A view from Mick Mahoney

My money is on social relevance

My experience of jump-racing tells me following form is key. And advertising's form is currently not good.

I have a life-long passion for jump-racing. From a child, I’ve been captivated by these noble equine athletes and their fearless pilots. 

Every Saturday during the season, my father used to give me the option of 50p pocket money or a 5p win Yankee. (A Yankee is a four-horse, 11-bet accumulator, so cost 55p.) Week after week, I chose the horses I liked the names of. And, as a general rule, lost. 

Now, you don’t need to bet to enjoy racing. But if you’re going to bet, you may as well bet to win. By the time I was ten, fed up with having no pocket money, I began following form. And, with every passing season, my returns grew. These days, I follow yard form, jockey form, course and distance form, going form and, if possible, wait until I’ve seen the horse in the parade ring to assess his condition. Then armed with all this knowledge, I trust my instinct. Because racing is not a science. Obsessive I may be – but every year for the past decade, I’ve returned a profit. There are few cheekier pleasures than being able to contribute to the school-fees fund from your betting account.

True to type, I’m a follower of form in the other great interest in my life. I follow brand form, consumer-behaviour form, media-engagement form and every variant of the above. Study the form, educate your view, then trust your instinct. 

Like racing, advertising is not a science. So what is the form telling us about advertising at the moment?

Brands are in decline. According to an OgilvyRed study, 77% of UK consumers claim that brands don’t matter to them. In fact, 75% of brands are so meaningless to people that they wouldn’t miss those brands if they disappeared tomorrow. Brands are no longer a proxy for quality.

Now, with that as the backdrop, consider that 90% of advertising goes unnoticed. Ads are not getting searched for either. More than four billion YouTube videos are viewed every day. But only one in a million is branded content. Not good odds.

There are three main reasons for the decline in brands. First, brand proliferation – there are two million more brands than there were in 2000. Second, media proliferation – the explosion of media channels. Consumers are suffering information fatigue and have become skilled at filtering out all but the most relevant messages. Third, access to more information – consumers are less reliant than ever on brands as a source of information. 

So, on face value, brand-building looks like a bad bet. But as John Seifert, Ogilvy & Mather’s global chief executive, says: "We believe that brands are more important than ever because in this world where you have more of everything – more channels, more products, more companies, more ways of engaging audiences – you actually need a brand to help you stand apart from all that chaos."

And, more importantly, a socially relevant brand. Social relevance means creating ideas that can generate or join conversations bigger than the advertising. Ideas that get talked about in the street, that get you on the red sofa. Ideas that have a life outside the media bribe. It means being relevant to people, connecting with them about the things that matter. Not just flogging them an advertising conceit. 

Socially relevant work allows them to cut through the noise. The only way for brands to stand out and remain memorable is to live inside the real-world conversations their customers are having.

Form also indicates that social relevance can prevent brand decline.

First, we only have the hardware to process a tiny amount of the data we receive, so we focus our attention on the conversations we are already having. 

Second, we like to appear consistent in our views, so the act of talking about something increases the likelihood that we will take action.

Third, we like to believe what people like ourselves believe. In living within conversations between like-minded people, our brands are exposing themselves to people who are in a more receptive state.

Finally, we value talking about subjects that add to the identity we’re striving towards. 

In common with many agencies, we use social listening tools to help us be aware of the conversations people are already having.

But without the discipline of behavioural science, social listening tends to be rather passive. Behavioural science helps us expose the humanity behind the conversations. And that’s where all the really good stuff is.

It helps us identify and overcome our assumptions about why people do things and forces us to think of new ways to change behaviour. To solve the real problems, not the assumed one. It’s the difference between hearing and listening. 

By now, your gut should be screaming: put everything on social relevance.

Because it really doesn’t matter how clever and shiny your new campaign is – if it isn’t truly socially relevant, you may as well stick your budget on a horse. Make sure you check the form first, though.

Mick Mahoney is chief creative officer of Ogilvy & Mather London