would be firing it at each other, and that would most likely neutralize its effect. But the truth is, there is no shortcut. It’s all about doing the right ad for the right objective at the right time, as defined by our talent and experience, and then hope that it works.

***

So what about brands?

There are clearly some major differences, the most significant being that brands don’t have the same amount of public exposure as political candidates: you don’t see Nike v Adidas televised debates in college campuses (no matter how fun that’d be…), and there is no army of reporters documenting their every move. Because of this, advertising is comparatively more important in shaping their image. (Although a case could be made for those brands that are often at the center of news stories, such as banks.)

However, John Side’s research does raise some questions worth thinking about:

1. If ads are more effective when brands are mostly unknown, should we really buy into the idea of lightning many fires and only investing in those that gain traction, or will it be too late by then to make the brand what we want it to be?

2.  If the effects of advertising disappears after a week, should we only produce ads that are engineered to deliver a tangible call-to-action to take the relationship further (eg. buy a product, enter into a loyalty program, download a widget) as opposed to mere brand-building?

3. Should we stop pretending that advertising alone can drive people to retail, and start taking the “lead a horse to water” metaphor more literally?

4. Finally, as none of this is particularly controversial, why are we not doing it?

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