Adam Ferrier
Feb 18, 2015

Unobvious Observations: What advertising religion do you follow?

New columnist Adam Ferrier kicks off his 'Unobvious Observations' by asking whether you ascribe to advertising as an art, a science or a sport.

Adam Ferrier
Adam Ferrier

I’ve heard that advertising is neither an art or a science, that it’s more like a sport. Before I disclose why, I want to pose a question: What advertising religion do you follow? That is, what is the macro framework through which you make sense of advertising and how it works?

When someone says to you, ‘How are brands built?’ what’s your answer? Do you believe in evidence or gut feel? Or something else? All have merit, but the trouble starts when we let things meander and we are not clear on our own beliefs. Marketing communications is in a state of flux, and it’s time to pick a side.

Advertising as Science?

So you’ve embraced the emerging world of behavioural economics, and you take an experimental design to communications. You like to set up matched cells, and use a test-and-learn approach to communications. Your organisation has embraced big data, and you’ve found a way to make sense of it all. Your media buying leaves little up to naïve 23-year-olds, as the whole thing is run programmatically, whilst your creative work is less ‘creative’ but incredibly ‘effective’, and always optimised. You have data scientists informing your decisions, and you're rather cynical about traditional market research, but very interested in new ways of getting insights. You rely less on what people say, and more on what people do. You are inspired by some of the work of data-rich organisations like financial services and airlines.

Advertising as Art?

You declare that humanity is way too complex to understand and ‘codify’. Instead, you listen carefully, and then go with your gut. You hold consumer understanding and being ‘on brand’ as sacrosanct, and folloe both maniacally. You think all market research is a bit of a joke, as no one can articulate why people do the things they do. Instead you get your brands into peoples' hands, and you observe them, and listen and refine. You’re not interested in gathering evidence, and decisions are made on intuition. You enjoy creating brands that are beautiful and perfect at every touchpoint. You admire brands such as Nike and Apple and look at them as heroes not only for being incredibly consumer-centric but also because you know that they do no market research.

Advertising as Sport

Here's why someone once said that marketing is neither art nor science, but more like a sport: There's not a lot to learn, but there's a lot to practice. These types of brands get something right and repeat, repeat, repeat. The advertising-as-sports people see consistency as key, and marketing as a game of scale, numbers, and repetition. It’s carving out a niche and doing the same thing over and over again. Like a tennis player practicing his serve 10,000 times over a summer, so too does this marketer focus on delivering the same thing over and over and over. McDonald’s and your nearest, biggest supermarket chain perhaps share elements of this approach, as they keep things simple and get things right through repetition.

So here you say ‘Well there is some truth in all of these—advertising is a science and an art and a sport. And you may be right. However, I’m guessing the brands mentioned here all have one thing in common: clarity about how things should be done. They have a strong philosophy of how marketing communications is created, one that transgresses regions and the whims of marketing directors.

In a rapidly changing marketing-communications landscape, having a strong point of view on how to build a brand, both agency side and client side, is being eroded. Too often it's left to the marketing director, the ECD, or the CEO at the time to set the agenda before the next person takes the hot seat and takes the brand in a new direction. 

When I ask people, even those in senior positions, ‘How does advertising work?’, I’m still often left with a blank look. Or ‘What’s your approach to advertising?’ Still nothing. It worries me a tad (although it doesn’t really) that so many people in our business don’t know how our business actually works.

So what do you believe in? How does it all work? If your organisation doesn’t have an answer, at the very least you should.

So what is it? What’s your brand's advertising religion: Art, science or sport?

Over the course of the next year in this space I’ll be putting forward my point of view on the science, art and sport of marketing communications. I subscribe to the ethos that it's better to be wrong but interesting than to be right and boring. So hopefully you’ll see a few 'unobvious observations' that, at the very least, will give you something to weigh and consider.

Adam Ferrier (@adamferrier) is consumer psychologist and global chief strategy officer at Cummins&Partners. He began his career as a forensic psychologist working in maximum security.  When he got out he wanted a change of scenery, so he became a global cool hunter working for consultancy Added Value. Next he had a stint at Saatchi & Saatchi before co-founding and then selling Naked Communications APAC. He joined Cummins&Partners in 2013. He is the author of The Advertising Effect: How to Change Behaviour (Oxford, 2014).


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