Tuesday, July 22, 2014

the great advertising swindle (actor-observer bias remix)

Advertising's outcomes are notoriously hard to measure.

Which is why in advertising agencies, we love to measure outputs instead.

Agency outputs (ie creativity, ingenuity, technical wizardry and planning cleverness) are far easier to evaluate than the contributions that the work has to actual client business outcomes.

Despite this clients will often clamour for performance based remuneration deals from their agencies.

Some agencies even claim to offer this.

How they can do this is unclear.

I'm oft to remark that if it were possible then Y&R London should still be receiving a performance based royalty from Heinz Beans for the work of their then deputy creative director, the young Maurice Drake, who penned the famous tagline 'Beanz Meanz Heinz' over a couple of pints of a lunchtime back in 1967.

Maybe they are, who knows?

The fact is that the effects of great advertising often take a long time to unfold.

And many other factors other than the advertising will affect brand performance.

(The effects of shit advertising tend to reveal themselves much sooner, of course).

So when, among its peers/competitors, agencies performance can - for the most part - only be evaluated in terms of the creative output, then the agencies themselves are highly incentivised to squeeze the juice out of those outputs regardless of whether those outputs can be said to have contributed to business outcomes.

Even the planners effectiveness awards, known as Effies, are no more precise, for the most part only describe shorter term effectiveness, and are often forced to rely on qual/quant research of highly dubious methodology (such is the ineptitude of our market research cousins, but that's another topic for another time.)

Perhaps you have been following the ad scam kerfuffle over at Aussie media commentator website mUmBRELLA.

If not, then in summary, it has come to light that a few Australian press ads that picked up Lions at Cannes this year benefited from somewhat 'limited' distribution.

While the ads met with the criteria for entry, it has been argued that running one time in a suburban newspaper of little consequence is not fair play.

There's plenty of opinion around this. Several articles have been written, each receiving large numbers of comments.

I'm not going to add further opinion, but perhaps offer some thoughts towards the beginnings of an explanation.

From personal experience I've played in two broad camps.

Both highly incentivised to pursue award-winning activities.

In big network agencies, consistently receiving global and local awards was an absolute imperative.

At [agency X], for example, every Monday morning we would roll in to work and be curious to find out which awards the agency had won over the weekend.

And every significant piece of work seemed to have its creative award entry case study video constructed almost in parallel to development of the campaign itself.

To my knowledge there was never anything cooked up specifically to try and manipulate creative awards, however every piece of work was evaluated internally for its creative award potential, and certain pro-bono work was often considered for the same reasons.

There's nothing hokey about this approach. It's correct.

However, if a major award show came and went where the agency performed poorly in terms of metal then one could feel the pressure to return to winning ways a soon as possible.

In this environment, where success is routine, then winning becomes table stakes.

In smaller agencies or even decent sized indies there is a different sort of pressure.

To level the playing field then these agencies have to look that little bit harder to find the opportunities to generate outputs that can stand up against the outputs of agencies with more resources and better clients.

One could describe the situation as a kind of agency double jeopardy.

Smaller agencies get hit twice. They have fewer, less sophisticated and resource rich clients, who also tend to be less loyal.

This provides the smaller agency with plenty incentive to 'maximise' and then possibly manipulate outputs in order to portray their creative abilities in the best way.

Because no agency is going to attract new sophisticated clients with a portfolio of mediocre work.

By hook or by crook you need to get the goods.

Now, we are aware that the agencies under scrutiny in the Aussie case are DDB, Saatchi's and to a slightly lesser degree JWT. All outposts of big global networks, not small by any stretch.

However, the Aussie market is somewhat peculiar inasmuch as just about every global network has an office in at least two (often 3 or more) of the major cities.

Everyone is scrapping with everyone else.

In the absence of any way to meaningfully measure clients' business outcomes, the industry evaluates itself in the only way it can. Though outputs - and in the arena of award shows.

The volume and quality of new business an agency attracts is explicitly connected to the volume and quality of the awards they accrue.

The more you get, the more you get.

Without making any judgement call on what-is-or-is-not-scam perhaps some clarity comes from knowing this about our own foibles as an industry.

And perhaps it might not be a bad thing to put this years what-is-or-is-not-scam debate to bed and get on with next years award winners.

Because, as an industry perhaps we suffer from a collective actor-observer bias.

When we judge our own agency's behaviour, we are the actors, and perhaps we are more likely to attribute our actions as a response to peculiarities of the situational factors of the industry; than to any general sense of our integrity or lack of.

However, when explaining the behaviour of others (our competitor agencies), we are far more inclined to attribute their scam ads to their overall cheating-bastard disposition rather than to any of the situational factors that influenced us.

Friday, July 18, 2014

stand and deliver

Pop stars talking about advertising. What could possibly go wrong?

Corporate rapper Kanye West for a start.

Consider, his much repeated quote-age from Cannes for example.

“I dream to help raise the palette and raise the taste level of a generation and also be involved with the production and distribution and advertising of that thing everyone’s begging for.”

I have no idea what that is supposed to mean.

Adam Ant, however, knew a thing or two about the role for advertising and its subsequent effectiveness. And preferred to express this in how the work spoke for itself.

'I'm the dandy highwayman who you're too scared to mention

I spend my cash on looking flash and grabbing your attention'

It's not that difficult.

Spend the cash on looking flash.

Then get noticed.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

shot with your own gun (or the META-return of the texas sharpshooter fallacy)

The sciences of human behaviour show that we all are susceptible to foibles known as cognitive biases.

These are processes of thinking that can sometimes lead us to making less than optimal decisions - particularly in conditions of uncertainty - or more often just relatively benign and harmless routine confabulations.

In the following case, the firm favourite - confirmation bias.

This is our tendency of people to favour information that confirms pre-existing beliefs or hypotheses.

And it's often compounded with a touch of the old texas sharpshooter fallacy.

Refreshingly, from time to time behavioural economists themselves are just as likely as any of us to be caught in these cognitive traps.

In theory, this analysis in Smart Company of how the celebrated Sarah Wilson’s 'I Quit Sugar' books and 'community' have helped a large number of people adopt more healthy behaviours seems to add up.

A slightly edited excerpt follows that links BE staples status quo bias, intrinsic motivation, loss aversion and social proof with positive and negative tension.

Here we go.

'[Wilson uses] positive tension to create anxiety about status quo [and] create an appetite for change.

By pointing to the gap between what’s undesirable now and what is a desirable future you can stimulate sufficient motivation in your customer to be open to changing their behaviour.

Loss Aversion tells us that people are more motivated to avoid loss than seek gain, so you need to work hard to reduce the perceived downside of progressing with you...overcoming negative tension to build people’s willingness to change.

By providing step-by-step meal plans as well as cooking and shopping tips, Sarah reduces people’s fear that a life without sugar is too difficult.

Further, through a thriving blog (engaging over 260,000 every day) and social media presence (over 385,000 followers) Sarah has harnessed a community of advocates and tapped into the behavioural principle of Social Proof.

People new to the materials or program who may feel anxious about whether it will work for them can have their fears allayed by seeing how many others have succeeded. There’s no surer anxiety-buster than knowing that someone else has done it before you.

This analysis is not wrong. We just smiled at it's possible over-theoreticalness.

[And before you start, sure, the irony of that statement is not lost on us...]

Another, perhaps simpler, explanation for the success of the 'I Quit Sugar' phenomenon can be found by applying the Fogg Behaviour Model.

Central to Fogg's theory is that increasing motivation is very hard and almost never works.

Making the desired behaviour easier, even where there is low motivation is generally a much better plan.

For Wilson's wannabe-sugar-free readers there is already likely to be a high motivation to change their behaviour, however because of a perceived lack of ability, it seems hard to do.

In cases like this Fogg recommends the use of a 'faciltator' trigger.

Make the desired behaviour easy by showing people who are motivated how to do it, easily.

Wilson's books, forums, recipes are facilitators, and this is how her empire has been built.

Buy making something that used to be hard, easy.

And branding it well.

Of course, there's more than one way to skin a cat, and the planner joke applies, sometimes what works in practice doesn't always work in theory.

Having said that, we are signed up for the Marketing Science Idea Exchange later this month, at which the author of the piece is conducting a couple of workshops.

In the spirit of idea exchange, hopefully we shall not be sent to the back of the class.

Friday, July 11, 2014

space travel's in my blood, and there ain't nothing I can do about it

We've just finished reading 'Think Like A Freak', the third book by Levitt and Dubner the others being Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics. You may also know their weekly WNYC radio show/podcast.

Their ouvre is at the lighter pop end of the behavioural economics canon, however they can take some of the biggest credit for opening up this thinking to a mass audience.

Either way it's an entertaining read, I got through in about two round trips to Hobart.

There's one little story towards the end concerning the January 1986 Nasa Space Shuttle mission which I suspect that many of you - my planning brothers and sisters - will identify with.

The following is almost as it appears in the book, I've paraphrased/shortened it a bit...

The launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger had already been delayed several times, both nasa themselves and the engineers were getting twitchy.

However on January 28, 1986, it looked like Nasa could finally launch from Kennedy Space Centre in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

This particular mission had drawn lot of interest from the public, mainly because the crew was to include a civilian, a schoolteacher called Christa McAuliffe.

However some unusually cold overnight temperatures in the nights before the launch led the chief engineer Allen McDonald to recommended to his Nasa client that they postpone once more.

McDonald and his team of engineers explained that the cold weather might damage the rubber O-rings that kept hot gases from escaping the shuttle boosters, indeed, the boosters had never even been tested at temperatures as low as forecast.

Nasa pushed back, they wanted a launch.

Years later Mcdonald wrote about this.

"This was the first time that Nasa personnel ever challenged a recommendation that was made that said it was unsafe to fly.

For some strange reason we found ourselves being challenged to prove quantitatively that it would definitely fail, and we couldn't do that."

So the advice of the engineers was ignored and the launch was officially back on.

McDonald - and his team of experts - had been overruled.

In fact when Nasa came and asked McDonald to sign off on the decision to launch he refused.

His boss signed it off instead.

So the next morning, Space Shuttle Challenger took off as scheduled.

73 seconds later Challenger blew up in mid-air, killing everyone on board.

A subsequent enquiry found that explosion was caused by a failure of O-rings due to the cold weather.


Wednesday, July 09, 2014

vivid demonstration vivid metaphor

It seems simplistic but I'm consistently surprised at how often an explicit description of the actual role for the advertising is absent from first attempts at creative briefs I see.

There are principally two roles, but lack of clarity around either or both often means wholesale back to the drawing board for the author.

Stephen King set the template for these two roles while he was inventing Account Planning back in the day, and even to this day no-one has come up with a better or simpler model.

We're either creating advertising that seeks a fairly direct response or a fairly indirect response. Or a specific cocktail of both.

At the indirect end of the scale, what King would describes as vivid metaphor, is advertising that is 'borrowing something from outside the brand itself which has personality characteristics that are similar to the ones we want our brand to have.'

Here's to the crazy ones and suchlike.

At the other more direct and less fashionable end of the spectrum these days; are the vivid demonstrations. These kind usually pick out and dramatise some specific feature of a product or brand and frame it in 'what's in it for you' manner.

The following couple of ads from Aldi seem to be an exemplary blend of the two roles.

A vivid demonstration of the principal benefit (cheapness).

And it's probably not too much of a stretch to say that the various surprising creative devices employed are a vivid metaphor for the surprise element of the actual brand experience itself.

Who among us has not headed straight for the middle aisles for a chainsaw and flippers on a sunday morning.

These are also possibly some of the best examples in recent months of the continuing triumph of meaningless distinctiveness over meaningful differentiation, and for 15seconds of hardcore retail to be so choc-full of 'idea' they are an inspiration for any of us out there with big box retail clients to serve.

Behavioural footnote:

At the core of Aldi's Strategy is a deep understanding of how we actually buy.

The mental shortcuts we use to make it easy for ourselves.

Despite what marketers might like to believe most people hold practically no brand knowledge whatsoever, even for brands we like and buy regularly.

Because the shampoo we buy is the green one. The toilet paper is the one with the purple stripe etc.

*UPDATE 14-07*

And now we love this series even more, the latest one has the classic enclothed cognition gag.

Like retail ads. Only better.

the wheels on the bus go round and round, all through town...

On a very basic level, advertising should probably do two things.

Putting low involvement processing aside for the moment, here's one of them.

Hopefully the other side of the bus says 'be well branded'.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

does culture really eat strategy for breakfast?

Culture, in an organisational sense, is usually interpreted as the collective behaviours, attitudes and beliefs that - when mixed together - create a particular set of norms within said organisation.

Culture within the organisation gives people direction, and makes it easier for employees to find their way at work without having to think that much and get along with other people in the organisation.

Obviously there can be 'good' culture and 'bad' culture, depending on your point of view.

There are themes that many organisations seem to share.
Uniqueness is one of those.

For the most part unique culture is really a set of generic rules. 
Usually along these lines.

1. Be and think positively (this means total enthusiasm for any new idea, no matter how stupid)
2. Embrace change (but never ask why?)
3. Never criticise the work of others (see point 1)
4. Only look forward, never back (see point 1, again)

However, within those companies where culture is said to eat strategy for breakfast, it is reported that this clear set of shared values and norms actually shapes the way a company operates and is a fundamental driver of the financial success of the business.

A picture of this kind of strong culture features passionate, empowered employees, deeply engaged.

High performing teams, trusting each other, communicating authentically and powering the business towards financial growth and reaching new heights of innovation.

And it all sounds plausible, especially when the usual suspects are presented as case in point.

Zappos, Google, Ben & Jerry's, Starbucks are among the most frequently mentioned.

They have dynamic, engaged leaders, organic and vibrant self directed employees, empowered to take risks and fail-fast while truly caring about making a difference in the world. Etc etc.

It certainly seems plausible that culture does, indeed, eat strategy for breakfast*.

[*The quote itself is attributed to Peter Drucker, though there's no evidence he ever said it - other than the anecdotal evidence of Mark Fields from Ford Motor Company, who attributed it to Drucker in a 2006 speech. In any case Peter Drucker is on record noting that culture is hard to change, therefore it's sensible to try and work with whatever you’ve got].

So the fashionable idea is that within these kind of environments the sheer force of strong culture wills the organisation to success. Poor old strategy is relegated to a mere administrative function.

My fear is that the 'breakfast' quote has been skunk-ified and it's proponents are somewhat culpable of mistaking story-telling for fact.

I recently participated on the jury in an advertising awards show. One of my categories to judge was the 'agency of the year' prize. Around 7 or 8 finalists gave their presentations to the jury, each of them presented a section that outlined their respective 'unique values'.

You guessed it, all of the agencies unique values were practically identical. You could probably reel them off yourself right now, with no prompting. All bar one, I should add.

The agency in question presented no values at all, however did present a set of behaviours. Had it been down to me only they would have won the category. As it goes, they came second but that deviation from convention stuck with me.

Anyway, this interpretation of 'breakfast' is like a halo effect - a perception of one quality is contaminated by a more readily available quality. For example because Kanye West is a successful pop-rapper he must therefore know something about the advertising business and should be allowed to lecture us from Cannes.

In his book The Halo Effect Phil Rosenzweig describes (among nine distinct business delusions) the delusion of the wrong end of the stick.

The wrong end of the stick being a halo effect that tricks us into getting causes the wrong way round.

Is it that companies with a strong culture perform better?

Or is it companies with clear goals and strategies to achieve those goals (to paraphrase Rumelt; companies that are doing the work to uncover the critical factors in a situation and designing a way of coordinating and focusing actions to deal with those factors) are the high performing or growing companies that tend to get a better culture?

Yes, culture can eat strategy for breakfast but if theres no strategy on the breakfast table then culture will get pretty hungry and grumpy.

Does this sound conservative to you?

Well, the 'breakfast' lobby does appear to be the voice of the new digital business.

Purpose before profit right?

It's the sharing economy, that 'could just save the least advantaged from ravages of capitalism' according to poster child and 'culture driven' TPG private equity funded Airbnb.

Where presumably culture is eating strategy for breakfast.

Rushkoff puts it this way.

'[Silicon Valley start-ups] claiming to be saving the world, when they’re really just the latest generation of desperate yuppies chasing capital and,in turn, reinforcing Wall Street’s monopoly over our society. Digital business is revolutionary only in the way it camouflages business as usual.'

For those of us in advertising, rather than simply selling a respectable service we can pretend that we are doing something much more grandiose.

If business is really going to contribute to a better world then we're best advised to focus on providing better strategy for culture to eat.

the bitterest pill

By three methods we may learn wisdom:

First, by reflection, which is noblest;

Second, by imitation, which is easiest;


Third, by experience, which is the most bitter.

- Confucius