I’m a Wolverhampton Wanderers fan, and attend a lot of football matches at Molineux. Every so often at half time, a couple will be on the pitch, and a guy will propose to his girlfriend in front of the whole stadium. Inevitably, the South Bank will then begin to chant "You don’t know what you’re doing!" and everyone laughs. It’s an adaptation of the refrain that targets the referee following any perceived miscarriage of justice for an offence on the pitch.
At that point I often reflect on how lucky I am to work in a profession where I can go about my business without 30,000 people howling in derision at the quality of my decisions.
But maybe I’m wrong.
We don't know what we're doing
Perhaps the quality of work would be improved by more regular reminders of fallibility. And of course when it comes to advertising, in all its forms, whether traditional or modern, fallibility is common and certainty elusive. We really don’t know what we’re doing.
At the moment I’m reading Paul Feldwick’s excellent new book, The Anatomy of Humbug, which I would urge you all to read if you’re in the business of choosing and paying for advertising. It’s required reading for anyone who wants to understand where all the concepts we discuss in advertising originally came from (did you realise, for example, that the models many of us hold in our head about how to make advertising were designed for direct-response press ads? And we’re applying them to 30-second TV spots… perhaps not the best idea).
Ignorance that hampers efforts
It also highlights eloquently two kinds of ignorance that hamper our efforts to make the very best work.
Many of us have never devoted much throught to how advertising works.
The first is the more obvious one. Many of us (and I include my agency colleagues every bit as much as my clients in this) have never really devoted much thought to how advertising is intended to work, and why. Often we make multimillion-pound decisions, simply following the process from brief through to execution, with very little critical thought about how the work is actually going to create the change we seek in the real world. The ugly truth is that we are often creating and buying things on the basis that they are a bit like what we did before, or a bit like something someone else has done. Go on, admit it – we’ve all it done it at least once.
The second is the less obvious and more damaging ignorance: that of certainty. Jeremy Bullmore’s foreword to Feldwick’s book draws attention to a wonderful anecdote to illustrate this. Feldwick tells the story of presenting IPA Effectiveness Award-winning case studies. After one case someone in the audience raised their hand and said: "It is not possible that this campaign was successful. The commercial contains no consumer benefit."
Fundamentalist advertising dogma
We have all had colleagues, or work for or with organisations, that deal in this kind of fundamentalist advertising dogma. Colleagues or organisations that have a model of communication, and are certain about how advertising works.
One of the things I am now certain about is that these people and organisations are wrong.
Or rather, they are often wrong, because their model of how advertising works will be correct in some situations, but certainly not all, and not even most. The problem with their models and their certainties is that it stops them from even realising that they need to stop and think. To think about whether their pre-testing system that measures persuasion is really the best way to judge an ad designed to build awareness (or vice versa). Or even to really understand how their research works at all.
Rather than rejecting the concept of models (the typical agency mistake), or being too certain that one model works for everything (the typical brand-side marketer mistake), Feldwick’s work is a wonderful reminder to consider all the different ways that advertising works (because we do know loads about how it works). Then work out which of those models is the one most relevant for your brand, market, media or circumstance and, consequently, decide how to evaluate the creative work in front of you.
Who knows, you may even find out that you do know what you’re doing.