A tale of humility and indifference

The IPA kindly invited me to speak at their 44 Club last night.

The argument I shared was a simple one:

“The limits of my language” opined the philosopher Wittgenstein “are the limits of my world”. The rhetoric and metaphor of modern marketing – ‘community’, ‘relationships’, ‘fans’, ‘loyalty’, ‘love’, etc. – fundamentally misunderstands how people really feel and behave towards brands. Facing up to people’s general indifference to what we make, putting aside our egos and letting go of our personal need to feel significant is creativity’s best chance.

This was a slightly reworked version of a theme I’ve banged on about before – this time with additional data illustrating the gulf that exists between marketing’s bouts of hubris and the consumer’s reality.

It is worth noting that this is not an argument for dispensing with the metaphor of human relationships altogether. Remembering what makes for good communication between humans beings is probably one of the best bulwarks against producing stuff that merely bores or shouts at people. But that is something very different from conflating habits, preferences and satisfactions with what makes for a human relationship.

Nor is this an argument in favour of some kind of brutal, soulless utilitarianism. After all, most human decision making is intuitive, instinctive, judgmental, emotional and works just below the level of consciousness. And most people aren’t ‘maximizers’, conducting elaborate cost-benefit analyses in the supermarket aisles and seeking the very best their money can get them.The relative insignificance of brands in people’s lives, does not diminish the necessity of building and sustaining rich, enduring, vivid, emotionally-packed and easily-accessed memory structures in people’s minds.

One last caveat, since some more sensitive souls have taken this  presentation to be some kind of act of heresy. I have used the nature of digital interactions simply as supporting evidence of how people really think and feel about brands. My beef is not with ‘digital’, but overestimating how much people really care.

Anyway, the slides are here if anyone is interested:

And here’s the one piece of work I shared:

My thanks to the IPA for the invitation and for being such generous and lovely hosts.  And of course thank you to everybody who came along.


  1. jtw

    Important stuff…. nuff said.
    But then why do we have to keep saying it?
    (nice work shame about the VO)

    • Martin Weigel

      We have to keep stating it because as Voltaire said, the problem with common sense is that it isn’t very common.

      (I didn’t know he said that until today. I have Graham Booth to thank for my education)

  2. kees

    Hi Martin, your depressing presentation (all 110 slides!) has convinced me to give up my job. Kidding of course. Couldn’t agree more that we are deluding ourselves if we think consumers care. I’m afraid researchers are not immune to this kind of thinking

    Have been meaning to contact you about two things: the rationale behind multiple smaller brand stories vs. big ideas, and the recent Story of Milk campaign from FrieslandCampina. Would you have time for a quick coffee in the next couple of weeks? Would love to pick your brain

    • Martin Weigel

      Hi Kees!

      I actually think researchers have been actively responsible for encouraging some of this nonsense. Ah, the joys of being unaccountable.

      I have a nutty couple of weeks travel… lemme get back to your re. dates + coffee!

  3. Luke McGann

    Really powerful presentation simply put across. Gutted I missed the presentation but very glad to have the deck.

  4. Ant

    I was there last night. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

    There was a couple of off-the-wall questions at the end – that didn’t seem to have grasped the theory that you had shared…
    The ‘What would that teabag brand do’ question actually proved your point I think – people aren’t monogamous with brands and will happily flit between Aldi ownbrand and PG Tips…
    The only thing PG Tips can do to be more successful is do something interesting enough to 1) speak to more people, and 2) create memory structures that push consumers beyond a simple price vs price comparison in the supermarket aisle.

    I actually had a different question on that though…

    About the work you shared for P&G.
    P&G isn’t front and centre on the Tide pack, nor on Duracell or Pampers or Old Spice or Pantene etc..
    When a person is stood in Tesco buying their shampoo, they buy Pantene the brand.
    They don’t think ‘Gawd I loved that ‘P&G’ ad, and here’s a P&G hair product called Pantene.’

    So why was a motherbrand P&G advert created?

  5. John Dodds

    Hope you changed the minds of a few people. Given that the lifestyles of so many are invested in thinking and selling the opposite point of view, a few converts would be a great result.

  6. Ant

    (Just to clarify – the P&G question wasn’t a slight in anyway – just really curious as to whether the plan is for the motherbrand to play more of a role than it currently does on packaging etc / whether P&G will become more of a visible stamp of quality. And didn’t want to ask the question yesterday at the IPA because the question session was pretty intense.
    Thanks a lot for uploading the deck – it’s brililant.)

  7. itsnottheword

    Having read your stuff for a couple of years I can only nod my head. But I do want to say how fresh that blue and white template looks with the B&W images. Hooray sir!

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  9. Jennifer Laws

    Amazing stuff. Simply brilliant.
    Also takes a lot for a tvc to get my attention. That was gorgeous.

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  11. Peter Parkes

    I’ve written a bit more about this, drawing some parallels with Byron Sharp’s book ‘How Brands Grow’. Do you think that relevance/generosity/opinion (my take on slides 106–108) are sufficient to allay the ambivalence with which most people perceive the vast majority of brands?

  12. David Warren

    Hi Martin

    Thanks for sharing this – great presentation.

    My experience talking to a lot of the advertising community here in Oz is that the majority of good planners know this and are trying to adapt their approach accordingly. Similarly most creatives seem to have known this from birth.

    But somehow this hasn’t permeated the majority of clients or market research agencies (slight caveat in that there are obviously several individual clients and market researchers out there that recognise the reality of consumer behaviour).

    I guess that this type of language and thinking is baked-in to the cultures and practices of most clients, and the weekly forays we make at an individual level won’t affect wholesale change.

    My belief FWIW is that, aside from great creativity, our job – as a collective industry – is to help our clients be uncorporate / to be more human.

    Perhaps that was part of Rory’s thinking in making behavioural economics the centrepiece of his tenure?… (although the language of BE does often stray into the rhetoric of consumers being mere puppets for us to control).

    Either way, this is a large challenge – but one which should rest firmly on the shoulders of us planners.

    Keep it real

    • Martin Weigel

      Hi David,

      Thanks very kind of you to say.

      Don’t get me started on the responsibility of the research industry for peddling some of this nonsense.

      I suspect that out own psychological (an understandably human) needs mean it will never go away.

      But I do like your notion of one of our tasks being to help corporations be uncorporate and more human. There’s a lot to think about in there. I’m gonna let that one rumble round my head for a while!

      Keep the faith.


  13. Subbu

    Where you that fly-on-the-wall in every client meeting I attended? Awesome stuff. This should be made a must-read for everyone entering the agency and marketing business. We are wallowing in bullshit so much that we have gotten used to it. In many ways, what is being prescribed in your presentation is what was taught to us in Ogilvy when I joined them nearly 2 decades back and what Bill Bernbach always said. Advertising is an intrusion. Make it useful and interesting. Be creative. That is the core of any agency’s business.

  14. Maz Iqbal

    Hello Martin
    Your presentation resonates with me. It shows up for me as being the presentation that resonates with me when it comes to brands, branding, advertising. Thank you for putting together and sharing it.


  15. Julian McCrea

    Hi Martin, we have chatted before but really love this presentation. I think the fallacy for the industry is that people working within it, really want their work to matter i.e. they want their life’s work to matter and to elicit the same psychological feeling you get from a human relationship. I am guessing you have already read this but it ellicits the same point as but in a very different way – the perspective of a creative director talking with an inoperable tumour, talking about advertising…


    • Martin Weigel

      Wow. There’s some real food for thought in that piece, Julian. Thanks!
      We all want our work to matter. Daniel Pink in his book ‘Drive’ talks about this need. But for me the key is for us to strike a balance between ambition with humility. It’s probably hard. But humility without ambition seems unlikely to excite anyone. And ambition without humility just leads to all manner of ugly things.
      That seems to be true not just of how we operate but also of how great brands operate out there in the real world…

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  17. northern

    That’s it, I’m giving up blogging about anything useful about the job. There isn’t much else to be said now.
    I’ll stick to tea and swimming.
    Excellent, excellent, I really wish I had been there

    • Martin Weigel

      I suspect I am much better as a studio album rather than live. Though it would have been fun to say hello!
      You can’t stop blogging. Yours is about the only planning blog we have that isn’t an exercise in self-aggrandisement or public onanism.

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  19. Adrian Langford

    Excellent presentation. The basis for it was laid as far back as 1959, but the fact that this is so little known points up the need to render purchase behaviour in a succinct and engaging style, rather than in drily academic style (Sharp’s “How Brands Grow” pulls off this trick – and provides much of the data quoted here). My experience is that clients begin to grasp the implications when you show them the data for their brands and category, but until then raising some of these truths with them is like farting in church. Too much energy and ego already invested in elaborate, logical systems which deny the reality you expose, and too much unquestioning deotion to marketing textbooks and courses. Some honourable exceptions – Mars won’t allow their marketing people anywhere near a brand till they’ve been trained in the correct evidence-based approach and its implications.

    • Martin Weigel

      Thanks for reading. Adrian… and glad you liked.
      Totally agree… The argument is most persuasive when we get specific about a client’s category and business.
      (While I’ve found Byron’s work both inspiring and useful, I should note that the data points in the presentation do not come from his book, but from assorted papers by himself and his colleagues at the EBC)

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  22. timmilneTim Milne

    Hi Martin
    Very interesting presentation (how ironic). Indeed, people don’t care and I believe that’s because social / digital media asks that they care intellectually (Kahneman system 2), rather than intuitively (system 2). This requires people to think about something that’s a) not worth thinking about and b) doesn’t exist as an intellectual construct anyway. Brands are themselves emotional entities and work precisely because we want to buy something without thinking about it; we don’t want to have to evaluate the logical merits of every purchase we make. We’re lazy. We don’t care. We just want to feel that we’ve done the right thing in buying Coke over Pepsi (or Happy Shopper Cola) and get on with our everyday lives.

    Unfortunately, marketeers are logical animals. Everything has to make sense to them and now advertising has migrated to digital–intellectual–platforms, they’re in their element, “Look at those stats!”.

    My personal belief is that this vacation of the emotional space, which was traditionally the power of TV, and the very essence of branding, could be filled with print–now it’s no longer required to transport information–based around its tactile properties and the conflation of the idea of ‘feeling’ being both tactile and emotional sensation–how it feels is how it feels . I’ve outlined the argument here:


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  24. Mark barden

    Hi martin – I found myself coming back to this preso 3 times this week as a way of checking myself on not using the BS of relationships too much in client conversation. We do need to create relationship, but keep it in perspective. “Right relationship” you might say, if you we’re a bit Buddhist. Thank you. I didn’t find it depressing. Refreshing in fact. I’m only a little miffed that some of the way challenger brands have historically competed – taking positions, being generous with their community – are now truths for all brands (and probably always were) and so we will start seeing this kind of smart marketing more and more, leaving challengers to up their game again.

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    • Martin Weigel

      Hello Les,

      I’m delighted (and hugely flattered) that you like it.

      The “shit in a bucket” quote should give many of us pause for thought.


  27. Stefen

    Hi Mr. Weigel,
    First of all, thanks for a brilliant read. For an aspiring young man in media & advertising industry, your “truths” about some of the words we use are quite enlightening and motivational to create something remarkable. I shared your work with my friends and they ask a question I can’t fully explain. So, maybe I’ll just ask the creator :). Can you please elaborate on what the phrase “Prisoners of metaphors & victims of vanity” means? My apology if the question sounds stupid. Thank you in advance.

    • Martin Weigel

      Hi Stefen,

      First, thank you for coming by, thank you for reading… and thank you so much for your very kind words.

      So what do I mean by us being “prisoners of metaphors & victims of vanity”?

      We’re “prisoners of metaphor” because we’ve started to forget that when we talk of brand ‘relationships’ we’re using it as a metaphor. Thinking about how human beings interact is useful. It ensure that we don’t just shout at consumers, but talk to them as human beings, not shoppers, etc. But it is just a metaphor. Human relationships are nothing like brand relationships. Yet some of us are such slaves to the metaphor that we even go so far as to suggest that people can feel “love” towards a brand. Which is clearly nonsense. And diminishes one of the most profound emotions a human being can experience. Metaphors are meant to illuminate. To make things more easily, and more vividly understood. But when I suggest that some people are “as thick as two short planks” I am not suggesting their heads really are made of wood. Just that they’re dumb.

      We’re “victims of vanity” because we’ve fallen in love with the idea that what we do is massively, immensely important in people’s lives. I’ve lost count for example, of the number of agency presentations I’ve seen that suggest that brands have replaced religions. Forgetting that tens of millions of people around the world are perfectly happy having a faith. We’ve forgotten that to the vast majority of the world’s population who do not working in marketing- or adland, brands just aren’t that important. Frankly, I suspect that our need to believe our output is significant says more about our own needs and insecurities than anything else.

      There are no stupid questions. Only stupid answers. I hope mine were not.



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