Category Archives: a bit of this

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.

Tagged ,

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.

Tagged , ,

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)

Tagged , , , , ,

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. 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?

%d bloggers like this: