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Have marketers forgotten how advertising works?

by Nigel Hollis | June 14, 2017

Next week I will be speaking at a WARC panel session at Cannes on purpose marketing. It is an interesting topic but I believe the mindless pursuit of purpose is just one reason that the advertising is struggling to drive sales. Far more important is that I think marketers have forgotten how advertising actually works.

If, as the title of the WARC session states, the creative industry is losing its ability to sell then the pursuit of purpose is hardly the most important reason for its decline. Far more important is the context in which creative needs to work – advertising overload, cultural fragmentation and our seek and skip mindset – and the fact that so much effort is being put into targeting and marketing in the moment.

I will address the issue of how advertising works in a session hosted by Kantar Millward Brown (spaces are limited, but direct message me if you’ll be at Cannes this year and would like to join us). In that session we will address how to develop content that makes a lasting impression and drives brand growth. But in this post I want to talk about a basic misapprehension that seems to have taken over the advertising industry.


The misapprehension is that closing the gap between advertising exposure and purchase occasion is a good thing. The whole ‘marketing in the moment’ trend is based on the idea that if you can reach someone during the shopping process then your advertising will stand more chance of influencing the sale. There are a couple of reasons why this idea is flawed.

First, for any product or service category that people believe is important or risky then they are likely to put some deliberative thought into the purchase decision. They will actively assess the value and reliability of ‘information’ that they have to hand, including ads. Not only will people’s mental filters be working – ‘Oh that’s just advertising’. – they will be seeking ‘rational’ evidence to guide or support their existing inclinations – think functional claims and price discounts. That way lies meaningless innovation and lost profit.

Second, targeting people in the decision window is likely to reach people already predisposed to buy the brand. For instance, we see this in the way programmatic tends not to build awareness but does appear to impact purchase intent. As Gordon Euchler, Head of Planning at BBDO Düsseldorf, notes in his thoughtful Admap article, “How to grow brands by targeting the masses”, targeting people with a high propensity to purchase “has a tendency of emptying the pool of people in the market without refilling it”.

Decoupling advertising exposure from the purchase decision actually allows the ideas, impressions and feelings left by the advertising to influence people’s decision making without their mental barriers being engaged. Instead these brand associations either prompt a positive intuitive response or help people “make up their own minds  not realizing that advertising helped shape their impressions at some time in the past.

Sadly I suspect that the ad industry’s preoccupation with targeting and technology is going to continue because relying on people’s memories to influence a sale just seems too indirect. But what do you think? Please share your thoughts.


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  1. Dominic, June 28, 2017
    Adrian, the link is http://www.millwardbrown.com/global-navigation/blogs/post/mb-blog/2017/06/12/pre-testing-cannot-be-equated-with-click-through
  2. Thomas Wagner, June 22, 2017

    But the same time, didn't we invent recency planning to build and refresh these impressions as close as to a purchase occasion – while still using the fact that we are dealing with a relaxed audience in front of TVs? There's a reason we advertise refreshing Coke in summer and emotional stories on Thoughtful Gifting Christmas, but perhaps funny stories about short-sighted people all year round.

    So we try to reach all potential category buyers, but in doing so try to maximise the amount of people reached close to a purchase with something that gets their attention and sticks in their memory, because even purchase intents are forgotten?

    One of the conundrums seems to be that in the channels where we might have a reasonable gage of who could be buying soon – not a bad thing on its own –, the advertising formats don't have the opportunity to do what's needed to get real attention and leave a lasting impression. 

  3. Adrian Langford, June 20, 2017

    Nigel I'm keen to read the article you suggest, but the link you posted is wrong:

    Adrian, just read this post will you? http://www.millwardbrown.com/global-navigation/blogs/post/mb-blog/2017/06/12/pre-testing-cannot-be-equated-with-click-through Time to get out of your bubble. 

  4. Dominic, June 20, 2017
    By one of those odd coincidences, I was watching an interview yesterday with Gordon Brown, one of MB's co-founders. It was back in the late 1980s - decades ago - that he first started putting forward the idea that most advertising worked in the long term by setting up ideas, associations and feelings. It was this thinking that was at the heart of Link - many forget that for its first few years Link didn't have its persuasion questions; they were added later, to reflect the way a lot of American advertising was intended to work. 
  5. Nigel, June 19, 2017

    Thanks for the comments. Apologies Gordon but maybe in the future? 

    Adrian, just read this post will you? http://www.millwardbrown.com/global-navigation/blogs/post/mb-blog/2017/06/12/pre-testing-cannot-be-equated-with-click-through Time to get out of your bubble. 

  6. Gordon Euchler, June 19, 2017

    Hello Nigel, thank you very much for the quote. Just to point out a minor thing: I am far from the Head of Planning of BBDO - I merely run Planning at BBDO Düsseldorf.

    If you have any further questions about the article just let me know. Feel free to quote me in Cannes :-)



  7. Adrian Langford, June 16, 2017

    There's a useful reminder here about the value of unconscious processing of advertising, but it's a bit rich coming from a company which has championed the measurement of conscious, rational response to advertising (and grown rich on this approach) for decades.

    Yes what irritates and alienates consumers enormously is creepy programmatic advertising that follows them around. But is Nigel talking about advertising around online purchasing (still a tiny fraction of total purchasing), or advertising that reaches them in real shops, which we can call 'shopper marketing' and which can play a useful role for brands in those environments. It's not clear in the article.

    Binet & Field have done a huge amount of work to conclude that there's a roughly ideal 60/40 split between communications aimed a long way from point of purchase, and the Facebook etc stuff aimed deliberately close to purchase. The error which Nigel correctly identifies is to put all your effort close to purchase, seduced by the short term results.

  8. Erik du Plessis, June 15, 2017

    You are 100% right.

    Add to this that ads work in different ways when the recipient is in different frames of mind. A relaxed audience in front of a TV is not the same as someone walking in the shop (with children) and worrying about their budgets (increasingly these days).

    You have to think about your audiences mindset.

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