June 23, 2010

Why Clients Are Always Confused

A few weeks ago I wrote a post called "Why Creatives Are Always Confused." Today, it's clients' turn.

I have been in the advertising business now for about 200 years.

One of my quests while serving this lengthy sentence has been to try to find some universal truths about advertising. So far I've come up empty.

If someone like me -- who spends 14 hours a day thinking about advertising -- is confused, imagine how our clients, who have real jobs to contend with, must feel.

I suspect that there are no universal truths about advertising.  Advertising is a function of human behavior, and human behavior is always contingent. The only general statements you can make about human behavior are about probabilities, not absolutes.

There is nothing you can say about advertising that is always true. There is also nothing you can say about advertising that is never true.

This leads to big problems, lots of wasted money, and a very large quantity of disoriented, confused clients.

It makes it possible for a certain type of agency person -- who is articulate but often wrong -- to convince the impressionable and the naive to follow him.

It makes it commonplace to argue from the extreme and make it seem as if an improbably rare occurrence is somehow typical.

How many times have bad agencies used the brilliant Just Do It to justify pointless "branding" campaigns?

How many times have bad agencies used the ground-breaking Subservient Chicken to justify preposterous viral schemes?

How many times have agencies used the wonderful got milk? campaign to justify shoddy account planning?

How many times have web hustlers used Zappos to justify expensive, ineffectual social media projects?

How many times have hack agency heads used horrible but successful used-car advertising to justify absence of creativity?

Because there are no universal truths, you can find justification for virtually anything in the annals of advertising, no matter how unlikely.

By factoring out the brilliance of the people who created Just Do It, Subservient Chicken, and got milk? agencies can pretend that there are some general principles about advertising to be drawn from them. There aren't. But clients are constantly being mislead into thinking there are.

When evaluating advertising, remember
  • there are no absolutes, just probabilities
  • never allow anecdotes to masquerade as principles
  • even people who do brilliant, groundbreaking work have trouble reproducing it
It would make clients' lives -- and ours -- so much simpler if there were some rules about advertising that were always true. Unfortunately, there aren't.

No wonder clients are confused. No wonder I'm confused.

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