August 21, 2014

The Problem Of Truthfulness

After spending 40 years in the agency business, I have spent the past 16 months away from it.

It has given me the opportunity to think about it differently -- not as someone preoccupied with meetings, deadlines, and crises, but as someone with the benefit of a little disinterested perspective.

One of the issues I have been thinking about is truthfulness. We are often accused of not being truthful with consumers. This may or may not be true, but it's not the subject of today's sermon.

Today's sermon is about the "to thine own self be true" kind of truthfulness. It is about the lies we tell ourselves. These lies don't come from a desire to deceive, they come from a desire to be right.

One of the honorable aspects of our work should be the impartial way we go about learning what is effective for our clients.

We should have creditable answers when our clients ask questions about the effectiveness of this technique or that tactic.

Mostly we don't. We have cute anecdotes and semi-relevant case histories and the assertions and opinions of "experts." We spend way more time justifying our beliefs than trying to learn basic truths about what we do.

Many of us have become specialists and don't have access to the larger picture. Consequently, we have become advocates for our particular specialty without really knowing how effective it is.

We are interested in reading about and hearing about the cases that support our point of view. We skim over the ones that belie our thinking. I think sociologists call this confirmation bias.

The truthfulness I'm concerned about is the truthfulness of the conversations we have with ourselves.

Bad scientists start an experiment with a result in mind. When they get results that don't match their expectations they either ignore them, call them anomalies, or find a way to discard them as irrelevant.

Good scientists learn more from what they didn't expect than from what they did.

Of course, this requires a different frame of mind from what most of us carry around. There are some very large unanswered questions about the comparative effectiveness of the ocean of new advertising possibilities.

What we should be doing is trying to find the truth. What we are actually doing is trying to confirm our beliefs.

August 20, 2014

Confessions Of A Contrarian

I received an email last week from a reader.

The reader had some kind things to say about the blog, then asked a few questions. I thought the answers might make an interest piece. Here are the questions:
How did you continue to move along in your career while being so contrarian? 
What did you do to mitigate the negativity that a contrarian attitude so often incurs? 
You mean well. How do you get other people to understand that?
First, let's be clear about something. My career and my experience are in no way a model for anyone else. You have to do things your own way. I started as a copywriter and through a series of unfortunate accidents I wound up as ceo of two agencies. I guess that's the price you pay for not being a very good copywriter.

Anyway, here are some answers to the reader's questions.
  • While I have always had a contrarian bent, I didn't flaunt it until my career was well-established. What that means is that when I had to make a living, I mostly kept my mouth shut about the stupidity I saw around me. It is much easier and safer to be a loudmouth when you own the agency than when you're an employee.
  • I always tried to put my clients' interests first. Even though I may have thought what they wanted me to do was stupid, I didn't let my personal ideology get in the way of helping them. For example, if they insisted on spending a lot of money on a social media jack-off, I did the best I could to help them do what they wanted to do. If they asked my opinion, I told them the truth as I saw it. If they didn't, I kept my mouth shut and did the best I could.
  • Third, and this was probably the hardest part, I did not insist that everything done in my agency be done my way. The staff of the agency knew what the principles of the agency were -- we published them -- but they were usually left free to interpret the principles according to the needs of the client. There were times I wanted to explode, but mostly I bit my tongue and let them do it their way.
  • You are right that contrarianism is often misinterpreted as negativism. They are different things. This doesn't mean that I am not negative about certain aspects of our business -- I certainly am -- nonetheless, contrarianism and negativity are not the same thing. There are people who always think that if you disagree with them you are being negative. They are idiots, but you're never going to change that.
  • I am very gratified that you recognize that, despite my immoderate writing, I mean well. Many people do not understand this. Do I want people to like me? Sure, we all do. But when you sign up to be a show-off loudmouth -- which is exactly what bloggers are -- you are going to be criticized, disliked, and misunderstood. It is not something I spend time worrying about. I believe the advertising and marketing industry are drowning in bullshit and I feel a need to express that. I am at a very fortunate point in my life at which I don't really care where the chips fall.
  • The advertising industry is one of the trendiest industries in the world. As soon as an idea, a gimmick, or a fad becomes publicized, it immediately becomes ubiquitous. It was just a few years ago that every campaign had to have a street team, a flash mob, and a podcast attached to it. Now these are seen for the stupid contrivances they were. But at the time, it was heresy to be negative about them. If you questioned their value you "just didn't get it" or you were a "Luddite dinosaur." The pressure in the ad world - the pressure to believe what everyone else believes, to talk like everyone else talks, to do what everyone does - is oppressive and, if this is possible, even worse than high school.
  • Being a contrarian has its dangers. If you are going to swim against the tide, you'd better have damn good reasons and damn solid arguments. Otherwise people will  call you a petulant brat -- and they'll be right.
Having said all that, the most important thing you can learn from me is that the way I succeeded was by helping my clients sell a lot of stuff. All the rest is chit-chat.

For those of you who signed-up for more information about our One-Day Personal Reboot, please be patient. It's been a little busier around here than we expected and we probably won't be launching it until early October. More info will come soon, stay tuned.

August 18, 2014

The Unrelenting Assault Of Marketing Bullshit

Now that I am on the speaking circuit, one thing has become very apparent to me. The  appetite for marketing bullshit is inexhaustible.

Of all the new age marketing doubletalkers, one guy is my favorite. I'm not going to name names because I don't like to do that.

But this guy was there at the beginning of the fabulously disastrous Pepsi Refresh Project -- going from conference to conference telling all the drooling dimwits how fabulously successful this fiasco was.

Three years ago I quoted him in this space:
" much are we encouraging the continual learning from inside our staff about how to leverage these technologies with inside of their communications and engagement plans but as well as just for their own personal communications and internal communication with inside each other..."
I'm still trying to figure out what language that was.

Then he went over to Mondelez (that's what Nabisco is now called) where he is Worldwide Global Engagement Bullshit Meister, or something. A couple of years ago, Stephen Colbert did a hilarious take down of a preposterous Mondelez/Nabisco Wheat Thins product brief. You can see it here.

Our guy pitifully tried to make a positive out of being ridiculed on national TV by claiming, “You could not ask for something better even if you wrote it yourself.” Yeah, right.

Well, the good news is that he's still imparting his wisdom to the cretins who go to these hopeless marketing whack-a-thons.

The guy is truly amazing. Here he is being interviewed recently at another bullshitfest by some doofus with a British accent.

It is impressive to watch someone who has totally mastered the most important skill for a contemporary business "thought leader" -- the ability to use jargon and buzzwords to make it sound as if you're saying something while saying absolutely nothing.

Thanks again to Prof. Byron Sharp.