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Media Agency Leadership Advertising

My ad diary: ‘Bad ad schadenfreude’ from a media planner

By Sophie Cork | Senior Planner



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December 19, 2023 | 8 min read

In the final installment of our miniseries of marketing execs’ ad diaries, we dispatched Boutique’s Sophie Cork to pay unreasonable attention to the ads she saw in a day. Strap in.

A TV in the middle of an otherwise-empty road

What does a media planner notice if they pay attention to the ads they see all day? / Gaspar Uhas via Unsplash

I’ve been working in marketing for nearly a decade, most of that time in media planning and buying. I often wonder how my views on advertising are skewed by what I know. I see ‘behind the scenes’ every day. I know how and why ads are shown, where, and to whom. I think about the decisions that go into ads I see and enjoy imagining the campaign strategy, or guessing how effective the ad will be.

A dog food ad on TV during a TV show about adopting rescue dogs, for example, will have me thinking, “Ooh great content alignment, they’ll be pleased with that,” rather than really considering what’s being sold to me. If I get an email from a brand after aimlessly adding things to an online cart, I’ll think, “Bit of abandoned basket CRM is it, lads? Nice.”

My favorite, though, is bad ad schadenfreude. A judgemental glance at ugly creative, a scoff at a mistargeted impression, a wry smile upon seeing a competitor brand to one of our clients didn’t get a followed link. Unlucky guys.

So, when The Drum asked me to keep a diary of the ads I see in a day, I saw an opportunity to reveal the nerdy, cynical, and downright petty thoughts I have about the ads I see and the mediums in which I see them. Plus, an opportunity for people to finally find out what a planner in an agency does all day (only joking, we’ll never tell).

The ad diary of an agency planner in Leeds, a Wednesday, late 2023

7am: Some people like to start their day with mindfulness, some yoga perhaps. I started today with a shock to the nervous system: a large black coffee and a feature-length YouTube documentary about the psychology of psychopaths. Roughly 5 ads played as I listened – the ones without voiceover were lost on me as I wasn’t looking at the screen, as were the ones playing while I was near enough to my phone to skip. Not that I will miss learning about a dodgy Forex trading scheme or the same mis-targeted Clash of Clans game ad I’ve had a thousand times. At risk of upsetting our Google overlords, I am a firm believer that YouTube is the landfill of adland. Soz. 5 ads.

8am: I was hoping I’d see her today and I wasn’t left disappointed. Just as the train pulled into the final stop on my commute, there she was in all her yawning glory: the Floradix lady herself. No other ad captivates, confuses, and amuses me as much. How has it been running for so long? Who signed off this extremely bland creative? Why is it so damn effective? I am obsessed. You know what, babes? I am tired of being tired. But I’ll never tire of you. 12 ads.

1pm: Near back-to-back meetings today render me unable to leave the office at lunch. I scroll Instagram as I shovel in tasteless misery, aka couscous salad. I’m still being haunted by a reckless decision to nosily look at a wedding venue website a few weeks back – no, I am not getting married. I’m not even in a relationship; I was driven purely by my periodical need to be outraged at the price of things I have no intention of purchasing. Here I am weeks later being served ads for everything from catering to covers bands. I even notified Instagram I’m ‘Not Interested’ in a desperate plea to the algorithm, but alas it has decided I shall pay for my idle browsing. Et tu, Zuckerberg. 6 ads.

3pm: A quick scroll on LinkedIn, prompted by a notification that someone had visited my profile (an industry bigwig, so impressed by my self-congratulatory post about something no one cares about that they simply had to hire me as their new second-in-command? Oh no, just another recruiter). It felt like every other post was a sponsored ad; and I almost click them out of pity. Don’t they know we only go on here to show off to people we don’t know and pretend to be doing work to pass the time? 4 ads.

5pm: Swift exit from the office and straight to the pub for a midweek pint or three. Passed a few more billboards, but I couldn’t tell you what they were for as my mind was firmly focused on that first sip of frosty golden nectar. No ads in the bar, except copious out-of-date event posters. On a trip to the bathroom, I ponder probably the greatest ad format of all: the bathroom stall message scribble. High dwell time, captive audience, opportunity for sequential messaging (“Saz woz ere” / “No she wazn’t,” etc). Imagine all the money we could save clients if we told them to swap their million-pound TV campaign for a Sharpie (although maybe only effective if their campaign objective is informing people that someone in the local area is offering sexual favors). 7 ads.

8pm: Back at home and idly scrolling Instagram, while Bake Off was on. I haven’t been following this series, but so keen was I to prove that people do still watch TV (are you reading, clients?) that I thought I better stick it on during this experiment. I was watching alone, so no one was around for me to tell how much I predicted each 30-second spot cost (but it didn’t stop me thinking it: “£60k for that I reckon”, “That must have been their entire budget on that spot alone!” and “Oooh first and last in break, someone’s doing well”). 17 ads.

Drum roll please…

My total: 51 ads. I know people in the industry go on about it a lot, but attention really is hard to get. Of those 51, I can’t tell you what almost any of them were for.

This brings home a hard truth for brands: no one cares about your advert as much as you think they do.

Human behavior is so complex and the marketplace is so noisy that you’re lucky if someone watches your ad all the way through, let alone clicking it and spending time on your site. Advertisers, often enabled in their thinking by agencies, put far too much expectation on ads to deliver a measurable response and forget what it’s like to be on the receiving end. We’re all just going about our lives, not really thinking about what we’ve just seen being advertised to us, passively consuming possibly hundreds of messages each day.

Brands have to work hard, consistently pushing to get noticed, and then even further to be remembered, parting with a lot of ad spend in the process.

Should we all just not bother then? No, because the cost of not doing it is even greater. And besides, how else would I occupy my idle thoughts and petty cynicism? Keep it coming, people.

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