July 21, 2015Stop listening

The ‘B’ in DDB, Bill Bernbach, once said:

“We are so busy measuring public opinion that we forget we can mold it.”

As I sat and watched five days of focus groups tear into the scripts I’d spent the last six months crafting, I wondered how much this was true.

In the golden age of above the line advertising, it was easy to ‘change the conversation’, as Don Draper put it, in the stroke of an ad.

The Smash Robots made potatoes seem old fashioned all of a sudden. Benson and Hedges got people talking about tobacco with a series of surrealist images. A single 30 second spot in 1985 made Levi’s cool. They’ve been cool ever since.

But in today’s digitally and socially connected world, can an above the line campaign really shape public opinion?

Do people really buy the messages writ large on billboards any more?

The social media evangelists would tell you that you have to join the conversation. Influence it. By talking to people online.

Quite often the results are shit.

Quite literally shit, in the case of Andrex – a toilet tissue – attempting to start a conversation about whether you’re a scruncher or a folder

It was an unmitigated disaster. Imagine how little you want to talk about your toilet habits. Then imagine how much less you want to share them with a brand.

But that’s the social media snake oil. Any conversation’s a good conversation, right?

Ask yourself a serious question – when was the last time you interacted with a brand on social media?

The last three times I engaged with a brand on Twitter it was to complain about their service or get a question answered because they weren’t responding to my emails.

Occasionally, I might ‘like’ a Facebook post if it makes me laugh.

It’s not exactly brand love, is it?

Digital and social are great ways to get involved in conversations. But start them? Hardly. And change them? Even the most successful campaigns, like the Dove campaign for Real Beauty needed a little ‘above the line’ push to get the ball rolling.

And so back to my focus groups.

Over the course of five days, I learned one thing.

Consumers love the familiar.

If you present them with an idea that they can’t immediately relate to something they’ve seen before, they reject it.

Or as Henry Ford put it, “if I asked my customers what they wanted, they would have asked for a faster horse.”

Every ad campaign gets tested… often to death. Take a look at how this focus group responded to Apple’s iconic ‘1984’ ad (hint: they hated it).

If you ask consumers’ permission before doing brilliant work, they will reject it. I wonder what a focus group would have made of this:


Yet it’s part of one of the most successful tobacco campaigns of all time.

Sadly, social media is more of the same problem. The paralysis of indecision.

Today, advertising is about listening to consumers, it’s about joining conversations…

It’s about joining the herd.

It should be about learning to herd the crowd.

So what’s left?

Blind faith.

Truly great advertising isn’t about conversations.

It isn’t about metrics. It isn’t about what you can prove with research.

Truly great advertising is about changing perceptions.

And the way to do that?

It’s about having the force of will to believe in an idea.

To believe in a product.

To see a market that doesn’t exist yet.

To know you’re right.

Henry Ford knew better than his customers. So did Steve Jobs. And so did the legendary ad men of the 60s, 70s and 80s.

They believed that opinion could be shaped, not followed.

What went wrong?

You could blame focus groups. You could blame the big ad agencies for focusing on their bottom line over producing great creative. You could blame big data. You could blame social media ‘snake oil’ if you’re part of that crowd.

It doesn’t matter where the blame lies.

All that matters is how to do better work.

And the answer lies in what Bill Bernbach told us years ago.

Good advertising doesn’t follow public opinion.

It shapes it.

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