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.


saima chaudhry said...

Now the situation is reverse because people need and validate their
beliefs and satisfaction, so marketers need to adopt the people centric
marketing techniques to inspire and advertise product or services.

Cecil B. DeMille said...

I think maybe there are just a lot of crap strategists. Just like there are oodles of crap creatives. The problem is that, usually, neither one can tell if the other knows what the bloody Hell they're doing.

The problem driving both arguments isn't bias, in my opinion. It's a willingness of agencies to produce crap work for clients who insist on doing undifferentiated, meaningless shit instead of advertising. If agencies were unwilling to be gift wrappers – or clients recognized that they need more than that from agencies – this problem would solve itself in short order.

Mark Pilipczuk said...

Even a crap strategist can make their BS sound more believable to the client than many (not all) excellent creatives. Then the client applies their conservatism and lawyers to the rotten strategy and rounds off any remaining decent ideas.

bob hoffman said...

Respectfully, Martin, couldn't disagree more. Good science begins with questions. Bad science begins with answers. Please watch Richard Feynman on this subject. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YltEym9H0x4

VinnyWarren said...

people react to execution. great execution gets noticed. it's the only thing consumers see. what's usually touted as "brilliant strategy" in advertising, in my experience is also called "the bleedin' obvious" by civilians. dudes drink beer, athletes have goals, milk is better with cookies, the pope wears a funny hat etc.

Kram said...

You're mixing things up here Bob. Strategy doesn't start with answers. It starts out with what you want to achieve - that's your question. You then look at how you can achieve it - that's your answer or as Stephen King is saying, 'your solution'. Your question(s) and answer(s) form the strategy.

When Stephen King says 'start with the solution' he's talking about the process of testing a hypothesis and the only way to do that is to try it in action. What you call 'bad science', using Feynman, is *exactly* what Feynman thinks is good science.

Stephen King never pulled anything out of his ass - he's also (one of) the father of research in advertising - but his point about creativity in planning or strategy is entirely to stop stultifying strategy by rote and that's exactly the approach many of our greatest scientific advances have taken - a problem to solve with a creative solution that needs to be tested.

I suggest you read 'A Masterclass on Brand Planning' for more because I'm not sure you really understand what strategists or planners do or should do. Evidenced by:

'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.'

What you are describing here is the very definition of tactics. Where to move media spend, how to execute a promotion, shape of a presentation. Those are not strategies.

Sofiene said...

I think work quality depends on how good people are. Of course a lot of strategists are top noch gift wrappers, a lot of creatives too. But the problem comes the job definition. People forgot that strategists are and must be creative. No matter how smart you are if you are not creative your strategic output will be garbage, at least from an advertising point of view. Strategists are creatives that keep a foot on the clients world and the other foot in the agency world while creatives keep one foot in the agency world and the other in outside world.

dinesh vadhia said...

Agree. Been on it for years and have zero value. But, it is actually a service for recruiters who pay the monthly subscription and in return have a trove of resumes and connections.

Keaton Hulme-Jones said...

Bob, can you please come work for us and become my director? Thank you.

animatted said...

There's a quote that goes something like "the best teachers are those who show you where to look, but don't tell you what to see". I think the same could be said about good planners.

Peter Russell said...

absolutely spot on. i've been saying much the same myself for a while now. only not quite as eloquently: http://wp.me/p2uah0-3

Cecil B. DeMille said...

Sad, is it not, that most agencies these days don't have a device that will run it?

Mark Finney said...

Point taken about 360 degree marketing, if this is how the concept has been interpreted. To me it always meant being "joined-up" across channels and touchpoints rather than trying to be everywhere at once, both from adherence to a core campaign idea and through branding.

royAB said...

Not to hijack, but re;
'The Impressionists, the Cubists, Picasso, Matisse, were all challenging the accepted ideas of the time'
have a listen here (caution, 8 hours of informed analysis);

Tive said...

Perhaps planning needs a new approach. I like this test from Undercurrent. https://medium.com/@matthew_daniels/strategy-in-reverse-364b10aa64fb

Stephen Eichenbaum said...

This is perhaps the best column you have written. I am forwarding it to my co-workers.

bob hoffman said...


George Tannenbaum said...

Just like the best baseball strategies. 'Never let the tying run up to bat.'
And, 'hit a double.'

Jim said...

That's just not cricket is it? What did he say?