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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