Sunday, January 18, 2015

A Book About Poison Gas

I have a book out and it would be remiss of me - as an ad guy - not to plug my own product.

So I will.

100 Ideas That Changed Advertising is really a history book, charting the development of advertising from the earliest posters (perfectly preserved advertising messages have been found on the walls of Pompeii) to today's online media behemoths like Facebook and YouTube.

I took history A-Level at school, I enjoy history, and I believe we can learn a lot from it.

So what can we learn from the history of advertising?

The main thing I learned, in writing it, is that the history of advertising is a history of innovation - not only that, but of remarkably rapid innovation.

For example, the first cinema in the United States - Vitascope Hall, in New Orleans - opened in 1896. Filmed ads were being produced as early as 1897.

The first commercially licensed radio station in America went on air in 1920. In 1922, the first radio advertising was broadcast.

Twitter launched in 2006, and by 2010 was running advertising.

There are a couple of useful take-aways, I'd suggest, from this trend.

First, don't be afraid to innovate.

In 1921, a group of investors declined to put money into radio, notoriously predicting that “The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to no one in particular?” Right.

When the first TV ad aired, on July 1st 1941, there were only 7,500 TV sets in New York City. The ad was for Bulova watches and showed a watch-face superimposed over a map of the U.S., while a voiceover claimed that “America runs on Bulova time.” The whole medium must have seemed incredibly shonky, compared to the sophistication of print advertising at that time. People must have wondered if it would ever take off. Well, it did.
Similarly, people questioned whether YouTube would ever make money from advertising, since few believed there would ever be a wide audience for videos of other people's cats. I know.

So what's today's frontier? Mobile? Probably. Don't be afraid to go there. 

As I worked through the chronology of our industry to write the book, I started to feel that advertising is like a gas; it seeps in everywhere. Whatever new medium is invented that captures a modicum of human attention, someone will find a way to put an ad there.

And that led to my second take-away. In contrast to the ever-evolving media and technology landscape, there is one thing that hasn't changed, and will never change - the nature of our responsibilities, as advocates for the brands who buy this space.

Another gas metaphor captures it with pungent brilliance. It was American ad-man George Lois who said of successful advertising: "I think advertising should be like poison gas. It should grip you by the throat, it should bowl you over, it should knock you on your ass.” 

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Is Advertising Really A Business, Or Is It Actually Just A Giant Game?

This is the time of year when the predictions for the future of advertising are published.

Words like integration, big data, and real-time marketing are bandied about, and it all sounds horribly serious.

Yes, advertising is a business - a serious and important one, with high stakes.

But to do it well, we may actually be better off treating it as a game.

As evidence, I'm citing a sci-fi novel called Time Out Of Joint by Philip K. Dick.

The protagonist of this tale is highly skilled at an extremely serious activity - predicting where Lunar rebels will target missile attacks.

But the authorities use drugs and a stage-set to convince him that he is living in suburban America in 1959, a cosy existence where his only job is to enter a local newspaper competition called "Where Will The Little Green Man Be Next?"... which in reality, is predicting the missile strikes.

The key point for our purposes is that the protagonist is more effective at a serious job when he treats it as a game.

I firmly believe it's the same for ad Creatives.

My heart always sinks when the suits come in and explain that this is a really important project, and we mustn't screw it up. Or if the Client gives a speech about "how much is riding on this."

That kind of talk stifles creative people.

Because ironically, serious business success (in a creative business) is best achieved by treating it as a game.

"The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct," said Carl Jung.

I love that.
Oh, by the way, I have a book out.

It's called 100 Ideas That Changed Advertising. Available in Australia, the UK, USA, and no doubt other countries that have internet or bookshops. Call to action: buy it now!

Sunday, January 04, 2015

How To Win Every Argument You Will Have In 2015

Ad folk are a passionate bunch of people, working in an industry that is rife with subjectivity.

Result: lots of arguments.

So, here's how you can win them. Or at least more of them.

First of all, you need to stop thinking like a Creative.

Unfortunately, Creatives aren't particularly trusted in our industry. (We've partly brought this on ourselves: a story for another time).

Contrast that with the respect accorded to creative people in the world's most successful creative companies, such as HBO. David Chase, executive producer of 'The Sopranos', says "the secret to HBO's success is really very simple. They trust the people they have doing their shows.'

I also love this quote about Dino Patti, the CEO of games company Playdead, who made the successful and award-winning Limbo. "Playdead chose to ignore outside advice from investors and critics during development. According to Patti, Playdead felt these changes would break the integrity of game director Arnt Jensen's original vision."

We don't have that.

No Client is going to be persuaded to drop a requested change because 'it would break the integrity of the creative team's vision'. In fact if you said those words, the Client would probably laugh out loud.

So what can you say? 
I'm going to pass on something I learned from Nigel Bogle. (I worked with Nigel a bit at BBH - awesome guy).

I was once in a meeting where a Client was questioning some aspect of a TV ad we were doing for them. I don't even remember what the debate concerned now - perhaps a piece of casting, or a location.

I patiently explained why, creatively, I preferred the direction we were proposing over the Client's suggestion. The Client harrumphed. I had failed to persuade him.

Then Nigel stepped in. "It's actually not a creative issue, it's a strategic issue," he stated. And he then went on to detail why the direction we were proposing was more 'on-strategy'. And it worked.

Well, maybe it partially worked because it was Nigel Bogle saying it.

But also I think there's some truth to my theory that Clients (and indeed almost everyone in the industry) are simply more persuaded by strategic rationale than by creative rationale.

In fact we can expand this theory. I reckon that the secret to winning the inevitable arguments that occur during the cut-and-thrust of advertising is to ELEVATE.

If you're in an argument about execution, elevate it to why your point of view is right for the idea.

If you're in an argument about ideas, elevate it to why your point of view is right strategically.

If you're in an argument about strategy, elevate it to why your point of view is right for the business problem.

In short, elevate.

Have a great year, everyone! (And if you have any tips for winning arguments, please do leave them in the comments. Share the knowledge, share the love).

Sunday, December 21, 2014

"But It's Not Ownable"

One of the most common criticisms we Creatives get thrown is that an idea we've had is "not ownable."

And that's a very hard bomb to defuse.

Obviously an idea should be ownable, shouldn't it? So, oh dear, it looks like we've failed, and we'll have to start again. Bad creative.

Unless... could it be that this criticism is completely bullshit?

First off, let's do a quick evidential survey. Here are 30 good ideas - as expressed via taglines, from the US, UK and Australia - that I collected for a presentation not long ago.

Have a look, and see how many you think are truly 'ownable'. 

Finger lickin' good (KFC)
The appliance of science (Zanussi)
Beanz meanz Heinz
A diamond is forever (De Beers)
Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet
Have a break, have a Kit Kat
The burgers are better at Hungry Jack’s
The future’s bright, the future’s Orange
Does exactly what it says on the tin (Ronseal)
You can be sure of Shell
A newspaper not a snoozepaper (Mail on Sunday)
It takes a licking and keeps on ticking (Timex)
The car in front is a Toyota
Fly the friendly skies (United Airlines)
Let your fingers do the walking (Yellow Pages)
I’m lovin’ it (McDonalds)
It could be you (National Lottery)
Oh what a feeling! (Toyota)
Can (CommBank)
Start something (St. George) 

I reckon that only THREE of these are truly ownable, in the sense that no one else could say it.

Beanz Meanz Heinz (no other baked bean brand could claim to be the definitive baked beans), A Diamond Is Forever (no other product can claim to last as long as diamonds do, and De Beers has no branded competitor), and Have A Break Have A Kit-Kat (no other chocolate snack 'breaks' in the way that a Kit Kat does).

Some of the other lines are phrased in a way that makes them appear ownable, but they're not really. For example, You Can Be Sure Of Shell sounds pretty ownable, because of the alliteration. But there is nothing unique to Shell in that positioning. There would be nothing to stop Total coming along and saying Total = Total Reliability.

Once we discount brands that are attempting to make their positionings ownable via snazzy language, and allow only brands with properly unique ownable positionings, by my calculations fully 90% of these ideas are not 'ownable'.

And yet many of them have created or contributed to brands that are worth many, many billions of dollars to their owners.

Smarter bloggers than me have pointed out that consumers don't see most brands as being particularly unique or distinct in reality, and indeed don't mind that, focusing instead on their differing personalities. (See this great post from Richard Huntington on brand personality, or this one by Martin Weigel about how it's far more important for a brand to be interesting than different).

What the ideas in the list above have in spades - what made them successful - is not ownability but personality.

Ideas like Finger Lickin' Good and The Future's Bright The Future's Orange are not ownable. Any chicken shop could claim you'll lick your fingers, and any telco could say they're forward-thinking. But the way these non-ownable thoughts are expressed help create a distinct (and attractive) personality.

And that's what consumers are drawn to.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Could A Robot Do Your Job?

We like to think that because advertising is a 'creative business'... we're immune from the march of automation.

But are we?

History would suggest the process is relentless.

The first human jobs to be eliminated were agricultural. Advanced ploughs, improved crop rotation systems and Jethro Tull's invention of the seed drill in 1701 were some of the factors that saw agricultural efficiency skyrocket. The threshing machine, invented by Andrew Meikle in 1784, displaced hand-threshing with a flail, a laborious job that took about one-quarter of agricultural labour. In 1500 the British population was 76% rural. Today it's 2%. 

Next to be replaced were the blue collar jobs. The industrial revolution began in the late 18th century in England, spawning machines like the power loom, which could do the job of 40 hand-weavers. Today, Amazon employs 15,000 'Kiva' robots in its warehouses worldwide. Back in the year 2000, more than 20 per cent of all jobs in America were manufacturing jobs.  The most recent figures showed only about 5 per cent of all jobs in America are now manufacturing jobs.

And now, the increasing sophistication of computer software has started to eliminate white collar jobs. Text-mining programs are beginning to displace professional jobs in legal services. Biopsies can be analysed more efficiently by image-processing software than by lab technicians.

So could robots replace us?

Well, Account Handlers are arguably under threat. One of the biggest effects of the internet has been disintermediation. For example, fewer people use the intermediary of a travel agent now that they can go online and book their travel themselves. As a result, Thomas Cook closed 195 UK stores last year. Disintermediation has affected financial services (people can buy shares online so no longer have to call a stockbroker), real estate, education, and many other fields. Is it possible that someone could develop an online interface that would enable clients to access strategy and creative directly, without the intermediation of an Account Handler?

And before any Creatives reading this get too smug, consider that machines are already turning basic sports results and financial data into good-enough news stories. They are writing. And there are already websites that generate automated advertising concepts. Right now these are mosty spoofs, but how long before they become real?

It's harder to see how robots could do strategy. Even if it's true that "there are only six possible strategies for any brief", selecting the right one is quite an art. But could someone develop a computer simulation, where different strategies could be tested in a game-like environment containing all the real-world market variables, to enable selection of the optimum strategy?

If you consider any of the above ideas to be fanciful, please note that the process has already started. Programmatic (i.e. computer-controlled) media-buying now comprises an unknown but fast-growing slice of the online media market, and may soon extend to other media.

If robots can replace media buyers, how long before they replace you?

Sunday, December 07, 2014

In Praise Of Banner Ads

There was a bit of a hoo-ha last week, when Google announced that 56.1% of all paid-for display ads never actually appeared on anyone's screen.

"Google admits that advertisers wasted their money on more than half of internet ads," was the view of a typical commentator

But are the attacks on banner ads justified?

Yes, it's true that click-through rates are low.
Perhaps you've seen a list that's been going around the interwebs - '5 Horrifying Stats About Online Display Advertising'.
It goes like this: the average banner ad has a 0.1% clickthrough rate, therefore…

  • You are more likely to be dealt a full house in a poker hand than click on a banner ad. (Source: Solve Media)
  • The average person is served over 1,700 banner ads per month. Do you remember any? (Source: comScore)
  •  You are more likely to give birth to twins than click a banner ad. (Source: Solve Media)
  • About 50% of clicks on mobile ads are accidental. (Source: GoldSpot Media)
  •  You are more likely to survive a plane crash than click on a banner ad. (Source: Solve Media)

    Is there anything good about display advertising?

    Yes. First off, ads appear next to the content you're already consuming and are interested in. That's handy. Also, retargeting can be used to hit people who have already visited a website; that means you're targeting a pretty hot prospect.

    Most of all, they work. Their results are highly measurable. So we know they work.

    Click through rates are indeed low on banner ads, and have been plummeting for years. The very first ones, like the 1994 ad shown above, which was for AT&T and is thought to be the very first banner ad ever served, had click-through rates as high as 10%.

    The average is a hundredth of that now.

    But hey, we can’t click on TV ads or radio ads or outdoor ads either.

    And as for that stat about 56% of online ads not being viewed... surely it's the same with print.

    What percentage of the ads do you see, when you read a newspaper or magazine? Chances are that you don't flick through every page of the newspaper, therefore the ads on those pages never appeared on those screens that you commonly call your eyeballs.

    Same as with banner ads.

  • Sunday, November 30, 2014

    Enter The Weasel

    The general public seems to believe that advertising is mostly lies.

    That is not the case. In fact we operate under stringent requirements to be "legal, decent, truthful and honest."

    However, we are very often guilty of employing 'weasel words', a phrase I generally shorten to just 'weasels'.

    The weasel's favoured habitat is in claim lines.

    "May improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles" is a weasel that really pisses me off. "May" means absolutely nothing. They might as well write "may cause nuclear war" or "may cause you to be recruited as the next member of One Direction."

    "Up to 70% off" is another favourite. This could mean that nothing in the store is reduced at all, apart from one pair of socks, which is 69% off.

    "A toothpaste that fights oral bacteria" is a classic weasel, because 'fighting' means nothing of any significance. A Cavalier King Charles Spaniel could charge aggressively towards a Tiger Tank, get instantly cut down by one of its 7.92mm MG34 machine guns and then be run over and squished, and you could still fairly claim it to be "A dog that fights tanks."

    I believe consumers are too smart to be taken in by weasels. And the vast majority of clients know that.

    Still, a few seem to slip through.

    Tell me your favourite weasel in the comments, and at the end of the week I may crown a King of the Weasels.