Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Conversations, media agencies and Bill Bernbach

We Are Social have been hosting some great debate about the past, present and future of advertising over the last few days, centred on the question of what the role of great creative is in an increasingly networked world. Having resisted the urge to drop my favourite 'conversation' quote, from a Cory Doctorow piece on downloading movies, in to the comments, I'll paste it here:

Content isn't king. If I sent you to a desert island and gave you the choice of taking your friends or your movies, you'd choose your friends -- if you chose the movies, we'd call you a sociopath. Conversation is king. Content is just something to talk about

and as recent great work such as VCCP's Meerkat for Compare the Market (Disclaimer: client) and the T-Mobile flashmobbing at Liverpool St have proved, content that is talked about leads to business success specifically because of the talkability, as well as because of the content.

Another comment on Robin's post referred to Bill Bernbach, and reminded me of a quote of his that I believe everyone working in advertising should think about on every piece of work they are involved with:

If your advertising goes unnoticed, everything else is academic.

It cuts to the heart of the problem that we are all trying to solve in an attention economy, and I think it is particularly relevant for media agencies. At some dim and distant point in my past, someone who I believed knew what they were talking about explained agency departments to me like this:

Planners identify the problem, creatives solve the problem, account people make sure the solution happens, and media people make sure the solution gets noticed.

Having only ever worked in a media agency, I can't vouch for whether this is true, but I've been known to put this together with the Bernbach quote if feeling self important. It is possibly what is at the root of my hatred of reach and frequency, the twin pillars of media planning, being bandied about as objectives in communication plans.
Leaving aside arguments about how they are measured (not going to link, too boring, Google it), they are useful guides to the POTENTIAL to achieve objectives, but they are essentially hygiene factors. There's an important disclaimer hidden away in the definitions. Reach is the percentage of a target audience having the OPPORTUNITY to see an ad. Frequency is the average number of times they had that OPPORTUNITY. From a media person's perspective, EVERYTHING is about actually taking that opportunity. If an ad goes unnoticed, everything else is academic. Media planning STARTS once the hygiene factors are in place: to make sure the solution IS noticed.

And to drop in another nugget of 1950s wisdom, Word of mouth is the best medium of all. I'm not saying that advertising is the only way to generate it (that would be a whole other post), but I don't believe advertising can succeed if it doesn't.


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