To graduates: Why I work in advertising

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George Monbiot is on fine form in the Guardian, pointing out all the jobs that he regards as tantamount to a nihilistic death spiral for graduates who choose to do them:

Those who graduate from the leading universities have more opportunity than most to find such purpose. So why do so many end up in pointless and destructive jobs? Finance, management consultancy, advertising, public relations, lobbying: these and other useless occupations consume thousands of the brightest students. To take such jobs at graduation, as many will in the next few weeks, is to amputate life close to its base.

In the face of this, the temptation is to go on the attack. Instead, I'd like to go on the defence.

So here, for the record, is why I chose to work in advertising and why I believe it's a meaningful way to spend a large proportion of your waking time.

I believe that ideas are the only things that make our lives better. Ideas can be good or bad, dangerous or consoling, humane or cruel, but almost no positive change in the human condition happens without an idea. An idea is, after all, a conception of how the world could be different.

But to create change, ideas need a voice. The world is full of ideas and most of them don't get heard. There are so many that even the ones that are heard need to go very quickly from being heard to being felt, or they are forgotten.

Advertising is the practice of giving ideas a voice. Good advertising gives ideas a voice that people will listen to, and makes ideas felt, not just heard.

There is bad advertising, and there are bad ideas that are advertised well; but if we want to live in a society where ideas circulate and have the chance to create change, the advertising of bad ideas is a risk we accept. This does not mean we shouldn't take away the ability to advertise some ideas in some ways, but it does mean we should do so with great caution. We should, at least, be careful about who gets to decide which ideas can and can't be advertised.

Advertising is not a particularly noble end, because it is not an end at all. It exists to improve ideas' chances of making change. And yes, for all we talk about big ideas most of the ideas we are paid to advertise are very small: a warmer home, a better razor, a slightly faster train journey. Taken together they have amounted to a revolution in the lives and living standards of hundreds of millions of people over the last century, though, so perhaps we should treat them with less contempt.

We cannot advertise big ideas without advertising small ones, or even good ones without bad ones, because we do not know where the next good, big idea will come from. Advertising is necessarily neither virtuous nor vicious, neither ingenious nor dumb, though its practitioners may be all of these. It is a means to uncertain ends, and for that reason I find it a hopeful discipline as well as an interesting one. To say we can do without it is to say we would rather not hear any more ideas, thank you very much; and I can't accept that as a creed.

# Alex Steer (06/06/2015)


Measurement and confidence

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We talk about measurement these days as if it gives us confidence. Sit through any sales pitch by an agency or tech company and they'll describe some version of a narrative in which some poor client goes from craven uncertainty to fearless innovation. (Sign on the line.)

In some ways, of course, measurement can and should make us more confident in making decisions.

But the best measurement is done with confidence, not before it. No amount of measuring will ever galvanise an organisation to act until it believes it can do something powerful. Good measurement and a data-driven approach can help define what to do, but the will has to be there first.

Richard Huntington wrote recently about the power of a confident client to generate great creative work. It's the same with measurement. A confident business does better measurement, even if it doesn't do more of it, because when we're confident, we're unafraid of answers that challenge us to change our ways.

Those of us who help clients measure should be unafraid to be confident ourselves about the value of what we do. We should help create the conditions for fundamental change, not just fractional improvement. That starts before we've measured anything.

# Alex Steer (20/03/2015)


Goodbye Fabric, hello...

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Last week, we officially closed the doors at Fabric, the company where I've been working for the past three and a half years. Most of the business is merging into Possible, where Neil Miller, one of our two chief execs, has taken over as UK CEO.

It's a great next move for the little agency that could.

When I joined Fabric as a senior planner there were about eight or ten of us, split between a pair of tiny rooms in Westbourne Terrace and, if anything, an even smaller space in Seattle. At our peak, last year, we were about 65 - a genuine mix of creative, design and UX, strategy, technology, analytics and client service. Over that time we worked with some of the biggest and best businesses in the industry - among them Colgate-Palmolive, the Co-Operative, GSK, Heineken, KFC, News UK, the NHS, Samsung, Telefonica and Unilever.

When we began, as a WPP Digital start-up, we pitched Fabric as 'an agency with a digital brain' - strategically and creatively smart, but with big data technology under the hood that would give us a clear view of user journeys and behaviours across sites, campaigns, CRM, email, ecommerce, etc. It's still probably the best single description of what we did. On the one hand, we did groundbreaking, demonstrably effective, award-winning digital/social strategy and creative for clients, solo or alongside their advertising and media agencies. On the other, we built what's probably still the fastest and most scalable analytical data management platform I've ever seen, with a seriously talented and hardworking dev/ops team. I was lucky enough to see both sides of the business up close, moving as I did from being strategy director on the 'agency' accounts, to being head of product management and analytics on the technology side (the 'digital brain', if you like).

One criticism you could level at us - and fairly - is that we never found a single business model, the big bet on big data that would generate explosive scale and turn us into a marketing technology superpower ripe for acquisition, another Omniture or BlueKai or Xaxis. We could never resist the lure of the next interesting project, the next smart way to tell stories with data. An objective weakness, maybe, but one I will always have a sneaking admiration for, in a world where too many startups are looking for a quick exit.

When I left, in the spirit of being inspired by data, I decided to tally up what we'd achieved as a company in all that time. The results (in only-slightly-edited form below) speak to Fabric's variety, enthusiasm, occasional distractedness, and sheer originality:

1,400 days of social management. 940 creative Facebook posts (that's a new ad every day and a half on average). 5,100 tweets. 694 million Facebook impressions. 34 million views of tweets. One big data platform. An app used by 189 people, for 29 brands and 9 agencies, across 150 countries. Three years of site and media data collected. Over 1 billion recorded pageviews. 250 million cookies. 30,000 domains. 4.7 billion media impressions. 1,847 ad campaigns. Twelve websites built for clients. Five websites built for Fabric. 40 sites hosted. Five Facebook apps. One film. One mobile app. Three crisis management situations. One eye-tracking game. One national tour in in an airstream trailer. One big orange book on social media. Two brand new brands. 6 million people reached a week. Double-digit growth for Heineken. The fastest-growing premium cider in the UK. The second biggest fast-food brand on the internet. One set of government data guidelines. Seven awards for creativity and effectiveness.

And no regrets.

It's why the incorporation into Possible makes sense, letting us turn those different kinds of excellence - in brand planning, in analytics, in creative - into valuable parts of a bigger whole that wants to be a genuine digital full-service agency. Fabric adds so many different kinds of talent into that mix, not least an ambitious leadership team.

As for me, I'm moving on. On Monday, I join Maxus as Head of Data and Effectiveness in the London office. It's a dream job, for a great business with an some outstanding list of clients. If there's a media agency today, five years after Fabric was founded, that can claim to have been born with a digital brain, Maxus is surely it. I hope I can bring with me an enthusiasm for what data can do, and an obsession for getting to the heart of what really creates change and growth for clients.

Here goes...

# Alex Steer (08/03/2015)


Something sensible about the internet of things

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The internet of things is the new big data, to judge from the hockey-stick ascent of its Google search volumes:

Google trends - internet of things

(Big data is blue, the Internet of Things is red).

The paid-for search results are stacked three to a page like waiting aeroplanes. The thought leadership pieces are popping out all over. The venture capitalists are circling.

Having lived through the hype cycle around big data, this sounds like a good time to try to pitch in with something sensible, because pretty soon the question 'What does the internet of things mean for brands?' will soon be on every industry masthead. Shortly before 'And what is it, by the way?'

What is it?

An industry buzzphrase for the increasing internet-connectedness of business IT systems and consumer electronic devices. Lots of things in your business and in your home, car, etc., contain sensors and other bits of tech that can now connect to the internet and push data out into it. There's a huge amount of this data, and it comes in lots of different formats. Some devices - for example, the charming Nest thermostat - have well-designed interfaces that let them talk to other devices (your smoke alarm, for instance), and be controlled straightforwardly using online tools. But for every Nest that lets you control your central heating from your home, there are a thousand devices spewing out gigabytes of raw and messy log-file data.

To put it in an old-fashioned, less buzzworthy way: it's a huge increase in the amount of information you get back from your supply chain.

Does it matter to marketers?

I think so, yes - but that's no reason to go crazy. It matters not because it's new technology, but because it provides fresh information. The strongest brands over the next decade (I think) will be those that integrate their distribution chains and provide good-quality, differentiating brand experiences at each point from advertising, to exploration, to purchase, to service and delivery. Think Amazon, think Apple, think Starbucks as examples of brands who own more of their route to market than their competitors, and make each bit of that route a good branded experience for their customers.

You might be in one of those businesses already, or working for one of their agencies. If you are, think about how many of those moments of interaction - from your ads to your apps to your loyalty cards to your contactless payment systems to your delivery trucks - are now built with technology that can spit out data about how well they're working.

Think of it like ad tracking or web analytics - only with much, much more data about a lot more things. Noisy, confusing, but potentially very useful if you can get to it and ask it the right questions.

What should I do about it?

Right now, nothing. If you're a CIO or a CMO, pretty soon people will be pitching stuff at you left, right and centre with software platforms that claim to be purpose-built to help your brand survive the internet-of-things era.

Most of this is hype. Remember, for most of these firms, you're not the main source of revenue - venture capitalists are. 90% of these firms will go under because they fail to find a business model that marketers will pay for. So take a breath before you sign.

If you're a marketer, start by talking to your colleagues in IT, operations and finance, not to software salespeople. Find out how your supply chain is built, how much of it you own, and where you might be able to get more data out. Set your team and your agency the challenge of prioritising that information. Which bits, if you had them, might make you change what you're doing today?

A point of view - general beats specific

I worked through the big data hype, I built data and analytics products and I used them. I saw a lot of competitors, and a lot of in-house projects, succeed and fail..

The thing most of the failures have in common is that they tried to be too specific. They ended up creating digital products that did a particular type of analytics well - e.g. they only looked at social media data, or they only created timelines, or they assumed that every business pushed its customers along the same four-step customer journey.

The successes didn't bet the farm on trying to predict how marketers would use big data. They concentrated on capturing the data in really granular, flexible ways, and making it fairly easy to roll that data up in lots of different combinations, so you could ask it lots of different questions. Rather than being completely foolproof from the start, they made it easier to spin up new applications, views and metrics quickly.

It will be the same for the internet of things. If you want to pick a supplier, or back a start-up, look for one that's focused on getting the fundamentals right - answering the question, 'how do I capture individual events from devices that may not even exist yet?' These won't be the firms that have the prettiest mock-up dashboards, or even the slickest sales pitches, but they're the ones that will still be around in three years' time when you realise you need to be able to measure some obscure performance metric on the app you made for a driverless car that hasn't yet been built.

# Alex Steer (17/02/2015)


Philosophers vs Ad Men

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Today I stumbled across a blog post (from 2012) containing a typically un-thoughtful set of accusations against advertising. Brace yourself for the usual...

Some advertising – such as that outside my village for a Cub Scout jumble sale at the weekend – is not only harmless, but useful. It informs us of things we didn’t know and which we often find it helpful to know. But most advertising is not like this. It is what is often called ‘persuasive’ rather than informative, aiming at directing our choices in ways of which we’re often quite unaware... We may be consiously aware of it, but it leads us without our realizing it to make purchasing decisions on the basis of considerations which we could not accept as relevant were they made transparent to us. There are various reasons for favouring one after-shave over another: aroma, price, healing properties. The fact that a link between the after-shave and excitement has been established in my mind through exposure to ads showing, alongside images of the product, someone surfing is not one of them.

Persuasive advertising, then, undermines our capacity for autonomy or rational self-government. It might seem remarkable that citizens of modern democratic societies allow businesses to do this to them.

What astonished me was not the argument, but its source. This post was written by Roger Crisp, who is Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford and a fellow at the university's Centre for Practical Ethics (on whose blog it appeared).

I find it almost unbelievable that advertising and academia have so little in common that it's possible to get away with such lazy accusation-throwing about one field by someone so eminent in the other. An academic philosopher who wrote 'most businesses are evil', or 'most information technology has no social value', would rightly be challenged by colleagues in business schools or computer laboratories.

Advertising is a hugely influential, well-established social activity and a hugely valuable part of the economy - and its interactions and effects are far from simple. Whether its workings make you feel a bit icky or not, surely it deserves a higher standard of inquiry than this?

# Alex Steer (16/02/2015)


Brands, self-delusion and the internet

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This week saw another episode in the endless morality tale of brands underestimating people's capacity for mischief:

Coca-Cola has been forced to withdraw a Twitter advertising campaign after a counter-campaign by Gawker tricked it into tweeting large chunks of the introduction to Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

We've seen this before plenty of times - with McDonald's #McDstories, Starbucks' wall of tax hate, and even another recent example from Coke where people could write what they wanted on a virtual can.

It happens because marketers genuinely believe that people will want to play along with their ideas. Specifically, when the idea involves asking people to say positive things about their brand experiences, to their friends, online, for free.

Coke have, of course, pulled the campaign. What makes this remarkable is the statement that Coke issued in response (my emphasis):

The #MakeItHappy message is simple: The Internet is what we make it, and we hoped to inspire people to make it a more positive place. It's unfortunate that Gawker is trying to turn this campaign into something that it isn't. Building a bot that attempts to spread hate through #MakeItHappy is a perfect example of the pervasive online negativity Coca-Cola wanted to address with this campaign.

To which the simple answer is: no, it isn't.

It is mischief, plain and simple. The same instinct that drives us to draw comedy beards on photographs, or add an 'i' in the middle of a 'To let' sign. It does not require a spirit of pervasive negativity to spot that, when a brand takes what claims to be a social stance, while misunderstanding the social cues around it, there is an opportunity to have a laugh at its expense.

Coke should, in this case, either not have run with the idea, or stuck to their guns. If #MakeItHappy is about turning the worst negativity on the internet into something happy, let it be about that. Don't bail because the negativity is too negative or because you were outsmarted. Be real, or don't bother, in other words.

# Alex Steer (06/02/2015)


Saying yes with data

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Data is good at saying no.

And those of us who work in analytics tend to think of ourselves as the checkers and balancers of ideas. Given a hypothesis, we go and find all its rough edges, all the reasons why it might not work.

That critical faculty is important and powerful. But after a while people get tired of hearing no, and they assume that it will be the answer to any question they ask us, so they stop asking. We risk becoming the footnotes to a poem - maybe important, but distracting, so unread.

This is bad for us, and even worse for the work we're trying to make better. Nobody likes a prophet of doom - so we have to earn the right to be heard when it's important.

Saying yes with data is more difficult. It means thinking about the spirit of every question, not just the letter. If someone asks 'will X work?', and the answer is no, the next question should be, what would?

At our best, we should be using data to prompt ideas, not just test them. That, bluntly, means working harder - exploring the data we have, not just to answer a specific question, but to generate new ones, which identify problems, which spark ideas. There's no quick way to do this, any more than there's a quick way for an art director to know what visual cues will make a brand feel 'contemporary' and 'authentic'. That kind of fluency requires spending a lot of time with our craft. It means being more than the people who know how the database works.

# Alex Steer (30/01/2015)


Why do brands want to be loved so much?

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At the launch of Windows 10 this week, Microsoft's CEO said something rather strange:

We want to move from people needing Windows to choosing Windows to loving Windows.

I imagine we're being asked to think of this as a virtuous progression: from needing, to choosing, to loving. But clearly it isn't. It's a state of affairs that's come about because people manifestly no longer need Microsoft products, and have to a large extent stopped choosing them. Love, rather than being the crowning glory, is the last resort.

So is making people love your brand a good starting point for a market share fightback? (Because this is, after all, a marketing move rather than anything more profound.) The evidence suggests that it isn't.

Even if we get past the fact that people don't think much about brands at all except when confronted with their advertising or considering a purchase, what proportion of a brand's users do you think profess to love it? In brand research speak, brand lovers are what we'd call highly bonded - people who say yes to pretty much every question from 'I sometimes use this brand' right up to 'I would only ever choose this brand', 'this brand reflects me and my lifestyle', etc. For almost all brands, in all categories, these users are a tiny share - enough to make the commercial significance of brand lovers almost irrelevant.

In other words, as a brand, most of your money comes from people who just think your product is fine. People to whom it's fairly clear what you are and what you offer, who think you offer it at a fair price, and who haven't had too many bad experiences with your brand. They are not loyal, most of them also buy your competitors' brands from time to time.

Yes, there are some people who love your brand, and these people are likely to buy your brand much more often. But the strongest differentials in brand love are normally seen in high-cost categories with a low replacement rate - computers and cars, not baked beans and bananas. People who love iPhones don't buy ten times as many iPhones as people who just think iPhones are good. Purchases by the indifferent outweigh purchases by the passionate to a huge extent.

You don't win by inspiring love songs and poetry. You win by being the default setting in someone's mind. You win by being the brand that they reach for on the shelf when they have no time, little energy and no inclination to think about what their brand of dishwasher salts says about them as a person.

Is that depressing? It shouldn't be - it should be a challenge. Because it is a lot harder to become the mental default for millions of people, than it is to become an object of love for a few thousand. It requires more dedication, more creativity, more humanity, and more discipline in creating good products and services that don't let people down, setting a fair price for them, and communicating them to the world in ways that chip through people's enormous busy indifference.

Don't start with love, in other words. Start with earning the right to be chosen, then earning a reputation for being a little better, a little different. Use creative advertising to set the mental fuses that will go off when someone is looking to buy one of the kinds of things you make.

Microsoft have a huge starting advantage here - millions of users who have logged billions of hours of good-enough experiences with most of their products. It's worth remembering that Microsoft is the world's fourth most valuable brand (source, pdf). But they also have the huge challenge that we spend a lower proportion of our time with their hardware and software than we used to. Assuming they can get back to making great products, the first marketing challenge is not to create love - it is one again to create habits.

# Alex Steer (24/01/2015)


Theoretical languages and practical flaws

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Wired has a bizarre piece about some computer scientists who think they've invented a general-purpose programming language that overcomes the flaws of all the others:

Bezanson had recently made a study of [programming] language design, and had come to the conclusion that the tradeoffs inherent in most languages were avoidable. “It became clear that a lot of it had been designed haphazardly,” Bezanson says. “If you started from the beginning, you could recreate the things that people liked about those languages without so many of the problems.”

What could possibly go wrong?

Good to see contemporary computer scientists repeating the errors of 17th-century clergymen. Certainty can be a terrible thing.

# Alex Steer (19/01/2015)


The Times Unquiet Film Series

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Today's Campaign has a great profile of one of my clients, Nick Stringer at News UK, and the brand campaign for the Times, the Unquiet Film Series, that we've been leading the data planning on. (The strategy and creative is by Grey.)

The whole piece is worth a read for a glimpse into a brand that's firing on all cylinders. But I'm particularly proud of this, which comes from our work at Fabric, measuring the power of a brand campaign for a business that depends on subscriptions.

The films are designed to act as brand campaigns. Although they are just as likely to resonate with advertisers and readers, the primary objective is to help News UK attract subscribers by providing a flavour of The Times and The Sunday Times outside of the paywalls erected in 2010.

Response to the work is said to have been far better than anyone could have hoped for. It is claimed that people who arrive on the News UK subscription page after having seen the Unquiet Film Series are twice as likely to become members. Those who have watched two or more films are found to be about ten times more likely to complete the subscription process.

Take a look at the films - they're beautiful, powerful and effective - here.

# Alex Steer (15/01/2015)


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