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Is Your Agency Producing Sanitary Advertising?
By Mike Carlton

San-i-tar-y

Adj. A clean condition. Hygienic. Elimination of dirt and agents of infection.

Creating Advertising

You know the drill. The client needs a campaign. The agency hires a research firm to conduct focus groups among consumers. An agency planner may or may not attend. But if she does, it is often from behind a one-way glass.

Then the research firm writes a report – always with a short executive summary. Sometimes with charts and tables. Sometimes with audio or video tapes. The agency planner reads the executive summary. But because of time pressures puts the charts, tables and tapes aside intending to study them later.

The planner – sometimes in collaboration with the AE – writes the brief. It may be insightful. Or it may just cover the facts. Sometimes this is shared with the client. But if not, the AE makes sure it reflects the client’s point of view. The brief is passed on to the creatives. Sometimes there is a meeting to discuss it. Sometimes individual schedules don’t permit.

The creatives develop advertising that meets the brief requirements. If they have too little to go on their solution may become a bit self-indulgent. The AE reviews it and if it looks OK, takes it on to the client. The client approves it. It is produced and the advertising runs.

The consumer sees it. And yawns.

What’s Wrong Here?

The advertising clearly meets the criteria called for in the brief. It reflects the research summary. And it certainly reflects the client’s point of view. The creatives have poured their best talent into it. They are proud of it. It may even have won an award.

From a scientific business standpoint everything was done right. All the checklists were completed. The quality of production was excellent. The media placement was numerically efficient. All as it should be.

So, why did the consumer yawn?

Could it be that the advertising was too sanitary?

Tuning Out

Everyone knows that consumers are increasingly tuning out advertising that is not personally relevant to them. And also advertising that presents a picture that is contrary to their personal experience.

The TV spot showing helpful, smiling telemarketers when you just called and got a recording saying, “Your call is important to us...” Or when the ad talks about its friendly customer service at a bank where the teller has just growled at you because you filled out your deposit ticket wrong. Or when the advertising about a product has been stretched to a point of convincing you to buy, only to find out later that it really doesn’t do what you thought it would.

It is getting harder and harder to make a meaningful connection with consumers.

And, advertising by the book is not getting the kind of traction agencies need. Or clients deserve.

People are Strange

When I was a kid if I came home from school complaining about someone else’s behavior, my mother would say, “You’re right Mike, people are strange. Aren’t you glad you aren’t one of them?”

The truth is that people are not only strange, they aren’t sanitary either.

Human beings are messy. And illogical. And perverse. And contrary. And independent. And unpredictable. Consumers are not tidy ciphers that can easily be reduced to a one page research summary or an agency brief. As advanced as our science is, its best is incredibly puny compared to the human mind.

People are far too complex to be dealt with so impersonally. Or without the individual respect and dignity they deserve.

And agency people that don’t honor that truism are doomed to creating sanitary advertising that may look great against all its scientific criteria but just doesn’t work with quirky consumers.

Business Week

Recently Business Week had a cover story titled, “Math Will Rock Your World.” Its thesis is that the wealth of data that is now available about each of us and the computer power available to analyze and manipulate that data can raise the understanding and predictability of human behavior. This will be a quantum jump within our society. And mathematicians will lead the way in this development.

It is an excellent report, and should be read by every agency professional. Lots of good stuff here. Much of the thinking can be of great value to agencies and marketers. As well as in our personal lives.

However, it doesn’t address the fundamental fact that the consumer has a pervasive contrarian streak. None of us likes being pinned down.

History has repeatedly shown that as soon as we get the feeling that the consumer is neatly pigeonholed, she changes on us. She is incredibly elusive. As soon as she is safely in our logically driven sights, she moves the target.

The rise and fall of brands and categories is driven by this fickle nature. Tidy predictive models, statistical analysis, and precise briefs are vital. But, they can only go so far.

Predictive models are usually being driven through the rear-view mirror. While the consumer is intuitively looking ahead, and altering behavior accordingly.

The Role of Empathy

Empathy is defined as the ability to project one’s own personality into the personality of another so as to better understand his emotions, feelings and behavior. And consumers, yea all of us, respond best to others who are empathetic with us. There is nothing complicated here. This is a plain fact of human behavior.

But empathy doesn’t come easily. Particularly in a business environment that increasingly looks to sterile quantitative metrics to measure success. Empathy is often derided as being too soft and fuzzy. The concept of empathy can make the “If you can’t measure it, it does not exist” school of business thought very uncomfortable. It’s just so uncertain and unpredictable.

Yet, while empathy may not be currently in vogue, we all know from our individual private lives that, it is the bedrock of all of our personal relationships with those we care about. And the people who are better at creating empathetic relationships are those most likely to build enduring, happy, productive lives.

That’s the way life works. It is just that simple.

Lessons from the Past

While the great advertising breakthroughs of history, and the great agency practitioners, were each quite different, they all had one thing in common. Their success was based on keen empathy with the audience.

Sure they had good factual information. And sure they knew what the best practices of the day were. But arching over all of that was an intuitive understanding of the psyche of the consumer.

Understanding that did not come in a sanitary package.

Any study of giants like David Ogilvy, Leo Burnett, Jay Chiat, Bill Bernbach, and their peers reveals that basic empathetic intuition was a driving factor in their thinking. And so it was for innovators like Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and others whose visions have so changed our lives.

The thinking and actions of these guys was not detached and sanitary.

A Growing Gulf

What we’re seeing here is not a pretty picture. It appears that the marketer and the agency are focusing more intently on sterile quantitative measures or arm’s length insights and briefs to drive their marketing strategies and advertising.

And the consumer is increasingly feeling disengaged from the marketer. The sense of personal bond is declining. It may not be full alienization yet, but it’s moving in that direction. Many consumers believe that marketers just don’t get it.

A gulf has developed. And it is getting wider. Neither the consumer nor the marketer and its agency really understand the other as well as they might.

But remember, the consumer is always the king. No matter how logical and scientific the marketer and agency position is, if it isn’t empathetically grasped by the consumer, it will not work.

The responsibility for closing this gap falls on the marketer and its agency.

The Role of the Advertising Agency

The sole purpose of advertising is to change human behavior so that it benefits both the consumer and the marketer. And in the process serve societal interests. The mission for advertising agencies is not just making ads. That is only the means to the end. Not the end itself.

Any agency person who believes otherwise is just fooling himself. And short-changing the client, too.

Our business is to move people. Period.

Advertising is a Contact Sport

The best way to move people is to understand them on an empathetic level. This means that we all must first understand the consumer. And as the old saying goes, to truly understand someone you must first walk a mile in their shoes. Perhaps this is why so many of the advertising greats are first students of humanity, and then advertising professionals second.

The simple fact is that the best way to learn about people is from people.

The Client’s Bias

This empathy, and the emotional insights it brings, can only come from the customer. Not from the client. No matter how knowledgeable, or caring, or compassionate, the marketer can only see the world through his eyes.

Often this is a bias for the making of the product and the financial implications for his company. His point of view is that of the maker, not the user.

Only the consumer can truly see the marketer’s product from the point of view of the user. And while the agency can never know as much about the product as the marketer, it should certainly know a lot more about the consumer’s interests, and effectively interpret those interests to the client.

A Case for Dirty Hands

If creating great advertising is difficult in a sterile, sanitary environment, what can an agency do? Here are several of questions you might ask yourself:

1. Is Everyone Involved?
Having empathy for the consumer is not just the responsibility of the planners and creatives. It is something that should be shared by all. Everyone. The receptionist. The media planner. The CFO. The junior AE. The production artist. Everyone.

Great ideas come easiest in an environment and culture that relentlessly focuses on the interests, the emotions, the trials and the passions of the consumer.

No one should be excused from being an ardent student of humanity.

2. Are You Out in the Streets?
Consumers of client products are all around us. We only need to get out there rubbing shoulders with them. They are in the stores. They are in the factories. They are at the gas stations. They are on the buses and trains. They are at parties. They are in our homes. They are everywhere.

Finding them is not difficult. Getting to know them is.

Agency leadership needs to not only allow time for everyone in the agency to become more consumer empathetic, but in fact, demand that they do so. If this requires some normal working time, so be it.

3. Do You Use the Products?
Does everyone in the agency have first hand experience using products in the client’s category? This includes all the major competitors. It also includes the shopping experience. What are the stores like? What are the web sites like? How easy to use? How relevant? How user sensitive?

Seeing, touching, feeling embeds knowledge much better than a page full of numbers. And while individual experience may be anecdotal, it can be like frosting on the cake of reams of data.

4. Do You Engage Consumers?
Do your people consciously reach out to consumers and observe their behaviors? Engage them in conversations about their perceptions of products in the client’s category? What they think of them? How they use them?

This isn’t like taking a scientific survey. This is a much more personal and humanistic exploration. Seek feelings, not facts. This is personal, not clinical. Learn as a friend learns. Not as a research technician does.

5. Do You Hire ‘gists?
Is your staff peppered with people with educations and backgrounds in the humanities? Psychologists, sociologists, cultural anthropologists are trained to see people differently than statisticians. So are history, arts, language and literature majors.

They can add the important dimension of “feel” to the abundance of facts available to us.

Humanists can also help by continually reaffirming that people are, at their core, emotionally driven. They are a lot more than economic animals.

6. Do You Celebrate Messiness?
Many of us are raised with the notion that tidiness is inherently good. And that messiness is inherently bad. Not so.

While it is important that offices look professional and inviting to guests and clients. It is just as important that they celebrate the spirit of individuality of each of us. That they reflect the uniqueness that makes us worthy contributors to the creation of great ideas.

And while process is important in avoiding chaos, a certain amount of messiness in how work is done is also called for.

Great ideas do not come on orderly preplanned timetables. Or from orderly preplanned contributors. They come when they want to come. In the way they want to come. And from whom they want to come from.

A Big Enough Tent

Make no mistake. We are not arguing for abandonment of statistical scientific methods of measuring consumers and their behaviors. These tools are vital. And necessary. They are the currency of today’s business world. And the foundation for most measurement systems.

What we are advocating is making the agency’s tent big enough so that hard information can coexist with soft feelings. Facts that are focused and amplified by emotions that originate in the spirit and soul of consumers.

Only with a careful and delicate mixture of both can an agency move beyond sanitary advertising to successful advertising.


  The ad looks great. But the consumer sees it and yawns. Why?  
Empathy is defined as the ability to project one’s own personality into the personality of another so as to better understand his emotions, feelings and behavior.
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