January 21, 2015
Good Advertising Is The Best Strategy
People who are good at golf tend to believe golf is the greatest game. People who are good at painting tend to believe art is our highest calling. People who are religious believe in the brilliance of the bible.
This is called confirmation bias. We tend to embrace those things that validate our beliefs or inclinations.
Advertising has two primary branches of discipline -- the strategic and the creative. The strategic part of advertising deals in logic and analysis. The creative part is concerned with imagination.
Most of us who work in advertising, perhaps 90% or more, are primarily involved in the strategic part. Although most of us don't have the word "strategy" in our title, strategy is what we do. We decide how to spend media dollars, how to develop a promotion, how to present something to a client, etc. In other words, we make strategic decisions.
Is there a creative component to these strategic tasks? Sure. But in advertising the word "creative" has a specific meaning. It relates to the development of advertising materials -- ads, designs, videos, photographs, music, and words meant for dissemination to consumers for the purpose of persuasion. Most of us don't do that.
The people we deal with -- our clients -- are also primarily occupied with strategic tasks. Their involvement with creative work is generally second-hand. They manage, evaluate or otherwise interact with it. But they are not usually involved in the hands-on making of it.
The consequence of this is that although it should be self-evident that the most important aspect of advertising is the advertising itself, our behavior says that we don't really believe this. We give great lip-service to creativity, but actually place a higher value on strategy.
Clients and agencies will allow themselves months to develop strategies, and days to create ads. We have endless hours of meetings, presentations, off-sites, deep-dives, decks, and downloads to discuss strategy. And at the end of all this, every now and then an ad appears.
Why? Because placing a higher value on strategy validates what we do. It is another example of confirmation bias.
This would be worth it if we could demonstrate that all this activity paid out. But the contribution of most people we blithely call "strategists" to the effectiveness of advertising is suspect at best.
It has been my experience that what passes for strategic insight in advertising is often quite unexceptional. It is usually some variation on a) quality and value, b) we're so hip, c) new and improved, d) we're authentic/fresh/natural, or just some clever way of saying something very ordinary.
In fact, a typical brand's advertising strategy usually looks very much like its closest competitor's and provides very little in the way of differentiation or leverage. Because of this, as Dave Trott pointed out recently, most ad agencies have become "the gift-wrapping department." We take something mundane and make it look nice.
Sadly, creative people these days cannot rely on anything very useful coming out of the briefs they get. When advertising breakthroughs occur, they are usually the result of an imaginative creative idea. This sometimes is the result of a well-thought out strategy, but most often comes from a creative person who understands the problem better than the strategy does.
One reason for this is that as brands become bigger and more globalized, they become too big for specificity. They have to appeal to too many types of people which leads to fluffy "strategies" that result in "gift-wrapping" instead of effective advertising. Large brands are becoming too big for what we have traditionally called "strategy."
The homogenization of strategies is why imaginative thinking (creativity) has become so much more important, and so much harder to come by. Nonetheless, confirmation bias still leads the agency/client community to foolishly value the word of the most mediocre "strategist" above the instincts of the most talented creative person.
All this is just a long way of saying that, in most cases, good advertising is the best strategy.