August 31, 2007

Media Dropouts

Three brave souls have volunteered for Dr.A's Get-Happy Diet. They are Dotcalm, The Professor, and Uncle Susie.

They'll be dropping out of pop culture for two weeks and reporting to us on how it's affecting them. The hypothesis is that they'll be less stressed and less anxious. We'll see.


August 27, 2007

Dr. A's Get-Happy Diet

Last week, Dr. Adcontrarian explained (uh...declared, proclaimed, popped-off?) about how unprotected media exposure makes us unfortunate ad people unhappy.

Today I unveil Dr. A's Get-Happy Diet. The good part is, you can eat all you want. The bad part is, you're going to drop out of pop culture for a few weeks. It will not only make you happier, it will make you realize how addicted you are to anxiety and stress. Here are the rules:

1. Almost no TV. The only viewing allowed is baseball games and those past-their-sell-by-date rock band concerts on PBS. Okay, you can also check the Weather Channel.
2. Almost no movies. Juvenile comedies only.
3. Almost no newspapers. You can read the sports section, skim the business section, and do the Sudoku. No front page, no international news, no national or local news.
4. No magazines at all.
5. No websites with news or pop culture.
6. No news or talk radio.

What are you going to do? You are going to relax, maybe read a book or two, maybe enjoy longer dinners, have an extra glass of wine, spend time with your friends... in other words, it's gonna be hell.

But you're going to come out of it happier, less tense, and less anxious.

Now the important part. We still have a few openings for on-line guides (sounds so much better than guinea pigs.). Your only commitment is to follow the diet for 2 weeks and send us a few lines each day about how you're doing. If you're shy or wanted by the feds for interstate dog-fighting, you can be anonymous. Send an email to, or press "Comments" below and we'll set you up.

We start on Friday.


August 24, 2007

How to Be Happy in Advertising

Dr. Adcontrarian is on duty today to help you be a happier ad person. Please have a seat.

It's not easy being happy in advertising. It's a frustrating business. Modern life is filled with many horrors -- war, husbands, pizza with chicken on it. And we ad people are closely aligned with something uniquely anxiety-producing -- pop culture.

Advertising used to be about discovering what consumers wanted and creating messages that addressed those interests. Now it's about pretending to find out what consumers want but really trying to figure out what the next hot cultural thing is going to be and jumping on it under the pretext of understanding consumer interests. Call me cynical.

Paying such close attention to pop culture causes great anxiety. It is non-stop slime bucket stimulation . We secretly enjoy pop culture because it keeps us on edge and anxious. This works its way through our back-office computers to stimulate us consciously and make us miserable unconsciously (full disclosure - I have no idea what I'm talking about but, admit it, if your shrink said this you'd nod your head.)

Anyway, I was on vacation not long ago. I was out-of-the-loop for a while -- off-the-grid, so to speak. I came back 50% happier than I left. After thinking about it, I realized that I was so much less tense and anxious because I hadn't watched a tv show, or read a newspaper, or visited a pop culture website, or watched a news broadcast for weeks. (You may be thinking that ignoring the news is not conducive to good citizenship, and this may very well be true, but it is not the subject of today's session, so quit whining.)

Now, here's where you come in. We're going to have the very first on-line reality show right here at The Ad Contrarian blog. Dr. A will be looking for 5 volunteers to spend the next 2 weeks getting happier by dropping out of pop culture. We'll be following them on the world famous TAC blog. More about this on Monday.

(If you'd like to sign-up now to be a drop-out-of-pop-culture-for 2-weeks volunteer, send me an email at or press "Comment" below. If you're shy or running from the law, you can volunteer anonymously.)


August 21, 2007

Quickies, III

* Not sure it's the worst commercial of all time, but it's pretty damn close. Doc Pomus must be spinning. How come the Black guy is the only one who looks embarrassed? Your comments, please.

* Nonetheless, TAC is not “media neutral”. TAC believes the :30 second spot is still the most powerful marketing tool ever invented. Yeah, I know. I don’t get it.

* Please someone tell me one internet ad you can remember seeing this week.

* If you don’t remember the excesses of the “new economy” you deserve what you’re going to get from excessive credulity about “new media”.

* And, by the way, now that the “upfront” is concluded for 2008 and the tv networks increased their take by almost 5%, where are all the geniuses who were predicting its demise a few months ago?

* Retailers have learned a lot about advertising from manufacturers. Manufacturers have learned nothing from retailers.

* The Law of Unexpected Consequences lives -- From The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 07/19/07: The more exposure middle school students have to anti-smoking ads, the more likely they are to smoke, according to a new University of Georgia study.

* When your kid complains that she’s the only one of her friends with a curfew, tell her this: In the entire history of mankind nothing good ever happened to a teenager after midnight. What does this have to do with advertising? Nothing. TAC is a full-service know-it-all.


August 17, 2007

Amazing data from TiVo, II

Earlier this week, I presented data collected from TiVo (see Amazing Data from TiVo) that showed that the least-skipped commercials in June, as in previous months, were all either retail or direct response commercials.

This will be shocking to almost everyone on Madison Avenue and not surprising at all to a small group of us who practice Performance Based Advertising (PBA). One of the three principles of PBA is that advertising is most effective when it focuses on changing behavior, not attitude. How are retail and direct response advertisers different from typical "brand" advertisers? They aim to get us to do something. In other words, they focus on changing behavior.

This is a critical strategic principle that almost no one in advertising seems to understand. In general, brand advertisers do a much better job than retailers and DR practitioners in the area of creativity, but by concentrating on trying to change attitudes their wonderful creative efforts are often misguided.

Attitudes are almost impossible to change. Ask any neuroscientist or psychologist. If your advertising is aimed at changing attitudes, you better rethink what you're doing.

For a whole lot more on this check out Myths Exploding, Mysteries Unraveling. For more on Performance Based Advertising, you can get a free copy of The Ad Contrarian book by clicking here.


August 15, 2007

Amazing data from TiVo

If TiVo is teaching us nothing else, it's teaching us that all the noise agencies make about "rewarding" viewers is just the same old baloney. Agencies secretly would rather be in the entertainment business (hey, so would I) and they are always looking for a reason to re-define advertising as entertainment, thus the talk about "rewarding" viewers.

Data from TiVo-ers, however, is telling quite a different story.

From Ad Age, August 15, 2007

"In June, as in previous months, many of the least-fast-forwarded brand campaigns continued to hail from the far ends of Madison Avenue's creative range... Among the campaigns TiVo said were least-fast-forwarded were ads from Cort furniture rentals, Hooters restaurant and Tax-Masters.

...Looking solely at broadcast networks during prime time, the least-fast-forwarded campaign for the month of June was a direct-response ad for Bowflex exercise equipment..."

So all the least-skipped spots were either retailers or direct marketers. Having not seen these spots, I am guessing that they wouldn't rank very high on creativity. Imagine if we could apply the creativity of brand advertising with the down-to-earth product focus of retail and DR advertising?

By the way, can't wait to see how the brand babblers and the account planning crowd are going to spin this data.

See Wait A Minute


August 13, 2007


It is probably not a coincidence that the loss of confidence in advertising is concurrent with another trend in the advertising business – the unprecedented concentration of the ad industry into the hands of a few lawyers and accountants. A couple of decades ago Y&R had the largest share of the ad market in the US at a little over 1%. Today four global holding companies control about 75% of U.S. ad dollars.

Along with this consolidation of dollars has come a consolidation of thinking. In our opinion, these companies tend to sound alike, look alike, and smell alike. They spout the same clich├ęs and dreadful jargon. Here is an excerpt from a press release from one such global agency. I've changed the names to protect the innocent:

Mr. A will report to Mr. B, executive creative director of OmniGlobe, who said Mr. A “represents a new generation of creative visionaries who are able to bring the total brand experience to the development of integrated creative solutions."


How can people who write nonsense like this create comprehensible ads? Right, they can’t.


August 05, 2007

Quickies, II

- Hypocrite Hall of Fame: Brad Haley, exec. VP-marketing of CKE Restaurants in Ad Age, “Too often today ads appear that seem to have been developed almost exclusively with the goal of ‘breaking through the clutter’ ...viewers of attention-getting ideas with weak ’selling ideas’ are often left with a soulless thrill and no corresponding development of the brand-consumer relationship.” This from the guy who brought you Paris Hilton washing the car. The hypocrisy is breathtaking.

- TAC thinks that the marketing community does not understand how ad strategy needs to change as a result of new media realities. Most pundits attribute the diminishing confidence in advertising to media fragmentation and consumer indifference. TAC thinks it is primarily a creative issue. TAC thinks we started to go bad when we redefined the purpose of advertising from “selling” to “branding” (see Brand Babble. and Indirect Marketing.)

- TAC is getting mighty tired of marketers of mediocre, generic products complaining about how we ad people just don’t get it... how resistant we are to change... how the 30 second spot is we’re in denial. TAC has a suggestion for these guys -- pull your tv spots for 6 months and let’s see how you do. Then we’ll see who doesn’t get it.

- Worse are the agency people, pundits and critics who have joined this chorus. They ought to know better.

- Trying to change peoples’ attitudes is generally a waste of time and money. Once people make up their minds, they rarely change them. Ask any psychologist or neuroscientist. If the purpose of your advertising is to change attitudes you better re-think what you’re doing. More about this in The Ad Contrarian book.

- Good news: I met a 10 year-old kid the other day whose name wasn’t Tyler.

- User Generated Content: For years we’ve had to put up with cranks bothering us with letters and phone calls. Now that they’ve got video cameras and YouTube we’re supposed to go all wobbly over them. Is there anything more pathetic than a supposedly professional ad agency delegating its job to high school kids?

- Wonder what the account planning crowd are going to say about this? From Ad Age, July 18, 2007, “New data from... 20,000 TiVo units. Two months of the data show that some of the least-skipped ad campaigns were direct-response commercials...” (See Wait A Minute)


August 04, 2007

Indirect Marketing

Some things can only be achieved indirectly.

You can’t be happy by trying to be happy. If you want to be happy you have to go fishing, or eat a pizza, or clean out your closet.

And when someone tells me she's "working" on her marriage, I’m pretty certain that within a few weeks her house will be crawling with attorneys and real estate agents. You want to have a good marriage? Stop trying so hard. Go to Hawaii. Play Scrabble. Or even better, leave each other alone.

Sometimes, the more directly you address a problem, the worse it gets.

It’s the same in marketing. You want to have a strong brand? Quit “branding”. A strong brand is a byproduct. It comes from doing other things right. Make sure your product is excellent. Make sure you're taking good care of your customers. Make sure your ads differentiate you. That's what builds brands.

I don’t think Apple has become a great brand by studying the sociological and anthropological foundation of brand beliefs. They’ve become great by making really good products and really good ads about those products. If that happens to stimulate the sociological and anthropological foundation of brand beliefs, well, hot damn.

Apple’s advertising always focuses on the product (okay, they once got carried away for a few months and did that “Think different” brand campaign, but it didn’t last).

The thousands of companies in America who think they’re going to be successful if they just get their “brand” right are nuts. You’ve got to get a whole lot of other things right first.

If you do, the brand will take care of itself. If you don't, all the "branding" in the world won't help.

This is an excerpt from Everything You Need To Know About Branding On One Little Page


August 03, 2007

Barry Bonds

Before Barry Bonds ties Hank Aaron this week, he has a chance to redeem himself and his legacy in the eyes of baseball fans. When he hits his 755th home run, he should issue the following statement:

"Today I had the great privilege of tying the most famous record in sports. Having done so, I am announcing my immediate retirement.

While it would be a great honor to hold the all-time home run record, it would be a hollow reward. Baseball is too important, and this record is too precious, to have it tainted by controversy.

As a man who has loved the game of baseball from childhood, who has had the good fortune to grow up around legends like Bobby Bonds and Willie Mays, I feel it is incumbent on me to put the game first.

To the wonderful fans who have been supporting and rooting for me, I know you may be disappointed. I think in the fullness of time you will understand the value of what I'm doing."

Bonds would go out a hero instead of a vilified usurper of baseball's most important record. He would also substantially mitigate the legal and character questions he's facing. The chances of Bonds doing something like this: Zero. Too much ego, too much arrogance.

What does this have to do with advertising? Nothing. One of the few benefits of being a contrarian -- we do whatever the hell we want.


August 02, 2007


- The consumer is becoming more resistant to marketing, right? Tell that to Apple and Toyota. Here’s what the consumer is becoming more resistant to: generic, undifferentiated products supported by smug, benefit-free advertising.

- If I have to read one more quote from one more brain-dead agency boob with the word “engagement” in it, someone’s going to die. The engagement crowd is trying to convince us that the effectiveness of advertising is highly correlated to the level of interest a consumer has in the program. Baloney. Ads have to stand on their own. Good ads are good anywhere. Bad ads stink everywhere.

- ”...the spread of digital video recorders is making TV a less effective medium.” ADWEEK, March 3, 2006. Only one thing wrong with this well-known fact. It’s not true.

- Facts: Among viewers 18-49 Nielsen reported in November 2006 that 2.6% of total tv viewing is playback on a DVR. Those who playback skip commercials about 60% of the time (New York Times). So a whopping 1.56 percent of commercials are being skipped because of TiVo-ing. There are more spots missed by people leaving to change their Depends. (See Nailed)

- From ADWEEK 7 months later: “Some advertisers actually gain significantly from DVR usage.... thanks to the DVR (The Office) added 12 percent more commercial viewers.”

- The internet and new media are also killing tv, right? Wrong. American families now watch 9% more tv than they did in 2000.

- Put these facts together and here’s what you get: Since 2000, the positive effect of more tv viewing is 6 times the negative effect of TiVo-ing. Try finding that fact somewhere.


August 01, 2007

Precision Guessing

A close friend of mine is a psychiatrist and former medical director of a large behavioral health organization.

In our frequent conversations about psychiatry and the human condition, he often makes the point that human behavior is often unfathomable.

It occurred to me recently that his years at Harvard and Johns Hopkins may have been wasted. If he wanted a profound understanding of human behavior all he needed to do was spend a little time around account planners. All they need is a few interviews, a few groups, a week in the field, and bingo... insight!

I suppose we are fortunate to have people of this caliber in our industry.

As for me, I'm afraid I have a hard time understanding human behavior. As a matter of fact, I have a hard time understanding my own behavior.

I have no idea why I buy Jif instead of Skippy. I don't do taste tests. All I know is that when I'm standing in the peanut butter aisle staring blankly into space, there comes a time when I have to make a decision. And for some reason I usually grab the Jif. Do I have an emotional attachment to the Jif brand? Gimme a break.

And if you can help me understand why I buy Chuck Wagon for my dog Buddy instead of Alpo, I will be most appreciative. From all I can tell, it doesn't seem to matter much to him. So why does it matter to me? As a matter of fact, I’m not even sure it matters to me. I just do it.

I'm frequently dismayed that I understand so little about human behavior while others in my profession seem to understand so much.

Either these people are uniquely brilliant, or they're bluffing. My money's on bluffing.

Here's why. One of the most difficult things an agency has to do is justify to clients why they pay us all this money. This is particularly vexing if the agency can't demonstrate a direct relationship between its endeavors and its clients' sales results.

So agencies create misdirection and false goals. You've probably seen them all: awareness scores, copy test results, gold statues... not exactly real sales results, but close enough to fool most clients.

The best misdirection strategy of all is to create mystery around the process. "We have the 'Z-Process'... "We have the 'Human Insight' process"... "We have 'Planning Plus'... The objective is to create the impression that the agency has a proprietary methodology for understanding and explaining consumer behavior.

It is a way to hide the ultimate advertising truth: Creating advertising is largely precision guessing.

In Hollywood they have a saying: "Nobody knows anything." This explains how huge-budget, big-star, focus-group-approved movies manage to bomb on a regular basis.

It is not dissimilar in advertising. Most of consumer behavior is perfectly obvious -- people like things that look nicer, taste better, work more dependably and cost less (see Salesmen & Sociologists.) Then there’s the mysterious part. And what we claim to understand about the mysterious part is usually speculation and ideology masquerading as knowledge.

Most of what we know about consumer behavior is about probabilities, not absolutes. Unfortunately, our clients like absolutes. They don’t want to be told that they’re paying for probabilities and guesswork. They want data and they want it now. So advertising agencies spend great quantities of time and money dressing up probabilities and guesswork to look like facts.

Yet the simple truth is that the best ad agencies are not the ones with the largest number of Official Consumer Insight Elucidators, but the ones with the best precision guessers.

The bottom line is, we should be skeptical of conjecture about consumer behavior tarted up as grand strategic insight. We certainly want to use whatever research methodologies are available to find out what consumers have to say about their behavior, but we should temper this with the knowledge that to some extent they don't know why they buy Chuck Wagon instead of Alpo. And if they don't understand their own behavior, perhaps we need to exercise a little modesty in asserting that we do.



It has become an article of faith in the advertising and marketing world that traditional mass-market advertising is on the way out.

From the New York Times, December 28, 2004:

Jim Nail, principal analyst at Forrester Research, said, “You’re seeing the end of the era of mass marketing.”

Well, it’s a few years later, and it seems to me I saw some Bud spots on the Super Bowl. Also, I seem to recall seeing some iPod billboards recently. And aren’t those Toyota spots I see every time I turn on the TV? As I sit here today, mass marketing is doing a helluva lot better than “principal analysts.”

And yet every week I can still pick up a newspaper or magazine and read an article about how the Internet or TiVo is changing the world as we know it and the poster child of mass marketing, the 30-second TV spot, is dead and buried.

In fact, while data on this topic is hard to find and sometimes contradictory, here’s what it is telling us:

• According to Nielsen Media Research, among all households age 18-49, 2.6% of viewing time is DVR playback
• According to the New York Times, 60% of the time DVR viewers skip commercials

Do the math:

Incidence of viewing DVR = 2.6%
Incidence of skipping ads while viewing DVR = .60
Total ads skipped: 2.6% x .60 = 1.56%

So all this TiVo fuss is about 1.56% of commercials being skipped. More commercials are missed by people getting up to change their Depends.

What this data doesn’t tell us is how many DVR owners are watching more TV because they are now able to watch shows they would normally have missed. If the answer is that they’re watching more tv (and how could it possibly be otherwise?) the 1.56% gets even smaller.

On the other side we hear about how the internet is killing tv viewing. Once again, the data tell quite a different story. Since the year 2000, household tv viewing is actually up 9%. People are watching more tv, not less. In fact, the positive effect of more tv viewing is six times the negative effect of TiVo-ing. Try finding that fact somewhere.

With due respect to Mr. Nail, the end of the era of mass marketing is probably going to have to be postponed a few weeks. Let’s go out on a limb here and make a prediction: as long as there are masses, and as long as there is marketing, there will be mass marketing.

However, while Mr. Nail hasn’t exactly nailed it (couldn’t help myself ), he has inadvertently stumbled on something important. Marketers are turning more and more from mass-market advertising techniques to what they call “nontraditional” or “experiential” forms of marketing. This can include everything from very sophisticated websites to posters in urinals. The idea is that these forms are more “engaging” than traditional advertising.

Nontraditional marketing is not a new idea. Anyone who knows anything about advertising knows that experiencing a product has far more impact than experiencing an ad. Smallish independent agencies have been able to differentiate themselves over the years from their much larger counterparts by doing a fair amount of nontraditional marketing. What is new, however, is the unquestioned faith new converts have in it. While they will measure their cost-per-point and ROI in traditional media to the nearest penny, they will create zillion dollar web strategies just so long as some agency web genius tells them it’s cool.. As usual, the thing that is all the rage is being oversold and under-measured.

The conventional wisdom is that media proliferation and fragmentation have been the most important factors in the supposed ebbing effectiveness of advertising. Once we were able to easily reach almost everyone by buying a few TV shows, but today that is no longer possible. Consequently, the argument goes, mass media are not as effective as they once were.

On the surface this seems logical. However, one could just as easily make the counter-argument: it is certainly true that the media have become fragmented. But with increased fragmentation, any medium that can deliver a large audience—even if it is not as large as it once was—should be more valuable than ever.

Not only does this argument have logic to it, it has the added benefit of being true. In spite of the fact that audiences for individual TV shows have dropped significantly, media prices have not. In fact, on a cost-per-viewer basis, TV prices have continued to rise.

In the city where I live, household TV costs per point increased by 68% between 2000 and 2007. If we accept that the marketplace is the final arbiter of economic value, we must concede that mass media time is actually more valuable than it has ever been.

If you don’t have any 15-year-olds around, I suggest you hook up with some for a day and watch their habits. They are obsessed with media, consuming two or three at a time. Sure, the deck is being reshuffled with more media options and people moving from medium to medium. But not only are we not “at the end of the era of mass marketing,” we are in an explosion of media that, in the fullness of time, is going to make those media that can economically reach mass markets more valuable than ever.


Aiming Low

Of all the dumb things that advertisers do, one of the dumbest is aiming their message too young.

There seems to be an irresistible need for marketers to target young people despite monumental evidence that older people have far more money, are far easier to reach and all-in-all make better customers.

Of course, there are some products that rely on the youth market for their survival. But for most companies, targeting young people is simply senseless. When’s the last time you saw a car ad with an old person in it? And yet, of the 13 cars the average American will buy in a lifetime, 8 of them will be bought after the age of 50.

The rationale for always showing young people in ads is the old canard that older people want to be like younger people. In fact, not only do older people not want to be like younger ones, but a recent study showed that half say they tune out when they see a spot pitched to young people and one-third say they actively avoid products whose ads are directed at younger people.

The worst and perhaps most pervasive rationale for targeting young people is the notion that if you get them young you’ll have them for life. This is the idiotic “lifetime value” argument that spawned the dearly departed “new economy.” Someone please show me one 50-year-old who drives the same car, drinks the same beverages, wears the same clothes, or eats the same food he did at 18. I mean, besides my brother-in-law.

Some facts:

* People over 50 comprise 29% of the population
* They control 77% of financial assets
* They control 50% of all discretionary spending
* They watch 50% more television
* They are the target for 10% of all advertising

There are only two possible explanations for the above. Either advertisers are crazy, or they are hopelessly out of touch with, and prejudiced against, the people who economically control this country.

Since I don’t think they’re crazy, the explanation has to be the latter. They have become so used to accepting the 30-years-out-of-date wisdom that every brand has to be “youthful”; they are so used to young and hip advertising winning all the awards; they are so sure that the rest of the world is just like them that they are blind to what is perfectly evident to anyone who looks at this objectively.

Not convinced?

According to Federal reserve data, since 1989, nearly all additional wealth in USA has gone to people 55 and over. In the same time period, adjusted for inflation, people 35-50 have actually lost wealth. In the 15 years ending 2004 (the latest year for which data is available) median net worth rose 97% and income rose 52% for people 55-59. In the same period, net worth dropped 28% and income dropped 10% for people 35-39. “(Baby) boomers...outspend other generations by about 2 to 1 across all product categories.” Marketwatch, March 6, 2007.

Not only is most advertising not appealing to the people who have and spend most of the money, it is alienating them with imagery, values, and cultural references that are actively disliked and resented.

Puzzles & Mysteries

An article by Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, in The New Yorker leads me to believe that advertising people can learn something from spies. Not about stealing other peoples’ ideas, but about solving business problems.

Gladwell tells us about a national security expert, Gregory Treverton who distinguished between two kinds of problems: puzzles and mysteries. His distinctions have great value for us.

Puzzles, he wrote, are problems for which there is not enough information. An example of a puzzle: Where is Jimmy Hoffa buried? If we had more information, we would know the answer. If someone told us “Jimmy Hoffa is buried in New Jersey,” we’d know a little more than we know now. If they said,“He’s buried in northern New Jersey,” we’d know even more. If they said,“He’s buried in the Meadowlands,” we’d have an answer to our puzzle.

On the other hand, there are mysteries. Mysteries are problems for which we have plenty of information, but no accurate analysis. An example of a mystery: Why can’t inner-city schools teach kids to read? There are thousands of studies. Every education department of every university in America has done a study on this; every committee of Congress has done a report on it; every editorial writer has a theory about it, and every pundit has an opinion. And yet, we have no definitive answer. More studies and more information are not likely to yield an answer. What is needed is an accurate analysis of the voluminous information that already exists.

Gladwell gives a wonderful example of the importance of distinguishing between puzzles and mysteries. In 1943, during World War II, the Allies were concerned about Germany’s boast of having developed a “superweapon.” Did they really have a superweapon, or was it just propaganda? There were two ways to deal with this problem. It could be dealt with as a puzzle, and spies could be sent out to gather more information. Or it could be dealt with as a mystery, and information the Allies already had could be analyzed.

Fortunately, American intelligence had a bunch of brainiacs who were known as “the screwball division.” They were “slightly batty geniuses” who were brilliant at analyzing information that was readily available to anyone. So instead of sending out spies disguised in mustaches to infiltrate German munition factories, the intelligence community gave the brainiacs German newspapers and radio broadcasts. These guys pored over the information that already existed and accurately predicted that the Germans had, in fact, developed a new weapon, the V-1 rocket. And they also accurately predicted both that it had been stalled in development and when it would be ready.

As a matter of fact, in retrospective analysis, these guys had been correct an amazing 81% of the time in their analyses during the war. A success rate many times higher than the spies.

How does this apply to us? We ad people are almost always tasked by our clients with solving some variation of the following problem: How do we sell more stuff?

Sometimes it is a subset of that question, like Who is our target customer? or What is our primary medium?” or Which of these campaigns should we go with? or What is our brand position?

One hundred percent of the time these problems are dealt with as puzzles, not mysteries. We always assume that one more study will yield the magic answer. Research is commissioned. Spies are sent out to live with customers or interview them or hold group discussions with them.

The results of these endeavors are almost always inconclusive. They are often dressed up to appear scientifically valid. Even when the results seem conclusive, the conclusion is often wrong.

On the other hand, most companies have stacks of research and reams of data about their customers and about their industry. This mountain of existing information is almost never consulted.

In my entire career, I have never seen a marketing problem treated as a mystery. I have never once heard a marketing officer say,“You know, we have all this research we’ve done over the years and all this data from the industry. Before we do more research, I want someone to go through this stuff and tell me what it means.”

Why do we prefer to deal with business problems as puzzles rather than mysteries? Frankly, because it is easier. Most information about business problems is not conclusive on the surface. It requires a special intelligence to be able to examine imprecise, unfiltered, often contradictory information and come up with a correct analysis.

Also, the information that is lying around was usually gathered by someone else. In other words, not created here. And as we all know, in American business there is nothing stupider than the previous generation of management.

It is much more comforting to send a researcher or planner out with a fake mustache and give him six weeks to come back with an answer. Unfortunately, as we all have experienced, most of the research we do yields nothing of value and is often actually counterproductive. The following year the report becomes part of the dusty heap of improperly analyzed information sitting around adding to the mystery.

So what are we to do?

The key is to break down the tyranny of titles and find out who our slightly batty geniuses are. Simply because an individual has the title of “account planner” or “research director” or “CMO,” for that matter, doesn’t make her an expert analyst. In my experience, planners and researchers tend to be puzzle doers, not mystery solvers.

However, there are people who are just naturally good at solving mysteries. Generally, this skill correlates with high IQ. They may come from the accounting department or the creative department or the media department or the sales department.

We need to identify these people in our organizations. Before spies are sent out, these people need to be exposed to all the information that exists and allowed to weigh in on the questions we’re all trying to solve.

In short, the hard part of solving marketing problems is not getting more information, it’s figuring out what the information we already have means.

For more on ad research, see Research or Baloney?


Wait A Minute

Former Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen once said, “The three most important words in the English language are ‘wait a minute.’ ”

Advertising and marketing people would be wise to take heed. There is no doubt that we are in a period of great change in the advertising world. What’s not so certain is how it’s changing or where it’s going. There’s a lot of hand-wringing and bloviating but not very much clear thinking or plain speaking.

The first thing everyone needs to do is calm down. In times of change, the people who come out on top are the ones who avoid hysteria and refuse to get stampeded by the herd mentality. Before we go spinning off into terra incognita it’s time to take a deep breath and count to ten.

By now the podcasting and blogging crowd who were at the center of the “trend of the month” club last year are probably starting to realize what a monumental waste of time and money their podcasts and blogs have been. I’m sure there have been a few successes. We all read about them. And I’m equally sure there have been tens of thousands of failures, including this one. We never read about them.

The “trend cycle” is shortening. So while podcasts and blogs have been summarily excised from every agency’s new business pitches, they have been quickly replaced by...who knows what? User generated content? One second TiVo spots? Serialized web movies? The gimmicks and jargon change so quickly it’s hard to keep track. These web-based activities are getting mighty pricey. Just wait till the bean counters do an ROI on these babies.

The most important thing you need to do, Mr. or Ms. Marketer, is to be guided by principles not trends. Trends come and go, principles don’t change. What are the principles that are guiding your advertising decisions? If you don’t know, you better figure them out and write them down. And by the way, if your principles are centered around “consumer engagement”, “360 degree touchpoints” and “brand saliency”, they’re not principles. They’re cliches..

The next thing you need to do is to stop swinging wild. One of the mistakes that advertisers are making is spreading themselves too thin. With all the new media options it is more important than ever to concentrate your efforts, not dilute them. You can’t be an efficient advertiser in every medium. Decide what you want to be and then be a good one. If you’re going to be a broadcast advertiser, be there heavily. If you’re going to be an interactive advertiser, be there heavily. Don’t be an “alibi advertiser” i.e., a little of this and a little of that so that you can show your constituencies that you’ve checked all the boxes.

The key to media success is impact. The key to impact is concentrating your resources.

Next you need to rethink your creative efforts. The creative community is trying to convince you that in an era of rapidly expanding media options you need to “reward” viewers in order to get their attention. This is code. What they’re really trying to say is that you need to entertain viewers. This is what they always say. Unfortunately, they would mostly rather be in the entertainment business (frankly, so would I.) All other things being equal, advertising that makes your point in an entertaining way is superior to advertising that doesn’t. But don’t kid yourself. Consumers rarely give you points for cleverness alone.

In fact, consumers have more than enough entertainment options. What your advertising needs to do is make a differentiating point about your product. If you’re all caught up in the vortex and excitement of change, but your advertising isn’t making a point that’s helping you sell stuff, it’s time to raise your hand and say, “wait a minute.”


The End of the World

I have good news.

We haven’t all died from bird flu. Or from SARS. Or from ebola virus.

Oh, and we survived Y2K pretty much intact.

And if you can’t sleep nights worrying about global warming, here are a few quotes that might help:

In “The Cooling World," April 28, 1975 Newsweek informed us that meteorologists "are almost unanimous" that “catastrophic famines might result from…global cooling”

On Sept. 14, 1975 The New York Times told us that this global cooling "may mark the return to another ice age."

And on May 21, 1975 the Times said "a major cooling of the climate is widely considered inevitable" because it has been "well established" that the climate in the Northern Hemisphere "has been getting cooler since about 1950."

I could go on.

The point is, I know nothing about climate or disease. But I do know something about media hysteria. Since the beginning of civilization, it’s been pretty clear that you can make a nice living predicting the end of the world. And while the end of the world has been predicted with great regularity by experts for thousands of years, so far no one has been right. Not a single, solitary one of ‘em.

Nonetheless, this never seems to deter the catastrophists and their impressionable followers

It is also true in the advertising business. In my lifetime the advertising business was going to be destroyed by:

a) Cable TV
b) Generic brands (an oxymoron?)
c) The VCR
d) The computer (Remember? Clients were going to make spots on their desktops!)
e) Wal-Mart
f) Digital cable TV (Remember? During programs, we were going to click on products that were placed in “content” and be taken to “long form” info- somethings and then order the product through our TV! Golly!)

Now the experts all agree that advertising will die at the hands of “new media”: the internet plus iPods plus cell phones plus TiVo plus who-the-hell-knows what.

From the usually sensible Bob Garfield in Advertising Age, March 26, 2007, “It's a world ... in which ad agencies are marginalized ... in which marketing -- and even branding -- are conducted without much reliance on the 30-second spot or glossy spread.... Because nobody is much interested in seeing them, and because soon they will be largely unnecessary.”

I could go on.

Once again, the experts are wrong. Advertising is not dying and will not die. Here’s why:

1. People love entertainment.
2. People would rather get their entertainment free than pay for it.
3. Advertisers provide people with free entertainment. No one else does.
4. People have always been willing to put up with ads in order to get free entertainment.
5. This will not change.

Do you think Yahoo or Google would be where they are today if they were not supported by advertising? (i.e., free.) And if you believe, as some pundits do, that free television will soon be replaced by paid downloads, take a look at what happened to Napster when it went from free to not free.

Sure, the TV networks will have it a lot tougher as people continue to adjust to a new, more diverse media landscape. But, c’mon, are you really worried about the tv networks?

The new media hysterics are the same crowd who sold us the new economy back in 1999. You remember, brick-and-mortar stores were dead; we would be ordering our dog food and batteries on line! Golly! In the meantime, my local supermarket seems to be doing just fine.

New media alarmists have it wrong in another way, too. They have convinced the highly impressionable marketing and advertising communities to focus on the wrong things. The key issue for advertisers is the same as it’s always been: It’s the message, stupid.

If the message is right, who cares what screen people watch it on? If the message is wrong, what difference does it make?

If you agree with us, be prepared to be told that you are clueless and you just don’t get it. In fact, it is the new media crowd who don’t get it. Radio was not killed by television, as was predicted. Movies were not killed by television or the VCR, as was predicted.

New media will take their place alongside traditional media. They will all be supported by advertising. The laws of economics have not been repealed. End of story.

It will soon become apparent that the advertising industry, far from dying, is in a substantial growth period. It will be re-energized, redefined, and creatively refreshed by the diversity of media. Marketers will need the creativity of the advertising community more than ever.

To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, perspective is called cluelessness by those who don’t have it.