The future of advertising could be small.
Gareth Kay, Chief Strategy Officer/Associate Partner, Goodby Silverstein and Partners
It may seem odd for an ad person to talk about the importance of thinking small. After all, one of the most transformative ads for any brand (and an ad many argue changed the industry) carried this thought as a headline.
Yet I think as an industry we are adverse to small. We believe, the bigger the better. We want a big idea . We want to launch it in a big way to create a spectacular firework display. We want to shout and show our stuff in front of big audiences (hence the love of the SuperBowl).
The problem is ‘big’ isn’t working. Andrew Ehrenberg has shown that it most categories a brand’s market share is stationary. Copernicus Consulting have reported that people find brands and ads far more similar than different. Companies are voting against big with their money: McKinsey reports that CPG marketers are spending three times more on price promotion than they are on brand building.
The issue, I believe, is that we have confused the end with the means. Of course we want big business results and brands and communication that feel big, pervasive and central to culture. But, perhaps counter-intutively, to achieve this we need to think and act small, not big. The future could lie in us breaking the tyranny of the big idea and embracing small.
In 2020, I believe advertising could be about thinking and acting small, not big.
Why small matters
I think small matters for three fundamental reasons:
Firstly, big problems don’t require big solutions. One of the most important pieces of academic work in the last few decades has been in the field of behavioral economics. It’s hugely important to advertising (Rory Sutherland made it the focus of his two year Presidency of the IPA) but despite increasingly popular books on the subject (Nudge by Sunstein and Thaler is as good a place as any to start) we tend to ignore its most basic premises.
One of these is that big behavioral change can occur through small actions. Perhaps the most famous example is of the huge impact the default setting is on an employee’s 401k enrollment. More often than not the default is set to opt out. When this is changed to opt in as the default, participation and saving increases dramatically.
Rory Sutherland talked about the issue of people not finishing their drug prescriptions – a waste of tablets and in some cases (eg antibiotics) patients who aren’t fully treated (with the ensuing further days off work, medical costs, erc.) So why not change the instructions to read, for example, “first take the yellow tablets for 10 days and then take the red tablets for the next 10 days”). Same medication, much greater likelihood for the treatment course to be finished (this is charmingly called “chunking”).
Secondly, the culture we navigate in is increasingly small. When I worked on Palm, I was lucky enough to interview Matias Duarte the Head of Human Interface and User Experience (he’s now doing amazing work at Google on Android). When I asked him about the goal of his work he quickly replied, “make it invisible”. The same is true of Jack Dorsey’s work on Square. An article in the MIT Tech Review said this about the design philosophy: “Square is elegant. The user’s flow through payment or application has been reduced to the fewest possible steps; the app has minimal features. This emphasis comes directly from Dorsey, who says, “I’m really good at simplifying things.” He espouses a tremendously attractive belief that good industrial design wins customers’ trust by disappearing.”
This seems to make intuitive sense: we know from experience that the best customer service, for example, is the service you don’t notice. So, in the increasingly well-designed world we live in, the advertising beliefs of bigness, interruption and ‘grabbing attention’ seem rather at odds with an ethos of smallness (to the point of invisibility).
Third, small is good for business. In his book ‘Little Bets‘, Peter Sims talks about how great companies stumble upon greatness. It comes from experimentation and learning from placing little bets rather than ponderously trying to birth perfection. Google’s a great example of this (originally a project to index Stanford’s library) as are Starbucks and the way comedians and musicians try out new material. It’s what gets Pixar from “suck to non-suck” through huge amounts of early iteration and feedback sessions every day around rushes.
But being small isn’t just good for start-ups, it’s great for big brands. At the PSFK conference in New York in 2012, the designer Andy Spade made the terrific point that “a bigger a brand gets, the smaller it has to act”. It’s kind of the common sense version of Coke’s ‘think global, act local’. More importantly, doing lots of small stuff is what makes a brand feel personal and, more importantly, gives it energy and momentum, the best leading indicator of future preference and usage. So being small creates unfair advantage.
What small ideas look like
So, if we accept the argument that thinking and acting small can drive business better than thinking or acting big, we need to re-think some of the assumptions that have become the false laws of advertising. Small ideas are different to big ideas and, as a result, they tend to have different characteristics:
1. They tend to be in the service of people
Sounds like rule one of marketing, but too often we forget this (probably calling people ‘consumers’ doesn’t help). Far too often we get narcissistic about the brand (people must be interested in what we make) rather than be humble, empathetic and interested in their lives.
The great brands today understand what people are interested in and work back from there. Great communication ideas act as a bridge. A bridge between what people are interested in and what you make/ sell. A bridge between your world and theirs; real life/culture and commerce.
2. They reduce friction
Brands today seem to be learning from design and thinking about how they can remove friction between themselves and people; between what people do now and what they want them to do. Ogilvy created a great example of this for Hellman’s mayonnaise in Brazil. If your shopping cart had a jar of Hellman’s in it, it would print on the back of your receipt a number of recipe suggestions using mayonnaise and the other ingredients in your cart. An elegant solution to the need to get people using mayonnaise as more than a sandwich spread.
3. They’re one of many
Brands today need to do lots of things, not one big thing. It ties back to the point about placing little bets and is about managing portfolios rather than playing roulette. Google is a great example of this type of prodigious brand – search to Google 411 to Chrome (the list goes on).
Creating brands built around a coherent stream of small ideas makes them stickier (the velcro analogy of lots of little hooks that Russell Davies has used that I still think is an incredibly helpful metaphor) and more powerful – being the brand of new news and seen as having momentum and energy is the best leading indicator of future preference and usage. It also means you are more likely to thrive in a world where 95% of things die.
4. They do rather than say
Actions speak louder than words. We need to make communication products, not just communicate a product. Create actions and things, not ads.
How do we get ready for a small future?
It’s apparent that small ideas are inherently different to the stuff our muscle memory currently leads us to make. If we are to get ready for this future, I would suggest two small things.
First, we need to celebrate the stuff that feels magical because it gets out of our way rather than celebrating the interruptive fireworks we have historically produced. We need to celebrate radical simplicity, the invisibility of powerful design and the stuff “that just works”. This sounds easy but I fear it will be far more difficult to put into practice.
Second, we need to adopt a more experimental mindset and approach to work. This means doing things and learning from them, rather than learning about something (round after round of research) and then, eventually, doing something. We need to be prodigious in our output rather than relentlessly, and pointless, pursuing perfection in one or two big bets.
If we do these things then perhaps we could build a brighter future for advertising in 2020. A future where we celebrate the power of small, not the waste of big.