November 11, 2013

Insights That Lead Nowhere

Somewhere along the line, the ad industry decided that advertising should be about consumers, not products.

This unnoticed and unremarked-upon mutation has had a profound impact on the nature and effectiveness of what we do.

The first effect has been to transform us from salespeople to sociologists. Of course, we don't like to call what we do sociology (too down market) instead we like to call it "cultural anthropology" (much more lyrical.)

So, along with our friends in the market research world, we have developed all kinds of cultural cliches which we lean on: Baby Boomers are this, and Millennials are that, and Gen Xers are the other thing, therefore...(INSERT QUESTIONABLE ASSERTIONS HERE.)

Instead of spending our time looking for imaginative advertising concepts about products, we spend our time developing dubious "insights" about consumers. Our sociological cliches form both the basis of these "insights" and the justification for them.

Of course, if these insights actually helped us create more effective advertising and sell more stuff, we'd all agree that progress has been made.

Sadly, however, it is pretty widely recognized that advertising has become a less powerful force, not a more powerful one. If our metamorphosis from salesmen to sociologists had been a constructive thing, we would expect the opposite.

There are surely a lot of other reasons for advertising's loss of efficacy -- media fragmentation, clutter, and talent erosion among them. But I think we would be mistaken to believe that our ascension from the uninspiring role of salesmen to the lofty ranks of cultural anthropologists hasn't been a factor.

Most of the "insights" we develop as a result of our sidewalk sociology turn out to be shallow generalities that have little to no effect on our ability to move more peanut butter.

In fact, a nice idea about a product is usually a much more powerful marketing asset than a majestic theory about the nature of mankind.


Jason Hartley said...

"Instead of spending our time looking for imaginative advertising concepts about products, we spend our time developing dubious "insights" about consumers." In my experience, this hasn't been an either/or proposition. Insights are hit or miss, but so are imaginative advertising concepts. Occasionally there will be an insight worth building around, such as your favorite topic: we are missing out on marketing to older consumers. That insight can inform every facet of your advertising in a very real way. It's rare to find something that could have as much impact as that--after all, insights are usually hidden and hard to find, otherwise they would be obvious to all--but it's also rare to see a truly great concept.

Carl Zetie said...

In a previous job where we were expected to routinely come up with insights, I was taught by my mentor that the most important question was "So what?". In other words, what should our clients actually do differently as a result of our brilliant, searching, innovative, revelatory insight?

Lev said...

Most of the creatives I know look at 'selling products' as beneath them. Just look at the work that wins awards - half of it is charity work, or fake ads that run once and make little or no mention of the product. If your ad contains a price point you can forget about it because it's poisoned with commerce. So bring on the insights about how "guys love sports" and let's avoid talking about the product altogether.

Scamp said...

Tricky one. The era of product parity, i.e. no genuine product differences any more, may be partly responsible for pushing agencies to look to consumer truths for something differentiating. But to be honest, I don't see many clients going for it. They normally want stuff about their product still, don't they?

Doug Garnett said...

Spot on. And there's a lot about the ad business that entrenches this sad reality. Perhaps most importantly: It's relatively easy to hire creative talent and turn them loose on those insights. It extraordinarily difficult to find creative talent that has any sense of salesmanship.

So it's far more profitable for many agencies to convince clients that salesmanship isn't important and churn out cookie cutter "insight" based campaigns (while claiming they are "edgy"). After all, why work really hard to do what's right when most ad managers won't give you credit for doing that hard work?

This was brought home to me when we hired a superb director from the film business recently (and a great guy I really like). We gave him our script. He came back frustrated and observed that it was his job to make the talent personality in the spot the hero and the script just didn't give him much to go on. To which I responded: The guy is just a vehicle - the product is the hero.

We made it work out just fine - but despite a lot of excellent ad biz experience, making the product hit home was outside his experience level.

timorr said...

In my opinion, "product parity" is mostly an excuse used by lazy ad people to justify not doing their homework. I once heard a talk by a guy who had made his living selling chemically pure sulfuric acid to industrial customers. There's no greater parity than that! And yet, somehow, he managed to differentiate his offer enough to beat his competition. Every product, every offering is different from every other. Find that difference and exploit it! "Branding" is not a substitute for legwork.

Scamp said...

Ha! Nice story. I'm not sure I agree that laziness is the factor at play here though. In my experience, ad people usually do put in the effort to find out everything about the product, and uncover differences. It's more of a deliberate decision not to use them. For example, Fallon probably discovered that Sony Bravia TV's have a special TLX-3000 chip in them or something, but decided it would be more effective to do a beautiful and emotive ad on a generic quality of colour TVs - great colour. Similarly, John Lewis has differentiators, but the agency has for the last few years been going with a generic 'emotion of Christmas' message, and it's leading to great work, sales are up, etc. Budweiser is brewed slightly differently (using rice) but consumers don't really care about that, and a generic fun/ socialising message ('Wassup') worked pretty well.

David said...

The cultural anthropologists focused on specific ethnic groups are extra amusing. I've "learned" that "Hispanics are big into Mobile" about 100 times.

Bjorn said...

How many readers do you have? That would be the actual number for smart-people-working-in-advertising.