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.
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.
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.
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.
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could be so stupid that you could throw a TV ad at them and they would do anything you asked, and that today, they have been replaced by genetically modified, dedicated and hyper-rational consumers who only make conscious and well-researched choices — this is the kind of patronizing silliness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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.