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 Now we’re using MRI to compare and optimize ideas built on outdated assumptions and calling it progress.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.