August 21, 2014

The Problem Of Truthfulness

After spending 40 years in the agency business, I have spent the past 16 months away from it.

It has given me the opportunity to think about it differently -- not as someone preoccupied with meetings, deadlines, and crises, but as someone with the benefit of a little disinterested perspective.

One of the issues I have been thinking about is truthfulness. We are often accused of not being truthful with consumers. This may or may not be true, but it's not the subject of today's sermon.

Today's sermon is about the "to thine own self be true" kind of truthfulness. It is about the lies we tell ourselves. These lies don't come from a desire to deceive, they come from a desire to be right.

One of the honorable aspects of our work should be the impartial way we go about learning what is effective for our clients.

We should have creditable answers when our clients ask questions about the effectiveness of this technique or that tactic.

Mostly we don't. We have cute anecdotes and semi-relevant case histories and the assertions and opinions of "experts." We spend way more time justifying our beliefs than trying to learn basic truths about what we do.

Many of us have become specialists and don't have access to the larger picture. Consequently, we have become advocates for our particular specialty without really knowing how effective it is.

We are interested in reading about and hearing about the cases that support our point of view. We skim over the ones that belie our thinking. I think sociologists call this confirmation bias.

The truthfulness I'm concerned about is the truthfulness of the conversations we have with ourselves.

Bad scientists start an experiment with a result in mind. When they get results that don't match their expectations they either ignore them, call them anomalies, or find a way to discard them as irrelevant.

Good scientists learn more from what they didn't expect than from what they did.

Of course, this requires a different frame of mind from what most of us carry around. There are some very large unanswered questions about the comparative effectiveness of the ocean of new advertising possibilities.

What we should be doing is trying to find the truth. What we are actually doing is trying to confirm our beliefs.


john douglas said...

Couldn't agree more, Bob.
I can't help thinking it has something to do with us as super-social creatures (thank you Mark Earls) and the networking possibilities provided by the structure of the internet.
Peer to peer versions of industries are popping up all over the place.
Could the answer lie somewhere in there?

Neil Charles said...

This post fits brilliantly with your last piece. How contrarian can you be? We absolutely can prove that some ads don't work well, while others do. There are still questions, but after fifteen years analysing ad performance, I'd like to think we also have a lot of answers. Some of the numbers - which you regularly illustrate with your posts - don't need complex analysis and can be calculated quickly and simply.

You can strike a red line through several marketing channels and say they can't possibly pay back at the cost per view currently being charged. There's no need for ROI models; if it costs five times more than TV to show somebody an ad, then is it realistically going to have a better ROI than TV?

However, the question we receive as analysts is almost never "did this work?", but "can you prove that this worked?" Either explicitly or implicitly, it's a plea for a number that will look good on a board report. That plea comes from both client and agency side. In most cases, neither really wants to know that $1m has had a negligible effect on sales.

Personally, I think the short tenure of marketing directors has a lot to do with it. If you'll be in post only 2-3 years before moving on, there's no incentive to learn. You need to 'prove' that what you're doing now is brilliant.

Adam Wika said...

Good points, Neil. Also reminds me of the recent Freakonomics podcast on the value of saying "I don't know".
Because of the short life of MDs and agencies on their rosters, people don't have the balls to admit when they really don't know if something would work. They feign unshaken confidence and then have to prove they were right, no matter what the evidence says.
You need to acknowledge your ignorance to really learn something.

Todd Stubbings said...

Candor: An antidote for cultures of mediocrity.
Nice article Bob, thanks.

Dan said...

Wow Bob, thanks for holding up the mirror. I think this is also a larger reflection of our roles in society as a whole as well. We do the same thing with politics, religion - anything that we feel we need to justify to others. But in the agencies I think it is largely fear driven. Fear of looking bad, feeling inadequate or just fear of losing our jobs. If we could somehow muster the courage to do what we feel is right despite the fear, and be willing to continue to learn rather than rely on our old bag of tricks, we could get out of our comfort zone once in a while and actually grow a little.

Gracious Style said...

I agree with Dan too -- this in fact applies to everybody in every line of work. Have you become so tied to what you do, that you've forgotten the point of it all? Have you gained the world only to lose your soul?

Stephen Eichenbaum said...

SO...exactly where does one find this truth? I can't even get our clients to be specific about their results. Unless they failed miserably.

David Burn said...

Brilliant post, Bob. Your critical thinking and elegant writing is the splash of water our ad-riddled faces need.

When you speak of ad bloggers as being "criticized, disliked, and misunderstood" I can stop wondering about where my ad career went. Down the blog tubes!

Atomic Tango™ said...

I shared this article with my marketing students, noting that I wish someone had given me this advice years ago.

Freddy J. Nager

Hayley K said...

I can't offer any words of wisdom after reading your article, but I will tell you I enjoyed it! Look forward to seeing you again soon, Freddy!

CaliforniaGirl500 said...

you must be the "hundred years ago" guy.

kimiller said...

oh, then you missed the line: "culture eats strategy for lunch."