Advertising against a sea of indifference

Beach scene - image by Mohamed Almari

Do consumers really see more than 4000 adverts a day? Probably not, but consumers daily exposure to brands is increasing. We are shifting to new channels, improving our targeting, monitoring in real-time, digging in the data...but is it working? Despite all our effort, are brands losing their power? No-one ever said they couldn’t wait to engage with some branded content. Evidence (and intuition) suggests that consumers would rather swipe right, binge on Peaky Blinders and argue with strangers on the internet. Our enemy isn’t the other brands in our category, it’s a lack of relevance and interest.

Welcome to the “Sea of Indifference”. It’s cold and grey and stretches for as far as the eye can see. Your brand is a pebble on the beach. There are lots of other pebbles and they all look the same.

More and better ads in smarter channels but big brands are struggling to maintain their pricing. Why? Why are we failing to make an impression? Why are we failing to convert equity?

Are brands playing it too safe? Do they optimise for similarity and not distinction? Put simply, are they different enough to be engaging? No-one wants to be boring, but when did you last send a car to Mars?

Agencies and marketers alike - it’s time to put real people first and rediscover the joys of humanity.

“Our average consumer is…”

There’s a big danger in big data. What we gain in scale we lose in sharpness. Average consumers lead to average brands. Synthetic personas, vague targets, and over-simplified user journeys are convenient but often miss the point. Marketers and agencies need to spend more time with the real people who use their products. Let’s model the millions but meet the individuals, because the edge-cases are where we’ll find the greatest inspiration.

“The category convention...”

It might feel good to know what the competition are doing, but there’s danger in following the rules. Brands worry too much about alienating their core. Despite being “common sense”, it’s not a well documented effect. More common is brands failing to adapt enough to a fast changing core consumer.

A great brand is a point of meaningful difference from the generic alternatives. It's not a competition to see who can blend in. Rule breakers and risk takers drive the category by creating their own standards.

“Best practice”

Digital transformation and user Experience design often pursues efficiency over expression. Over time this can reduce the individuating aspects of digital experiences. We should optimise for more than efficiency. We should be designing experiences that reflect biases and emotional quirks .

“The data”

Humans are not easy to measure - we are not computers with cameras at the front. We’re not logical, and we are not reliable. We are poor judges of why we did things in the past, or how we will behave in the future. Data are useful, meaningful and often illuminating but not a silver bullet. It is a fallacy to think that humans are reducible to what we can measure. Let’s not submit to the robot overlords just yet. We are still in the business of communication. It's an art as much as a science - and it needs ingenuity, intuition and instinct.

Reality is messy but worth it.

Humans are quirky, contentious and puzzling creatures who respond to things that are different. It’s worth asking if we’ve lost sight of this in the rush to a data-driven and optimised future. It's time to put a respect for humanity back at the heart of our work. In doing so we can create work that rewards the brave, curious, individuals who give us their attention.

Alistair Beattie is the co – CEO of DDB & Tribal Amsterdam.

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