From time to time, despite advances in psychiatry, an insidious strain of ideological nonsense starts weaving its way through the corridors of advertising and marketing communities. It’s a destructive threat no amount of practical experience can curtail for long.
I’m talking about the multilevel delusion that advertising exists to increase sales by measurable amounts.
At this late stage in the most recent outbreak of this pandemic, I know it will be hard for some of you to read the previous sentence. If so, I urge you to seek medical attention right away.
This rapidly mutating ideological virus has a cascading effect on all aspects of the advertising/marketing industry. Once unleashed, it turns even the savviest minds into anxious, literal, perfectionist Golems, perpetually clinging to their “precious” metrics.
“How can you guarantee my customers will open this envelope?”
I heard one afflicted brand manager shriek this gibberish, during the height of the outbreak of 1997. Very sad. Yet so infectious is this delusion, it caused several of my colleagues to dismantle the entire conceptual array for a direct mail piece, just to splash “SEE INSIDE TO SAVE 10% ON YOUR NEXT PURCHASE” in big red letters across the envelope.
Recently, I realized another outbreak had taken place. I feared the worst when I learned that a client had vetoed a set of robust creative concepts simply because his sales reps didn’t understand them.
Well, of course not. An advertising concept isn’t fundamentally about sales. So where does this confusion start? Like most of its kin, this profound distortion of the truth is based in ignorance. For in this jumbled world, advertising must necessarily sit shoulder-to-shoulder with sales promotions, catalogue space ads and supermarket circulars. No wonder people with an MBA in “Will-this-be-on-the-final?” get confused.
Nor should it surprise anyone if many a car brand manager, in the grips of Delusio Metriciencis, will demand an ad campaign set in a car dealership. If you’ve seen any one Volkswagen “Sign Then Drive” TV spot you know what I mean. If you haven’t, and wish to research this topic on YouTube, I suggest you wear dark glasses to ward off contagion.
In a world without branding …
Anyway, an ad set in a store is the epitome of the confusion of advertising with sales. In reality, advertising exists only to create the emotional, cultural and societal context in which a sale can occur. It’s the very reason, when you set out to by a cellphone, you arrive with a clear conviction about whether you want to go with IOS or Android, Apple or Samsung.
Otherwise, in a world of nothing but sales messages, you’d walk into a store filled with identical cell phones and simply pick one from the price-bin you’re comfortable with. In that context, the first marketer to offer a red cell phone would create a sensation. And the first to say: “Your lovely spouse deserves a lovely red phone,” would own the market within the first week.
Not because of price points or sales messages. But because the Red Phone company had invented branding — a cultural environment in which consumers can perceive your product, value it, distinguish it and identify it.
… a mindset ruled by rulers.
In light of these simple realizations, it’s painful to watch a marketing manager’s spiraling descent into the kind of short-term thinking that de-brands a product. You can almost hear his or her fevered dreams:
“Hey, love your new $55.47.”
“Thanks! It’s so much better than my old $59.95.”
“You are so lucky. My $72.19 is so much more expensive.”
I know. Marketing is hard. You have to distinguish between one aspect of your annual spend and another. And towering over you is Metrics, an ogre with hypnotic powers, who convinces you his slithering percentage points are endowed with meaning.
Wake up! Spend a few hours in a decompression chamber. Do whatever it takes to flush out the ideological toxins that plague you. Trust me, they’re the only reason you believe Advertising can deliver measurable results.
Ironically, more than one creative director in my career has opined, “Advertising isn’t rocket science.” But my message to you today is more sweeping:
Advertising isn’t science at all.
And no amount of sketchy market research, sticky eyeballs, click-throughs, retweets or “participations” can make it into one.
Advertising is a craft. And its ablest practitioners are people who understand human nature — as expressed in a specific, well-defined target audience. Remember that, the next time someone on your extended team demands proof that a gecko with an East London accent can make cynical Americans warm up to a car insurance company.