Friday, March 27, 2015

the cult of authenticity [five minutes]

Sorry young millennials.
You are not special.

Your old Gen X mums and dads were just as confused as you, in their day.

'Ultimately, the uneasy relationship The Stranglers had with the punk scene reflected the need that the various protagonists within the movement had for 'authenticity'.

In 'The Culture Of Narcissism', Lasch had noticed that in the late-industrial cultures of the West, in which basic needs had become easily satisfied, and new wants had to be created by the propaganda....a “cult of authenticity” had emerged within “the spectacle” of consumerism that fetishised spontaneity and the confessional.

Punk’s most glaring, and therefore most sensitive, internal contradiction was that it was a largely manufactured movement that was intended to give vent to the organic, spontaneous rage of British youth.

The Stranglers weren’t marginalised because their “opportunism” made them less “real” than the other punk groups. They were marginalised because their established history drew attention to the inauthenticity of the others.'

Identity, Status, Structure and The Stranglers by Phil Knight.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

norman whitfield and barrett strong are here to make everything right that's wrong

Our good friend @MarkSareff had a pop at the growing tendency for some sections of the marketing world to be bewitched by 'neurobollocks' in a post over on Linked in.

And rightly so.

The infamous Martin Lindstrom 'You Love Your iPhone, Literally' article is a particularly salient example.

In any case the idea that individual human brains, studied in isolation from other factors can predict future buying behaviour is pretty flawed.

Studying how and why people behave the way they do in real buying situations over time, and how they act within the broader culture and environment is far more important.

Indeed much of what passes for - and is acceptable as - standard 'market data' - derived from surveys, focus groups, satisfaction scores and the like - is equally flawed, and suffers from many of the same limitations.

Small sample sizes invariably produce more extreme results.

Separate small groups often produce results that bear no resemblance to each other’s.

And, most importantly, lab or focus group outputs are not an analysis of real world behavioural data because the environment has no similarity to the one in which buying decisions will actually be made.

Neuroscience is an important science, there's no doubt about that.

However, as with every new shiny object adopted by the marketing community in an attempt to shortcut real planning rigour, cherry picking and misusing a few 'sexy' techniques off the top and then using the outputs to jump to conclusions is neither correct nor advantageous.

I commented on Mark's piece, noting that we should again be mindful of Sturgeon's revelation (that 90% of EVERYTHING is shit).

For advertising, there must be a middle way, however.

On the art side of the art v science debate is the Bernbach-ian dictate of taste, artistry and magic so venerated by creative departments. But this is not satisfactory either.

In Paul Feldwick's recent book 'The Anatomy of Humbug' - a compendium of popular advertising theory from the last hundred or so years - he correctly points out that all those words exist to close down discussion rather than open it up.

That's not to say that intuition and gut feel aren't useful to guide advertising decisions. In fact there's some pretty decent science to back up the value of smart heuristics.

If I were to open a market research company I'd name it Whitfield and Strong.

A small section of the lyrics from 'I Heard it Through The Grapevine' tell us most of what we need to know.

'People say believe half of what you see, son,
And none of what you hear,
I can't help bein' confused,
If it's true please tell me dear?
Do you plan to let me go,
for the other guy you loved before?'

Believe nothing that consumers tell you they they do.
Believe about half of what you see them do.
And believe nearly all of what the behavioural/sales data tells you they have done, because that's best indicator of what they might do in the future.

Though, you still can't be sure.

All of which is a decent excuse for this...

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

if it's not love, then it's the bomb that will bring us together

For a time during World War II, the chances of a member of US bomber crews actually making it back from any given mission, were on the side of slim.

The nature of the work meant that bombers were out for a long time, they were massive cumbersome planes visible from a long way away, and their ability to do serious damage if successful meant they were the number one target of both the guns on the ground and in the air.

For the bomber crews, each subsequent mission piled up the odds against them making it back this time.

And the Army Air Force couldn’t make planes quick enough to replace the ones that went down.

The situation was unsustainable.

In the hope of a solution the military engineers examined the bombers that made it back from their missions.

Patterns started to emerge. They saw the damage tended to accumulate in the same places.

They observed clusters of bullet holes along both wings, down the center of the bomber’s body and around the tail gunner area.

The answer was clear. The bombers needed more armour.

However they couldn’t just reinforce the entire plane – the weight would prevent them from even taking off.

So, based on the data they had, the obvious solution was to put thicker protection where they see the most damage, and ramp up reinforcement in the areas where the bullet holes clustered.

Just to be sure they were doing the right thing, the engineers called in a statistician, one Abraham Wald.

Wald was a member of the military’s ‘Applied Mathematics Panel’ – a secret boffin unit working out of Columbia University applying the science of probability and statistics to the war effort.

And good job they did, as Wald saw immediately that they were about to make exactly the wrong decision.

Because the common patterns of bullet holes actually showed where the planes were strongest.

The holes showed where a bomber could be hit repeatedly and still make it back.

The planes that didn’t make it home were being hit in different places.

Until Wald’s intervention the military were overly focused on the planes that made it home and almost made a potentially catastrophic decision by ignoring the planes that got shot down.

That’s a long-winded way round to pointing out that the same survivorship bias is prevalent in marketing departments and agencies every day.

Just like our Air Force engineers, it’s easy for marketers and agencies to get distracted by the high response rates and dramatic ROI that appears to fall out of marketing discounts or offers to a particular segment of heavy customers.

On the surface it appears logical.

But these are people who are likely to buy anyway.

These customers are the cluster of bullet holes that registered on the wings of the planes that made it home.

And the bigger the plane the bigger those clusters will naturally be. This is because the bigger brands in any given category tend to have slightly higher rates of bullet hole frequency (and loyalty) than their smaller competitors.

For just about any brand, attracting the mass of category buyers who are light and non-buyers of the particular brand – just like the bullet holes that didn’t show up, or barely registered on the bombers that made it home – holds the key as to whether the mission is going to be successful or not.

Survivorship bias in marketing is your tendency to focus on heavy buyers instead of light or non-buyers and on activities that look like winners in the short term which turn out to be losers in the long game.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

never tell anyone outside the agency what you're thinking

At the beginning of 'The Godfather', just before the scene of Don Vito Corleone's daughter Connie's wedding, Santino 'Sonny' Corleone is in a clandestine meeting with Virgil 'The Turk' Sollozzo in which they discuss a potential opportunity for the Corleone's in Sollozzo's nascent heroin business, which he plans to bring to New York.

(This discussion is happening without Don Vito Corleone's prior knowledge and ultimately leads to the attempt on the Don's life later on.)

Sonny is already receptive to the heroin idea, narcotics looks likely to be a lucrative business in the near future and worth getting in early on, and proceeds to sets up a meeting with Sollozzo, Tom Hagen - the Corleones' consigliere (who is similarly enthusiastic), and the Don.

Sollozzo arrives in New York and has already 'secretly' allied with the rival Tattaglia family, however still has ideas on bringing in the Corleone family for further financial backing and to ensure heat protection from the police and justice departments in the city, whom the Corleone's have in their pocket.

Vito Corleone - who, unbeknown to Sollozzo - is already wise to the Tattaglia involvement, decides to decline the offer on the basis that heroin is generally a bad business and - in any case - would put a strain his political connections, which he viewed as strategically more valuable in the long game.

During Vito's polite refusal of Sollozzo's offer, Sonny - understandably inscensed by Sollozzo's faintly ridiculous suggestion that the Tattaglia's would guarantee the Corleone's investment - breaks ranks and interrupts his father with an display of temper directed at Sollozzo.

Vito calmly puts Sonny back in his box, and once their guests have departed expresses his disappointment with Sonny's indiscretion.

'Never tell anyone outside the family what you're thinking again'.

The damage has been done, unfortunately.

Sollozzo, realising that Sonny (Vito's eldest son, family underboss and therefore next in line to the throne) is:

a) more receptive to the heroin idea
b) prepared to speak over the top of Vito and
c) unable to keep his cool in a business situation.

The Turk now starts to think that a good strategy would be to take out Vito.

Sonny's outburst not only undermined the Don but sowed the seeds for and undermining of the credibility of the entire Corleone family/organisation.

As it transpires this will now lead to all kinds of trouble for the family - including the death of Sonny - and Vito's capitulation into the heroin business, a compromise in order to prevent an all-out war among the crime families.

Many years ago I was a designer in a small but emerging agency.

The founders had a lot to say for themselves, a definite point of view on the world and it was an exciting - if sometimes seat-of-the-pants - time.

One Friday afternoon a not very senior client called up and asked the account person if we could make a small change to some element of an ad.

This was right at the last minute before the thing was due out of the door.

Both the Creative Director and the Planning Director were out so the account person agreed, instructed me to make the change, the ad went off and that was that.

Later that evening I got a message from the Planning Director indicating we would be having a chat on the Monday morning.

By 'chat' it became clear that he meant getting the metaphorical shit kicked out of me by him and the CD.

By making a - what seemed to me to be minor - change to the ad on the request of a junior client, without consulting the CD I had undermined the credibility of the entire agency.

I had made us look like we didn't know what we were doing.

I learned something that day.

Several years and several agencies later I sat in presentation to a brand new client at an agency I had just joined. The ECD was presenting a camapign to this new client.

At the end of the show the client started making comments on the work and suggesting small changes to copy, edits and suchlike.

The ECD sat stony faced while receiving the feedback and then removed the work from the table explaining that if the client didn't like the idea then we would take it away and come back with something else.

The client wouldn't be put off, insisting that just a few of his changes and the work would be fine.

To which the ECD responded, 'Thank you Mr [name], but we'll come back with another idea. I don't tell you how to make [product X] so please don't tell me how to make advertising'.

That might look like arrogance to some, to me this was necessary.

The creative credibility of the agency must be preserved, almost at all costs.

This is not about stroking creative egos. I have had many a stand-up fight with CDs over the years. It's the planner's job to make sure the advertising is 'right'.

For one's own credibility that means being prepared to scrap.

However, those things happen behind closed doors. It doesn't matter how much I disagree with a Creative Director I would never voice that in a client situation or any other situation where their status could be undermined.

Bob Hoffman says that 'everyone else in an agency are organisers, and the creatives make the ads'.

This is right to a certain extent, but most certainly should be the impression given to people from outside.

Agencies are judged by their creative output.

While we all know that a huge amount of work goes into making the advertising 'right' but when non-creatives undermine the creative product - by unquestioningly agreeing to client whims or making their own suggestions in the presence of anyone outside of the agency - it undermines the entire agency.

The popular notion of 'ideas can come from anywhere' is in part to blame for these incidents.

Of course ideas can come from anywhere, however that does not make them good ideas.

Good commercial creative ideas tend to come from people who's job it is to have them.

When you devalue ideas, you capitulate.

When you devalue ideas, you undermine the whole agency.

Before you know it you become a chop shop and it's a long long way back.

Never tell anyone outside the agency what you're thinking, again.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

end of an ear

Thanks and festive greetings to everyone who has read, commented, shared in 2014.

See you after the break for more self-delusion, confabulation and vitriol.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Dunning-Kruger Peak of Advertising

You may be familiar with the case of one McArthur Wheeler.

Wheeler was a man who, in 1995, proceeded to rob two banks in Pittsburg, in broad daylight, using no other method to avoid detection other than covering his face with lemon juice.

As lemon juice is usable as invisible ink, Wheeler was certain that it would render his own face invisible, and therefore prevent his face from being recorded by the surveillance cameras.

Wheeler was supremely confident as he had tested his hypothesis by taking a proto-selfie with a polaroid camera and the result had give him an image of only wall, with no face apparent.

Unfortunately he had simply aimed his shot badly.

The story inspired a series of experiments by David Dunning and Justin Kruger of the Department of Psychology, Cornell University.

The results were published in 1999 and henceforth the phenomenon - If you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent because the skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you lack in order to know what a right answer is - became known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

In the early days of its existence the Dunning-Kruger Effect was also sometimes described as the American Idol Effect.

This was because the hapless yet strangely confident performances in TV talent show auditions were an extremely salient example of the phenomenon - a cognitive bias wherein incompetent individuals mistakenly rate their own competence much higher than is accurate.

This bias is attributed to a meta-cognitive inability of the unskilled to recognise their ineptitude

Conversely, many people who actually are skilled or talented tend to underestimate their own talent, and wrongly assume that things that are easy for them to do are also easy for others.

As Dunning and Kruger famously note, "the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others"

For the talent show hopefuls the sweet Mariah Carey tones in their own head bears no resemblance to the hideous cacophony coming out of their mouth.

Part of the problem is the fact that none of the people around our untalented protagonists - family, friends, colleagues – are prepared to tell them the truth.

Therefore the delusion becomes even more entrenched.

(These people, while well intentioned, can be reasonably described as mediocrity enablers. That's for another post.)

For more on this have a listen to Dr David Dunning himself telling the story of McArthur Wheeler and the development of his theory in this episode of the You Are Not So smart podcast.

Anyway, you now you will start to see how this is leading us into the world of advertising.

There is a point, often labeled ‘Dunning-Kruger peak’ that represents the particular surge of self-confidence one gets upon acquiring some small amount of skill in a field.

It represents the huge leap from novice to semi-skilled amateur.
However the deluded amateur, at this stage both encouraged their new found knowledge yet unable to know the vastness of what they have yet to learn in order to be an expert, begin to imagine themselves to actually be expert.

This period of delusion is common in people who are just starting out in advertising, though by no means exclusive to the young. Based on scant evidence they suddenly believe they are much more knowledgeable about advertising than they actually are.

Moreover, this delusion seems to also happen at a group level, and envelopes people with enough experience to know better, which is why I suggest that a large part of our industry appears to have hit some sort of Dunning-Kruger peak.

The commonly held ideas of those operating in Dunning-Kruger peak mode are some sort of party-mix that contains ‘advertising is dead, everything is now about content, participation and conversation’, ‘creative departments are no longer required as ideas come from anywhere’ and ‘anyone with a smartphone can be an ad agency’ amongst many others.

Dunning and Kruger discovered that people who are unskilled at something — in this case advertising — are often unable to see how bad they are.

Incompetent people will
1. Fail to recognise that they are incompetent,
2. Fail to recognise how good competent people actually are.
3. Fail to see the scale of their incompetence.

To an extent this story is my own story.
Armed with Twitter and grab bag of Seth Godin one-liners I spent a number of years parroting much of the same ‘advertising is dead’ drivel.

Until eventually reaching that moment of true insight when I realised exactly how incompetent I actually was.

This is where one falls from the Dunning-Kruger Peak into a trough* of enlightened ignorance where you begin to realise that the things you don’t know massively outnumber the things you’ve learned.

(* In photographers' lingo this is called the Jon Snow trough, after a character in Game of Thrones apparently).

On the upside, despite being in the trough, one is now actually skilled to some degree though conversely now saddled with the tendency to underestimate one’s own skill when compared to the over confident noises made by the mass of incompetents.

For the adperson to hasten his or her descent from the peak, one important insight that is best absorbed sooner rather than later comes from  realising that the consumers we have to communicate with spend precious little time thinking about brands, do next to no evaluation around most purchase decisions, and even brands that they use and like are trivial in comparison to the rest of their daily lives.

Rather than engagement, conversations or participation people’s actual buying behaviour is about reducing complexity, reducing choice and making easier, good-enough decisions.

Our job is simply about getting brands noticed, remembered at the appropriate time and then bought.

Just getting that teeny tiny bit of attention needed is hard enough, never mind all the other bollocks.

Like the fella once said, ‘Never make predictions, particularly about the future’.

Perhaps a wish, then. 

A wish that 2015 is the year when all of us in the business of marketing communications – of all flavours – fall from our Dunning-Kruger peak, and recognise that while we have some skills and influence, what we don’t know about human behaviour is so much more than what we do know, and no amount of lemon juice  flavour kool-aid can hide this.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

presenter's toolkit

I don't normally do these 'lifehack' kind of posts, and there's no danger of this turning into any kind of self-help blog.

[On occasions when I've had to talk to students and suchlike I'm inclined to respond to career advice type questions with something along the lines of 'See what I did? Don't do that'.]

The items above are ones that I carry with me for any pitch, presentation or client meeting in which I may have to show stuff on a screen.

Exhibit A:
A mini dv mac to HDMI adaptor. 
When turning up at your meeting you may have to plug in to a massive TV and these days the regular PC in slot is starting to become less common.

Exhibit B:
A mini dv mac to PC adaptor. 
This will be pretty familiar, you usually have to plug in to some PC contraption.

[Note: I'm fond of the Guy Kawasaki 10-20-30 rule.
10 slides, and a minimum of 30pt font.
The 20 stands for 20 minutes (this is how long you should expect to talk for in a one hour pitch or meeting).
This allows you 40 minutes to answer questions etc (expect to use about 20mins).
Guy also recommends reserving the other 20mins to set your presentation up while having to navigate the Microsoft operating system.]

Exhibit C:
Your mac remote control.
Never trust the fangled space age looking PC remotes that may be provided.
A remote is essential to allow for maximum pacing up and down, pontificating and strolling menacingly round the back of your audience like Robert DeNiro in the Untouchables.

Exhibit D:
Portable bluetooth speaker. 
I've been caught out by no audio equipment too many times.
In a small boardroom type meeting you can simply whip out your speaker and place it in the middle of the table and play your videos or audio.

While there is no substitute for knowing your material inside out (this will get you through any tech problems better than any gadget) being prepared makes you at least look like you know what you are doing - a lot of the time this is half the battle.