Media agencies have a problem of their own making and they don't even realise it
A view from Andrew Tenzer

Media agencies have a problem of their own making and they don't even realise it

The ad industry makes misguided assumptions, based on their own attitudes, rather than the views of millions of Britons or what Andrew Tenzer calls "the modern mainstream".

An agency invited me to speak at a strategy day for one of its clients a few weeks ago.

I arrived early, and took a seat at the back of the room to watch another speaker first.

The speaker was from the agency and gave a detailed overview of the client’s target audience.

About halfway through the presentation a slide appeared on the screen with the headline, "They have outdated attitudes towards gender and the environment."

Hmm, I thought, that’s an interesting choice of words. Outdated to whom?

If your immediate reaction is "what’s wrong with that?", then you are suffering from the same problem.  

We know we’re a bit different to a lot of people out there in the country.

Media agencies, especially, are full of young, highly educated professionals with a strong global outlook.

A staggering 84% of media agency staff are under the age of 40, according to the IPA 2017 Census.

And 92% of them voted to remain in the EU, according to Trinity Mirror Solutions' research (see below).

They can hardly lay claim to being representative of wider society.

But does that really matter?

We talked to 2,000 UK adults and 150 media agency folk to answer this question in our survey, conducted by research firm house51 earlier this year.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, agency staff have different value systems to the modern mainstream (the mass-market), but it turns out that at a basic level, they don’t really have a clue about what makes people who aren’t like them tick.

A disconnect with 'the modern mainstream'

When we asked our media agency sample to estimate the values of the modern mainstream, they were way off.

They simultaneously overestimate their focus on power and hedonism, and underestimate self-direction, universalism and benevolence.

Why? Because they assume the majority of people think exactly like they do.

This is pretty damning when we remind ourselves that marketing and advertising is supposed to be all about human insight.

A deep understanding of what matters to and motivates people out there in the real world is the basic currency we trade.

It gets worse. These challenges run far deeper than a disconnect over values.

We’ve discovered a fundamental, hard-wired, psychological and behavioural difference between the people who populate ad land and those who live out there in the real world, and it’s all taking place at an unconscious level.

The industry isn’t out to deliberately underserve people.

In fact, it’s blissfully unaware that it’s making decisions that project their own mental model of the world onto others.

Simply put, they don’t think like the modern mainstream, and they don’t even realise it.

Taking a more 'holistic', less analytical view

Through a range of experiments, borrowed from the world of academia, we’ve found that the modern mainstream have a "holistic" thinking style.

They see the world as a circle and are led by context, relationships and connections.

Whereas people in the ad industry exhibit an "analytical" thinking style, seeing the world as a line, and placing greater importance on individuality.

This reveals a powerful unconscious bias in our industry and a profound psychological difference in the way that advertising people and the modern mainstream interpret the world.

Viewed through this behavioural lens, it’s no surprise that brands and advertising are failing to connect with the vast majority of the population.

Psychological profiling also highlights further differences, and this matters because the consequences of ad lands different thinking style and psychology is having a profound impact on decision making within the industry.

For example, our obsession with the shiny and new is driven by the industry’s psychological need to take risks – a trait which isn’t shared by the modern mainstream.

And on a more serious note, the vast majority of advertising professionals has never known anything other than the neo-liberal consensus that has dominated UK politics, business and cultural elites since Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979.

Hence ad land’s values are more focused on power and achievement, are more narcissistic psychologically and have a stronger sense of personal control over their lives than the modern mainstream does.

Last year, Trinity Mirror Solutions revealed a growing chasm between advertising and the modern mainstream in a society where trust is in short supply and brands and advertising have lost relevance with large swathes of the UK.

Where advertising once led the cultural conversation, it is no longer deemed to be a significant aspect of popular culture.

Having identified the symptoms, we now understand the underlying cause – an unconscious, analytical thinking style that dominates the industry and jars with the holistic thinking style of the modern mainstream.

If ad land continues down this path, and doesn’t manage its unconscious bias, the chasm is only going to get bigger, until the modern mainstream won’t be able to hear them anymore.

It’s time for the industry to acknowledge the problem, and start looking for ways to align its thinking with the people who really matter - the modern mainstream.

Andrew Tenzer is head of group insight at Trinity Mirror Solutions, which is part of Reach plc