What’s the problem with advertising? (Spoiler: it’s two.)

Theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli used to label theories that were so fundamentally flawed that they couldn’t be verified or falsified, “not even wrong”. (Or, in the more definitive original german “Nicht einmal falsch!”)

Something similar can be said of most advertising: it’s not even wrong, it’s just so meaningless that it’s invisible.

Recently Dave Trott addressed this topic at Advertising Week in London, and inadvertently shed light on one of the problems that the advertising industry hasn’t even started to address. (For some reason I can’t embed the video)

His explanation for why most (british) advertising sucks is revealing (at 3’13”):

“We’re like a horse pulling an overloaded cart”

“We don’t know what our job is. Are we doing native advertising, storytelling, demographic, psychographic […] choice architecture, confirmation bias […] SEO, KPI or UGC?”

Of course, some of it is just comedy in bad faith to get a laugh, as no one employed in a creative department has ever been asked to research psychographic or demographic, to engineer SEO or decide KPIs. But he inadvertently touches on something that shows that advertising has two problems.

1. Most advertising is invisible

There is incontrovertible evidence that most advertising is just an utter waste of money: it doesn’t tell anything significant, and it does so to people who are not paying attention to it anyway.

There are many superficial explanations for this, ranging from bad use of research to a lack of appreciation for the complexity of communication. The fundamental reason, though, is that

we’re more obsessed with doing something, than with ensuring that what we do works.

This is a cultural problem, and it’s not just about advertising: we see the same in politics and media.

It’s an old problem, a big one, and it’s being made worse by the rhetoric of “Agile” and “Making stuff”. Advertising won’t improve until we solve it. (On the other hand, advertising is the least of our problems, because this attitude is also preventing politics from addressing issues that matter a lot more.)

2. Advertising is not always the solution

We invented advertising because we were asked to change people’s behaviour, and we resolved to do so by telling them something that would change their hearts and minds: the thing is that people are lazy, so achieving that required big, unavoidable, irresistible communication. And to get there we needed an idea, and a very creative one.

Hence the birth of creative department within communication agencies: people whose job was to come up with a creative way of saying something. By extension, their product became known as “creative”, and so did them. It’s worth noting that, out of all creative industries, this extension of the word “creative” only happened in advertising: architects are indeed creative, but they’re called architects, and they produce industrial design and/or architecture; same with chef and recipes/plates.

At one point it turned out that changing people’s behaviour could also be achieved by tweaking the environment with unconscious, invisible triggers: cue behavioural economics.

For all our enthusiastic adoption of it, we still haven’t fully worked out its implications for our job:

  • whereas advertising has to be irresistibly noticeable first in order to produce results, the best behavioural triggers are invisible;
  • whereas advertising has to be original in order to leave a mark, the same behavioural triggers tend to work over and over because the way our brain works doesn’t change that much;
  • and whereas advertising has to be big in reach and budget (the concept of “many small ideas” was an unconscious business case for mediocrity), behavioural triggers are narrow and cheap.

What makes behavioural triggers effective (discretion, repetition, tininess) is precisely what makes them unappealing for many advertising creatives who chose their career to do the very opposite. No wonder they don’t like them and blame them for the mediocrity of our industry.

But why should they be asked to work on them in the first place? The only reason why we expect them to do it is that our naming conventions have clouded our judgment: years of addressing people who can come up with creative communication ideas as “creative” made us think that, whatever the problem, the solution has to come from them. Because the solution has to be “creative” (or creative agencies wouldn’t work on it), and thus has to come from the “creative” department.

That was true when, whatever the problem, our solution was a big, noticeable, original communication idea. It’s no longer the case (and that’s without even getting into product or service design), but our culture is preventing many agencies from recognizing this. Of course there are a few exceptions: companies that have managed to design a new process to incorporate our new forms of output, instead of trying to squeeze it into the old one, but they are few and far between, and they tend to sit at the fringes of the advertising world. Overall, for an industry that celebrates innovation we’re incredibly conservative.

So, in the end Dave Trott is right: creatives are like a horse pulling an overloaded cart, and that’s ineffective and unfair. But the answer is not to drop some of that load on the ground: it’s to hand it over to different animals with different carts.

The real question that we should be asking ourselves is not what’s the job of “creatives”. It’s what’s the job of the-companies-formerly-known-as-advertising-agencies.

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Design for collaboration

Years ago I heard a fascinating anecdote: Ferrari was such an artisanal company that any mechanic would be able to build the whole car just by himself. A management guru would call this a holistic approach, but at Maranello it was just seen as knowing how to do their job. To this date I don’t know if that anecdote was ever correct, but even if it was at the time, I’m certain it no longer is: electronics have made cars exponentially more complex, and no mechanic can make sense of the whole thing any more. Every Ferrari is now the result of a multitude of highly skilled talents working together: out goes the artisan, in comes the crew. The same is true for pretty much any job, and the need for collaboration has generated a flourishing industry of books, processes and technology.

What this industry has produced so far is ambitious and fragile: it requires significant investments in time, money, effort and patience, and doesn’t come without problems. Not all companies are willing to outsource their whole project management or to throw away the baby with the bathwater: not everything can be left to Agile, and not everyone can be abandoned to Hola.

If that’s you, here are some guidelines on achieving meaningful collaboration, based on over 10 years of work in creative companies in Europe and Asia. They can be boiled down to a tweet:

Hire talented people. Then provide an environment where they can be at their best.

It’s as simple as that, you just need to follow through. That’s the hard part.


This is absolutely obvious, and absolutely disregarded. We spend too much time talking about talent and too little effort dismissing everything else until we find it. Lack of collaboration is the evidence that your team may just not be very good, because, despite conventional wisdom, detrimental egos are more associated with mediocrity than with brilliance.

In short, talented people love to work with other talented people and will actively pursue every opportunity for collaboration.

Talented people hate to work with mediocre people and will actively avoid any opportunity for collaboration.

It’s not because they have an ego. It’s because they don’t want to wast their time and spoil their work. Thankfully.


This is equally hard, but it shouldn’t be. In fact, there is an extensive body of research on what kind of spaces and processes make organizations more productive and effective. It’s been validated across cultures and industries, and it’s left sitting in the shadow of management myths.

This is a much bigger problem than we acknowledge, because space is destiny: neighborhoods with walkable access to shops and services have higher levels of trust among neighbours; schools designed like prisons result in more violence and less education. It works both ways, and right now our offices are working against us.

1. Get rid of the open plan offices

They’re not trendy. They’re not cool. Nobody likes them, and even if someone did, they don’t work:

There is no excuse. It’s costing you more money than you think you’re saving, and making everything worse in the process.

2. Get rid of brainstormings

That’s another popular myth that should have died a long time ago. Brainstorming was invented in 1953 as a method for group thinking based on deferring judgment and reaching for quantity. It was proved useless only a few years later, and since then the evidence of its flaws has been piling up:

  • Deferring judgment “appears to be a counterproductive strategy […] debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas but, rather, stimulate them relative to every other condition”
  • Combining and improving ideas (1+1=3) fundamentally ignores that an idea is good within its context, and two ideas can hardly share the same (cronut, anyone?)
  • Group thinking disregards how “people are more creative away from the crowd”, while instead “over 50 years of research shows that people often reach irrational decisions in groups … and highly biased assessments of the situation… strong willed people who lead group discussions can pressurise others into conforming, self-censorship and create an illusion of unanimity.”

So if your usual brainstormings involve getting a bunch of random people in a room to throw ideas against a wall and see what sticks, stop. If anyone complains, tell them that science is backing you up. brainstorm

3. In fact, get rid of as much as possible

Enforcing collaboration doesn’t work, and is actually counterproductive.

  • Newsletters may be useful, but if no one is reading them you should give up: spending time on something nobody wants is a waste and sends the wrong signal. Focus instead on creating work so good that it makes people curious about it.
  • Work-In-Progress meetings should be abolished: they’re the equivalent of press releases, but they leave everyone under the impression that they’ve been working together. If real collaboration is required, it should be a working session. And if it’s just a matter of sharing information, there are better ways to do it than congregating half a dozen people around a table.
  • Collaboration councils should have the same expiration date as a yoghurt: real collaboration must happen at a granular level, and if a council doesn’t instigate that within a few days or weeks, it’s never going to succeed.
  • Get rid of most of your vocabulary: you only need a very few common words to make sure you speak the same language, but most corporate speak is engineered to be a verbal fence to keep people out, resulting in the same old words spoken by the same old people and leading to the same old ideas.

4. Keep people together

Collaboration either happens organically, or it doesn’t happen at all, so you want the key doers of a project to be physically together (to question, integrate and improve their contribution) while keeping everyone else distant (to avoid distractions and misaligned incentives).

At the same time, you want to give visibility to what the group is doing so that the rest of the organization can take it into account and approach it if relevant.

The best example I’ve seen of a space designed to accomodate this set of constraints is the MIT Media Lab in Boston:

  • Each project is assigned to a team of 3-6 people that is assembled at the beginning based on the skills required and dismantled at the end
  • Each team is assigned a room where all the work happens
  • All rooms have glass ceilings and walls so that everyone can have a bird’s eye view of the purpose and progress without interfering
  • The building is designed to maximise the relative exposure of each room

The whole space feels like a hybrid between a factory and a museum, and I think that’s exactly the purpose: a place where  some people can make stuff, others can see it happen before their eyes, and the two don’t get in the way of one another.

Now compare it to open plan offices: they are designed with no separation between doing and showing. It’s no surprise that they turn out to be spaces where people talk to one another incessantly but hardly get work done. Space is destiny.

5. Use gravity to your advantage

Minor details in the environment trigger instinctive, unconscious changes in our behaviour that can make a huge difference: heart surgery patients in intensive care units who viewed landscape scenes reported less anxiety and stress and needed fewer pain medications. If space design can affect our hearts, it can surely affect our minds and hands.

Furniture and objects exert a gravitational pull, and they can drive us closer to, or away from, collaboration.

  • Use higher tables and stools instead of traditional (or worse, lower) tables and chairs where you want people to work together: higher tables draw our eyes and hands towards the surface, and make it more immediate to write, draw, sketch.


  • Put ideas and knowledge that you want to share up on the walls, the columns, and all other potential canvas for people to be effortlessly exposed to them. Digital content is great, but it’s too easy to avoid and too hard to dig out. Physical content has an inevitability to it. Just don’t go for lame corporate slogans.


  • Advertise what you’re working on: not the specific deliverable, feature or component, but the intriguing problem you’re trying to address. How do we put a condom in everyone’s pocket? How do we get people to leave a supermarket feeling like they got more than they paid for? Is there something that ice cream wouldn’t improve? These are some of the question that we’ve been working on lately, and they’ve been formulated to capture the attention of lazy eyes. The point is not to get people to provide the answer, but to be interested enough to be drawn towards the project.

Designing for collaboration is first about removing all the processes and constrictions that try to strong-arm people into working together and are actually counterproductive because we have mastered the art of avoiding what is imposed upon us, and even though we may occasionally pretend to collaborate, in reality we’re just sitting next to each other.

We should instead start from naked spaces where our spontaneous will can emerge and be recognized: if we employ really talented people, they will naturally want to collaborate; if we don’t, no mandated policy can make it happen.

Next, we should add small, invisible nudges that minimize the distance from thinking to doing. 

Lastly, we should get out of the way and let them be.

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10 wishes for advertising in 2015



and more importantly…

2. NO MORE 360º





and let’s start shifting our focus…



and that means…






and it’s not just about past versus present…



and really, really…



if we manage to do that, then nothing is impossible. Even…



and finally…



HAVE A GREAT 2015…. 

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How much should we worry about sexism in tech?


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.



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.




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.


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.


(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


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:


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.


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.


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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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