You see it in every creative brief. A dull descriptor that attempts to cage the diversity and intelligence of our world in two words: "Target audience." In Asia especially, trying to sum up who you are speaking to in two or three slides – or, worse still, a paragraph – is akin to reducing all of JRR Tolkien’s work into a 140-character Tweet.
From the many briefs we’ve been through, presentations we’ve sat in and clients we’ve met, it has become clear that brands trying to thrive in Asia are guilty of a common mistake: gravely and consistently underestimating their "target audiences".
Acknowledgement is the first step in solving this. Yet there’s a more pressing question: is the marketing industry behind the global cultural and intellectual curve? Or, more bluntly put: are we no longer as smart as the audiences that we reach out to?
If advertising is an accurate indicator of how evolved or mature a culture is, you would be forgiven for thinking that advertisers were speaking to six-year-olds across Asia.
It isn’t just the community-service announcements or government-sponsored messages. Even ads for luxury condominiums and cars shout at you. You wouldn’t put up with a condescending person; why would you put up with a condescending ad? Clients are approving these ads in the fear that their audiences "may not get it" – and, all over Asia, agencies have let their guard down, perpetuating the vicious cycle.
The lowest common denominator has got pretty high
The continent’s reputation for education is breeding, to quote Daft Punk, a "better, faster, stronger" – and smarter – consumer. Those Asian kids who used to sit in the front row of class and ace everything? The ones who cried because they didn’t graduate magna cum laude? The ones who studied 16 hours a day under the iron rule of their "tiger mums"? Well, they’ve grown up. At its peak in 1993, Asians made up 20.3 per cent of the total admission population at Harvard. This has since declined due to what many herald as an "Asian quota".
It is them you’re speaking to. They whom you’re hoping will buy your shampoo, choose your hotel, "like" your Facebook post, test-drive your car and follow your Instagram account.
How can we, as some would say, "weaponise our audience" when we’re talking down to, shouting at and underestimating them?
A smarter world deserves smarter clients and agencies
Zooming out to a global scale, digital and social empowerment, combined with leaps in the standard of global education, are making consumers the smartest they have ever been.
And while they are breaking out – consuming, sharing and creating more content than ever before – agencies and clients remain in silos and boardrooms, trapped by outdated brand guidelines, preaching an unoriginal gospel to their hugely underestimated audiences.
The Mad Men were always the smartest men in the room. They created aspiration effortlessly and provided that special kind of stimulus for culture and the economy that only advertising could.
Letting plumbers plumb
Our best clients know the exact value we bring to the table. They are either aware enough to know just how smart the consumer has become and have conferred real trust in their brands to us, or they are themselves some of the cleverest people we know and can work with us to really unlock cultural greatness through advertising.
In a generation where expertise has gained traction over experience, the importance of leaving the advertising to your agency, the same way you would leave the plumbing to your plumber, can’t be overemphasised.
We often find ourselves sitting down with clients who are able to acknowledge the challenge of communicating to this smarter, more evolved global Asia, and from Asia to a smarter world. The missing link is the work. As Jerry Seinfeld aptly put it during his Clio 2014 acceptance speech: "I’ve done a number of Super Bowl ads. And that is the best advertising of the year. That is when people realise they’re going to be compared directly against other ads."
The mere presence of other smart, witty, intelligent advertising challenges clients to expect more from their agencies and for agencies to deliver what we got into this industry for in the first place: great work.
Nicholas Ye is the chief executive of The Secret Little Agency