November 04, 2019

Our Principal Problem Is Principles

In most fields of endeavor progress is achieved by the accretion of knowledge over time.

In medicine, for example, we learned of the germ theory of disease. Then we learned that there were not just bacteria causing diseases, but other agents like viruses. Then we learned that parasites and fungi could also cause disease. But it all started with the basic knowledge that diseases weren't caused by frogs or witch's spells, but by germs.

In aeronautics, the materials we use to make airplanes are completely different from the ones used 100 years ago. But we still use the fundamental design of a fuselage and a pair of wings. The principles of lift and acceleration are still basic to airplane design and function.

Copernicus taught us that the universe did not revolve around the Earth, but that the Earth revolved around the sun. Then we discovered that there were other bodies revolving around the sun, called planets. Then we discovered that that there were stars that didn't revolve around the sun. And then we found there were things that we thought were stars that turned out to be galaxies comprised of hundreds of billions of stars. One thing lead to another.

Advertising is different. We respect no history. We observe no principles. We have no connective tissue.

Every generation tosses out what was learned before and declares it dead. Marketing is dead. The Big Idea is dead. Positioning is dead. Brands are dead. Traditional media are dead.

Every generation invents its own clichés that mean nothing, but for a brief time pass for principles -- likeanomics, engagement, conversations, storytelling, empowerment.

The absence of principles is the dirty little secret behind why we engender so little respect in the business world. A field of endeavor without principles is not a discipline -- it's a free for all.

What are the principles that everyone in advertising agrees on? In most disciplines there are unifying principles. Some examples: Physics has the law of conservation of energy. Biology has natural selection. Medicine has the germ theory of disease. Economics has the law of supply and demand. These are fundamental to the nature of the field. In  advertising, what are the proven unifying fundamental principles that we all accept? If there are any, I don’t know what they are.

We used to believe that creativity was the essence of successful advertising. No longer.
We used to believe that big ideas were the backbone of outstanding advertising. No more.
We used to believe that an agency's primary job was the delivery of outstanding ads to its clients. Not today.

What do we believe in now? Likeanomics, engagement, conversations, storytelling, and empowerment? These aren't principles. These are the tired clichés of a struggling industry.

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