“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.


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