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Posted on May 3, 2021 in advertising, polemic

Advertising as an industry has always been afflicted by what the legendary advertiser (and, I just learned, 35th Postmaster General) John Wanamaker identified as perceived media wastage. His quote, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half,” will outlive us all, and rightfully so. What to do? Big data!

Lets harvest every last nugget of information about each consumer so we can deliver the exact, perfectly nuanced message precisely at the right moment and make the sale. Bang! Wanamaker’s problem solved.

Well, is it though?

Data driven campaigns definitionally means focusing on the channels we can efficiently target, customize, and measure. Which means some form of direct response, either offline or on. Prioritizing metrics necessarily shifts the emphasis toward the transactional. A transaction is the ultimate goal, of course. Widget makers are in it for the sale, not the glory, after all. But…

But brand matters. Stories matter. Especially over time. And a great story doesn’t always lead in a straight line to the coveted cha-ching!

But “brand value” isn’t typically directly measurable at point of sale in any practical way. So sales people discount it. Procurement folks roll their eyes. CEOs and CFOs chuckle in that slightly awkward way. CMOs often get it, but they have the life expectancy of a fruit fly, so whatever.

Targeting is certainly an important consideration. After all, it doesn’t really matter what a zinger of a line I might write for, say, a revolutionary new dental tool brand if the communication is served to an IT network specialist. But the reductionist view of that argument is that because relevance is often important, it must be pretty much everything.

The sweet whispered promise from big data at it suckles at the teat of big advertising is: hyper-targeted, ultra relevant, and geo-located. You, an 18-34 year old with disposable cash and a known history of pounding sweet bevvies are strolling past a 7-11? BANG! A text for you with a coupon code for a Big Gulp. Awesome, right? But is it?

No. Just stop.

The consumer experience of data-driven advertising, and especially behavioral retargeting, is what it must be like to be a woman alone at a hotel bar near last call who accidentally makes eye contact with the drunk sales rep from Kenosha. He might be charming at first, but no, that was not an invitation.

Photo of a drunk guy at a bar hitting on a woman who is not feeling it as a craven visual metaphor for big data.
Is this your campaign? Make better choices, my friends.

And while we’re dealing with the hassle of fending off handsy marketing, what do we as consumers (and makers) of advertising lose when the objective becomes laser focused on the immediate transaction?

The creative, of course. The tangible cultural artifact of the marketing activities. Have you ever seen a big data driven ad that was so great that you wanted to show someone?

Me neither.

I kind of get it—it’s extremely hard to assess what “good” actually looks like, and yet everyone in the process feels the pressure to weigh in. Telling great stories is hard (and a dark secret of advertising is that, for the most part, the agencies are pretty bad at it) and ROI cycles are so quick that there isn’t incentive to build value over time. It’s much easier to toss messages into the machine and let the algorithm tell you what works. It gives you cover if it fails (“I don’t understand! This tested gangbusters!”) but it won’t help you elevate an idea from the prosaic to the sublime.

If you’re ABXing CTAs to death looking for microscopic performance differences at the margins, you whistle right past the details that make a brand communication—an “ad”—worth actually looking at. The art of it. The specificity and emotional clarity that make it compelling, and memorable. And at the same time, you’re leaving money on the table, because investment in brand is a multiplier for direct response communications. Of course, to get credit, that marketeer who commissions the brand work has to still be at the company when it starts really baring fruit.

I’m just a creative, so what do I know, but perhaps the solution to breaking through overwhelming media clutter is less about obsessing over fake cozy “relevance,” but instead just being interesting. After all, as Howard Gossage, the so-called “Socrates of San Francisco” in the Mad Men era famously put it, “People don’t read ads. They read what interests them. And sometimes that’s an ad.”