November 20, 2014

The Danger In Being Different

In marketing and advertising everyone is faking it.

I mean everyone -- you, me, your boss, your client, Martin Sorrell -- everyone.

Let me be even clearer: Nobody knows a fucking thing about how any of this works. We throw money at it and we cross our fingers.

Having said that, it is also true that there are some people with exceptional instincts. These people are very good at "precision guessing." That is, they are much better at intuiting what is going to work than the average ad bozo.

These are the stars in our industry. While I have met good precision guessers in many disciplines, the best precision guessers I have met in advertising have been creatives.

They hide their exceptional intuition behind the language of marketing -- strategy and benefits and brand personality and all the other bullshit jargon of our trade. But make no mistake about it -- they are cleverly using our language to bamboozle us. They are going on their instincts but employing our ideology and vocabulary to pretend they are one of us.

In other words, they solve the problem viscerally and then reverse engineer a rationale that we can accept.

This is a very good thing. If they told the truth -- that they are just making shit up -- no one would listen to them.

But let's get back to the rest of us for a minute.

If you read yesterday's post, you know that Forrester Research released a report saying that social media marketing on Facebook and Twitter is substantially worthless. This is a conclusion some of us reached years ago. 

When I left the agency business, people within agencies were essentially forbidden from saying this. If you did, you were labeled a Luddite, a dinosaur, or just plain stupid. You "didn't get it." It was a one-way ticket out the door.

Advertising is one of the world's trendiest businesses. The consequences of being considered out of step are far more powerful than the satisfaction of finding out you were right five years later.

When nobody knows anything -- like about social media, for example -- you would think that controversial and eccentric opinions would be numerous and welcome. In fact, it is just the opposite.

Ignorance demands conformity. Because everyone knows they are faking it, they seek comfort in the warmth of consensus.

Speaking out against the agreed-upon fantasy is looked upon as both heresy and betrayal. No one is more despised or vilified than the nonbeliever in a tenuous theology.

And so the people who knew better about social media -- the precision guessers -- were coerced into shutting up. Agencies were making money, careers were being built, conferences were being held, clients were demanding more of the magic.

The lesson was clear: When everyone is faking it in unison, there is danger in being different.


Apurv Rohiwal said...

fake it till you make it, is a good mantra.

the recent kit kat social media twitter thing is a print ad but made for twitter.

so that makes it social media

i agree with what you are telling but can we draw a line is my question.

Cecil B. DeMille said...

I know one of these great precision guessers. He also happened to guess that Apple would someday be worth more than the $20 a share it cost at the time.


Patrick Scullin said...

Gut trumps science, providing it's the right gut.

Jason Fox said...


Jeff Spicoli said...

I presented this to a visiting Creative Director, word for word, in one of my ad school classes back in early 2013:

"Most of the best ads are the kind that haven’t been done before. They’re different. Fresh. Maybe even off the wall. And they’re incredibly simple. Strangely enough, some of them are not even especially creative. At least not in the way the industry seems to define creativity.

Present this type of ad concept to a visiting Creative Director in an ad school classroom and watch it get bounced faster than a basketball on a LeBron James fast break.

Why? Because it’s never been done before. It’s different. It’s off the wall. And it’s incredibly simple. It’s not even very creative. Or strategic. It doesn’t make a CD or AP think and say “Oh, yeah. I see where you’re going. Wow. Interesting!”

Great ads require more intuition than creative or strategic ability. This is probably why there are so few really good ads. The industry is creative enough. It’s just not overly intuitive.

Think about some of the recent Super Bowl ads that have gotten the most attention. I don’t know that they were the most successful at driving sales, but they definitely got people to notice them:

GoDaddy: A geek makes out with a beautiful woman.

Budweiser: A guy trains a Clydesdale. They are shown being playful with each other. Three years later he sees the horse at a parade. After the parade the guy is walking away and the horse runs up to him. The guy hugs the horse.

Audi: A dorky high school kid goes to the prom alone in his Dad’s Audi, walks up to a pretty girl and kisses her in front of her date. Cut to him driving in the Audi with a black eye, going “Woo!”

Yeah, present an ad concept like one of these (if you have the balls) in an ad school class and see if you don’t get metaphorically sent to the corner with a dunce cap on.

I’m hoping there are agencies out there where this isn’t the case. At this point I’m guessing they’re not very common."

I recently graduated from ad school. I haven't found a job yet. But I have to admit that I haven't been looking very hard, either.

Doug Garnett said...

Great post...mostly. But I'm not entirely with you this time (usually I am).

Great marketers, and great advertising, comes from instincts informed by solid data/research/facts. I find this ability quite regularly among successful businessmen, merchandising directors, marketers in small companies, account executives who are strategically based (not the usual crowd) and sometimes among creatives. But among creatives I feel like I'm looking for a needle in a haystack.

And this thought about precision guessing? We'd all be better off to realize that marketing is like exploration in the wild west. If you're going to try to make it from Ft. Laramie to San Francisco you'd go gather all the data you can so you can make informed choices, respond well to catastrophe, and actually get there without eating your companions.

But we're caught in a quandary: Research companies tell us they have the landsat data to map out every inch of our journey - and they're lying. But it sells a lot of research. On the other hand, there's that thread in advertising that says "research is all bullshit". And that leads to starvation not very far from Ft. Laramie.

Both are primarily ways to avoid the hard work and realistic risk needed for success. WE have responsibility for making choices. And, we have responsibility for getting the reasonable research, data, and background to make those choices more informed.

Jonathan Rodgers said...

Thanks for the therapy, Bob.

God, have I lived this the last five years.

As a fellow contrarian, I feel like someone who's been wrongly imprisioned, and all of a sudden there's new DNA evidence that's gonna spring me :)

Lewis LaLanne - NoteTakingNerd said...

I love this no-bullshit approach Bob.

It very much makes me think of an author who I've come to greatly admire by the name of David McRaney and the lessons he reveals in his books that behavioral science has proven about how we are all full of shit to one degree or another.

His books, titled, "You Are Not So Smart" and "You Are Now Less Dumb" are celebrations of self delusion.

David prods and pokes at all the ugly truths about our behaviors we don't like to admit in public nor to ourselves... but that we berate ourselves for engaging in when we lie down at night in bed with our eyes closed with nothing to distract us from the non-stop conversation we're always having with ourselves.

David is a force for good in that he is trying to help us to make sure this conversation we're having with ourselves is one that we're proud of because it's free from delusion.

I highly, highly recommend his books to anyone seeking to be a little less self destructive.

Jim said...

"Behavioral science has proven about how we are all full of shit to one degree or another." Except them of course, they are so smug and clever aren't they. Look at you lot over there with your biases and your cognitive failure to understand probability. Ha Ha.

I was just going about my business and then (trendy) behavioural scientist started asking me weird questions and coming up with though experiments that never happen in real life.

Of course we aren't entirely rational all the time but its as if they advocate a retreat form reason altogether.

Lewis LaLanne - NoteTakingNerd said...

Yeah, I could see how some of the scientists could be douchey about their findings. That's pretty common to any arena of life where someone knows more than someone else. And then you have the minority who are pretty cool and humble and who don't have an inflated ego.

David strikes me as being in the minority. He's not a scientist but rather he's a curator of these studies so maybe that has something to do with it.

He's very good at connecting the biases and cognitive failures to events that have happened, or are happening in normal life. If that wasn't a component of his books, I don't think I'd like them as much because I wouldn't be able to match it to a reality I'm familiar with i.e. my daily reality doesn't involve pretending I'm a prison guard and being put in charge of watching inmates who are my fellow students . . . or being charged with thinking I'm shocking actors pretending to be students with a painful low voltage charge on another side of two-way mirror when they answer incorrectly on a test.

But there are numerous everyday things I could be more conscious about not deluding myself on . . . buying decisions, arguing when I know I'm wrong, etc. etc. etc.

David's fun writing style serves as a reminder to me to recognize my flawed thinking when it occurs and to do the logical thing instead of the emotional robot thing I've been wired to do by our society and I think another great aspect of it is serves to awaken you to the bullshit that people try to pull on you based on cognitive biases they know are exploitable.

When I hear some of the behaviors he points to that I'm guilty of engaging in and start defending myself in my head, I have to remind myself of one of my favorite quotes of late which is . . .

"The test of a first rate mind is being able to hold two seemingly opposing thoughts simultaneously and continue to function with grace."

Not an easy task, but worthy of pursuit.

Chris said...

Bob, the great thing about you is that your philosophies and observations go far beyond advertising. I'm not in the ad biz, I'm an accountant, yet if you just replaced the word advertising with "economics", "business management", anything in the business world really, then the piece is still spot on. And the more insecure the group (such as Central Bankers / bankers, the start-up cultures etc.), the tighter the belief has to be held, and the more people are shunned who don't share the belief.

It shows how much group think and jargon in business has replaced the old religious structures we once had as a society. Same shit, different setting.

Cheers Bob, much clarity as always.