April 18, 2012

The Accountability Gap

If there’s one thing us ad hacks hate it’s accountability.

We are forever trying to find ways to inoculate ourselves from the nasty business of actually selling our clients products

We go through amazing contortions to move our clients away from hard, behavioral measures like sales, transactions, and customer counts to soft measures like awareness and attitude.

We are always on the lookout for new justifications that separate advertising from the mundane, tiresome chore of peddling things.

That's why "branding" has been such a godsend.

When an advertising campaign is successful at selling stuff we’re geniuses. But when it isn't, no problem. It wasn’t supposed to. It was a "branding" campaign.

As I have written before, I read an article a few years ago by the creative director of a global agency. He said his advertising was not intended to sell products. The objective was to "build brands".

So, as I asked at the time, how does he know whether he's building a brand if not by measuring sales? How does he know?

Does he ask a bunch of account planners? Does he consult an awards committee? Does he conduct focus groups? You can imagine the conversation: "We know you won't actually spend your money to buy this stuff, but are we building a brand here?"

What could possibly be a better indicator of whether a brand is being built than if people are willing to shell out some dough to buy the stuff?

By disassociating "branding" from "selling" he has found the perfect Catch-22 of unaccountability -- setting a goal that is not measurable.

This way of thinking is starting to creep into online advertising, too. Web people hate to talk about click-through rates. Why? Because they represent accountability. 

First they promised us that online advertising would be so much more measurable, we’d know exactly how many clicks, and who the clickers were, and where they came from and where they went.

But then -- uh oh -- no one was clicking. So they had to change their story fast. Now, clicks mean nothing. Mention click-through rates to a modern web prodigy and he’ll look at you with great condescension and explain to you how out-of-it you are. Click-through rates are so 2008.

“A click means nothing, earns no revenue and creates no brand equity." Is how a Starcom Research & Analytics super genius put it.

A commenter to one of my recent posts said click-through rate is a "stone age metric" while another called it "an archaic form of measurement."
So I have a question. If clicks mean nothing, why do we have links?
The only way to activate a link is to click on it. Why do we spend all this time and money linking things and building things for them to link to? The connective tissue of the Internet is links and clicks. How in the world can these meatballs keep a straight face -- and more to the point, a job -- and tell us that clicks are meaningless?

What is really going on is that most online advertising is so ineffective that the click rates are horrendous. And the only path around this indisputable fact is to assert that clicks don't mean anything.

The Office Of Web Ad Sales And Justification is now hard at work trying to bury clicks and prop up its own pillar of unaccountability -- "engagement."

Just like we disguise our offline advertising failures behind "branding," we are now hiding our online ad failures behind "engagement." Nobody can agree on what engagement means, how to measure it, or what value it has. So it’s the perfect flavor of online unaccountability.

Let’s look at something written much better than I could have written it by the head of planning for Wieden+Kennedy’s Amsterdam office.

“Let’s be clear. ‘Engagement’ is an unworkable and meaningless concept. It means everything. And absolutely nothing. And as such it cannot possibly claim to be any kind of metric.
Searching, viewing, visits, spending time on site or page, opening promotional e-mails, completing a survey, page views, linking, bookmarking, blogging, forwarding, following, referring, clicking, friending, liking, +1-ing, playing, reading, subscribing, posting, printing, reviewing, recommending, rating, co-creating, discussing,...uploading, downloading, adding an item to favourites, joining a group, installing a widget...All of these and more are potential measures of ‘engagement’. 

...It really is time to call bullshit on ‘engagement’. Better, to bundle it into a coffin labelled ‘Agency Puffery’ and put a nail firmly in it once and for all.”
The medium that promised us a clear path between advertising and sales accountability is now adopting the worst habits and practices of traditional advertising.

Video Update

The video we posted earlier this week, "The Top 10 Double Secret Unknown Facts About Advertising" has been a hit here at TAC. If you want to share it, I've posted it on YouTube here.

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