Targeting can become a kind of creative tyranny, says VCCP's Charles Vallance

We are more able than ever to precisely target an audience, but over-reliance on this is not only dull, it means outsiders never even hear the conversation, writes Charles Vallance.

Targeting can become a kind of creative tyranny, says VCCP's Charles Vallance

Sir John Hegarty, quoted in a book I co-authored a couple of years ago, said: "People say I have a great skill at putting myself in the shoes of the consumer.

That’s bullshit. JK Rowling was asked what aged child she had in mind when writing Harry Potter, and her reply was that she wrote it for herself. That’s what you do. As a creative you should just be writing for yourself."

I have a lot of sympathy with what he’s saying. From the moment I started working in advertising I have been suspicious of targeting, or, more particularly, the concept of the target audience.

Not because it’s wrong – clearly we need to target our media investment, and to do this efficiently we need to define an audience. The reason for my misgiving is that, too often, the demands of targeting can become a kind of tyranny, especially when applied to creative work.

It can lead to narrow judgements and tunnel vision – will this appeal to retired people, or to young people, or to thirtysomethings? And so on.

Worse still, it can lead to the creative product being judged against spuriously named ‘segments’ such as ‘Mumtrepreneurs’, ‘Time-Starved Troubadours’, ‘Cohabiting Commuters’, ‘Discounting Deborahs’. You get the idea.

Off target

The problem with all this targeting is that the greatest ideas seldom segment; they tend to unite. Honda’s ‘Hate something, change something’ campaign was presumably targeted at potential diesel buyers, but I doubt that had much to do with its creation. Indeed, you might argue that too much of a focus on the ‘Diesel Deliberator’ segment could have led to something much more solemn and sensible.

Advertising isn't meant to be private – it's meant to be stumbled across.

Another reason that targeting can hold you back creatively is that often the best ideas come from seeing what your target can’t or doesn’t see. The best work in the ‘Real beauty’ campaign for Dove tends to involve challenging the preconceptions of the audience, particularly in terms of self-image.

This kind of thinking would have been precluded by conventional target-audience boundary setting. Conversely, over-literal filtering by target tends to lead to some of the dreariest ads. For instance, a huge amount of work targeting family mealtimes is horribly stereotypical.

Similarly, many car advertisers seem to have a fixed view of their urban audience, which tends to involve zany twentysomethings zipping around town, guzzling cappuccinos while strumming guitars in Eurotown piazzas, or being chased by gratuitous special effects. Or both. As a result, they all blur into one another.

Another problem with targeting is that it tends to prescribe what a particular audience does or doesn’t know, particularly with regard to cultural capital.

Just because a group of people, for instance, don’t know what an emoji is, doesn’t mean your brand shouldn’t introduce the idea to them. This is how an advertiser can gain kudos and memorability, while also avoiding condescension.

From a media-buying perspective, the disciplines of targeting obviously play a vital role in achieving efficiency and measuring impact.

But even here, you could argue that targeting has become too prescriptive and mechanistic. We have an ability to measure, to quantify and fine-tune media spend in a way that would have been inconceivable only a few years ago – but this can lead to a form of media myopia.

A closed conversation

We can be so granular in our analysis of reach against a primary target that, potentially, we can forget they aren’t our only target. Ad campaigns, as a result, can become a kind private conversation between a core audience and an advertiser. But advertising isn’t supposed to be private. It’s supposed to be overheard, shared, stumbled across and discovered.

The desirability of a message and a brand is hugely influenced by who else is consuming it – and the knowledge that they are doing so.

This is why so many fashion brands use relatively indiscriminate media, such as posters and bus-sides. They want to be ‘overseen’. They court wastage because they understand that the medium can also be the message – and much of the power of a message lies in it being overheard.

Modern media analytics are in danger of taking the medium back to being the medium alone. If we continue down this path, we may end up on a fool’s errand, mistaking accuracy for effectiveness and precision for persuasion.