Tuesday, January 17th, 2012

My morning bus ride affords an opportunity to listen to music, witness sleeping commuters drool, and catch up design and technology news.

Over the past months, I’ve made an effort to skip my usual reads (TechCrunch and Hacker News) and instead look at more ad-centric publications like AdWeek and AdAge. Doing so hasn’t been easy. Aside from how dry this stuff tends to be, it’s hard to wade through so much industry gobbledegook. As much as small shops seem cursed to reduce their work to a boilerplate list of services/outputs, large agencies appear to be incapable of avoiding vague, repetitive, self-congratulating hyperbole.

Well, it’s a new year, and an old me—heaven forbid I miss this chance to kick things off with a snarky rant. Here are 10 of my favorite big agency claims, promises, and bits of rhetoric… All of which manage to sound so very impressive, while meaning so astoundingly little.

Myth #1: Controlling the Conversation

Back in 2008, social media “gurus” were all over the notion of not trying to control the conversation. They repeated this platitude until they were blue in the face, but—sadly—not quite to the point of suffocating. At some point a few ad execs showed up, and lifted some of these catchphrases for their own use. (Apparently, they really liked this one.)

The implicit message seems to be: “We used to make people buy crap they didn’t want, but we can’t do this any longer… because they might say mean things about us on Facebook. We’ve wised up now, though.” Of course, this is bullshit. The fact of the matter is that advertisers didn’t control the conversation before, any more than they want to have a conversation now. It’s pretty much what it always was: Advertisers want people to buy stuff, and people (largely) don’t care. Deal with it.

Myth #2: Transparency

The word “transparency” makes me shake like I’m recovering from a urethral swab. Yes, it’s that bad. Actually, it’s worse. It’s the “synergy” of our time: a notion that once may have meant something, that has been stripped of all meaning.

Sure, most organizations shouldn’t lie and, yes, they might benefit by giving customers an inside look at what they do. Fine enough, but transparency is a false construct. This is because very few will remain transparent once it becomes uncomfortable to do so. The allure of transparency is even less so when you consider how well those fuckers on Wall Street seemed to fare… in spite of their collective, organized deceit and ass-raping of John and Jane Public.

Myth #3: It’s a Dialogue

This one is a lot like “transparency”: a sensible enough notion that turns out to be bunk. Fact is: it isn’t a dialogue. It can’t be. A real dialogue requires two (or more) parties to engage in a discussion that goes in both directions. It would be nice if companies could speak to with their customers on the same level, but it’s completely impractical.

Even an organization with thousands of people in it can’t maintain a personal conversation with millions of people (and that’s ultimately what’s being proposed when you start talking about dialogue). More than that, a real dialogue is messy, in that you sometimes have to tell your friends that they’re acting like dicks. I have yet to hear a brand say such a thing to their customers. Until one does so, we’re far from any real dialogue.

Myth #4: Everything has Changed

Change is a compelling refrain when it comes to selling creative services. It suggests that things have been transformed so dramatically that one needs to enlist someone with a magic formula in order to move forward. It’s a powerful value proposition, but rarely ever that cut and dried.

Things aren’t just changing now, they were always changing; meanwhile, some things (surprisingly enough) are actually a lot like they always were. Therefore, the only tenable answer is to establish methods for objectively assessing what tools/approaches should be employed, be they cutting edge, or old standbys. While technologies will come and go, good communication and sound thinking are surprisingly resilient.

Myth #5: Young People Aren’t the Same

“These kids! They spend their days texting—what a waste of time!” These same thing was said of my generation, if you swap the texting for talking on the phone, and my guess is that this was also said for each generation that preceded mine. Can you imagine how those folks complained after Gutenburg started mucking around with his crazy ink-on-paper machine? “These kids! They spend their days reading—what a waste of time!”

I could be wrong, but I’m going to run the risk and posit that while styles and trends change, common experiences are endured by every adolescent, regardless of date of birth. Screw the trend research and youth market analysis. Instead of treating the young as some kind riddle to decipher—or profit from—we just need to remind ourselves how we felt at that time: excited, scared, euphoric, unsure… and just about everything in between.

Myth #6: It’s a Fragmented Landscape

Of all the things in flux, agency people love to talk about the “fragmented landscape.” I like this one; it’s cute. When I hear this fancy term, I see a mental picture of a bomb being dropped, rearranging everything into a Jackson Pollock. Sadly, the actual meaning seems to be more along the lines of: “there sure are a heck of a lot of options, these days.”

A comparable analogy may be that of a person who has only ever eaten potatoes, witnessing a supermarket for the first time. While it might take some time to decide what to buy, learning to do so would hardly prove an insurmountable task. Good agencies have smart people working within them, and they’re adaptable enough to move from creating a good print campaign, to figuring out how to employ a digital component—if they choose to—regardless of said “fragmentyness.”

Myth #7: Everything Needs to be Digital

Actually, a lot of it is digital—in that most campaigns need to eventually circle around to digital at one point or another. That said, it’s one part of a whole. Radio still works. Billboards still work. Television ads still work (sometimes). Product placement still works. Coupons still work. Newspaper ads still work. Direct mail still works. Handing out food samples at the grocery store still works.

When the legions are all carrying on about the new thing, it’s awfully easy to forget about all those other things that worked. Don’t do that. (And, for the record, I don’t care about your new app.)

Myth #8: If You Aren’t Social, You’re Dead

No one says it with these exact words, but they dance around this general notion an awful lot. While saying such shocking things likely drives a lot of business to social media companies, it’s hardly the case. Social media is useful, important, and may very well need to be a part of what you’re doing. It isn’t, however, unilaterally necessary in every marketing campaign/plan.

Like any other medium, the question isn’t one of whether or not you’re using a technology, medium, or channel; instead, it’s about which ones are right for the task at hand. Perhaps Facebook is the perfect tool for you to build connections with potential customers or loyalists; or, maybe you just need a fridge magnet with your name on it. And for all those who disagree, I simply ask how Apple manages to be so successful in their marketing, without using Twitter at all. (Gasp!)

Myth #9: The Idea is King

Don’t get me wrong, all of us creative folks love ideas. This doesn’t change the fact that they’re a dime a dozen. Big agencies love talking about them, because they’re the ultimate snake oil: easy to pitch, with results that are hard to accurately quantify. Aside from the most in-your-face examples, most folks simply can’t spot the difference between a good and bad idea. Award shows pretend to serve this purpose, but they mostly reward novelty over effectuality.

Chasing ideas is a fool’s errand; the smart money is on learning how to look at ideas in the most dispassionate way, edit them ruthlessly, determine the best method of bringing them to life—and then deliver on the strategy. Nevertheless, practicality isn’t the most exciting thing to sell horny clients wanting a quick fix. As a result, big agencies will keep pitching “big ideas” regardless of whether they really are so (or whether they deliver anything at all).

Myth #10: We Know

This is the biggest heap of bullshit in all agency rhetoric, and it’s easy to understand why. Clients want to buy from those who have the answers; nevertheless, few actually do.

Want the real deal? All agencies know stuff—some more than others. There’s also a whole bunch of stuff most agencies don’t (and can’t) know. Working in the realm of human relations, interaction, and behavior is awfully complex; meanwhile, the things we do are time and context sensitive. What works today, may flop tomorrow.

This leaves most of us trying to come up with a reasonable plan, doing our best to get it right, and crossing our fingers in hopes that we hit the mark. Sometimes we do, and at others we need to realign and strike again. There’s nothing wrong with this; it’s simply the nature of what we do. I say that admitting it and presenting it openly is better than making grand promises that can’t be delivered on.

Hey, Asshole!

I wrote this post asking myself, “Why do you have to be such an asshole? Couldn’t you write something positive for a change?” The truth of the matter, is that saying I work in advertising sometimes feels like an admission of guilt, given the turd-cakes our industry is known to toss upon the public. In order to create better work, we need to cut the crap, even in our own marketing.

At our best, we form communication that reaches people, changes minds, and even results in some kind of action—none of which are insignificant points. Want to do that well? Work to understand those you’re speaking to. Seek to empathize with them. Gain insight into their struggles, hopes, and fears.

And when it comes to our own marketing and discussion surrounding what we do, we need to stop pretending that we have all the answers, and instead ask some questions. You’ll have to find your own, but the ones I suggest starting with include: “Why are we saying this?” “Does it matter?” And—the most important one: “If I repeated this copy to my friends, would they roll their eyes and tell me that I’m full of shit?”

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