Why do all our ads look the same?

Relying too much on research has stripped the originality from advertising, BBH London chairman Jim Carroll asserts.

Why do all our ads look the same?

Have you noticed that all the ads are looking the same? Perfectly pleasant, mildly amusing, gently aspirational. The insightful reflection of real life, the pivotal role of the product, the celebration of branded benefit.

Advertising seems so very reasonable now. Categories that were once adorned with sublime creativity are now characterised by joyless mundanity.

Some of you will recall the day in 1983 when we woke up and noticed that the cars all looked the same.

There was a simple explanation.

They'd all been through the same wind tunnel. We nodded assent at the evident improvement in fuel efficiency, but we could not escape a weary sigh of disappointment.

Are we not subjecting our communications to something equivalent: "wind tunnel marketing"? Have we not so formularised the process that we're eradicating some of the elements that made advertising so effective in the first place? And has the recession made us more dependent still on this "wind tunnel marketing"?

The Origins of Wind Tunnel Marketing

I guess it all began with the best intentions: businesses taking marketing more seriously.

Some years ago, with increasing globalisation, there was a drive to identify best demonstrated practice, to codify it and coach it. We developed acronyms, characterful shapes and ring-bound folders. We attended conferences, bungee-jumped together and went home with wittily sloganned T-shirts.

With the pressure at boardroom level to demonstrate return on investment, we became obsessed with proof and measurement. What gets measured gets done and what gets green gets made.

Now, of course, the development of a common marketing language and a culture of effectiveness has to be a good thing. But few noticed, as the industry professionalised, that the Cavaliers were being marginalised. A steady stream of mavericks made their way to the exit, their hitherto precious gut instinct no longer deemed valuable.

Few noticed, as we learned to lean more heavily on our norms and pre-tests, that expertise and judgment were a devaluing currency. And few noticed, at least at first, that the measures designed to raise the floor of communication output were at the same time lowering the ceiling. The researchers had taken over the asylum.

When Relevance Trumped Difference

When I was young, I was taught that behavioural change could be achieved through communication that was relevant, motivating and different. Somewhere along the way, we've lost our faith in the power of difference.

There was an era when brand owners were driven by an obsession for product and functionality. They had foresight, a passion for the positive impact a brand might have on consumers' lives in the future. They were steeled by the competition to believe that difference was critical to commercial success.

In the face of imitation and commoditisation, it became harder to sustain rational product differentiation. Increasingly, we sought difference through communicating "emotional selling propositions".

And, over time, we learned to excuse the absence of difference if we could achieve some kind of emotional resonance with consumers. In our pursuit of relevance, we commissioned endless focus groups and worshipped at the altar of consumer insight. Gradually, we have arrived at an industry consensus around what makes effective communication. But it is a narrow definition, one that leans heavily on consumer insight and relevance, and one that minimises or excludes the once-critical role of difference in the selling process.

Relevance has trumped difference. We now inhabit a world in which most brands in most categories approach most problems by asking the same people, the same questions, in the same way.

Is it any wonder that we keep coming up with the same answers?

Does Any of This Matter?

Perhaps it matters little that "wind tunnel marketing" diminishes difference. So what if it makes for a less creative, less interesting industry? So what if the ads all look the same? Surely none of this matters if the wind tunnel produces more effective communication.

My own conviction is that "wind tunnel marketing" is turning communication into a numbers game, where scale of resource wins - whether that be media budget, distribution network or sales team. The cost-efficiencies of brand differentiation are notable largely by their absence. Surely, in a fragile economic environment, this represents an oversight. And in an environment where we need to earn rather than buy attention, it's lunacy.

Out of a crisis comes opportunity. And a number of clients have already concluded that the rewards for bravery, subversion and calculated risk have never been greater.

Excepting these noble attempts to rage against the machine, however, I'm concerned that, at a macro level, "wind tunnel marketing" is gradually eroding the very foundations of consumers' affection for communication and brands. Groove Armada memorably remarked: "If everybody looked the same, we'd get tired of looking at each other." I suspect we're creating consumer fatigue through our homogenisation of our own product. When we see long-term declining scores for brand trust and advertising enjoyment, we blame own label or the internet or Sky or the banks or BP or Naomi Klein. But maybe we as a marketing and advertising community should look in the mirror.

Jim Carroll is the chairman of Bartle Bogle Hegarty London


1. Seek difference in everything we do

We should tirelessly seek difference in the people we talk to, the questions we ask, the processes we follow and the work we judge.

2. Kick out the norms

We have become addicted to backward-looking averages.

But norms produce normal and the new frontier has no norms but has much data. We should create a data-inspired future, not a norm-constrained past.

3. Only talk to consumers who are predisposed to change

Where there is change, there are leaders. But in research, we talk to followers because there are more of them. Followers are cheaper but less valuable. To change markets we should only talk to change-makers.

4. Embrace insights from anywhere

We've lived too long under the tyranny of consumer insight. Surely insights can come from anywhere: from the brand, consumers, competition, channel and task.

5. Don't iron out all the creases

The wind tunnel abhors rough edges, but people are attracted to the irregular. Let's protect and nurture the happy accident, the illogical flaw.

6. Test in the market, not in the test tube

Complex communications and fast-moving markets demand beta testing. The gamers know it and the retailers knew it before them. Let's learn from and with the market.

7. Practice foresight

We often consider today when we should be thinking of tomorrow. Let's lift our eyes to the horizon.

8. Learn to love risk

The wind tunnel is risk-averse, but risk is integral to innovation, change and success. Let's learn to feel comfortable with risk again, to calibrate it and embrace it.

9. Value expertise, value inexperience

Our risk-aversion has led us to overvaluing category experience and undervaluing communication expertise. But experience predisposes to the conventional; difference occurs at the intersection between expertise and naivety. Let's listen again to the experts, while opening the process to the inexperienced.

10. Hurry up

More time means better quality. But too much time compromises quality - it creates room for caveats, committees and complacency. Speed can be liberating, exciting, invigorating. Come on. Let's go.


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