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"Account planning exists for the sole purpose of creating advertising that truly connects with consumers. While many in the industry are still dissecting consumer behavior, extrapolating demographic trends, developing complex behavioral models, and measuring Pavlovian salivary responses, Steel advocates an approach to consumer research that is based on simplicity, common sense, and creativity—an approach that gains access to consumers' hearts and minds, develops ongoing relationships with them, and, most important, embraces them as partners in the process of developing and advertising.
A witty, erudite raconteur and teacher, Steel describes how successful account planners work in partnership with clients, consumer, and agency creatives. He criticizes research practices that, far from creating relationships, drive a wedge between agencies and the people they aim to persuade; he suggests new ways of approaching research to cut through the BS and get people to show their true selves; and he shows how the right research, when translated into a motivating and inspiring brief, can be the catalyst for great creative ideas. He draws upon his own experiences and those of colleagues in the United States and abroad to illustrate those points, and includes examples of some of the most successful campaigns in recent years, including Polaroid, Norwegian Cruise Line, Porsche, Isuzu, "got milk?" and others.
The message of this book is that well-thought-out account planning results in better, more effective marketing and advertising for both agencies and clients. And also makes an evening in front of the television easier to bear for the population at large."
No Room for the Mouse: The Failure to Involve Consumers inAdvertising Communication.
Silent Partners: Account Planning and the New ConsumerAlliance.
The Blind Leading the Bland: Advertising Follows Research...in theWrong Direction.
Peeling the Onion: Uncovering the Truth and Stimulating CreativeIdeas through Research.
The Fisherman's Guide: The Importance of Creative Briefing.
Ten Housewives in Des Moines: The Perils of Researching RoughCreative Ideas.
Serendipity: "Got Milk?" Acknowledgments.
About the Author.
Note: The Figures and/or Tables mentioned in this sample chapter do not appear on the web. Chapter 1: No Room for the Mouse
The Failure to Involve Consumers in Advertising Communication
The consumer isn't a moron. She's your wife.
Confessions of an Advertising Man
POINTS OF VIEW
This may seem like a strange way to start a book about advertising, but I have a degree in geography.
One of the few useful things I learned as a student of geography was a navigational technique called triangulation. The basic idea is that if you are lost (in my case a most frequent occurrence), it is possible to fix your position quite precisely on a map with the help of a compass, a pencil, and three landmarks that are visible to you in the surrounding countryside and that are also marked on your map. The compass is used to orient the map so that the landmarks on the map line up with the real landmarks, and pencil lines are drawn on the map as if to join the real landmarks and their representations on the map. The three lines should intersect, ideally at a single point, but most often they will form a small triangle. If it's a single point, that's exactly where you are on the map. If it's a triangle, you're somewhere inside it, and your problems are over, unless, of course, the triangle you have drawn appears on a part of the map marked "military firing range."
I should point out that this is a technique that works very well in an area where there are church steeples and easily identifiable hilltops as convenient landmarks, so it is tailor-made for English geography students. But it doesn't work too well in a desert, and the reason it does not is the point of this story. Triangulation needs three landmarks to work, and most deserts just don't have the landmarks. Maybe there's a far-off mountain, but if that's all you can see, it's useless. It allows you to know which direction to walk, but you have no idea how far. It could be 10 miles, or it could be 100. Two landmarks are better than one, but there is still a huge margin for error. Three are needed to work properly.
I mention that because in most fields of human endeavor, the chances of finding a solution or uncovering the truth are increased as more perspectives are taken into account. A commercial that was produced in Britain in the mid-1980s illustrates this point quite graphically (see Figure 1.1).
Produced by Boase Massimi Pollitt, a London advertising agency, for The Guardian newspaper, this commercial was shot in grainy black and white, more like a documentary than a commercial. With the exception of a simple voice-over, it is silent. It opens on a slow-motion scene of a rough-looking skinhead sprinting down the sidewalk of a dull terrace in an old industrial town. A car slows menacingly at the end of the street, perhaps in pursuit. A woman, standing on her doorstep, flinches as the skinhead runs past her, and a calm, matter-of-fact voice-over says, "An event, seen from one point of view, gives one impression."
We now see the same scene from a different angle. The skinhead darts past the woman, and this time we see that he's headed toward an old man, who is wearing a long overcoat and hat and carrying a briefcase. The old man raises his briefcase to defend himself as the thug makes a grab for him. The voice-over speaks again. "Seen from another point of view, it gives quite a different impression."
The commercial fades to a third scene, another replay of the same action, but this time shot from high up on a building across the street. We see that right above the old man, who is completely oblivious to the fact, a large tray of bricks is being hoisted up the side of a building. It is swaying dangerously, and the skinhead has spotted it. He races down the street. The voice-over continues, "but it's only when you get the whole picture that you truly understand what's going on." The skinhead grabs the old man and pushes him back against the wall to protect him as the bricks crash to the side-walk. The commercial fades to black, and the name of the newspaper appears, still in silence. "The Guardian. The whole picture."
John Webster, the creative director of Boase Massimi Pollitt and writer of that commercial, told me that he once received a request from a teenage boy, who had been arrested for some petty crime, for a copy of the commercial to be shown in court in his defense. Sadly, John never heard if it helped secure an acquittal, but if so, it would have made for a very unusual advertising effectiveness paper.
That story is an interesting example of the broader applications of the idea that without perspective, nothing is certain. It's true in journalism, and if you read any good detective novel, watch a courtroom drama on the big screen, or take any interest in military history, you will see a similar process of triangulation being used by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters, by detectives to solve their cases, by attorneys to get convictions, and by generals to win battles. It is the premise of this chapter, and indeed of the rest of the book, that the same methods of analysis are fundamental to success in advertising.
In simple terms, there are three important perspectives that advertising should embrace: the client's business perspective, the agency's creative perspective, and last but not least the opinions and prejudices of the people at whom the advertising will be aimed. The very best advertising represents a successful collaboration between all three of these parties and points of view, but, when any one of those perspectives is allowed to dominate at the expense of the others, the quality and effectiveness of the campaign will surely suffer.
JOINING THE DOTS
Jeff Goodby once told me that he does not think of his "product" as advertising. Not as a reel of commercials, or as beautifully framed magazine ads on a wall in the agency, but rather as a tiny reaction in someone's head after seeing, hearing, or reading that advertising. For him, advertising is merely a means to a desired end-a person thinking or behaving differently. Jeff believes that everything an agency does should be geared toward getting into people's heads to figure out what they currently think and understand how best to influence them.
I like this definition because it encapsulates all three of the perspectives I previously mentioned, giving each a clear role. The pivotal perspective is that of the consumers, in whose heads the real work of the advertising will be done. Their opinions have to be understood before they can be manipulated, and consumer research is meant to unlock the hidden truths that may define the nature and content of the message. As for the message itself, the role of creativity is to gain entry to consumers' minds and act as a catalyst for the desired thought process and change of opinion or behavior. And the client's business, or commercial, perspective defines the precise action that consumers are to be asked to take.
That process is seldom, however, as straightforward as it should be.
The most effective advertising involves consumers in two different, but equally critical, ways. First, it needs to involve them in the process of developing the communication. Their feelings, habits, motivations, insecurities, prejudices, and desires all have to be explored to understand both how the product fits into their lives and how they might respond to different advertising messages. This exploration of the consumer mind for information and inspiration will form the focus of the rest of the book, starting later in this chapter with some philosophical and methodological barriers to many agencies and clients making the necessary connections with consumers. Some agencies and individuals are arrogant enough to assume that they don't need to have a relationship with consumers or know anything about them before they talk to them. (I can only assume that these are the kind of people who, on a vacation in France, would converse with French people by speaking English, very slowly, and very loudly.) And some clients, while they agree that it is absolutely essential to "have a dialog" with consumers, are hung up on methodologies that make such a relationship impossible. More on that subject later.
The second way that consumers need to be involved in advertising is in the communication itself. In other words, advertising works better when it does not tell people what to think, but rather allows them to make up their own minds about its meaning. They participate by figuring it out for themselves. Rich Silverstein likes to use the analogy of those joining-the-dots games that we all played as children, where you draw a line from numbered dot to numbered dot, and when you've finished you have a picture of, say, a warthog. In Silverstein's view, it's not advertising's job to tell people it's a warthog. It should simply join up a few of the dots for its audience and leave the rest for them to join for them-selves, thus allowing them to participate.
Leaving something to the audience's imagination is not a widely embraced concept in the advertising industry. Inspired by, among others, Claude Hopkins' Advertising Science and Rosser Reeves' Reality in Advertising, advertisers have for years been telling their audience what to think, then telling them again and again, each time louder than the last, all under the assumption that the target audience is so dumb that they need to be slapped in the face with the message if they're going to get it.
Howard Gossage was one of the first advertising men to make a stand against the one-way diatribes that formed the bulk of the industry's output. Four decades ago, he was espousing the principle of advertising as two-way communication and creating campaigns that were designed to engender relationships and interaction with his target consumers.
"Advertising is not a right, it is a privilege," he said, reflecting my own belief that an agency and client should consider themselves lucky for any attention that a person pays to their advertising. I have always regarded advertising as being like a person that you meet at a party. You meet, you decide very quickly whether you like him or her, and if you do, you stay and listen to what the individual has to say. If you don't, you spot a long-lost friend on the other side of the room and move on. Your new acquaintance could have given you the most important piece of information you ever heard, but if he or she had already bored you or insulted you, then you would not be around to hear it. So it is with advertising. Thirty seconds on television. A few seconds when a person is flicking through the magazine. That's all the time there is to create a connection and engage a person sufficiently for them to pay attention to the message.
How do you do that? By adopting the same human characteristics that make a stranger at a party seem attractive and interesting: attributes like respect, intelligence, wit, humility, and an interest in the other person. By asking questions instead of making statements.
Gossage wrote that "Our first duty is not to the old sales curve, it is to the audience," and recognized that many in the industry would regard these words as heretical. But as he rightly pointed out, "Any salesman will get it right off the bat. They are used to regarding their audience first and foremost, because if they don't please them, they won't get the order." In other words, if you have the audience's attention, then the sales curve will follow.
Gossage's advertising was ahead of its time, engaging, and effective. Three decades before the word interactive became hot, he was putting coupons in his ads, partly so that he could measure their effect, but primarily because he wanted to initiate a dialog between his customers and his clients. Perhaps the first to express the ideal of "consumer participation" in advertising, Gossage was fond of quoting from a short story of Saki's to make his point that too many advertisers told people what to think and left them no opportunity to form their own opinions:
In baiting a trap with cheese, always leave room for the mouse.
LOVE, MONEY, PIGS, AND BEER
The most important lessons of advertising are perhaps to be found all around us in our everyday lives and relationships, and the factors that lead to successful communication in that broader, human context are exactly the same as those that work in advertising across all types of media.
When I talk about advertising to groups of students, or even agency professionals, I often ask them to think about the times when, as kids, they wanted to ask their parents for money, or as adults, they wanted to ask someone out on a date (or something like that). Anyway, how did they approach the problem? What worked? What didn't?
Most people agree that a simple statement of one's intentions has the odds stacked against it, and a demand that your parents hand over the cash or that the lady or gentleman in question gives you his or her heart or body before even knowing your name is unlikely to yield either financial or romantic satisfaction. In the end, the majority agree that the only way to increase your chance of success is to mentally step out of your shoes and into theirs. I'm not talking about some kind of cross-dressing shoe fetish here, but rather about the ability to figure out the other person's hot buttons. What do they think of you? What is currently stopping them from writing you a check or falling into your arms? What could you do or say to remove those barriers? And most significant of all (everyone I have ever discussed this with agrees that this is a surefire winner), what could you do or say to make your parents decide for themselves that they want to give you a spot bonus, or cause the object of your wildest dreams to develop an uncontrollable crush on you?
Anyone who can figure out that kind of strategy will doubtless enjoy a phenomenally successful career in advertising. By the same logic, of course, as a complete loser in the dating department, I should probably resign my own position immediately.
Another story that illustrates the same point was related to me a few years ago by a man I met in Hawaii, whose idea of relaxation was to go out into the rain forest and hunt wild pigs, armed only with a knife.
"If you're going to learn to hunt wild pigs," he told me, assuming quite wrongly that I was remotely interested, "the first thing you've got to do is to learn how to be a pig. You've got to think like they think, move like they move, and have the same instincts for safety and danger." He went on to describe how he would stalk them, sometimes for hours and once even for two whole days, not looking, as I first thought, for the perfect moment to attack the pig, but rather for the perfect moment to provoke the pig into attacking him. That, he said, was altogether a much more difficult feat to pull off. I believed him.
Leo Burnett once said that "if you can't turn yourselves into a consumer, then you shouldn't be in the advertising business at all," and it is true that the best advertising people have the same instincts in relation to consumers that my pig-hunting acquaintance described, albeit without the violent fight at the end. In a later chapter I will make the point that at times it is very important to trust these instincts, but it is also important to realize that turning yourself into a consumer does not mean projecting your own tastes and opinions onto an unfamiliar consumer group.
A young creative team in London once told me, as I was briefing them for a beer advertising campaign, that they didn't need any help from me because they knew "everything there is to know about beer." I didn't doubt that they rank a lot of beer, but I feared that they might have a somewhat skewed view of beer brands and drinkers.
"Where did you drink your last beer?" I asked.
"It was Thursday night . . . in the Soho Brasserie," answered the writer.
"What were you drinking?"
"Out of a glass or a bottle?"
"How many did you have?"
"Oh, quite a lot. Three, four maybe."
Mmm. Just as I thought. Chic London restaurant/bar. Porsches parked outside. People dressed in black. Lots of kissing on the cheeks (once on the left, once on the right, and once more on the left to be properly European). Highoctane, designer French premium lager, drunk slowly and decorously straight from the bottle, with label positioned for all to see and little finger outstretched.
Oh, they were right. It all sounded absolutely like Simonds bitter. Simonds was a cheap and relatively weak ale, drunk only in pints and sold almost exclusively in Welsh workingmen's clubs to guys who had just come off their shift in the coal mines or steel mills. It was hot, heavy work, and they needed a light, refreshing pint that they could drink in large volume. (I frequently came across people in focus groups and on pub-and-club visits who would quite happily consume 15 pints of the stuff after work. The size of their bellies corroborated their stories.) If the creative team had walked up to the bar in one of these places and asked for "1664 ...in the bottle, please, Antoine," they would have been torn limb from limb.
Okay, so they needed to be briefed, and thankfully, they obliged. And in the end, with the exception of a small hiccup over a radio script that seemed to many, including the network censors, to have connotations of bestiality (sheep jokes do not go over big in Wales), they hit the spot with the drinkers.
ART FOR ART'S SAKE
At about the same time, in London, I was present at a conference where John Webster, the executive creative director of Boase Massimi Pollitt (and creator of the commercial for The Guardian, mentioned earlier), was addressing an audience of young agency creatives. Preferring not to make a lengthy speech, he said only a few words before showing a reel of his work and inviting questions from the audience.
After a few innocuous comments and questions relating to techniques, directors, and the like, one young man spoke up. "John," he said, "some of those ads are among the best I've seen in my life, but there is something unusual about them. There's always a lot of product. The logo's big. Most of the creative people I know fight to cut down the amount of time given to the product and do everything to keep the logo small. Why is it different in your commercials? Do you do that of your own accord, or do your clients make you do it?"
John thought for a moment. "You know, I come across creative people all the time who complain that the client is making them put the logo in larger type, or that they have to mention the brand name and that by doing that, they are 'ruining the idea.' Well, we're not artists, as much as we might like to be. We are in the business of selling products. And that's my responsibility to my clients. I incorporate the product as artfully as I can, but if I don't center the ad on that product, however creative or entertaining it is, I'm wasting my time and their money.
v "I don't know how many of you think you are in the entertainment business," he continued, with a wry smile, "but if you do, you should probably fuck off and get a job writing scripts for The Two Ronnies." (The Two Ronnies, for the sake of my American readers, was at the time one of Britain's top TV comedy programs.)
An agency's art has to be a means to an end, and that end, like it or not, is commercial in nature. Art is a vehicle that can make an ad more distinctive, more memorable, and at its best, carry a message in such a way that it will be more effective in influencing its audience. But that's only at its best, and it only happens when its creator, like Webster, knows that the artistic and commercial elements have to live together in an almost symbiotic relationship. If one starts to dominate at the expense of the other, the relationship becomes more parasitic than symbiotic, and its effectiveness, both in the short and long term, will be compromised.
In May 1985, Ronald Reagan delivered a speech to the recipients of the National Medal of Arts, in which he said that "in an atmosphere of liberty, artists and patrons are free to think the unthinkable and create the audacious; they are free to make both horrendous mistakes and glorious celebrations," and to those who see advertising as an art form, those words must seem like sweet music.
Some writers and art directors, and indeed some entire agencies, believe that the real power of advertising lies in their art, and that if they were truly free to create, they could break the rules, be audacious, and although they may strike out once in a while, they would hit some towering and memorable home runs. And sometimes they are successful.
There is, however, one substantial problem. The freedom of which Reagan spoke was not just celebrated by artists, but by patrons, too. Unfortunately, advertising's "patrons," better known as the clients who control multimillion-dollar advertising budgets, tend not to be too wild about swinging for the fences and are unlikely to risk their companies' marketing budgets, market share, profitability, stock price, and ultimately their own jobs, on the word of a twentysomething with tattoos and a nose ring, saying "trust me ... it'll be cool." I must admit that if I were responsible for an advertising budget of $100 million, I'd probably feel the same way.
At times like this, names like Michelangelo, Stephen Spielberg, and John Lennon often get bandied around as evidence that art is a powerful force and that it is at its most powerful when the creator has total freedom. Would the roof on the Sistine Chapel be so glorious if Michelangelo had experienced the kind of interference that has characterized the development of this particular advertising campaign? Would Schindler's List have been three hours long if the marketing people had had their way? Would Sergeant Pepper have ever made it through copy testing?
I don't think we're really comparing apples to apples here. For a start, people choose to experience art, movies, and music, whereas advertising is forced on them. The audience for pure art is self-selecting, but advertising has to find them and draw them in. And when it does, it does not have time on its side to make its point. Spielberg has hours to draw his audience in. The Sistine Chapel can take as long as it likes. And is there really any such thing as "pure" art? Can you really imagine the Pope of the time giving Michelangelo an unlimited budget, no time constraints, and no idea of a theme? "No, Michelangelo, you're the creative genius. Surprise me." Just think about what studio executives at Universal must have said when Spielberg announced that he wanted to follow Jurassic Park with a three-hour movie about the Holocaust. Or when he casually added that he wanted to shoot entirely in black and white. The grass on the other side, where the true artists live, might not be as green as some of us would like to believe.
It's perhaps not surprising that some agency creatives prefer to think of themselves as artists rather than business people. Many of them have artistic backgrounds and interests, and if the truth is really known, they would probably prefer to spend the rest of their days painting, sculpting, or writing screenplays or the great American novel, rather than continue to work in the creative department of an advertising agency. Some have the nagging feeling that they have prostituted themselves by abandoning these worthier pursuits in favor of the security and salary that comes with a job in advertising. While the more realistic among them simply bite their lips and promise themselves that their advertising careers are just layovers on the way to these better things, others try and make the advertising the outlet for their artistic and literary ambitions.
In Ogilvy on Advertising, David Ogilvy denounced the "noisy lunatics on the fringes of the advertising business, [whose] stock-in-trade includes ethnic humor, eccentric art direction, and their self-proclaimed genius," and on many other occasions attacked those whose pursuit of advertising as a pure art form got in the way, as he saw it, of selling products. Having said that, he once admitted that he had to exorcise his own "pseudoliterary pretensions" in the early part of his career before finally realizing that he needed to focus on "the obligation of advertising to sell."
The system by which the advertising industry "grades" its creative people adds another dimension to the problem. Every year, there are numerous award shows that recognize the industry's most creative advertising; individuals and teams who create the most distinctive new campaigns are widely celebrated. Success in the award shows is translated into offers of better jobs and better money with better agencies, so it is hardly surprising that certain creative people struggle to maintain the "artistic integrity" of their ideas and regard the input of others, particularly consumers, as a sure-fire way of undermining that integrity. If they give in, they reason, their campaign will be compromised and with it, less directly, their own careers.
Unfortunately, many clients regard creative awards simply as an agency indulgence. Awards do benefit clients though, albeit indirectly, by ensuring that the top creative talent is able to work on their advertising. If the best creative people in the agency are winning awards for their work, then they will be less likely to want to work somewhere else where they might not win awards. If they do get poached away, then talented creatives on the outside will see the awards that the agency is winning and want to come and get some of the action. In short, awards keep an agency's creative gene pool healthy and productive.
Another important consideration is that there is no reason why the art or creativity that seems so distinctive to the Cannes or One Show judges should not be equally compelling to members of the target audience. Every year at the Cannes advertising festival, Donald Gunn of Leo Burnett makes a presentation of the top creative award-winning campaigns from around the world that have combined these creative awards with clearly demonstrable results in the marketplace, and many of the campaigns that are featured later in this book have achieved the same double.
I am not suggesting for one moment that art is not a vital component of advertising, for it is in the art that advertising's true magic lies. I am merely suggesting that art alone is not enough, and when it is allowed to overpower strategic and business considerations, it can be an obstacle rather than an aid to persuasion.
Rich Silverstein has said to me on many occasions that it is this juxtaposition of art and commerce that really interests him about advertising and keeps on challenging him. In his view, it is much easier to produce art than it is to produce art that sells, and the philosophy and process that are necessary to achieve the latter will be explored thoroughly in later chapters.
FIGHTING ART WITH SCIENCE
In advertising, perhaps in response to the excesses of the frustrated artists, or perhaps simply as a natural counterbalance to the uncertainties inherent in "ideas," writing, art direction, and human relationships, a doctrine has emerged that defines advertising not as a subjective, intuitive craft, but rather as a logical, rational discipline whose process and product can be defined, measured, predicted, and evaluated according to the same criteria and methodologies as those employed in the field of science.
In the first chapter of his famous book, Advertising Science, published in 1923, Claude Hopkins wrote, "The time has come when advertising has in some hands reached the status of a science. It is based on fixed principles and is reasonably exact. The causes and effects have been analyzed until they are well understood. The correct methods of procedure have been proved and established. We know what is most effective, and we act on its basic laws.
"Advertising, once a gamble, has thus become, under able direction, one of the safest business ventures. Certainly no other enterprise with comparable possibilities need involve so little risk."
Nearly three-quarters of a century later, this doctrine remains powerfully represented in the ranks of client marketing organizations, as well as in many agency account management and research departments, and in the host of independent research companies employed by both clients and agencies to assist in the development and evaluation of their campaigns.
These disciples of advertising-as-science consider that their raison d'Otre is to bring discipline, predictability, and accountability to advertising agencies in general, and to creative departments in particular. They bring with them powerful credentials (undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in marketing, advertising, statistics, and psychology, not to mention the potent Master of Business Administration, or MBA). Armed with impressively thick overhead decks, 95 percent confidence levels, advertising response models, brand recall and persuasion numbers, and normative data and correlations, they wield extraordinary influence at every stage of the process. Against this arsenal of facts, figures, and projections, creative "instinct" and phrases like "trust me" just don't have a chance.
In the course of the ensuing chapters, I will argue that there is a vital role to be played by research in advertising (when it is done right), but that to regard advertising as a science that can be built entirely on facts and measured, even predicted, is perilous indeed. It is perilous not only because advertising and the human mind by their very nature defy such scientific analysis, but also because those who adhere to these principles, like many of the "artists" I spoke of before, are basing their philosophy and process on an entirely erroneous view of how scientists practice science.
THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD
At the age of 11, in my first physics class, my teacher, Mr. Berry, spent the best part of an hour talking about the "scientific method." Later the same day, Mr. Ackroyd, in his inaugural address in the acrid environment of the chemistry lab, told us more, and Mr. Surl, the biology teacher, over the course of the next week, actually demonstrated it in action with the help of some fruit flies.
They all seemed pretty consistent in their definitions. In this scientific method, as far as I understood the concept, the scientist was a person who was concerned only with facts and who collected and analyzed data with complete objectivity. Emotion played no part in the scientist's work; he or she merely observed, measured, drew conclusions, and formulated laws in a totally dispassionate way. This was, we learned, quite different from the minds and methods of those who taught and studied the arts, whom my science teachers condemned for their lack of discipline, precision, and rules. "In science," we were told, "we deal in the absolute, in irrefutable fact."
My experience of science at school suggested that they were correct. In physics, chemistry, and biology, it seemed that there was right or wrong, black or white, and I saw little or no evidence of any gray area in between. With no opportunity for interpretation, we simply learned the rules by rote and applied them to problems to which we were expected to supply the one, inarguable, correct solution.
(At this point, I should probably admit that of all the people who studied science in school, I am perhaps the least well qualified to criticize a philosophy and methodology that seems to have served mankind fairly well over the last 300 years. I left physics, chemistry, and biology behind at the earliest possible opportunity, so be warned that what follows is definitely a layman's, as opposed to a scientist's, perspective.)
This scientific method was based on a model of how the world works that was developed in the seventeenth century by Sir Isaac Newton, Descartes, and others. Their approach was based on the belief that any object of study, physical thing or system alike, can be stripped down to its component parts and reassembled, the underlying assumption being that the workings of the whole can be understood through comprehending the function and contribution of each individual piece. This is termed the machine model, which Margaret Wheatley, in her excellent book, Leadership and the New Science, describes as "characterized by materialism and reductionism-a focus on things rather than relationships and a search ... for the basic building blocks of matter."
In this kind of science, everything has a place. Everything is separate from everything else. Everything obeys a law. And with knowledge of those laws, everything can be predicted. It's objective, it's simple, it's orderly, and constituent piece by constituent piece, it's easy to control. In the end, it is this illusion of control that makes the Newtonian universe such an attractive place and has led to the adoption of its principles way beyond the scientific community. Organizational charts divide and subdivide companies into their component parts and depict (and separate) people, knowledge, responsibilities, and problems as endless lines and boxes, all in the belief that if we succeed in dividing, we can truly conquer. Boundaries separate the "things" that comprise the machine, and in all parts of our lives there are boundaries that define the limits of roles, responsibility, authority, ownership, ability, safety, and acceptable risk.
Advertising is no exception. The scientific method of advertising development divides agencies into separate "disciplines" and puts consumers into neat little compartments where they can be targeted: nonusers, occasional users, heavy users, believers, nonbelievers, household income below $25,000, household income from $25,000 to $50,000, household income over $50,000, pioneers, early adopters, early mass-market, and mass-market targets. Advertising campaigns are analyzed execution by execution, each execution judged in terms of its impact, its recall, its brand linkage, and its communication and persuasion. What about the music? What about the pictures? What about the main character? What about the other characters? What about the words they spoke? What about the narrator's voice? What about the tagline? Opinions are given and reported as numbers, and these numbers wield absolute power.
Pretesting methodologies allow a rough commercial to be graded by captive consumers on a second-by-second basis. While watching the commercial, they turn a handheld dial up when they are interested and down when they are not, allowing the researchers to conclude that the first ten seconds work, the next five seconds need some attention, the next ten are very strong, and the final five come in "significantly below norm." Well done, creative department, 66.66 percent of your commercial is acceptable or better. As for the other 33.33 percent ...In the scientific method, there is no place for art, inspiration, instinct, intuition, magic, or luck, because they cannot be measured, predicted, or easily repeated.
The kind of research just described, which is explored in greater depth in Chapter 3, seems to allow the industry to count the trees while remaining entirely oblivious to the presence of a forest. In their enthusiasm to put both people and ideas into those neat little boxes, researchers often forget about the connections between the two, and far from involving consumers, as many claim their research allows them to do, they succeed only in distancing or even excluding them. In a paper delivered to the ADMAP/Campaign Seminar in London in 1990, the late Charles Channon, Director of Studies of the British I.P.A., drew a very important distinction between the concept of effectiveness, which is broadly defined as "doing the right thing," and efficiency, which is about "doing something the right way." In my own view, the advertising industry too often preaches effectiveness while actually pursuing efficiency, transforming, as Channon noted, "a real world of difficult decisions and uncertain evidence into a comfortingly simplified one where indices of performance are hard facts and acting on them will reduce risk as much as can ever be hoped for." We are not attempting to do things right. We're merely trying to avoid doing them wrong.
Here's an example of the damage that an efficiency mind-set can wreak; it comes from the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Under Stalin's drive to increase industrial output, all factories were given production targets that they had to meet. The failure to meet these targets was punished very severely, by imprisonment and occasionally even death. One factory that produced nails was given an especially difficult target to reach, more than double the largest amount they had ever produced in the past; but, strangely, the required figure was expressed in terms of the weight of nails that it would have to produce, not the number of nails. The problem was solved by producing fewer, larger nails. In fact, nails more than three feet long. They were completely useless, but they were heavy, and they met the government's requirements. Efficient? Yes. Effective? No.
In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig wrote that "the traditional scientific method has always been at the very best, 20/20 hindsight. It's good for seeing where you've been." Even a cursory glance at the careers of those who have made the greatest breakthroughs in science will show that they made their discoveries precisely by
ignoringthe traditional method, even if their scientific papers later gave these discoveries a postrationalized sense of Newtonian order and decorum. For example, James Watson, who with Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA, for which they were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962, wrote in The Double Helix that "Science seldom proceeds in the strait forward, logical manner imagined by outsiders. Instead, its steps forward (and sometimes backward) are often very human events in which personalities and cultural traditions play major roles." It was Albert Einstein who said that "the greatest scientists are always artists as well," noting that in his own work, fantasy and intuition had been more important to him than any talent for absorbing knowledge (which he regarded as limiting). And J. Robert Oppenheimer, the nuclear physicist, in a lecture delivered in 1954, also embraced the idea of a confluence between science and art at the outer limits of discovery: "Both the man of science and the man of art live always at the edge of mystery, surrounded by it. Both, as the measure of their creations, have always had to deal with the harmonization of what is new with what is familiar, with the balance between novelty and synthesis, with the struggle to make partial order in total chaos."
NEW SCIENCE, NEW MODEL, NEW ADVERTISING
I am not trying to argue that the Newtonian model and its machine imagery is wrong, but rather that it cannot adequately explain everything, and that there are some applications to which it is unsuited.
In the early twentieth century, as scientists began to explore the world at the subatomic level, they found that Newtonian laws were not capable of explaining their strange discoveries, and that they needed a "new science" to explain them. From that grew the theory of quantum mechanics, which might sound very complicated and very scary (which it is even to those who are expert in it: Niels Bohr, one of the founders of quantum theory, once said that "Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it"), as well as wholly irrelevant to a book about advertising.
Many of the same circumstances that led to the birth of quantum theory, though, apply to the situation many advertisers and their agencies find themselves in today. The models and methods that have dictated the development of advertising campaigns for decades are clearly not working. Advertising in general is not liked or trusted. Research fails to make the connections that are necessary to explain the attitudes and behavior of target consumers, and advertising in turn fails to make the connections in its communication that are necessary to change them. Consumers are passive recipients of both research and advertising; both are done to them, as opposed to with them. Ideas are dissected until every component part is understood, but like a dissected rat, they are then very hard to put back together so that they work as a living, breathing whole.
A new model for advertising is necessary that is based on the understanding that consumers are people and recognizes that people are inherently complex, emotional, unpredictable creatures, whose relationships with each other and with the "things" (including brands, products, and advertising) around them are more important than the "things" themselves. This requires a change in both philosophy and methodology.
"In new science," writes Margaret Wheatley in Leadership and the New Science, the underlying currents are a movement
toward holism, toward giving primary value
to the relationships that exist among seemingly
discrete parts. Donella Meadows, a
systems thinker, quotes an ancient Sufi
teaching that captures this shift in focus:
"You think because you understand one you
must understand two, because one and one
makes two. But you must also understand
and." When we view systems from this perspective,
we enter an entirely new landscape
of connections, of phenomena that cannot be
reduced to simple cause and effect, and of
the constant flux of dynamic processes.
I would prefer to leave the specific scientific discussion of the application of quantum theory to the scientists (some references are given at the end of this book) and instead focus on some direct parallels in the advertising philosophies and practices on which this book is based.
If quantum theory were to be applied directly to advertising, it would suggest that the way a member of the target audience will react to an advertising message is affected by many factors beyond what the advertising itself looks like and says. Where are they? Who are they with? What sort of mood does that put them in? All of those "relationships" will affect the person's receptivity to, and interpretation of, the message.
Environment matters, not only to advertising communication but also to research. Quantum physicists have proven that environment affects the outcome of research and that the simple act of conducting an experiment affects the situation that it is setting out to observe. In advertising, there can also be no such thing as purely objective research. I discuss this at greater length in later chapters, but isn't it strange to realize that the type of research that advertisers tend to regard as the most objective because of its quantitative, disciplined, easily replicable approach, is more likely to skew respondents away from the truth than toward it? And that subjective, unreliable, nonprojectable qualitative research, when done in the right way in the right environment, may actually provide a much closer representation of the truth?
The best advertising solutions often emerge out of a situation of apparent chaos. Many agencies would agree, I am sure, that they do their best work in the context of a new business pitch, when they are effectively working outside the system, under extreme time constraints and pressure, and with no time to engage in a logical, sequential process. People from different disciplines work in parallel, run into and bounce off each other, create energy, and out of that create ideas.
Quantum theory would support my earlier arguments that the best advertising is informed by as many points of view as possible, and that a campaign's (or an individual execution's) whole is greater than the sum of its parts. People do not see a typeface, a photograph, a logo, a tagline, x lines of copy, and a headline; they see an ad, and either they pay attention to it or they don't. It would also suggest that the risk and uncertainty that so many advertisers currently expend a great deal of energy trying to avoid, may actually be positive forces. Writing about the music business in Rolling Stone in July 1997, Chris Heath observed that "it is not the plans you think up that make the difference, it is how well you use the accidents." Advertising is not a whole lot different.
Chance plays a critical role in the combination of people who are thrown together to create a campaign, the decisions of competitors, and environmental influences that affect consumer relationships with both brands and advertising. Some opportunities are one time only, and I am convinced that many of the campaign solutions described later in this book would not have been arrived at six months earlier, or six months later, and would probably have been incorrect if they had. Chance is not to be feared but encouraged, and the wider the perspective that is taken on a problem, the greater the opportunity for chance to reveal an unexpected solution.
In the course of this book, I explore all of these parallels and propose a new way of looking at, and developing, advertising that provides the kind of humanity, flexibility, and respect for relationships that were previously proposed. Although I at times draw direct links to new scientific thinking, I do not wish to belabor the point. Let it suffice to say that many of the themes that have been raised in this chapter will crop up again and again in the pages that follow.
"WILL WORK FOR FOOD"
At times, the principles and methodology of the new advertising model that I discuss may seem a little uncomfortable to client and agency alike, because they are different and unfamiliar. Believe me, at times I find it as scary as quantum physicists find their own discipline. While the process of solving advertising problems is never easy, the solutions themselves are often the epitome of simplicity, and this will also be a recurring theme.
George Orwell once defined advertising as "the rattling of a stick in a swill bucket," and I have tried to keep both my observations and examples to that level of complexity. Advertising is a simple form of communication, nothing more and nothing less, and to close this chapter I offer one final example, once again from the real world (as opposed to advertising itself), to illustrate that point.
Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, one of the most prevalent forms of communication is, unfortunately, that of signs held up by homeless people to attract donations from passers-by. There is one sign that I see perhaps more than any other: "Will Work for Food." Wherever you live, you have probably seen this sign, or one very much like it, and although it is by now so widely used as to be almost invisible, I think that at its heart, it is a very powerful piece of communication.
"Will Work for Food" works on a number of different levels, starting with the assumption that the passer-by knows that the holder of the sign is homeless. This credits the passer-by with some intelligence. It then addresses, head on, a popular prejudice, which is that all homeless people are lazy good-for-nothings who are on the streets simply because they can't be bothered to work for a living. "Will Work for Food" says, "Hey-I don't just want handouts. I'm willing to work to get out of this mess." And the nature of this mess isn't just being homeless. It's being hungry. That's why they're asking for help; they need to eat and they can't afford to buy food. The mention of food also deals with another prejudice, which is that any money given to a homeless person will simply be spent on cigarettes, alcohol, or drugs. It's amazing how so much meaning can be packed into four small words, and it's a great example of someone figuring out the hot buttons of the people they want to influence, rather than writing for themselves.
Now imagine for a moment the way a homeless person's sign might look if the writer belonged to the Newtonian school of advertising. In this school, remember, creativity is a needless distraction from the real work of selling, and the task of advertising is simply to tell people what you want them to think.
I'm homeless. I need money.
That's a good start, for a scientist. It clearly states the problem and the need, and passers-by should be very clear about what is expected of them. The Newtonian research director, though, may feel that it is not specific enough. People reading that sign on the street could sympathize with the sign holder's predicament but not be clear what was expected of them. That could be solved by the simple addition of one word that would give the communication some focus:
I'm homeless. I need your money.
The sign is still lacking, however. The copy test comes back, and while the communication is clear, the persuasion scores are dangerously low. Where's the call to action? Where's the sense of urgency? Perhaps the addition of another word would help:
I'm homeless. I need your money now.
Okay. So the passers-by are left in no doubt as to either the situation or the desired response. But it reads like a demand, there's no suggestion of anything being offered in return, and the suspicion may still linger that any money given will be spent on malt liquor, cheap cigarettes, or crack cocaine. This in turn raises the question of whether these prejudices can be addressed directly, which may require an approach that is more artistic in nature.
Nonsmoker. On the wagon. Faint at the sight of a needle.
Certainly it's charming, and the words portray a sense of the sign holder's character and personality, but it still doesn't overcome the perception that the person is "begging," when they should be working. And maybe it is trying a little too hard. By raising the issues of cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs directly, maybe it is concentrating too much on the negative and in some ways lacks confidence? A more direct, confident approach may be needed:
Just give it.
All of the above examples are feasible solutions, but none communicates on quite as many levels as "Will Work for Food." The problem for homeless people composing signs in San Francisco today, though, is that, while "Will Work for Food" is clearly a more interesting solution to their problem, it is widely used and has consequently lost much of its power. It's a problem faced by many advertisers: The solution seems clear, but it has already been appropriated by a competitor. (I return to that issue in Chapters 4 and 5, as part of a discussion about research that stimulates creative ideas, and the creative brief that provides the link between strategic and creative thinking.) Suddenly the execution itself may have to define the difference between competing products.
I want to finish with two more examples of signs that I have seen on the streets of San Francisco that certainly stand out for being different. It wouldn't be too much of a stretch to suggest that they are advertising in the Howard Gossage style, using honesty and humor to disarm, and at the very least, attempting to improve the environment of the street and its advertising by providing some entertainment. Both assume a level of intelligence and understanding on the part of passers-by. They know that we know they're homeless, and they assume we know what they want. They simply use a kind of reverse psychology to get there. One sign on Broadway proclaimed:
Why lie? I need a beer.
I was amused, but was passing in a car and would have been unable to stop, even if tempted. Bad media placement, that.
But only a week later, my eye was caught by a different man with a different sign in another part of town. This time I was on foot. The man holding the sign was clearly homeless, but his appearance did not suggest that his circumstances were any more or less fortunate than his fellow street dwellers. He was not playing a musical instrument or using a cat or dog to attract sympathy, as many do these days, but was simply standing on the sidewalk, holding a typical, roughly fashioned, brown cardboard sign. Only the words were unusual.
Need fuel for Lear Jet.
I have no idea why it affected me the way it did, but the human mind is an irrational thing that is sometimes affected in inexplicable ways. As soon as I smiled, a relationship was formed and from that point there was no going back.
I gave him five bucks and wished him a safe flight.
Posted June 3, 2004
Successful ad campaigns are not linear developments where a business need meshes straightforwardly with an effective creative approach and actually produces successful tangible results. Instead, building memorable, provocative advertising campaigns is such a complex, political task, both rational and emotional, that a successful campaign is a wonder. Veteran advertising expert Jon Steel contends that building a good campaign is the common sense responsibility of the account planner ¿ the new nexus of the consumer, agency creative staff, client and researchers. Steel shows the pitfalls of misguided research and creative arrogance as he explains that a good business-oriented account planner can help produce wonderfully effective, often simple, ad campaigns. His witty, erudite book concludes with its best case study: a look inside the successful 'Got Milk' campaign for the California milk industry. We recommend this book to those who buy and sell advertising and to anyone working at an ad agency.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 26, 2012
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