Thursday, September 10, 2009

Who will be the next Bill Bernbach?

Yesterday on NPRs Marketplace with Kai Ryssdal, I listened to an interview with Director Doug Pray who talked about his film, "Art & Copy," which explores the creative forces behind some of the most famous ads of the 20th century. The film has been out since last year (Aug 2008) and was produced in conjunction with The One Club.

The film is enjoyable especially to those in the ad/marketing world. Ad people love looking at and critiquing ads and we all have our favorites (my personal favorites were Fox Sports/NBA-Alan and Jerome).

But I digress…

The interview was interesting in my mind because at one point Pray says, “Myself, Shirley, and everybody in the movie would agree that 98 percent of most advertising is pretty much garbage.” This I agree with. There’s a lot of crap work out there without a doubt and people’s filters for advertising are outstanding. Most of it is just white noise. The issue that I have is with Pray’s rationale for why there’s so much garbage out there. He continues… “A lot of businesses and certainly advertising has kinda fallen prey to this idea [that] market research and analysis and everything is what it's all about. And if you can figure exactly what the customers are already buying, then you can figure out what exactly they're going to buy, and then you know how to advertise it.”

First let’s look at the rationale for purchase decisions. Purchase decisions boil down to two fundamental things:

Needs and Wants.

There are certain things that I don’t really care about that I might need to purchase and advertising may or not have an effect on my purchase behavior. Let’s say my wife politely suggests as she gives me a kiss goodbye before I leave for work, “You might want to pick up some gum.” Read: Your breath is kickin’.

I stop at a store and am faced with a wall of chewing gum and breath mints. I’ve noticed Stride gum commercials lately and because it’s in my head I give it a shot. It’s all pretty much the same. I don’t care but advertising has done an effective job of driving my decision just by being in my sub-conscious. Gum is a category where being remembered is half the battle because for the most part, people don’t care.

Now let’s say I need waterproof rain jacket. Here is where a need and a want come together. This is a purchase I actually care about and several factors go into my purchase decision. Among them are brand, price, functionality and look. All of these things fall into the category of a quote from a previous blog post "Often what we buy is not some thing but some idea that is embodied by that thing." Because this is a product that I’ll wear and will be noticed in, I’ll fall prey to this phenomenon. Understanding where brand, price, functionality and look rank as purchase drivers is helpful but perhaps most important is understanding how much anyone cares.

I spent most of my career in advertising and I’m staunch defender of great creative and despite having been on the account service side of the business, some of my best friends are creatives, and good ones. Seriously, though, I’ve thrown down with clients on behalf of creatives I’ve worked with and have earned a good deal of respect in doing so.

One point: We should make a distinction between great, really good and good. Great should be designated as once in a lifetime… we talk about it for years. Really good means it stands out in the category and continually performs well and perhaps is imitated. Good means it basically does its job. And let’s not forget, the company and product have to stand behind the work.

The latter portion of my career has been focused more on account planning, strategy and research. So here is where I disagree with Pray. I don’t believe that the fault of bad advertising is “research and analysis.” Of course there are always instances of analysis paralysis and research that goes right to the bookshelf and we all know the story of the Herman Miller chairs. The flaw of the Herman Miller chairs research was the design of the research not the design of the chairs. At the end of the day, you get out of research what you put into it.

I approach research with the mindset of “this is what I think, we’ll see if I’m right.” If I’m wrong I’ll seek to find the value in that and chart a new course. Lately, my view is that segmenting your customers based on how much they may or may not care about any one product or category is a critical jumping off point. It’s not however “figuring out what they’re already buying” because trends move far too quickly.

In my view, research and analysis isn’t the problem. Often it’s clients who are inherently averse to risk and who wouldn’t be with the brevity of CMO tenure and accountability to shareholders in what is arguably one of the hardest disciplines to defend.

I would also argue that bad work has more to do with too much of a continued mass market approach which insures a lowest common denominator approach to creative. Clients are too fearful of disenfranchising potential customers with any creative that may push the envelope. Undoubtedly it's a numbers game which is built based on market opportunity. Clients have to show the greatest market opportunity which means the widest swath of people must be reached.

This is as opposed to accurately identifying sustainable groups of your customers and presenting to them in a manner that allows for less watered down creative. This however continues to challenge the existing models as we know it. But if networks only account for 30% of the pie things have to change soon. There’s also the distinct fact that as Bill Bernbach revolutionized the advertising world in the 60s pairing together art and copy teams which represented a shift in advertising we should also admit that we’re probably at the precipice of another shift. The question is who will be the next Bernbach?

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