1: What should advertising look like in 2020?
In my view, by 2020, advertising should be an industry where truly effective creative work is much more common that is today.
This is because we now know so much more than we did even a few years ago about how the brain works, about how people buy and about the real role of brands and communications in the decision-making process. And this is true whether we’re looking at buying cars, soup or soap powder.
Empirical evidence from buyer behaviour data as well as extensive meta-analysis of effectiveness case history databases, allied to our growing understanding about how humans process information and make decisions means that there really are no more excuses for clinging to outdated ideas and beliefs about how people buy.
The problem is that many of these ideas and beliefs are so well entrenched that it is not clear that we will actually be able to accommodate this new thinking into our actual marketing behaviour.
This is because the industry clings steadfastly to conceptual frameworks that in many cases date back 50 years or more. And the fact is that many of these frameworks are not just wrong but seriously misleading, so much so that they often lead to sub-optimal outcomes, outcomes that are the very opposite of what the marketing team both wants and needs.
These ‘zombie’ ideas are everywhere – some hiding in plain sight (AIDA anyone?) – others more subtly hidden in our everyday marketing discourse, often as metaphors and analogies that we have used for so long we barely notice them. But they are all in their different ways dangerous and need dispatching once and for all.
The good news is that I think that the next few years give the industry an opportunity to use the increasing amount of evidence about how advertising actually works to make better work that works better.
And that is a future I’ll happily sign up to.
2: What should we do now to get ready for that future?
Clearly we the first thing we need to really get to grips with the many zombie ideas that bedevil our marketing thinking and infest even the most mundane of our daily conversations.
Many of these ideas were ones that we grew up with – and we are so used to them that often we may not even realize that we are using them. Constructs like the AIDA model, which makes common sense but no other kind of sense; rhetorical concepts like persuasion (which at bottom equates mass advertising to a conversation with a door-to-door sales rep – a kind of category error); and metaphors like that of brand personality that treat brands as human when of course they aren’t. All of these habitually lead us to deeply unhelpful places.
(Advertising has always had a folksy side to it, but surely in no other major business would the ideas from half a century ago hold sway the way they do in ours. In any other field, people would be leaping at the chance to learn the truth about how things really work.)
What these conceptual frameworks and ideas have in common is that they get in the way of us doing the best for our client’s brands and businesses. Only when we understand and truly internalize the reality of how people use brands and how they make decisions about them will we be free to do work that will earn us the respect of our clients by delivering the results they crave.
The second thing we need to do is be more confident about using our own judgment.
All too often we are almost paralysed by our fear of being wrong – which is perhaps understandable, given the often tricky consequences of failure in the harsh competitive world in which we live.
So we use aids to judgment, as indeed any sensible person would when the stakes are so high.
The problem is that the aids to judgment have become in many cases substitutes for it and this has in many cases stymied our ability to get into market in a timely fashion. This is especially true of the agony that goes into the creative development process – a process that all too often now extends into multiple months and, occasionally, even years. (The opportunity cost of that lost time is hard to measure, so effectively discounted completely. But just thinking about it must make any thoughtful marketer wonder whether our processes have now reached a state of borderline dysfunctionality.)
All this despite the fact that much evidence suggests that success in quantified pre-testing research guarantees almost nothing other than….success in current pre-testing research. It certainly doesn’t guarantee success where it matters, in the real world. In fact, there is considerable hard evidence that established pre-testing protocols make effective advertising less, rather than more, likely.
So, in sum, if we want a future where our advertising is more effective, more often than it is now, we need to:
- Get smarter and start listening to the evidence;
- Start calling the zombie ideas out – whoever subscribes to them;
- Understand better the things we can do and the things we can’t;
- Rediscover our boldness.