June 20, 2012

Advertising's 5 Biggest Lies

Among our fellow citizens, it is commonly believed that we ad hacks get paid to lie. While I am not prepared to stipulate, I do concede that sometimes we don't quite tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

So when you set out to write a piece entitled Advertising's 5 Biggest Lies, you are begging for trouble. It's like writing Las Vegas's 5 Worst Buffet Dinners or Pepsi's 5 Dumbest Marketing Ideas. No matter what you pick, someone's got something to top you.

Nonetheless, trouble is my business. So here we go -- advertising's 5 biggest lies:

1. We're all creative.
We're not all tall. We're not all handsome. We don't all have nice complexions or charming personalities. But, according to the lore of advertising agencies, we're all creative.

A good idea can come from anywhere, is the mantra. Yet, remarkably, good ideas seem to come from the same people over and over again. And, similarly, so do bad ones.

If you believe that we're all creative, I'm afraid you also have to believe that it's just a coincidence that Shakespeare wrote dozens of brilliant plays and Whoopi Goldberg didn't.

Not only are we not all creative, even most of us who are paid to be creative aren't.

2. The big idea is dead
Among the many really dumb platitudes that the age of digital marketing has spawned, one of the dumbest is the claim that a lot of little ideas are better than a big one.

This is what's known in the trade as making a virtue of necessity. You see, agencies have been so lousy at coming up with big, successful online advertising ideas that the only defense is to claim that big ideas are no longer necessary -- or even desirable.

It tries to sneak by us the preposterous notion that a weakness is actually a strength -- that web advertising (specifically content marketing and social media) are more effective because of their low impact.

Of course, the question is -- where are they hiding all these brands that have been built with little ideas? I'm having a hard time finding them.

As I've said previously, we are a culture that is hooked on stimulation. We like our stimulation loud and we like it in hi def.

In this environment, little ideas have little chance.

3. The consumer is now in charge
The people who keep hitting us over the head with this cliche tend to be callow digi-crusaders who know very little about the history of marketing, and have a skewed perspective on the current state of things.

There are two parts to this lie. The first is the assumption that sometime in the dim past -- say, way back before Twitter -- the consumer wasn't in charge. Somewhere these people got the idea that there was a time when consumers were helpless zombies who did whatever we told them. I must have been sick that week.

The quickest way to disabuse yourself of this notion is to look at the failure rate of new products. As long as I've been around advertising (which is hundreds of years) the failure rate of new products has been in the 90+% range. Not exactly a monument to us crafty marketers leading submissive consumers around by the nose.

The second dumb part of this lie is the startling blindness to the dangers of digital marketing . Businesses are now collecting shockingly large quantities of information about us. Unprecedented amounts of personal data are in their hands.

To believe the consumer is in charge you also have to believe that knowledge is not power.

Fanboys often tell us that Facebook is worth $100 billion because of the enormous amount of powerful data at their fingertips. Then, in the next breath, they tell us the consumer is in charge. Sorry, fellas, you can't have it both ways.

4. Online advertising is interactive
The thinking went like this: People like to interact with the web, therefore they'll want to interact with advertising on the web.

This has turned out to be a massively toxic delusion. No one, and I mean no one, wants to interact with web ads. Banner ads have a click-through rate under one in a thousand. And if the average web user is like me, that one click is the exasperating result of faulty eye-cursor coordination.

But this hasn't stopped advertisers from pouring money into display advertising. This year in the US, advertisers are poised to spend about 9 billion on banner ads.

This lie has legs.

5. It's all about the work
It's not just the digital crowd that's delusional. Traditional agencies are just as susceptible to silly nonsense.

If you hang around agencies for about 15 minutes you're sure to hear that "it's all about the work." It's a pleasant little fantasy, but a fantasy nonetheless.

Advertising is like baseball, and "the work" is like pitching. It's the most important element, but it's far from "all." Advertising is a very complicated and unpredictable business. In order to be successful you have to be able to pitch, hit, play defense, sell hot dogs and give away bobbleheads. 

The fact that some of our most famous creative agencies also seem to have the highest turnover of clients has not penetrated the consciousness of the people who believe this simple notion.

If you could get inside the heads of our clients, I'm pretty sure you'd find that as far as they're concerned, it's not all about the work. It's mostly about the money.


A_sanz said...

Another great post Bob. Watch yourself at Cannes or other upcoming Trade events.  As you say, at the top of this creative business it´s all (and only) about money.
(typo on section 3, paragraph 4 should say business "have" instead of "are" )

Greg Satell said...

Great post.  I especially like #2 (funny enough I posted something similar this morning (http://www.digitaltonto.com/2012/the-post-roi-marketing-world/)

I'm not sure about #4 though.  You've been harping about this for a while (and you're absolutely right about CTR's), but banner ads are just one part of interactive marketing designed to drive some initial traffic to an interactive promotion.

There are a lot of important forms of interactivity that don't involve clicking on an ad.  Clicking on a "tweet" or "like" button, conducting a search in response to a promotion, permission based links like e-mail and social media marketing, etc.

There are also some promising emerging approaches, especially at the point of sale. Banner ads are the oldest and most well known, but certainly not the only form of interactivity.

- Greg

Bharath said...

Another one...

This is a great business, if nor for the client. 

Rob Mortimer said...

$9bn on banner ads.
Bloody hell.

Has no one TOLD them??

Christina Cruz said...

Great post. I agree with all of it. Especially #5. It is more about the the money then the work. 

Cecil B. Demille said...

Here's one I am particular fond/frightened of:

The client is always right.

Roberto Estreitinho said...

I'd like to add just a few notes, if I may. I do truly love your blog, Bob, because of the raw posture you adopt while talking trash (in a good way) about so many misguided "best practices" — this has made Ad Contrarian one of my favorite marketing blog as we speak, so first of all, keep it up.

Now for the notes. Simple things I'd like to add to this great post, per lie:

1. We're all creative — I don't think we're all creative, but if we work hard enough we can be. Big difference there.2. The big idea is dead — I don't see it as "this/or", but rather "this/and". I.e., the big idea is not dead, but little ideas throughout the way tend to help your brand get to an audience whose attention is increasingly broken. I know you don't like Pepsi, but that's fine; my best example of this is Coke. (also, I wrote a bit about this and regarding the Saatchi & Saatchi CEO's words, feel free to let me know your honest opinion, no holds barred: http://restreitinho.com/i-need-a-big-idea/)3. The consumer is now in charge — tough one. Yet, we can't see this as a matter of extreme conclusions. First of all, the consumer was never quite a "zombie", I think. But second, he's not fully in charge now, because of what you say — marketers and platforms hold the data — BUT what the gurus mean about the consumer being is charged is that he now has new ways to let his voice be known. Of course this doesn't mean your grandmother can tear down General Motors, but a well-connected individual can truly spread a bad message about a brand that resonates. It's nothing linear nor absolute (both things that gurus love because it simplifies their way of selling snake oil).4. Online advertising is interactive — since the Internet reduces costs in (some) marketing tactics, I think marketers tend to invest small sums in things they think will be the bomb just like that. Wrong. Online advertising done right can truly be interactive, but why is the majority of it not truly interactive? IMO, because it's absolutely faulty and lacking insight and know-how. So, the data favors your argument, but I believe things well done in the digital layer of marketing can truly generate results. (alas, those are truly a minority)5. It's all about the work — the argument for creatives. Of course, the argument for clients is "it's about the money". I think both are right, and advertising and marketing are so fascinating because they relentlessly work with multiple factors balancing each other. So, it's not just about the work or just about the money. It's about the work, the money, the consumer happiness... there are multiple ways of seeing it. So don't focus on just one factor that represents "all".

That being said: assuming there are unquestionable truths in marketing and advertising is the wrong way to see it. We see fine examples of things that confirm our beliefs and we see fine examples of things that question it. In fact, Ad Contrarian is such a great blog for me because it questions everything I know about social media (I work with social media, btw). The great part? It allows me to see in a more objective way what we marketers and advertisers are doing every day, and why we do it. My conclusion so far: nothing is that obvious and nothing is that absolute.

John sonnhalter said...

Bob excellent post. always enjoy your insights

Ronel said...

People do not go onto the internet looking for advertising. They go onto the internet looking for information. Companies that can provide this information for them, and not only "advertise", are rare and valuable. Any consumer will be more willing to trade when believing the company actually cares enough to offer them solutions, rather than just sell them products.
Thank you for this insightful article! Keep them coming!

Thailand Real Estate said...

Great post.

Today's consumers are hit by "banner blindness" and hardly notice any sort of banner ads, do they?