Advertising: Harder than brain surgery or rocket science, and more important

Cummins&Partners' Adam Ferrier is a true believer in the power of advertising and wonders why its practitioners don't put serious effort into truly understanding the craft.

Adam Ferrier: global chief strategy officer and consumer psychologist at Cummins&Partners
Adam Ferrier: global chief strategy officer and consumer psychologist at Cummins&Partners

I was with a friend watching a panel show on TV recently. They were discussing "how advertising works". As we were watching, my friend, also a psychologist, leaned toward me and said: "Adam, you know what really annoys me about this show?"

"Nup," I replied. "But I think you’re going to tell me." 

"Adam," my mate continued, "what annoys me about this show is, how do they know what they are saying is right? Advertising and human decision making is incredibly complex. What are their opinions based on? And how can they be so certain about what they are saying?"

It was a bit of a punch to the guts, as I too have appeared over the years on this top-rated panel show, called Gruen. And I too tend to carry on, acting like I know what I am talking about. The show’s been going for about seven years, but my friend lives in the bush, doesn’t watch TV, and isn’t really connected to contemporary culture.

My friend’s unsolicited comment struck home. Advertising and marketing must be one of the most complex and difficult disciplines to truly understand. The degree of complexity with humans, creativity, decision-making and so on is infinite. 

However, marketing and advertising is not rocket science or brain surgery. It’s both far more important, and far more complex than either of these lesser pastimes.

That’s right. Advertising is far more important. Get marketing right and we can galvanise the world to save our planet, or invest in new ones. We can make people care about developing markets, and stop overeating in developed ones. Marketing can, if used well, easily save the world. Or, if used for evil, destroy it. 

It’s also significantly more complex. Brain surgeons need to understand the mechanics of the brain, including which bits do what. They also have to have really good hand-eye coordination. Advertisers need to understand not the mechanics of the brain, but the magic bits.

Where does desire come from? What’s love? How does creativity work? And music? And how does the whole thing work? A far more complex task.

So with something so important and complex, it’s mind-boggling how little time, effort and structure we put into truly trying to understand our craft. It is odd how freely we all proffer opinions and sell confidence, when really no one knows if the next big idea will succeed or fail.

If I compare marketing and advertising with my old home, psychology, the differences become astounding.

I recently attended the Australian Psychological Societies annual conference and was, to be honest, a little bored. Psychologists take their craft extremely seriously. Any opinions offered are based on strong academic research, and everyone is encouraged to follow the ‘scientist-practitioner- model (find what works in science and apply it to practice).

There were no sweeping discoveries about how the brain works. Or amazing case-study videos showing the incredible results someone’s latest idea had. No. There were loads of charts, small fonts, and people talking incredibly earnestly about subject matter an inch wide but a mile deep.

The reason psychologists tread so carefully is that they get trained to believe that psychology is important, and should be treated with this level of rigour.

In the ad world, we don’t.

So this is a callout to all marketers and advertisers to start to take our craft a little more seriously. Don’t believe Millward Brown’s research tools just because they put a cool letter Z at the end of the word "brand". Don’t believe me just because I say you shouldn’t believe others. Get educated about marketing.

Back to those panelists. Ultimately, I love people giving an opinion, and presenting it in an entertaining way. The opinions they offered that night got me thinking, and putting half thoughts into people’s heads about how things work is better than giving no opinion at all.

Psychologists assume they’ll be wrong. Advertising people know they are right. Watch this space for the continuing merger of these two important and complex professions.

Adam Ferrier is global chief strategy officer and consumer psychologist at Cummins&Partners. He is the author of The Advertising Effect: How to Change Behaviour. 

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