I came across a heady essay by Corey Robin in The Chronicle – ‘How Intellectuals Create A Public.’
More than a tangential source perhaps, but nonetheless, it contains some choice pieces of wisdom for Adland:
Publics, as John Dewey argued, never simply exist; they are always created. Created out of groups of people who are made and mangled by the actions of other people. Capital acts upon labor, subjugating men and women at work, making them miserable at home. Those workers are not yet a public. But when someone says — someone writes — “Workers of the world, unite!,” they become a public that is willing and able to act upon its shared situation. It is in the writing of such words, the naming of such names — “Workers of the world” or “We, the People,” even “The Problem That Has No Name” — that a public is summoned into being. In the act of writing for a public, intellectuals create the public for which they write.”
That’s also how public intellectuals work. By virtue of the demands they make upon the reader, they force a reckoning. They summon a public into being — if nothing else a public conjured out of opposition to their writing.”
We have the means, we have the material. What we don’t have is mass. We have episodic masses, which effervesce and overflow. But it’s hard to imagine masses that will endure, publics that won’t disappear… And it is that constraint on the imagination and hence the will that is the biggest obstacle to the public intellectual today… the fear that the publics that don’t yet exist — which are, after all, the only publics we’ve ever had — never will exist.”
Rather good, I thought.
Corey Robin, ‘How Intellectuals Create A Public’, The Chronicle, 22.01.16
“Tell me to what you pay attention and I will tell you who you are”
Jose Ortega y Gassett
Empires of the mind
If buyers of a brand do not think their brand is different or unique (Ehrenberg)…
And if what matters is the creation of ‘mental presence’ (Moran)…
Or ‘memory structures’ (Sharp)….
And if we define this as “The degree to which a given brand comes to consumers’ minds in the context of a particular purchase occasion or consumption occasion.” (Moran)…
Or as “The probability that a brand will be recalled early in a consumer’s consideration set, under a variety of situations and via a variety of stimuli, to the exclusion of competing brands” (Vieceli and Shaw)…
And if this is dependent on “The quantity (how many) and the quality (how fresh and relevant) of the network of brand information in memory, or the brand’s ‘share of mind’” (Romanuik and Sharp)…
And if the brain is not some rigid filing system in which memories reside as fully formed recordings but is something altogether more dynamic and malleable…
And if our brain’s networks of nerve cells or ‘neurons’ are not fixed entities, but are dynamic and continuously modified by experience…
And if thinking, learning, and behaviour all actually change the brain’s physical structure and organization, rewiring the brain, creating and eliminating new connections between neurons (Buonomano & Mezernich, Heilman & Nadeau, Schacter, Svoboda)…
Then perhaps is is not unreasonable to regard our task as the creation, expansion, maintenance, and defence of mental real estate.
And so perhaps it was Judith Williamson (Marxist and academic) who put it better than any brand expert, when she wrote that advertising’s purpose was to create “empires of the mind.”
And if she did put it better than anyone, then perhaps we struggle and jostle for memory.
And perhaps we shouldn’t be quite so shy about the language and metaphors of conquest and battle that have become so unfashionable and politically incorrect in adland.
And if we think of our task as some kind of (benign) synaptic imperialism, perhaps we’ll think beyond the mere act of contact or engagement, and think about what mental infrastructure we leave behind, maintain, and expand.
So far so good.
Highjack people’s cognitive processes, leave some memory traces, reinforce and fresh them repeatedly over time, and (see Binet and Field) extract the financial rewards that lie in so doing.
High-fives and cigars all round.
(At this point I should note that I have Ted Florea, CSO at PNYC to thank for challenging me to think harder, and to go beyond this convenient and possibly self-serving conclusion).
The easy industry rhetoric of interruption, disruption, attention, and engagement disguises the truth that building brands involves a deeply intimate, and personal process.
As the philosopher Matthew Crawford reminds us:
Attention is the thing that is most one’s own.. in a very real sense this determines what is real for us; what is actually present to our consciousness. Appropriations of our attention are then an especially intimate matter.”
The attention we marketers make claims upon is not ours.
Yet the quantity of things that – from the sublime to the banal – compete and jostle to divert and capture this, our most personal of resources expands at a rate that is hard to truly grasp.
As Charles Clavey has put it, reviewing Crawford’s book:
From the quotidian – the daily onslaught of emails, texts, tweets, and updates – to the innovative – the use of ambient perfume to market coffee, for instance – the world around us relentlessly colonizes our precious attention.”
Modernity offers us almost no escape from the frackers, and hackers of our attention. And we have only just begun to build the internet of things.
Inhabiting an environment ever more highly engineered to distract us and to redirect our attention, there remains but one uncolonised and unmonetised part of our lives. As Jonathan Crary puts it:
The huge portion of our lives that we spend asleep, freed from a morass of simulated needs, subsist as one of the great human affronts to the voraciousness of contemporary capitalism. Sleep is an uncompromising interruption of the theft of time from us by capitalism. Most the seemingly irreducible necessities of human life – hunger, thirst, sexual desire, and recently the need for friendship – have been remade into commodified or financialized forms. Sleep poses the idea of a human need and interval of time that cannot be colonised and harnessed to a massive engine of profitability, and thus remains an incongruous anomaly and site of crisis in the global present… The stunning, inconceivable reality is that nothing of value can be extracted from it.”
All aboard the hedonic treadmill
Of course the resource of attention in our waking hours is not an infinite one.
As the oft-quoted political scientist Herbert Simon predicted, information consumes attention:
In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”
In the name of both efficiency and survival, we’re adapted to allocate our attention to the new and novel.
We are built to focus our finite mental resources on new sights, sounds, thoughts and feelings and to filter out the rest. After all, potential threats and new resources are much more likely to be novel than familiar. Simply put, survival prospects are are not good for an animal that is not suspicious of novelty.
However, there is also survival value for the initial caution to fade if the stimulus is actually proves to be non-threatening. What the Polish psychologist Robert Zajonc terms, ‘exposure effect’ occurs because nothing life-threatening follows the repeated exposure of a stimulus. With time and repetition then, this stimulus eventually becomes a safety signal.
Even the most exciting and novel of stimulus with repetition eventually becomes part of life’s wallpaper of familiarity. The author, poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman vividly captures how the new and exciting eventually becomes submerged within that taken for granted world:
Novelty will always rivet one’s attention. There is that unique moment where one confronts something new and astonishment begins. Whatever it is, it looms brightly, its edges sharp, its details ravishing… It is a form of revelation, a new sensory litany. But the second time one sees it, the mind says, Oh, that again, another wing walker, another moon landing. And soon, when it’s become commonplace, the brain begins slurring the details, recognising it too quickly, by just a few of its features, it doesn’t have to bother scrutinising it. Then it is lost to astonishment, no longer an extraordinary instance but a generalised piece of the landscape.”
So essential to any species’ survival is this arousal by and adaptation to novelty that infants less than a day old will stare at a new image for about forty-one seconds – and then tune it out when repeated exposures render it familiar.
To combat what Pinker has termed the ‘anaesthetic of familiar’, the industries of entertainment and marketing are compelled to keep bringing us new sensations.
This why you get what the Dutch Nobel Prize-winning ethologist and ornithologist Niko Tinbergen dubbed ‘supernormal stimulus’.
It was Tinbergen’s research into how phoney, exaggerated stimulus could appeal to natural instincts far more than the original targets for which they had evolved that led him to coin the term.
In fact Tinbergen’s work demonstrated how dummies could actually exert far more influence than any real, natural stimulus.
For example, he showed how song birds preferred to feed a fake baby bird on a stick if the dummy beak was wider and redder than the chick’s.
He also demonstrated how song birds would abandon their normal, real pale eggs dappled with grey to sit on polka-dot Day-Glo blue dummies. So large they would constantly fall off them.
Of course animals only tend to encounter supernormal stimuli when they are the subject of experiments.
However, we humans can produce our own.
As Deidre Barrett puts it in her examination of the contemporary manifestations of super normal stimuli:
Candy sweeter than any fruit, stuffed animals with eyes wider than any baby, pornography… Instincts arose to call attention to rare necessities; now we let them dictate the manufacture of useless attention-grabbers.”
This is why you get IHOPs Country Fried Steak & Eggs – a 8oz steak with gravy, two eggs, hash browns and two buttermilk pancakes that provides almost an entire day’s worth of calories, two and half days’ of sodium, and up to two days’ of our sugar requirements.
This is why you get social media headlines such as “Disney Princesses Twerking Will Shatter Your Childhood.”
This is why even The Telegraph peddles headlines such as “You’re doing your morning routine wrong.”
This is why politics isn’t about policies but about media-baiting soundbites.
This is why you get the grotesquerie that is Donald Trump.
This is why movies for adults look like movies for children.
This is why Kim Kardashian exists.
This is why the language of marketing has infiltrated the common, everyday discourse.
This is why Guy Debord was moved to argue (even before the internet and its consequences) that:
All of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.”
And such is the relentless, never-ending parade of attention-hacking novelty, argues Professor Tomlinson, that our contemporary consumer culture is now characterized by an expectation of ‘delivery’, rather than of real satisfaction:
What I mean by this is that there is probably a widespread disbelief in the capacity of consumer goods to provide ultimate satisfaction; but that there is, none the less, an expectation that the capitalist system will – and should- continue to deliver the goods… We expect consumer goods to be functional or novel or amusing.. We expect warranties and after sale service. But in the vast majority of cases these expectations stop short of a conviction that they will, in any profound sense, satisfy our deepest desires. This is not however an obstacle to continued consumption, particularly since it is combined with the happy expectation that something new is always on the way and so it is not necessary – nor does it do – to invest too much into the thing of the moment.”
A question of ethics
So attention is personal – what we attend do defines our reality.
Attention is finite – it is a scarce and thus valuable resource – not just to those who wish to monetise it, but to those to whom is belongs.
And attention is hackable – the world is overpopulated with those skilled in the art of capturing and redirecting attention for their own purposes.
Surely then, we have a responsibility – dare one say, an ethical duty – to the audience.
And to the attention we see to hack.
We enjoy pouring scorn on the reckless bankers and tax evading corporations for behaving as if they operated outside society, with no duty to the broader body politic. But the fact of the matter is that much of ad- and marketing behaves towards people with little more sense of duty, obligation, and responsibility than these popular pariahs.
So let us start with recalling the words of Howard Gossage:
Our first duty is not the the old sales curve, it is to the audience. It is not simply right to treat the audience in the fashion. If we can’t look at it from a broad, ethical point of view, then we ought to look at it personally, to please ourselves – we are all members of the audience too, we are bored or irritated right along with everybody else.”
And yet judging by its output, much of ad- and marketingland holds its audience in something approaching contempt.
With all the grace and socials skills of a drunken boor gatecrashing a wedding party, most advertising makes no concession to fact that it is interrupting something that people have chosen, or opted-in to watch. In return for absolutely nothing, it loudly demands our attention. It’s the marketing equivalent of being robbed at gunpoint.
If you think contempt is too strong a word, just listen to the stream of snark and condescension muttered towards those on the other side of the focus group mirror and upon whose interest and custom our livelihoods and lifestyles ultimately depend.
If you still think contempt is too strong a word, just look at the imagination and empathy free wasteland that is called marketing to women. The best we believe we can do for women through advertising is ‘empower’ them. Because unlike men, they we’re weak, down-trodden, esteem-challenged creatures, who aren’t yet ready for some jolly good entertainment. That’s for men. Who are empowered.
The fact of the matter is that no insight department or process can be a substitute for genuine, human empathy. And if we must turn to them for a more generous perspective on those we serve, we are probably more fucked than we think we are.
The implications of our First Duty run far and wide.
Tom Goodwin rightly rails against the digital landfill that is thrown our way – and all because in their myopic quest to grab our attention, marketers choose to ignore the truth that the foundation of advertising’s contract with the consumer is value exchange:
I search on Google and find myself on nasty sites like http://about.com or second tier media websites designed only around selling my eyeballs to advertisers. I feel violated. I visit the BBC News site and find myself unable to see any video news without being forced to waste 30 seconds watching a crudely cut down TV ad. Prerolls ads insert themselves mid way in articles… Pages take forever to load swamped by cookies and content I don’t need. I’m led to articles on websites where I’m “welcomed” by welcome screens and where pop ups increasingly barge their way past browser settings.. its a disgrace for people who now face their attention being stolen, their data plans killed and their time wasted for things they don’t want.”
If we were to hold ourselves to that First Duty, we would cease the shameless, intrusive, low-value hijacking of attention.
If we were to hold ourselves to that Duty, we would play it straight with consumers, stop passing off self-interest as altruistic, impartial information or entertainment, and stop kidding ourselves as to ethical integrity of native advertising. For its essence is to make marketing content appear similar to the publication’s look and feel.
And yet we insist on kidding ourselves that we are not in the business of camouflaging our attention hacking. Here, for example, is Advertising Age:
When executed well, with time and care put into ensuring the content is in the right tone and has the right message, native formats blend into vertical streams in a manner that’s much less disruptive to users (while still marked as “sponsored” so as not to be deceptive).”
Only an industry breathing in the fumes of its own inward-looking and self-regarding rhetoric, uncaring about its duty to the audience could with a straight face suggest that content can both blend in and be clearly marked.
Beyond the sizzle
Better targeted, more thoughtfully personalised, more context-responsive content may help ameliorate some of the worst excesses of thoughtless attention hacking.
But perhaps we can and should go further than all this.
Perhaps we should do more than merely engage in a never-ending arms race in the pursuit of people’s attention.
Perhaps rather than add ever more to the unending torrent of cultural spam that we delight in characterising as ‘content’, we should turn our own attention to things of real, enduring substance.
Indeed, perhaps we should stop asking more of people’ attention, and find ways of giving it back to them.
Rather than use the wonders of technology and digital connections to hack ever further at consumers’ attention and giving them ever more things to do, see, click on, download, read, scroll through, interact with, engage with, with ever more competitions to participate in, in-store QR codes to scan, long-from content films to endure, pre-roll advertising to suffer, quizzes to answer, ad campaigns to upload their faces into, and content to co-create… perhaps we should actually find ways of helping consumers save time, and preserve their cognitive resources.
People are working harder. They’re saddled with debt. Or unable to acquire the debt to give them the head start they need. They’re facing uncertain futures. Many are having their futures disrupted into oblivion. And everywhere are the agents of attention hacking.
For the most part they don’t need advertising. What they need is better products. And easier, more enjoyable lives.
So perhaps more of us should refuse to take advantage of human cognition’s Achilles heel, and cease fuelling the toxic arms race of novelty for the sake of novelty.
We can rail all we want about the polluting effects of marketing’s more egregious attention robbing, but when much of it is merely in the service of polluting products, it’s tantamount to complaining about about the quality of the sizzle, and ignoring the quality of the actual sausage.
I leave the last words to Helen Edwards:
What about customer service? You ring your own call centre for the first time in years, navigate the endless bifurcations and hang on limply, listening to mindless music just like your consumers do. What about product quality? You look afresh at your packs, and wonder why they can’t be more user-friendly ; you remind yourself of those little formulation compromises. What about fair trading and sustainable sourcing? Don’t even go there.
Suddenly, it all becomes clear. Yes, the fourth wave of content marketing has arrived, but consumers aren’t waving, they’re drowning in an ocean of branded pap, and the interactive lifeline they really want to be thrown is the one whereby companies promptly answer calls in person, keep their promises, make better products and contribute to a better world.
Improve the substance. That’s how competition really works, and it’s what you’ve always known deep down. It will mean big investment, though: in R&D, in a new call centre, in a greener supply chain and in ethnographic research. How do you get that past the board?
Frankly, you have no idea how to solve that one. But at least you have now defined the problem.”
The biggest challenge facing marketing is not how we hack people’s attention.
It’s what we direct that attention towards.
Diane Ackerman, A Natural History Of The Senses
Deirdre Barrett, Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose
Buonomano D.V, and Mezernich, MM, ‘Cortical plasticity: from synapses to maps’, Annual Review of Neuroscience, 1998;21:149-86.
Charles Clavey, ‘ Are you out of your mind?’, LA Review Of Books, 05.10.20
Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: How to Flourish in an Age of Distraction
Matt Crenshaw, ‘Is native advertising about to go the way of pop-up ads?’, AdvertisingAge, 04.09.2015
Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep
Guy Debord, The Society Of The Spectacle
Helen Edwards, ‘Don’t drown your consumers in an ocean of branded pap’, Marketing, 05.11.2014
Andrew Ehrenberg, Neil Barnard, John Scriven, ‘Differentiation or Salience’, Journal of Advertising Research, November/December 1997
Andrew Ehrenberg, ‘Repetitive advertising and the consumer’, Journal of Advertising Research, Vol. 40, No. 6, November/December 2000
Andrew Ehrenberg, ‘What Brand Loyalty Can Tell Us’, Admap, October 2004, Issue 454
Andrew Ehrenberg, Neil Barnard, Rachel Kennedy, Helen Bloom, ‘Brand Advertising As Creative Publicity’, Journal of Advertising Research: Vol. 42, No. 4, July/August 2002
Tom Goodwin, ‘I miss the days of expensive advertising’, 13.08.2015
Kenneth M Heilman, MD, Stephen E. Nadeau, MD, and David Q. Beversdorf, MD. “Creative Innovation: Possible Brain Mechanisms” Neurocase (2003)
William Moran, ‘Brand Presence And The Perceptual Frame’, Journal of Advertising Research, October/November 1990
Jenni Romanuik, Byron Sharp, Andrew Ehrenberg, ‘Evidence concerning the importance of perceived brand differentiation, Australasian Marketing Journal 15 92), 2007
Jenni Romanuik, Byron Sharp, ‘Where knowledge of your brand resides: the Pareto share of brand knowledge’, in Report 44 for Corporate Sponsors, 2008, Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science
Jenni Romanuik, Byron Sharp, ‘Using known patterns in image data to determine brand positioning’, international journal of market research, Vol. 42, No.2, 2000
Jenni Romanuik, Andrew Ehrenberg, ‘Do brands lack personality?’ Report 14 for Corporate Members, March 2003
Jenni Romanuik, Byron Sharp, ‘Conceptualizing and measuring brand salience’, Marketing Theory, Volume 4(4), 2004
Daniel Schacter, The Seven Sins of Memory
Daniel Schacter, Searching for Memory
Byron Sharp, How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don’t Know
John Tomlinson, The Culture Of Speed: The Coming Of Immediacy
Julian Viecli, Robin Shaw, ‘A Model of Brand Salience’, in Mark Uncles, ed. Perspectives on Brand Management, 2011
Judith Williamson, Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising
What Keynes wrote in 1936 about economics is just as true of advertising: “So-called practical men, who have never knowingly been exposed to an intellectual influence in their lives, are invariably the slaves of some defunct economist”… It’s only by understanding the historical roots of the assumptions we make about advertising that we can begin to free ourselves from being Keynesian ‘slaves’ to those assumptions. It’s only when we realise that none of these theories, models or metaphors represents absolute truth, but is one of many ‘ways of seeing’… that we can make use of any of them as a source of inspiration rather than be confined by it.
Paul Feldwick, The Anatomy of Humbug: How To Think Differently About Advertising
“We’ve created a gambling culture in which we tune out everything except the most immediate outcomes.”
Laurence Fink, Chairman and CEO, BlackRock
“Addiction is a pathological attachment to something attractive in the short term, but destructive over time. Recovery is about looking where we’re going and choosing a path that can last.”
Dr. Chris Johnstone, addiction specialist
Would you rather receive $100 today or $125 a year from now? Although a 25% increase is an excellent one-year return on investment, the average decision-maker would choose the smaller immediate gain rather than the larger future gain.
This tendency to discount the value of future gains is what psychologists call “temporal discounting” and what economists term “rates of time preference.” It’s what you and I would call patience. And we live in impatient times.
The short-termism of the corporation has been well-documented:
While typically, between 70 and 90 percent of a company’s value is related to cash flow expected three or more years out, management tends to be preoccupied with what’s reported three months from now. And as Dominic Barton of McKinsey observes, “If the vast majority of most firms’ value depends on results more than three years from now, but management is preoccupied with what’s reportable three months from now, then capitalism has a problem.”
In the UK and US, cash-flows 5 years ahead are discounted at rates more appropriate 8 or more years hence; 10 year ahead cash-flows are valued as if 16 or more years ahead; and cash-flows more than 30 years ahead are scarcely valued at all.
In 1995, the mean duration of departing CEOs from the world’s largest 2,500 companies was just under 10 yrs. By 2009, it had fallen to around 6 years.
In the 1960s, 40% of US corporate earnings and borrowing used to go into investment. By the 1980s, that had fallen to 10%.
S&P companies spend 95% of their profits on share buy backs and dividends – $914 billion – rather than on long-term investment
Between 2004 and 2013, $3.4 trillion was spent on share buy backs at the expense of long-term investment
The long is, as Andrew Haldane, Chief Economist and the Executive Director of Monetary Analysis and Statistics at the Bank of England has put it, is short.
We can hold the gospel of shareholder value responsible for much of the short-termism that plagues so much of capitalism. First espoused by Milton Friedman in 1970 it holds that the singular goal of a company should be to maximize the return to shareholders. But in placing shareholder value before everything else, it encourages corporations and their management to focus on increasing the stock price, while doing little to encourage long-term investment.
To this, we’ve added the fuel of turbocharged data.
Information – and with it our capacity to acquire, disseminate, and respond to it – continues to accelerate at dizzying rate. Moore’s Law continues to make its rampage through our times, rewiring lives, markets, business, and expectations. It compresses everything it touches – distance, time, the feedback loop of the marketplace, our boredom threshold, our capacity for patience.
Consider that while news of Nelson’s victory in 1805 at the Battle of Trafalgar took 17 days to reach London (2.7mph), news of the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 took just 1 minute reach London (204,000mph).
Or that the average tenure of Premiership football managers has fallen by one month per year since 1994. If this trend continues, it will fall below one season by 2020.
Or that we’ve come to expect things so quickly that we can’t wait more than a few seconds for a video to load. Analysis of the viewing habits of 6.7 million internet users has revealed that after 2 seconds people start abandoning. After five seconds, the abandonment rate is 25 percent. When you get to 10 seconds, half are gone.
As the novelist and cultural observer Douglas Rushkoff has recently argued, immediacy is more and more the central defining characteristic of our culture:
Our society has reorientated itself to the present moment. Everything is live, real time, and always-on. It’s not a mere speeding up… It’s more of a diminishment of anything that isn’t happening right now. So much so that we are beginning to dismiss anything that is not happening right now – and the onslaught of everything that supposedly is.”
The forces that are transforming culture and capitalism run through our business too. For as capital and management have become increasingly impatient, we have inevitably (and in large part unwittingly) become both slave to and enabler of their agenda and rate of “time preference”.
We too have reorientated ourselves to the present moment.
CHASING SHORT-TERM METRICS
Digital interactions have brought us a wealth of new data. The lure of this data is not only that is it immediately available, but that much of is highly responsive to marketing activity.
Under pressure to account for our activities and to show that they are having an effect (any effect) and hooked on the crack cocaine of the short-term, we seize on intermediate metrics such as likes, views, tweets, shares and so on, like crazed junkies desperate for the next fix.
This data might be exciting, it might be highly responsive to communications activity, it might be easy to measure, and it might give us impressive sounding numbers to use in case study videos, but it is short-term data that tells us nothing about the long-term business effects of our efforts.
Worse, our holding up of short-term metrics that simply measure the exposure of consumers to our ideas as evidence of our success relegates our contribution to the mere distribution of content. And so – such is our appetite for evidence that something happened in the short-term – we relentlessly conspire to render the creation of enduring ideas, the building of memories, the shaping of perceptions, preferences, and behaviours a trivial side-show. The very things which that are the source of our value as an industry, and the generators of sustainable value for brands and businesses.
The short-term is invariably easier to manage and measure than the long-term. Yet as Binet and Field cautioned in their first round of analysis based upon the IPA’s DataBank what is important, and what is easy to measure, are not always the same thing. We forget the distinction between the important and the easy at our peril.
INCREASINGLY FIXATED WITH DEMAND FULFILMENT
Such is the gravitational pull of the short-term that we can stand idly by, mute, uncomprehending, or complicit, when we’re told that the future lies in ever tighter targeting and the pursuit of ever greater relevance.
Central to the promise of programmatic media buying is greater efficiency through improved relevance – getting the right content in front of the right person. But it carries risks in equal measure to its rewards. The co-author of the celebrated Cluetrain Mainfesto Doc Searls unwittingly articulates the dangers of blindly pursuing efficiency and hyper-relevance perfectly: “The Intention Economy grows around buyers, not sellers. It leverages the simple fact that buyers are the first source of money, and that they come ready-made.”
Of course the better targeted any marketing programme is, the higher the response rate. The gain in efficiency comes from not trying to sell things to people who aren’t interested. Thus as one agency puts it: “with this type of automated advertising, you know your ad impressions will only be used on certain people who are already interested in your product or service.”
But once again we conflate effectiveness and efficiency. Response rates are proportional, as the marketing scientist Byron Sharp reminds us, and don’t say anything about total effect size. A 50% response from targeting 100 people after all, is less than a 10% response from mailing to 1000 people.
Tighter targeting delivers higher response rates, but the pursuit of efficiency cannot be allowed to drive out the pursuit of effectiveness.
Nor can the visibility of consumer interest and intent to the marketer allow us to shrink our horizons, and relocate our contribution down to the very last step in the path to purchase. The insistence that the task of modern marketing is demand fulfilment amongst the already interested is to give up on the very idea of brand-building.
FAILING TO CELEBRATE LONG-TERM BUILDERS
There is perhaps no better barometer of our industry than what we choose to reward. And here the evidence is telling. Aside from effectiveness awards, there is no forum which celebrates the brand-building work of sustained creativity and succeeds in attracting both clients and creative agencies.
The Cannes Effectiveness Lion is a notable and welcome exception to this. But it proves the rule that – as John Hegarty noted at last year’s Cannes Lions Festival – creative awards are inherently about creative innovation.
Small wonder that that creatives juries are biased against work that forms part of a long-running campaign. It’s just “not new’.
RECOVERING OUR PURPOSE
As Lawrence Green has put it, this is marketing mission drift, “from an art practised for the longer-term health of a brand and business, to a science lopsidedly focused on the short term.”
It is addiction – a pathological attachment to something attractive in the short term, but destructive over time.
Adland is in much need of a reformation, and our first step to recovery should be to remind ourselves that brand-building is by its very nature, a long term business.
That would might seem to be so self-evident as to be redundant, and yet some extraordinarily misguided, inaccurate (or plain self-serving) claims for how advertising works continue to be peddled.
This, for example, is how some (otherwise respectable) folk have represented advertising – as a being fundamentally activity that only has a short-term effect:
Respectable or not, this is bullshit.
The fact of the matter is that most advertising simply does not pay back in the short term. And a succession of short-term effect activation or promotional effects will invariably fall far short of the gain that comes from pursuing long-term effects.
The effect is not just the driving up of volume or share, but pricing improvements. And as the analysis undertaken by Les Binet and Peter Field of thirty years’ of IPA Effectiveness Awards data demonstrates, the most profitable of all campaigns are those that drive both incremental volume and the strengthening of margins. And since pricing effects are slower to crystallise than volume effects this takes time.
So this is what long-term brand-building actually looks like:
Over time, baselines sales (i.e the volume that is bought at full, not discounted price) are – along with pricing – nudged upwards.
And the means by which this is accomplished is through the intangible, the stirring of emotions, the creation and nurturing of what Bryon Sharp terms memory structures, what Judith Williamson called “empires of the mind”, and most of us would call brand-building.
This is not to argue that the short-term does not matter at all. After all there can be no ‘tomorrow’ for a business if there is no ‘today’. As Jack Welch, the former CEO of GE has said, “the job of a leader and his or her team is to deliver to commitments in the short term while investing in the long-term health of the business”. Brands do need to direct some of their investment towards short-term activations that leverage the brand’s equity and produce short-term sales while the brand builds momentum.
But the short-term cannot be the focus or priority.
For it is the curve that ultimately matters, not the blip.
A PATH THAT CAN LAST
We are an industry in the grip of an existential crisis, looking over with confusion at the powerhouse players in adjacent industries, and envying their apparent confidence and their power to disrupt. So I hesitate to suggest that we might look to others to remind us what we are about, for a new metaphor to create by, and perhaps, and a better standard to hold ourselves account to.
But the platform builders do were to remind us of the value of thinking big and thinking long.
#1 TAKE THE LONG VIEW
Whether it is Google, Facebook, or iPhone, the business of platforms is inherently a long-term one.
Here for example, is Brin and Page’s first ever letter to shareholders in 2004:
As a private company, we have concentrated on the long term, and this has served us well. As a public company, we will do the same. In our opinion, outside pressures too often tempt companies to sacrifice long term opportunities to meet quarterly market expectations… If opportunities arise that might cause us to sacrifice short term results but are in the best long term interest of our shareholders, we will take those opportunities… We recognize that our duty is to advance our shareholders’ interests, and we believe that artificially creating short term target numbers serves our shareholders poorly. We would prefer not to be asked to make such predictions, and if asked we will respectfully decline. A management team distracted by a series of short term targets is as pointless as a dieter stepping on a scale every half hour.”
And as Jeff Bezos remarked in an interview, taking the long view is a source of competitive advantage:
If everything you do needs to work on a three-year time horizon, then you’re competing against a lot of people. But if you’re willing to invest on a seven-year time horizon, you’re now competing against a fraction of those people, because very few companies are willing to do that.”
The achievements of Sir Alex Ferguson, the manager of Manchester United from 1986 to 2013 show this in action.
The hallmark of his management of the club was that he took the long view. As he said in an interview for Harvard Business Review:
The first thought of 99% of newly appointed managers is to make sure they win—to survive. So they bring experienced players in. That’s simply because we’re in a results-driven industry. At some clubs, you need only to lose three games in a row, and you’re fired. In today’s football world, with a new breed of directors and owners, I am not sure any club would have the patience to wait for a manager to build a team over a four-year period. Winning a game is only a short-term gain—you can lose the next game. Building a club brings stability and consistency. You don’t ever want to take your eyes off the first team, but our youth development efforts ended up leading to our many successes in the 1990s and early 2000s. The young players really became the spirit of the club.”
His focus was always on building a successful club (the long view), not just a successful team (the short view).
Ferguson stood down as Manchester United boss at the end of his final season, having won 49 trophies in the most successful managerial career British football has ever known.
#2 EMBRACE BIG IDEAS
Joseph Jaffe has argued that:
Big ideas take too much time to find and we don’t have the time to find ’em (not on current accountability time). Big ideas are equated to expensive ideas…hence the word BIG. They’re meant to create a splash; secure buzz; enrapture the masses with pomp, grandeur and ceremony. Big ideas are similarly, full of hot air, fluff, inflated with self-importance, exaggeration and hyperbole.”
Oh yes, how much more prudent, agile, spendthrift, modest, humble, properly authentic, and just downright more au courant, to pursue a bunch of small ideas.
Except that you need a big, organising idea if you are to have something to navigate by over the long-term.
If you are to make the most efficient use of the finite resources available.
If you want activity to aggregate its effects.
If you are to have a rich source of inspiration for the long term.
If you are to recruit, galvanise, organise, and focus resources over the long-term.
If you are to have customers keep returning to you over the long-term (and recognize you when they look for you or come across you).
When big gets a bad name (and is often deliberately conflated with scale of production budget), we might want to recall the words of Peter Thiel:
Iteration without a bold plan won’t take you from 0 to 1.”
#3 MAKE AGILITY PURPOSEFUL
The wonderful thing about having a long-term direction is that it makes flexibility and responsiveness possible. As the military historian and management consultant Stephen Bungay puts it:
Strategy is essentially an intent rather than a plan, because the knowledge gap means we cannot plan an outcome but only express the will to achieve it, and the effects gap means that we cannot know for certain what the effects of our actions will be, and that we will probably have to modify our actions to achieve the outcome we want. We can only do that if we are clear about what outcome we desire.”
Laurence Freedman (also a military historian) too, makes the same point in his magnum opus Strategy: A History:
Strategy is much more than a plan. A plan supposes a sequence of events that allows one to move with confidence from one state of affairs to another… Strategy is required when others might frustrate one’s plans because they have different and possibly opposing interests and concerns… The inherent unpredictability of human affairs, due to the chance events as well as the efforts of opponents and the missteps of friends, provides strategy with its challenge and drama… Strategy is often expected to start with a description of a desired end state, but in practice there is rarely an orderly movement to goals set in advance. Instead, the process evolves through a series of states, each one not quite what was anticipated or hoped for, requiring a reappraisal and modification of the original strategy, including ultimate objectives.”
Because they can distinguish between plans and strategy, they’re able to focus on the long-term game, and be able to respond to events and circumstances at the same time.
Facebook’s self-declared mission (aka big idea) is “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected” gave it the flexibility to modify its actions, and start building value on what it had previously ignored. The one digital device set to dominate them all, namely mobile.
Much has being said and written about the need for corporations and marketers to increase the tempo of their efforts. That Facebook now makes 69% of its revenue from mobile illustrates the other advantage of long-term strategy. It makes speed purposeful. As Lawrence Green has sagely noted:
The faster you are going to execute, the more precise and commonly understood your direction of travel must be. Pace is only an asset, warned Arsene Wenger as he introduced Theo Walcott, if you know where to run. Hold the great Frenchman’s thoughts in mind as your answer the ever more urgent call to seize the day, to answer to now.”
#4 EXTRACT MAXIMUM VALUE FROM YOUR PLATFORM
Not everything of course is as malleable as software. If you’re running a business that is dependent on tangible assets and infrastructure, then ‘pivoting’ is probably going to be a far more challenging affair than if you’re running a business that’s built on lines of code.
However, what does characterise the successful platform builders is that they don’t change the platform every two years.
But they do build new things on it.
For example, booking.com’s boookingnow app represents another way of delivering the perfect accommodation solution – ‘the delight of right’ – to late or spontaneous bookers, making their arrangements on their phone. But the platform mission of delivery more delight of right moments to more travellers remains.
Rather than change the platform every three years, we’d be better off building new things on it.
#5 BUILD A PLATFORM OTHERS WANT TO BUILD UPON
Which brings me on to the next point. Many modern platforms are all about making themselves available for external application development.
The iPhone for example, would not be the generating the $47 billion it did in 2011 without the apps that have been created for it. From Facebook to Angry Birds, Uber to Candy Crush these have created immense value for Apple that they never would have realized on their own.
Opened last year, Nike’s Nike+ Fuellab is a collaborative work and testing space for selected partner companies to develop products that integrate the NikeFuel system for tracking and measuring activity.
Platforms provide the infrastructure others can create upon to build value.
And good brand platforms are little different.
The opportunity provided for example, by Old Spice’s Smell Like a Man platform has ensured that creatives clamour to work on the P&G business.
This isn’t an argument for selfish creative indulgence.
Brand platforms must be sustained over the long-term, so the importance of ensuring that creative minds (of all kinds) can sustain their creativity and enthusiasm over the long term cannot be underestimated.
#6 BUILD AROUND THE NEEDS OF PEOPLE
If the new adjacent industries, and their digital products, services and platforms do anything, it is to remind us to build around the needs of the user/customer/consumer. As Peter Thiel argues “The best entrepreneurs know this: every great business is built around a secret that’s hidden from the outside. A great company is a conspiracy to change the world”. And the best way to find secrets, is to look for the unsolved and unanswered problems in people’s lives.
It is time we all got back to properly building long term sustainable futures for our client businesses and brands – and time that businesses as Giles Hedger has put it, “seek to grow in step with human development not in an accelerated parallel universe.” This shift, Dominic Barton argues, is not just about managing for the long-term and how we manage and lead corporations. It’s also about changing what we believe is a business’s value and role in society.
Writing for Forbes, Steve Denning surveys the unforeseen consequences of the narrow and relentless pursuit of shareholder value:
Combines of executives and shareholder
Widespread stock price manipulation
The undermining organisations, communities and whole industries
A failure to renew human capital
Obsolete management practices
Rampant income inequality
An unhealthy concentration of economic power
Successive economic crashes
An unhealthy concentration of economic power
And a corrupted society
The voices calling for a reformation of the corporation, a rethinking of its priorities, and an end to the the myopic pursuit of shareholder value above all else are impressive. And growing.
Vinci Group Chairman and CEO Xavier Huillard has called the idea of maximising shareholder value “totally idiotic.”
Alibaba CEO Jack Ma has said that “customers are number one; employees are number two and shareholders are number three.”
Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever has denounced “the cult of shareholder value.”
John Mackey at Whole Foods has condemned businesses that “view their purpose as profit maximization and treat all participants in the system as means to that end.”
Marc Benioff, Chairman and CEO of Salesforce has declared in an article in the Huffington Post that “the business of business isn’t just about creating profits for shareholders – it’s also about improving the state of the world and driving stakeholder value.”
And Tim Cook, CEO of Apple when asked to disclose the costs of Apple’s energy sustainability programs, and make a commitment to doing only those things that were profitable, replied, “When we work on making our devices accessible by the blind,” he said, “I don’t consider the bloody ROI.” It was the same thing for environmental issues, worker safety, and other areas that don’t have an immediate profit. The company does “a lot of things for reasons besides profit motive. We want to leave the world better than we found it.”
Roger Martin dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, contrasts the agenda of shareholder capitalism and its focus on investor expectations, with the agenda of consumer capitalism, in which real factories are built, real products produced, real revenues are earned, and real dollars of profit show up on the bottom line:
The difference in outcomes between a real-market focused world and an expectation-market dominated world is stark and critically important for the economy. When the real market is dominant, customers are the focus and the central task of companies is to find ever better ways of serving them… When the expectations market is dominant, traders are the focus and gaming markets is the task…. the expectations game is beginning to destroy the real game, slowly from within… Companies should place customers at the centre of the firm and focus on delighting them, while earning an acceptable return for shareholders.”
As those charged with understanding the real, day to day lives, needs and wants of ordinary people, we in the marketing community have a unique and privileged perspective that the majority of those in the C-suite – far, far removed from the lives, concerns, dreams, struggles, aspirations and joys of the 99% – are not privy to. And we should recognise that with this perspective comes a responsibility.
We should be lending our voice in calling for a wholesale reformation of the corporation, for a refocusing of our efforts on long-term value creation not short-term value extraction, and for building long-term sustainable futures around the needs of the customer.
“The untutored savage, like the child” wrote the nineteenth century economist William Jevons, “is wholly occupied with the pleasures and troubles of the moment; the morrow is dimly felt; the limit of his horizon is but a few days off.”
It’s time for a shift in our priorities.
In our perspectives.
In what we value.
And in what we build.
It’s time we all grew up.
This is the long copy version of a presentation given at the 2015 FutureFlash conference. My thanks to the gang at Contagious for the opportunity to participate, and to Canada’s Institute of Communications Agencies for being such welcoming hosts as well as a great audience.
Dominic Barton, ‘Capitalism for the long term’, Harvard Business Review, March 2011
Les Binet & Peter Field, Marketing in the era of accountability
Les Binet & Peter Field, The Long and the Short of it: Balancing Short and Long-Term Marketing Strategies
Bloomberg Business, ‘S&P 500 companies spend almost all profits on buybacks’, 6 October 2014
Sue Bridewater, ‘End of season football manager statistics for 2013-14’
Avi Dan, ‘The Kardashian effect: The short-lived client-agency romance’, Forbes, February 29th 2012
Steve Denning, ‘The unanticipated risks of maximizing shareholder value‘, Forbes, 14 October 2014
Anita Elberse, ‘Ferguson’s forumla’, Harvard Business Review, October 2013
The Economist, ‘The repurchase revolution’, 13 September 2014
Larry Fink, letter sent to Fortune 500 CEOs, 21st March, 2014
Lawrence Freedman, Strategy: A History
Milton Friedman, ‘The social responsibility of a business is to increase its profits‘, The New York Times Magazine, September 13, 1970
Google, ‘Measure what happens most’
Andrew Haldane, The Short Long, 29th Société Universitaire Européene de Recherches Financières Colloquium: New Paradigms in Money and Finance?, Brussels, May 2011
Andrew Haldane, ‘Growing, fast and slow’, speech at University if East Anglia, 17 February 2015
Andrew Haldane, ‘Patience and finance’, speech at Oxford China Business Forum, Beijing, 9 September 2010
Giles Hedger, ‘Marketing in the age of sustainability’, Admap January 2010
Joseph Jaffe, ‘A small idea (death of THE big idea)’
S. Krishnan & R. Sitaraman, ‘Video Stream Quality Impacts Viewer Behavior: Inferring Causality Using Quasi-Experimental Designs’
Roger Martin, Fixing The Game: How Runaway Expectations Broke The Economy, And How To get Back To Reality
Roosevelt Institute, ‘The disconnect between corporate borrowing and investment’, 25 February, 2015
Douglas Rushkoff, Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now
strategy&, ‘CEO succession 2000-2009: A decade of convergence and compression’, 25 May 2010
Peter Thiel, Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future
John Tomlinson, The Culture Of Speed: The Coming Of Immediacy
The Wall Street Journal, ‘CEO tenure, stock gains often go hand-in-hand’, 6 July 2010
The objective of this industry, once clearly stated as the creation of value through the building of brands through the power of ideas, has been reset. We are now, apparently, in the business of adjusting to and coping with the change that we are facing. It is a heroic agenda but, ultimately, parochial and low value. Our achievements are now measured against a yardstick of change management, whereas we used to be hailed as a cultural force – one that created the change that others would manage.”
Source: Giles Hedger, ‘The fallacy of our time‘, Campaign, 23 April 2015