Beware the advertising prophets of certainty

Beware the advertising prophets of certainty

If Albert Einstein knew it was impossible to be definitive in his work, shouldn't advertising people?

One of the many clever things that Saatchi & Saatchi's Richard Huntington said in his presentation at the Campaign Year Ahead Breakfast briefing (which you should listen to on the Campaign Podcast or read in full if you weren’t there) was that he'd like to see an end to dogma in 2024. His examples were all things that have played on my mind in recent years.

First up, distinctive assets and their hold on the UK's marketer population. Campaign ran a substantial feature on the issue in 2022, which is worth a read if you missed it the first time. Brands exist to be recognised but distinctive assets are not always ideas of their own. They usually need to be plated up alongside one another. Too often they're served as the main course rather than the side dish. We get Ken rather than Barbie.

Huntington also described purpose-led work as another dogma. Felix Richter and Shelley Smoler (chief creative officers at Mother and Droga5 London) predicted an industry shift away from purpose at the 2022 Big Awards. There are signs they were right. At Cannes 2023 some good (in both senses) ads performed less well in certain categories than one might have expected. But plenty of purposeful ads – of varying quality – triumphed. 

There is evidently much more most of us can do to be better global citizens. But saturating ads – and awards – with ideas that purport to change the world but do little is not it.

Finally, Huntington turned to pre-testers of ads, citing a LinkedIn spat between two different research companies over which Christmas ads were the most effective that took place before the turkey was in the oven – never mind the actual sales figures. 

I’m discombobulated that a research company would ever choose to present itself as having found the complete and final answer to great advertising. Scientists never claim certainty; they make judgements based on the evidence they have amassed. Why would adland think it can do any better?

As Huntington said: "I wish I knew how to create uniquely powerful, engaging, memorable, persuasive work every time. I've been at this for 34 years and while I have a good idea, I still can't be certain."

If we move beyond what could strictly be called dogma, could 2024 be the year the ad industry revisits its assumptions? Accepts the need to look through a variety of lenses before making decisions? As everyone but Anna Wintour knows, it is important to occasionally take off your sunglasses and see things afresh. Search out stacks of stimuli and continually challenge your preconceptions. 

This goes for all of us. Compare what your customers say they want from brands and the behaviour of the ones they buy. If your research suggests the best ad is one that most people with experience of advertising thinks is bland and forgettable, is there a chance your system isn’t infallible? Consider whether you need a new measure to compare adspend if yours doesn't work in a significant proportion of media. If a study shows a legacy medium is still the most effective, is it set up to truly measure the new ones? 

We do ourselves a disservice if we suggest any of our work is definitive. As Albert Einstein might have said: “As far as the propositions of advertising refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality."

Maisie McCabe is the UK editor of Campaign

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