The real problem with advertising

Martin Sorrell is all over the news these days, lamenting the decline of his WPP empire. Both Sorrell and journalists blame the problems in the advertising industry on a host of factors:

– the rise of big data & programmatic

– consultancies entering the market

– budget-conscious procurement officers

And so on. One factor is conspiciously absent though.

The quality of the ads.

Not measured by Gunn Report style award show ratings, but, you know, by what clients buy them for.

Changing people’s behaviour.

Not just reaching them, engaging them, buiding awareness, identifying them online or conspicously sharing their values in life.

Agencies are paid, in the end, to get people to DO stuff.

And too often, they fail. Causing clients to take them less seriously and pay them less.

If only there was a well-established, Noble Prize winning branche of science that could tell us how to influence behaviour!

Oh wait, there is. It’s called Behavioural Economics. Governments apply it. Companies like Google and Walmart do.

Agencies though? Well, within WPP there’s Rory Sutherland’s Ogilvy Change. If Sorrell had any sense, it’d be his flagship rather than a curious, interesting addition to the fleet.

In Holland, there’s SUE, behavioural design experts rather than a traditional ad agency. And scattered around agencies you’ll find a few activation creatives like myself, wondering when the hell this industry is going to wake up.

Why is this so? It’s a well established fact that more is invested in the education of a Starbucks barista than in that of an agency professional. If you left school 20 years ago, chances are you still believe that behaviour change is the result of impact, awareness and attitude. If you’ve read Sinek, Godin and a few chapters of Gladwell you’re practically an intellectual in agency terms.

Which would be acceptable, maybe, if your client wasn’t a 30 year old MSc who knows her Kahneman from her Cialdini, trusts Ariely rather than Maslov and thinks B=MAT rather than AIDA.

Agencies have jumped on every new medium and every creative trend in the last 15 years in a desperate bid to keep up. All the time, their thinking remained stuck in the 70s. Now we’re using MRI to compare and optimize ideas built on outdated assumptions and calling it progress.

This silly state of affairs must end.

Creative agencies must embrace the science of human behaviour as their greatest source of inspiration. Or increasingly become an army of interchangable stylists, moaning about clients’ lack of respect.

Review: The Secret of the Highly Creative Thinker

A lot is written and said about creative thinking these days. Depending on where you’re standing, creative thinking is either:

  • the only skill that can make you a living after Artificial Intelligence has taken over everything else
  • A commodity you can get for cheap through pitches and crowdsourcing
  • Absolutely vital if we want to solve the world’s many problems
  • No longer needed now that we have programmatic ads and neuromarketing research
  • Something anyone in an organization can do if they follow a few simple steps

And then of course there are people like me, who have the word ‘creative’ on their business cards. My experience is that many people can indeed have ideas. But usually they’re the same ideas. And therefore, not very creative.

Compare it to a cartoonist. Everyone is funny occasionally. Many people can draw. But only a handful of people in the world can draw a funny cartoon six times a week. What makes them different?

Dorte Nielsen and Sarah Thurber have a refreshingly smart yet simple explanation of this in their delightful book The Secret of the Highly Creative Thinker: How To Make Connections Others Don’t.

They use the metaphor of the shower and the funnel. First, a creative thinker will generate lots of ideas without to much focus or critical thinking. Nielsen and Thurber liken this to turning on the shower. Then, once the funnel has filled, the ideas are filtered until the best remain.

Sounds familiar? Here’s where it gets really smart. The funnel has to be full before you turn off the shower. Which is exactly my experience. Most people will ‘turn off the shower’ as soon as they have one or two viable ideas.

And they will definitely run for the taps as soon as someone says something silly. “Let’s not get too crazy now, we already have some good ideas!”.

But they don’t. They have some safe, boring, obvious ideas that they’ve lazily fallen in love at first sight with.

I’ve seen countless people go from ‘let’s come up with some great ideas’ to ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ within the hour. Only to be disappointed when they found at least five other companies or colleagues had the same idea, claimed the URL, copyrighted the logo and trademarked the pay-off.

Well at least they’ve learned something. You can’t get from obvious ideas to great ones without travelling through the valley of silly ideas.

But Nielsen and Thurber offer hope for everyone. Based on insights from neuroscience, they explain how new ideas are found by making new connections in the brain.

Sounds theoretical? It isn’t. In fact, this book is filled with fun, practical exercises so approachable I did some with my seven year old daughter, and we had a great time.

And as a creative pro with 20 years experience in creative concepting, I have to say the exercises really work. As management and strategy take up more and more time, there’s a real danger of becoming a bit predictable as a creative director. This book really inspired me to turn on that shower again and let the crazy connections flow.

A die-hard Kindle convert, I’m sometimes a bit bummed by BIS Publishers‘ policy of putting out their excellent books on paper only (I want it NOW dammit, even it’s 2 am!). But I have to say they’ve really gone the extra mile to make the book’s design and inspiring as creative as the content.

In other words: highly recommended reading for both creative professionals and professionals who’d like to be more creative.

Just promise me that from now on, you’ll never again turn off that shower tap too soon.


Behavioural economics explained to creatives

Your brain is a creative team (and art does most of the work)

Let me explain behavioural economics in a way creatives can relate to.

Mr. Kahneman figured out our brains are like a creative team.

One part is like the copywriter. Pretty smart. Analytic. Likes to read. Tends to overthink stuff. Not very fast or efficient. But good to have around.

The other part is like the art director. Intuitive. Emotional. Likes pictures. Lots of experience. Trusts her gut.

Kahneman found out that the art director part of our brain (system 1) does most of the work: about 95%.

She quickly decides what action to take. Then, if necessary, she’ll call on the copywriter part (system 2) to write a clever rationale.

He’ll come up with a story that makes the irrational decision seem rational.

Most of the time, this works very well. But sometimes system 1 makes a mistake and system 2 fails to notice.

When this happens, the brain blindly follows some dumb trend. Overestimates how much it knows. Takes the safe option even though it’s a dumb one. And so on.

In fact, there are over 165 of these different brain bugs and glitches.

And you can use these to your advantage. To change peoples’ behaviour without changing their minds first.

It can even help you sell great ideas to clients.



Review: Martin Lindstrom – Small Data

First let me say that I want Martin Lindstrom’s job. We both make our living providing marketing ideas to major international brands. However, while I spend my days in an Amsterdam office building hammering out ideas on tight deadlines, Lindstrom gets to travel the world, spending months observing consumer behaviour and local culture. It’s like the Hollywood version of my job! The guy must be doing something right. And without doubt, part of that are his books. Filled with great anecdotes, provocative observations and bold statements, they’re fun and inspiring.

Small Data is no exception. The point Lindstrom makes here is clear from the title. Truly inspiring insights are often not found by analysing huge amounts of anonymous data, but by observing individuals. This echoes similar sentiments in IDEO’s design thinking approach, learning from extreme rather than average users.

It’s somewhat ironic then, that my favorite insight in the book might as well have come from Big Data. Lindstrom discovers that teenage girls use their mobile phones intensively between 6:00 and 6:30 AM. He soon finds out they’re exchanging selfies, helping each other pick today’s outfit. This leads to a flagship clothes store with Facebook access integrated into the mirrors for easy sharing. A cool example of an idea inspired by actual consumer behaviour. Something which the (marketing) world needs much more of, whatever size data you prefer.

Elsewhere in the book, I’m less convinced by the big conclusions Lindstrom draws from his small data. And some of his strong observations serve as a great rationale for fairly conventional ideas. Ultimately though, I read books like these to get a kick in the butt to do better myself. And on this count, Small Data more than succceeds. I’m definitely inspired to carve out more time for observing actual consumer behaviour. Who knows, I might end up traveling the globe like Lindstrom. Or away from that Amsterdam office building at least.

Review: Pocket Ariely app

Dan Ariely needs little introduction. His book Predictably Irrational is the Songs in the Key of Life of Behavioural Economics: accessible, crowd-pleasing yet profound. And now next to lectures, books, TED talks and YouTube videos, here’s the latest way to learn from the professor: the Pocket Ariely app.

For $1,99 a month, you get video content, podcasts, articles and the opportunity to participate in ongoing research by answering questionaires. As you might expect from Ariely, the content is top notch, though at least part of it may be familiar to you already.

My point of criticism is about the app itself. Behavioural economics is often easier to explain than to put into practice, and this app is no exception. Choice architecture is limited to a few basic categories, each including enough material to induce serious bouts of choice paralysis. No bundling, nudging or defaults to make life easier.

Also, no effort is made to make the user keep using the app. Endowed progress? Commitment strategies? Sunk costs? Dig deep enough and you’ll probably find great content on it. But the app offers no indication of progress, curriculums, badges or certificates. Making it feel more like a stroll through a slightly overwhelming library than a true app-like, addictive experience.

Since the app is free for the first month, I recommend you check it out and see what you think. Even if you agree the app leaves room for improvement, the content won’t disappoint.

Well played, National Lottery

I didn’t come up with this, I just found it on Twitter. But I wish I had. See, insights from behavioural economics are often used to optimize. To fine-tune the details. That’s ok. But I love BIG creative ideas built on biases and heuristics. This campaign combines a bunch of them.

First off, I’m reminded of Robert Cialdini’s famous hotel towel experiments. Other people, people like you, in the same spot as you, have done this. The persuasive power of similarity and social proof at work.

Then there’s the survivorship bias. We focus on the 54 times a lottery ticket in this area yielded a big prize. And pay no mind to the thousands if not millions of losing lottery tickets sold in the area through the years.

And then of course, there’s randomness versus luck. We humans don’t get probability and randomness at a deep level. We feel 54 millionaires in one area can’t be a coincidence. Even though it is.

And to top it all off, there’s a witty line. Adding that bit of creative juice that makes the ad distinctive and likeable.

Well played, National Lottery. Well played.

The Perfection Paradox

In business, striving for perfection is the norm.

But achieving it? Very, very rare.

See, striving for perfection paralyses people.

It fosters a culture where pointing out what might be wrong is rewarded.

Presenting something that might be right?

That’s like putting a bull’s eye on your work. And on yourself.

Strangely, in Dutch companies people literally invite each other to ‘shoot at’ their ideas.

The frame: ideas are the enemy. We must attack them.

What comes of this? Usually nothing.

Because finding a far-fetched reason to not do something is like scoring a hattrick in corporate culture.

You get to shine for being smart. No-one has to work hard to make the idea happen. And no money is spent.

It’s loss aversion heaven.

Except that you’re losing a hell of a lot of great opportunities.

So striving for perfection is bad. You know what’s even worse? 

Achieving perfection.

That’s what you discover when you read this interesting piece of research.

Yes, consumers will buy more if you get good reviews. Social proof works.

But here’s the twist …

They’ll buy less if you only get 5-star reviews.

Because perfection is suspicious. It makes us wonder if it’s just a facade, a fraud.


Conversely, admitting a small fault is an effective way to establish liking and credibility. Bernbach knew that when he made his VW ads.






We all subconsciously feel the perfection paradox:

If it’s perfect, there must be something wrong with it.

So forget perfection. Get to work.

Build a minimum viable product, whether that’s a strategy, an app, an ad or a company.

Then ship it, warts and all.

Because perfect just isn’t worth it.