December 19, 2012

Advertising's 5 Biggest Lies: Best of 2012

For today's "Best of 2012" selection we go back to June for this piece.

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.


Anonymous said...

"Where are they hiding all these brands that have been built with little ideas?" Built mostly on smart content marketing.

Hunter Pechin said...

Don't know for sure, but it seems to me that was built on a concept that resonated (a useful personal budgeting software that lived in the proverbial cloud and was therefore ever-accessible and able to link to real-time data) and word-of-mouth, the most powerful form of advertising of all.

Ben Kunz said...

Dear Contrarian, my sweet dear contrarian, your point No. 4 is growing stale. Marketers measure advertising and move dollars to the media channels that work. As a media planner, I advise clients based on what works. Dollars flowing to digital advertising, which includes banners among other such interruptive elements, are evidence that it works.

So to suggest digital ads don't work is bunk.

I suspect your antagonism to little banners has more to do with an ingrained worldview that big creative ideas are the apex of advertising, so little boxes that can't hold such ideas are worth nothing. Perhaps. I do agree that a big idea can become the meme that changes behavior, but big ideas are hard to create, and even harder to predict. There is so much randomness to what scales that the little things have to have legs. There is so much advertising hitting consumers that even if your big idea is in the top 1% of all ideas in a week, it's still fighting with 1,000 other big-idea killer concepts. Just as you suggest digital doesn't work, I can mathematically suggest big ideas are a bloated, unwanted commodity prone to as-likely failure. Which would be a little unfair to big ideas, you see the point?

Finally, as we've debated before, the response rates on other forms of advertising, even beloved TV spots, are as piss-poor as those of banners ads -- but it doesn't really matter as long as the end economics work out. You are (theoretically) exposed to 166 TV spots per day or 5,000 commercials on television per month. Take action on 5 and you're at a 0.1% response rate, on par with a good banner campaign. Let me know when you buy more than 5 things per month triggered by television branding. I know, it's "branding," and that is different than trying to get a consumer to respond and buy stuff ... um, still unclear on that point.

But all this is healthy debate, so carry on. We do TV and radio and billboard and print too, and all that matters is measuring what works and reflowing the dollars there. The marketplace's love affair with digital might be an indicator that the channel has more than legs, it may have results.