The Curse of Sterile Advertising
By Mike Carlton

The concept of empathy can make the “If you can’t measure it, it does not exist” school of business very uncomfortable.
Many of us were raised with the notion that tidiness is inherently good. And that messiness is inherently bad. Not so.

Creating Campaigns

You know how it works. The client needs a campaign. The agency hires a research firm to conduct focus groups among consumers (or B-to-B customers). An agency planner may or may not attend. But if she does, it is often from behind a one-way glass.

Then the research firm writes a report – always with a short executive summary. Sometimes with charts and tables. Sometimes with audio or video tapes. The agency planner reads the executive summary. But because of time pressures puts the charts, tables and tapes aside intending to study them later.

The planner – sometimes in collaboration with the AE – writes the brief. It may be insightful. Or it may just cover the facts. Sometimes this is shared with the client. But if not, the AE makes sure it reflects the client’s point of view. The brief is passed on to media, the creatives, the interactive guys, PR and the social experts. Sometimes there is a team meeting to discuss it. Sometimes individual schedules don’t permit.

The team develops a comprehensive program that meets the brief requirements. If they have too little to go on their solution may become a bit self-indulgent. The AE reviews it and if it looks OK, presents it to the client. The client approves it. Everybody likes it. Nobody loves it. And nobody hates it. It is produced and the campaign runs.

The consumer sees it and yawns.

What’s Wrong Here?

The campaign (in its broadest sense including advertising, PR, interactive, promotion, social media, design, etc.) clearly meets the criteria called for in the brief. It reflects the research summary. And it certainly reflects the client’s point of view. The team has worked hard on it. They are proud of it. It may even win an award.

From a clinical business standpoint everything was done right. All the checklists were completed. The concept appeared sound. The quality of production was excellent. The media placement was numerically efficient. PR was implemented according to plan. So was promotion, social media and interactive.

So, why did the consumer yawn?

Could it be that the campaign was just too sterile?

Tuning Out

Everyone knows that consumers are increasingly tuning out commercial communications that are not personally relevant to them. Same for messaging that presents a picture that is contrary to their personal experience.

The TV spot showing helpful, smiling telemarketers when you just called and got blown off by a recording saying, “Please wait, your call is important to us....” Or when social media tweets about a bank’s friendly customer service where the teller has just growled at you because your deposit ticket was filled out wrong. Or when the PR about a product has been stretched to a point of influencing you to buy, only to find that it really doesn’t do what you thought it would.

It is getting harder and harder to make a meaningful connection with consumers. And, following the old textbook is not getting the kind of traction agencies need. Or clients deserve.

People are Strange

When I was a kid if I came home from school complaining about someone else’s behavior, my mother would say, “You’re right Mike, people are strange. Aren’t you glad you aren’t one of them?”

The truth is that people are not only strange, they aren’t sterile either.

Human beings are messy. And illogical. And perverse. And contrary. And emotional. And unpredictable. Consumers are not tidy ciphers that can easily be reduced to a one page research summary or an agency brief. As advanced as science and technology is, its best is incredibly puny compared to the human mind.

People are far too complex to be dealt with so impersonally. Or without the individual respect and dignity they deserve. And agency people that don’t honor that truism are doomed to creating sterile advertising that may look great against all its best practices criteria but just doesn’t work with quirky consumers.


Not too long ago Bloomberg Businessweek had a cover story titled, “Math Will Rock Your World.” Its thesis is that the wealth of data that is now available about each of us, and the computer power available to analyze and manipulate that data, can raise the understanding and predictability of human behavior. This will be a quantum jump within our society. And mathematicians will lead the way in this development. It is an excellent report, and should be read by every agency professional. Lots of good stuff here. Much of the thinking can be of great value to agencies and marketers. As well as in our personal lives.

However, it doesn’t address the fundamental fact that the consumer has a pervasive contrarian streak. None of us likes being pinned down. History has repeatedly shown that as soon as we get the feeling that the consumer is neatly pigeonholed, she changes on us. She is incredibly elusive. As soon as she is safely in our logically driven sights, she moves the target.

The rise and fall of brands and categories is driven by this fickle nature. Tidy predictive models, statistical analysis, and precise briefs are vital. But, they can only go so far. Predictive models are usually being driven through the rear-view mirror. While the consumer is intuitively looking ahead, and altering behavior accordingly.

The Role of Empathy

Empathy is defined as the ability to project one’s own personality into the personality of another so as to better understand his emotions, feelings and behavior. And consumers, all of us, respond best to others who are empathetic with us. There is nothing complicated here. This is a plain fact of human behavior.

But empathy doesn’t come easily. Particularly in a business environment that increasingly looks to sterile quantitative metrics to measure success. Empathy is often derided as being too soft and fuzzy.

The concept of empathy can make the “If you can’t measure it, it does not exist” school of business thought very uncomfortable. It’s just so messy and unpredictable.

Yet, while empathy may not be currently in vogue, we all know from our individual private lives, it is the bedrock of all of our personal relationships with those we care about. And the people who are better at creating empathetic relationships are those most likely to build enduring, happy, productive lives.

That’s the way life works. It is just that simple.

Lessons from the Past

While the great advertising breakthroughs of history, and the great advertising and PR practitioners, were each quite different, they all had one thing in common. Their work was based on keen empathy with the audience.

Sure they had good factual information. And sure they knew what the best practices of the day were. But arching over all of that was an intuitive understanding of the psyche of the consumer.

Understanding that did not come in a sterile package.

Any study of giants like David Ogilvy, Leo Burnett, Edward Bernays, Bill Bernbach, and their peers reveals that basic empathetic intuition was a controlling factor in their thinking. And so it was for innovators like Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Steve Jobs and others whose visions have so changed our lives.

The thinking and actions of these guys was not detached and sterile.

A Growing Gulf

What we’re seeing here is not a pretty picture. It appears that the marketer and the agency are focusing more intently on sterile quantitative measures or arm’s length insights and briefs to drive their marketing strategies and advertising.

And the consumer is increasingly feeling disengaged from the marketer. The sense of personal bond is declining. It may not be full alienization yet, but it’s moving that direction. Many consumers believe that marketers just don’t get it.

It is interesting to note that a recent survey identifying the top ten businesses consumers most dislike also includes a number of companies that are on the list of the top ten advertisers Kind of tells you something.

A gulf has developed. And it is getting wider. Neither the consumer nor the marketer and its agency really understand the other as well as they might.

But remember, the consumer is always the king. No matter how logical and scientific the marketer and agency position is, if it isn’t empathetically grasped by the consumer, it will not work.

The responsibility for closing this gap falls on the marketer and its advertising agency including its advisors for PR, interactive, social media, design, etc.

The Role of the Agency

The sole purpose of advertising (in its broadest sense) is to change human behavior so that it benefits both the consumer and the marketer. As well as society as a whole. The mission for agencies is not just making ads or other communications vehicles. They are only the means to the end. Not the end itself.

Any agency person who believes otherwise is just fooling himself. And short-changing the client, too.

Our business is to move people. Period.

This is a Contact Sport

The best way to move people is to understand them on an empathic level. This means that we all must first understand the customer. And as the old saying goes, to truly understand someone you must first walk a mile in their shoes. Perhaps this is why so many of the advertising greats are first students of humanity, and then communications professionals second.

The simple fact is that the best way to learn about people is from people.

The Client’s Bias

This empathy, and the emotional insights it brings, can only come from the customer. Not from the client. No matter how knowledgeable, or caring, or compassionate, the marketer can only see the world through his eyes.

Often this is a bias for the manufacture of the product and the financial implications for his company. His point of view is that of the maker, not the user.

Only the consumer can truly see the marketer’s product from the point of view of the user. And while the agency can never know as much about the product as the marketer, it should know a lot more about the consumer’s interests, and effectively interpret those interests to the client.

A Case for Dirty Hands

If creating great campaigns is difficult in a sterile environment, what can an agency do? Here are several questions you might ask yourself:

1. Is Everyone Involved?
Having empathy for the consumer is not just the responsibility of the planners and creatives. It is something that should be shared by all. Everyone. The receptionist. The media planner. The CFO. The junior AE. Everyone.

Great ideas come easiest in an environment and culture that relentlessly focuses on the interests, the emotions, the trials and the passions of the consumer.

No one should be excused from being an ardent student of humanity.

2. Are You Out on the Streets?
Consumers of client products are all around us. We only need to get out there rubbing shoulders with them. They are in the stores. They are in the factories. They are at the trade shows. They are at the gas stations. They are on the busses and trains. They are at parties. They are in our homes. They are everywhere.

Finding them is not difficult. Getting to know them is.

Agency leadership needs to not only allow time for everyone in the agency to become more consumer empathetic, but in fact, demand that they do so.

3. Do You Use the Products?
Does everyone in the agency have first hand experience using products in the client’s category? This includes all the major competitors. It also includes the shopping experience. What are the stores like? What are the web sites like? How easy to use? How relevant? How user sensitive? What about pricing? And service?

Seeing, touching, feeling embeds knowledge much better than a page full of numbers. And while individual experience may be anecdotal, it can be like frosting on the cake of reams of data.

4. Do You Engage Consumers?
Do your people consciously reach out to consumers and observe their behaviors? They need to engage them in conversations about their perceptions of products in the client’s category. What they think of them? How they use them?

This isn’t like taking a scientific survey. This is a much more personal and humanistic exploration. Seek feelings, not facts. This is personal, not clinical. Learn as a friend learns. Not as a research technician does.

5. Do You Hire ‘gists?
Is your staff peppered with people with educations and backgrounds in the humanities? Psychologists, sociologists, cultural anthropologists are trained to see people differently than statisticians. So are history, philosophy, language and literature majors.

They can add the important dimension of “feel” to the abundance of facts available to us.

Humanists can also help by continually reaffirming that people are, at their core, emotionally driven. They are a lot more than economic animals.

6. Do You Celebrate Messiness?
Many of us were raised with the notion that tidiness is inherently good. And that messiness is inherently bad. Not so.

While it is important that offices look professional and inviting to guests and clients, it is just as important that they celebrate the spirit of individuality of each of us. That they reflect the uniqueness that makes us worthy contributors to the creation of great ideas.

And while process is important in avoiding chaos, a certain amount of messiness in how work is done is also called for.

Great ideas do not come on orderly preplanned timetables. Or from orderly preplanned contributors. They come when they want to come. In the way they want to come. And from whom they want to come.

A Big Enough Tent

Make no mistake. We are not arguing for abandonment of statistical scientific methods of measuring consumers and their behaviors. These tools are vital. And necessary. They are the currency of today’s business world. And the foundation for most measurement systems.

What we are advocating is making the agency’s tent big enough so that hard information can coexist with soft feelings. Facts that are focused and amplified by emotions which originate in the spirit and souls of consumers.

Only with a careful and delicate mixture of both can an agency move beyond sterile advertising to successful advertising.

© Carlton Associates Inc.

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