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.
[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.
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 longposts about Differentiation v Saliency. He makes a great job of combining an extensive range of sources to make the argument that:
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!)
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…)
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….)
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…)
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.
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.
[ 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?
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?
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.
(This is the third, much delayed, and last post in aseries 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 summedup 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?
Here what Daniel Victor, social media editor at ProPublica, has to say about this job:
“You need equal attention to the distribution and the reporting aspects of the job. […] The big temptation is to focus more on the distribution than the reporting.”
This sums up very neatly that major problem for advertising today: it’s not the recession, it’s not commoditization, it’s not globalization. It’s spending too much time thinking at how we’re going to distribute an idea via social media/influencers/promotions/applications/younameit, and too little time thinking at the merit of the idea we want to distribute.
Walk before you run: the adage all of us must have heard over and over, when assessing a new project, investment, process… And who wouldn’t agree with it? It’s plain common sense. After all, that’s how human beings work, so it should be the same for organizations, shouldn’t it?
It sounds like the reasonable thing to do, but it’s not. We can’t afford it.
The thing is, as human beings we are wired to grow into running, and to do it by a certain stage. We may start with walking, but we soon start moving our feet quicker and quicker. And then we trip. No big deal. We cry a little, pick ourselves up, start walking faster. And trip again. And pick ourselves up again. Until we look around, and we’re running. (With that realization we usually trip again.)
If human beings evolved into running like organizations do, we’d have a committee forecasting the amount of attempts and energy required by running against its supposed benefit (assuming they could see one, as you could reach the very same destination just by, well, walking); then they would invest in a simulation to predict the optimal body balance and step succession to achieve the ideal running; there would be contingency plans in case of trips, an event whose chances would have to be minimized anyway not to upset stakeholders; finally, they’d impose a deadline by which return on investment would have be proved, or they’d pull the plug on this new “running” scenario, leaving someone else to experiment with it.
If we evolved in our lives the way we evolve in our work, we’d still be researching “Global benchmarks in running” by the age of 8.
Instead, we inevitably try running way before we’re ready for it. The urgency of the inevitable. That’s how things get done.