Monday, August 14, 2017

appliance of science

There’s a Bill Bernbach quote that appears from time to time.

It’s the one where Bill takes aim at a particular flavour of advertising that was popular in the early 60’s.

“There are a lot great technicians in advertising. And unfortunately they talk the best game. They can give you fact after fact after fact. They are the scientists of advertising. But there’s one little rub. Advertising is fundamentally persuasion and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art.”

When Bernbach goes after ‘science’, I’d propose that he is really just offering the ‘creativity’ counter position to the harder selling advertising as championed by the likes of his rival, Rosser Reeves.

Reeves was influenced by the writings of Claude Hopkin who had published a ‘manual’ for this kind of functional approach entitled ‘Scientific Advertising’ and was dismissive of overly creative executions.

Over time Bill’s statement has become contentious, and fuels the continuous Art v Science false dichotomy. As with most dichotomies the truth is more about the entwinement of the two propositions.

I’d argue that when Bill says ‘science’ he really means ‘formulaic’. I’d also argue that Bill himself might have been more scientific in his approach than the ‘scientists’ that he found irritating.

The Scientific Method is an organised way that helps scientists, strategists or creatives answer a question or begin to solve a problem.

Start with an observation.

If you're not naturally curious about the world then you are unlikely to be able to solve problems creatively. Half the battle is just noticing things, saving them for further thought and investigation and connecting them with other things you’ve noticed. Have an interesting question.

After making an interesting observation, this should next form an interesting question. These kind of questions usually begin with ‘why?’ Now form a hypothesis.

A hypothesis is an informed guess as to the possible answer to the question. The hypothesis may arrive as soon as the question is posed, or it may require a lot of fiddling about. There’s often a few different hypotheses. Another word for this is ‘ideas’.

Conduct experiments.

Ideas must be tested. Bernbach wasn’t a fan of pre-testing. Rightly so, if pre-testing worked then everyone would love all the advertising. The best experiment is putting it out into the world.

Analyse the data and draw a conclusion.

Here’s where we could all do better. We obsess over the wrong data, give disproportionate focus to the insignificant and are distracted by noise. But when we look in the right place then perhaps we have an observation that starts us on the cycle again.

To conclude, Bill Bernbach was as much scientific as creative. The two fields are not incompatible, they are one and the same.

Indeed, Bill was also something of an intuitive evolutionary psychologist.

‘It is fashionable to talk about changing man. A communicator must be concerned with unchanging man, with his obsessive drive to survive, to be admired, to succeed, to love, to take care of his own.’

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

meme fitness

Meme 'fitness' is not dependent on the meme itself having any properties of good 'quality'.

It just needs an environment that increases replicability.

Case in point is the 'Amazon didn't kill the retail industry...' thing that has replicated itself successfully despite being complete horseshit.

None of those 'dead' things are dead.
Apart from Blockbuster, which was a brand rather than a category in any case.

But the meme is selected in a Dunning-Kruger environment.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

all this useless beauty

‘Nonsense prevails, modesty fails
Grace and virtue turn into stupidity
What shall we do, what shall we do with all this useless beauty?’
Elvis Costello ‘All This Useless Beauty’ 1995

Legendary British creative director Dave Trott is famously quoted as saying that advertising festivals actually prevent creativity.

‘You’re not doing advertising for six million people in the street anymore, but for ten people on the jury, and for a few clients.’

I also recall a comment made by Tom Goodwin a couple of years ago around Cannes in particular.

‘Cannes has become a self-serving fetishisation of the newly possible and the highly improbable. It’s predictable and formulaic in the extreme.’

It’s hard not to agree with these statements - at least in part – when observing some of this year’s winning entries.

Much of the silliness seemed to be confined to the ‘Innovation’ category.

A Gold Lion for a Grand Theft Auto 5 mod seems a bit of a stretch, while the Grand Prix was awarded to a project that plans to save the world by melting down guns.

Even the briefest glance at those cases, sheds some light on the mid-festival announcement from Publicis regarding their intention to give awards a miss next year in order to focus funding and effort on building their AI platform.

On the other hand there were a number of excellent, and well deserved, big winners.

Including Melbourne’s own Clemenger BBDO and their remarkable ‘Meet Graham’ work for TAC.

A few years ago Australian agencies combined could expect to take home around 50 lions in a good year.

At the last count Clems had accumulated around 56 on their own, including 29 for ‘Graham’.

Aside from the inevitable silliness on the fringes these festivals do serve a commercial purpose for agencies.

For the most part it’s reasonable to say that the volume and quality of new business an agency attracts is explicitly connected to the volume and quality of the awards they accrue.

Consistent performance in major advertising awards are one indicator of ‘fitness’ in the evolutionary sense. Agency ‘sexiness’ if you prefer.

This idea that ‘indicators’ are sexy comes from the work of Israeli scientist Amotz Zahavi.

In his ‘Handicap Principle’ hypothesis, Zahavi proposes that the only way to reliably demonstrate quality during ‘courtship’ is to display a ‘costly’ (alluring) signal. The peacock's tail is his most famous example.

These expensive signals are evolutionarily stable indicators of the brand and the agency’s quality, because cheap signals are too easy for low-quality imitators to fake.

Commitment to creativity signals advertiser ‘fitness’ – ultimately indicating that the most creative advertiser has greater ‘genetic’ value than its less creative competitors. After all, consumers tend to prefer advertisers that display high levels of intelligent creativity and, consequently, brands prefer agencies that do the same.

Participation in the spectacle of Cannes might seem like energetically expensive waste of time, but these kind of wasteful displays are exactly what we would expect from traits designed for ‘reproductive competition’.

I’d stick my neck out and say that big advertising festivals aren’t going away anytime soon.

However perhaps there is a case for a bit of a ‘reset’ and refocus on the commercial part of creativity.

The kind of creativity that touches Dave Trott’s ‘six million people in the street’.

With that thought in mind, and in closing, we stumbled across this excerpt from Prof Ronald Jay Cohen's 'Editor's note' to the judges in The Journal of Psychology and Marketing’s Awards in Advertising 1986.

Think of this as an objective ‘outside view’.

Cohen encourages jurors, in their deliberations, to view the awards in this way.

‘To the extent that it is possible, we hope to avoid the pitfalls associated other awards in the advertising industry. Thus we hope to avoid common criticisms of awards like ‘it's just a popularity contest’ by having voters justify their selections with reference to criteria such as attention-getting ability, attention-sustaining ability, communication of message, memorability of message, persuasiveness, creativity, and psychological sophistication.

Further, voters are advised to take into consideration what is happening in the actual marketplace with respect to the advertised product or service.
Wonderful creativity in a vacuum does not good [advertising] make.

Award-winning advertising is a successful marriage of creativity and ‘sellativity’.

Award-winning advertising is the type of advertising that reconfirms the classic Gestalt adage that ‘the whole is equal to more than the sum of its parts’.

Here, all of the elements of the [advertising] combine to form something that transcends any of the elements alone something that is ‘magical’ in some way.

A pitfall to avoid is becoming enthralled with the elements and failing to realize that there is something lacking from the commercial as a whole.’

The pitfalls of short-termism and over-obsession with metrics are well documented, however the bigger danger is that we are forgetting what advertising is actually for and how it works.

Then all we have is creativity in a vacuum, useless beauty.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

zuboff's law number 3

'Every digital application that can be used for surveillance and control will be used for surveillance and control'.

In the car, on my way to work, I was listening to an episode of the 'Here We Are'podcast on the car stereo.

The show is hosted by American comedian Shane Mauss, who interviews local science experts and academics he meets while taking his stand-up comedy show from city to city.

In this particular episode he interviewed Professor Adam Bradley from the University of Colorado, a literary critic, musicologist, and a writer on popular culture. They discussed music in general, hip-hop, memory, and the brain.

In a section of the chat Bradley made a point that caught my ear as it seemed to connect to 'modular mind' theory.

Modularity is the idea that the mind is, at least in part, composed of innate neural structures or modules which have distinct established evolutionarily developed functions.

This perspective on modularity comes principally from evolutionary psychology, and the work of Leda Cosmides and John Tooby. They suggest that the mind's modules are units of mental processing that evolved in response to selection pressures that faced our ancient hunter gatherer ancestors, when natural selection was forming the modern human species.

One such unit of processing is likely to be for language.

Music emerged in early human cultures for different purposes than simply inter-personal communication. And it therefore likely that music might be processed by another distinctly separate module.

To illustrate this point the Professor hypothesised that to ask one particular question to another person in the context of normal conversation would generally elicit an uncomfortable response.

'Do you ever wish you had never been born?' .

At the very least it's conceptually a bit strange to contemplate.

However, essentially the same proposition rendered in the context of a song, in the lyrics of the Queen song 'Bohemian Rhapsody' specifically, evokes far less existential angst.

It's therefore reasonable to suggest that the module for processing language and the module for processing music respond to similar stimulus in different ways.

I'm still in my car at this point, nodding with interest, when my Apple watch starts to vibrate on my wrist.

I glance at it and the message on the screen.

The discussion has clearly also caught the ear of my watch, it thinks that it's me talking, and it proceeds to ask me if I am contemplating suicide at this moment, and offers up options for help if this was the case.

Shoshana Zuboff is author of the classic 'In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power'.

First published in 1988 the work was the culmination of several years studying the extensive involvement and implications of information technology in organisations.

Many of ideas in the work have endured, not least the trifecta known as Zuboff's Laws.

  • Everything that can be automated will be automated.
  • Everything that can be informated will be informated.
  • Every digital application that can be used for surveillance and control will be used for surveillance and control, irrespective of its originating intention.

Or as folk wisdom would have it; there are only two groups of people who's movements are continuously monitored.

The first group are monitored involuntarily by order of the courts or suchlike with tracking devices attached to their person.

The second group is everybody else.

Every digital application that can be used for surveillance and control will be used for surveillance and control, irrespective of its originating intention.

I'll let you know if I have any difficulties in obtaining insurance in the near future.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

if advertising is dead...

The death of this, the death of that, the death of the other and the death of the next thing.

The impending death of something or other is reported every other week.

The death of advertising in particular.

Mea culpa. About 10 years ago I probably was that douche-bag.

I wrote about my folly and subsequent enlightenment a couple of years ago in The Dunning-Kruger Peak of Advertising.

Eventually one gets over one's own bullshit, to a degree.

Or at least goes into recovery.

(I'm taking each day as it comes.)

And with every announcement of the demise of advertising comes the announcement of a new agency model (sic), so it seems that even advertising has abandoned advertising.

As the management consultancies stand in line to buy up agencies all the talk is of doing-things-differently, disruption or redefining-the-industry.

What if the change the industry really needs is to refocus itself towards producing brilliant advertising?

Back in 1979, the emerging young painter Julian Schnabel presented his two breakthrough solo exhibitions at Mary Boone’s gallery in New York.

The shows mainly featured his signature neo-expressionist wax paintings and plate paintings.

Amid the popular and influential artworld narrative of the time included widely read articles with titles like 'The End of Painting' and 'Last Exit: Painting' in respected journals such as Artforum.

It should be noted that those essays (penned by critics Douglas Crimp and Thomas Lawson, respectively) should be approached with some caution unless readers are particularly fluent in academic postmodernist gobbledygook.

The final nail in painting's coffin had barely been bludgeoned into its place when at the exact same time other commentators began to herald Schnabel’s works as 'the RETURN of painting'.

In later years (and looking back), Schnabel - somewhat wryly - reflected:

'I thought that if painting is dead, then it’s a nice time to start painting.'

It strikes me that there is an emerging opportunity for advertising agencies that actually want to make advertising.

It's worth presenting Schnabel's full comment on the 'return to painting', but looked at through an advertising lens.

“I thought that if [advertising] is dead, then it’s a nice time to start [doing advertising].

People have been talking about the death of [advertising] for so many years that most of those people are dead now.”

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

life after adtech

Theodore ‘Ted’ Sturgeon is widely acclaimed as one the greats in science fiction writing.
He wrote a number of novels, was an early scriptwriter on the promising TV series Star Trek in the 50s and 60s and also one of the foremost critics in the sci-fi genre, also penning over 400 reviews before his passing in 1985.

After many years of batting back attacks on the science fiction genre from critics, he had a moment of insight.

This insight became known as Sturgeon’s Revelation, later – and somewhat less dramatically – shortened to Sturgeon’s Law.

Speaking at the World Science Fiction Convention in Philadelphia in September 1953, Sturgeon responded to ‘proper’ literary critics who claimed that 'ninety percent of science fiction is crap'.

Ted agreed. Ninety percent of science fiction is indeed crap.

But, he argued, to say ninety percent of science fiction is crap is meaningless, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other art forms.

Sturgeon’s Law therefore states that ninety percent of everything - all film, literature, products, culture and advertising - is crap.

Less often reported is Ted’s proposed solution to the problem.

If we agree that ninety percent of everything is crap, then what’s important is to study, learn from and promote the ten percent that isn’t crap.

[Maybe 90% is generous, it’s more likely closer to 99% but you get the idea.]

In advertising there seems to be a period when any new approach, new platforms or technology comes along that – for a time - seems to somehow be viewed as exempt from this law.

Social media marketing, content marketing, AI, VR, chatbots, programmatic delivery and other adtech all arrived in their time, were heralded as the next big thing, then gradually landed in a ditch of disappointment or - as in adtech’s case - murky nefariousness.

But if we had remembered Sturgeon’s law perhaps we could have been more critical of practices and theories from the outset and avoided a lot of unpleasantness.

The shortcomings of adtech have now been fully revealed.

[As another aside, it is peculiar that in this age when information is supposed to disseminate at warp speed, mainstream media has only just caught up with what many of us have been discussing for about 4 or 5 years.]

Somehow we have to shift focus and look for the 1%.

Looking for the good AND THEN CRITICISE THAT.

Where is the good practice, how do we build on that or make that better? – and if there is none then how do we create some?

As an industry we’ve been duped and been cheated, but now we have had our eyes opened.

Will we get fooled again?

Probably, It’s not as if we are strangers to pluralistic ignorance in this business.

Anyone who has sat through campaign or brand tracking presentations by supposedly reputable research companies and thought ‘am I the only one in this room who thinks this is bullshit?’ please raise your hand now.

I thought so. Just about everyone. But we never raised our hand at the time.

The only way to break out of these cycles is to speak up, ask questions, be sceptical and ask for evidence.

A decent rule of thumb would be to DEMAND that the more extraordinary the claim of any technology platform or gizmo, the stronger the evidence must be to support that claim.

This is not a Luddite rant. Programmatic, automation and advertising technology is inevitable. Very soon all media will be distributed in this way.

Crapness, however, is not inevitable.

Bill Drummond once made this point.

The technology always comes first.

Then creative people mess with it and create something new and unexpected.

Artists never invented oil paint, or the movie camera but they saw the opportunity the technology gave for creativity.

The technicians and engineers have had their turn, and the results were less than optimal.

Factor in blind-sided publishers, winner-takes-all multinationals being allowed to mark their own homework, the deluge of shitty content and open season for fraudsters and criminals and we’ve got a big mess to clean up.

At least 90% of the whole adtech shooting match was total crap. But it’s out in the open and we have to move on.

And 90% of everything will always be shit, but it’s only a relentless, sceptical, demand for quality and creativity that points the way forward.

Friday, February 10, 2017

might as well jump

Note: This thing was written for the Mumbrella '24 hours with...' weekly feature.

After about 6 re-writes it was still rejected as not meeting the criteria, so I gave up. This is version 2 which was the best 'take'.


Are readers are familiar with the BBC comedy TV show ‘Room 101’?

On the show celebrities are invited to discuss their pet hates and then attempt to persuade the host – Frank Skinner - to send those hates into oblivion in Room 101.

The literary Room 101 is the torture room in the George Orwell novel 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' which reputedly contains ‘the worst thing in the world’.

Interestingly George Orwell himself named Room 101 after a real meeting room in BBC Broadcasting House where he sat through many tedious meetings.

Perhaps you have one such room in your agency…

If I were ever to appear on the show, one of my items for Room 101 would almost certainly be in-flight magazines.

In particular those ‘one day in Marrakech’ types of articles.

‘Wake up early and take a stroll through the local artisanal shepherds market where you can pick up a single-origin Nicaraguan black honey espresso – infused with Apricot, of course – and peruse the selection of hand-made authentic Mongolian compost toilets.’

Hopefully I can get through this article without that kind of status-signaling twaddle. Or at least keep it to a minimum.

I say minimum, as I’m only human.

So, a day in the life - minus the conspicuous ‘authenticity’…

The day begins…

As much as I can I try and organise working time during daylight hours.

Routinely staying up way past bedtime to finish work that didn’t get done during the day is an indicator that something else has gone awry.

Some of us think of ourselves as night people, but - as a species - we have evolved to function best in the daytime.

For a start, we can't see in the dark.

Given that sabre-tooth tigers and suchlike tended to hunt at night this was of some importance or our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

There’s a lot of talk these days about this-or-that disruptive innovation.

In terms of impact innovations such as the electric light were exponentially more disruptive than any Uber or Snapchat glasses will ever be.

Even if you prefer to work at night, it is still the down time on the evolutionary body clock. I have extra admiration for people like A&E doctors who work through the night. It’s a hard enough job as it is without battling against 2 million years of evolution.

I’d rather just get up a bit earlier in the morning. Speaking of which…


I get up. But nothing gets me down.

I’d like to be able to say that this is a tactical self-nudge to anchor my biological clock, however it’s more about the necessity of getting on the road. I live down the Mornington Peninsula so I’m part of the traffic on the M3, M11 then M1.

If I’m not on the M1 by 7am it can take forever to get to South Melb.

I’ve generally selected the next day's clothes etc the night before – by ‘selected’ I mean jeans and whatever t-shirt is top of the pile (its my variant of the famous Obama two-suits method).

A morning routine helps me function without having to think about what I’m doing, and get out the door without waking the family at stupid o’clock.

Car time is often creative thinking time. But who couldn’t be creative zipping through the morning rush in a canary yellow Porsche 911 Carrera?

It’s a bit harder in a 2003 Honda Jazz, but I manage.

I recently read about the cartoonist Scott Adams (creator of Dilbert) who thought up all the original Dilbert cartoons between 5am and 7am before going to his day job.

Even after quitting his job and going pro he continued to do the strip from 6am to 7am and doesn't attempt any creative work in afternoon, reserving that time for admin tasks.

With a bit of luck I’ll get into the office around 7.45. This means I’ve got about an hour and a half to get some creative or investigative work done before I have to start attending meetings.

Once or twice a week I’ll use this time to keep up with political sections of the major newspaper sites, it’s a good idea for me and my team to keep up to speed on policy issues, locally and nationally.

I’d like to tell you more but the sensitive nature of my work for the government demands utmost secrecy. I know you will understand.

I am healthy and well and making lots of money.

(Like Travis Bickle, I’m God’s lonely man.)

It’s hard to say what a typical day is. We work with all manner of government departments and institutions with budgets ranging from tiny to some of the biggest spenders in Australia.

I’m lucky to have a very capable team - all are generalist strategic planners but among them I have three directors - each with their distinct experience and specialisms to add from Behavioural insights, Ehrenberg-Bass Marketing Science and Cultural Science.

In a general sense our remit involves working with information and putting it to use (to paraphrase Stanley Pollitt). This is not just marketing or media research but all the information available – in order to identify and help solve a client's problems.


Until recently I’d spent the bulk of my career in creative agencies and no suppliers ever wanted to take me to lunch.

It’s a different story in a media agency.

Everyone wants to take you out.

To keep it simple, I generally decline politely.

Not for any virtue-signaling reason, I’ve got a bit of a weird diet to follow (don’t ask), so it’s just easier to bring my own lunch.

Aside from client work our big project at the moment is further developing out our cultural insights platform, DIALECT (Diversity in Identity, Area, Linguistics, Ethnicity, Culture and Technology).

This platform allows us to explore and transform multiple cultural data inputs into usable market intelligence, mapping important cultural nuances – where they exist – and also the human universals that play out across cultures.

DIALECT is essentially our foray into the emerging field of applied Social Physics, fusing data analysis and mathematical laws of biology to understand group behaviour.

Today is our weekly review of the platform, and our Cultural Director, is taking me through the next set of iterations and incrementals. I nod and pretend to understand agile development methodology.

By mid-afternoon I’m already thinking about sleep.

I regard sleep as an essential part of my work.

At the moment I’m interested in 90-minute sleep cycles.

90mins is the optimum cycle, this means that you can feel more refreshed after 3 hours sleep than after 5 – waking after 5 hours means you have woken mid-cycle.

The psychologist Richard Wiseman says a good sleep is like a wash cycle on a washing machine – cleaning out your mind of the day’s memories that you don't need.

We all receive vast amounts of information during the day, and quite a lot of it – campaign tracker research reports, for example – can be totally useless, so this sorts out which memories are important and which to discard.

At this time of year the many articles that claim to reveal the top 24 (or more) marketing trends for 2017 can be safely set to boil wash.

A good way of distracting the mind and getting off to sleep is thinking of very positive scenarios.

I’ve come across many marketers who must be able to sleep very easily.

They are especially adept at building fantasy worlds in their head and should be able to drift off easily with very positive imagery of loyalty programs, social media engagement and suchlike.

Before the end of the day I have a catch-up on internal training with our Marketing Science expert in Canberra. She’s coming down in a couple of weeks to get us up to speed with the finer points of NBD-Dirichlet Distribution and Ehrenberg’s law of buying frequencies.


Back to the Honda Jazz and back to the freeway for the commute home. Tonight I listen to a couple of episodes of the BBC Radio 4 podcast ‘The Infinite Monkey Cage’ that I’ve been saving. Who would have thought that particle physics would be the new comedy?


At home, I try and park work stuff into my subconscious as much as possible and let it sort itself out while I'm doing other things.

Discerning creatives will be familiar with the seminal 1939 work by James Webb Young, entitled ‘A Technique for Producing Ideas’.

Stage 3 of the 5 stage process Young outlines involves removing a problem you are trying to solve out of your conscious mind to stimulate the unconscious.

He likens it to how Sherlock Holmes would often stop right in the middle of a case, and drag Watson off to a cello recital, or something.

That was irritating to the practical minded Watson, but letting the unconscious chew on a problem was essential to the creative process for Holmes.

To let my own subconscious chew, I’ll take the dog out with my boy for a bit then when he’s tucked up maybe Mrs P and I will watch some written-by-algorithm series on Netflix, like ‘Designated Survivor’.

Or re-run old favourites like ‘Utopia’, ‘The West Wing’ or ‘The Thick of It’, anything just to try and switch off my mind from Government work.

I travel most weeks, back and forth to Canberra usually, so before bedtime I might pack my bag.

Flying time is good reading time. I’ve adopted the catchphrase ‘Nothing in advertising makes sense except in the light of evolution’ and I’m devouring a lot of evolutionary psychology just now.

Does all science and no novels make Jack a dull boy?

Round about 10.30pm it is time for some Peach Momotaro Blooming Tea, brewed from its own biodegradable tea temple and then I’m off to sleep for seven and a half hours exactly (that’s 5 sleep cycles).


I only promised to keep conspicuous authenticity and status-signaling to a manageable minimum.