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Advertising's three-cup con trick

21 Oct 2019  |  Dominic Mills 
Advertising's three-cup con trick

The more Dominic Mills thinks about adland's new obsession with doing things "Faster, Better, Cheaper", the more irritated he becomes. Plus: Think retail space, think media.

If you’ve ever been near Westminster Bridge, you will be familiar with the three-cup con trick. The scammer sets up their table, on which are three cups and a ball. Passers-by are invited to guess which cup the ball is under.

It looks easy, but the punters always end up getting fleeced. You can watch a film here.

The advertising industry’s version of the three-cup trick is alive and well and it’s called “Faster, Better, Cheaper”, a mantra which has been gaining ground over the last 18 months — 47.7m results if you put ‘ad industry faster better cheaper’ into Google.

It’s been held up both as the holy grail for clients and the way agencies can fix their so-called broken model.

But the more I read about it, the more irritated I get. You can’t just wish FBC into being.

Nevertheless, you can see why it’s appealing. Who doesn’t want FBC? It’s like motherhood and apple pie. It’s like world peace and an end in perpetuity to inequality. But is it really possible?

Well, yes it is. But mostly outside advertising, where technology advances in, say, manufacturing apply. Cars are a good example. But that change has happened over many years. No magic wand has been waved there.

The ad business is not the same, and while FBC is possible, it comes with a huge proviso: all the stars have to be aligned, from an agency at the top of its game to a client that knows what it wants, and briefs and approves accordingly. And that doesn’t happen very often.

In reality, faster better cheaper comes with built-in contradictions and compromises. Faster can be more expensive and it isn’t necessarily better. Cheaper isn’t always faster. And so on.

So it seems to me that, nine times out of ten, you can only get two of the three. Which those might be depends on the circumstances. And let me say, it may be a perfectly acceptable trade-off.

And then, as I mull this over, I think: isn’t there a missing word? The E one.

You can be FBC all you like, but if your advertising isn’t effective, so what?

In a sense, FBC is a product of these febrile times. Populist politicians make compelling sound-bite promises that roll off the tongue but which they know can never be met. The missing word there is the P one — possible. Magical thinking and all that, as in politics so in advertising.

Think retail space, think media

There’s yet more gloom on the High Street, as evidenced by retail data from accountants BDO showing September saw the worst bricks-and-mortar sales performance for eight years.

I walked into the round floor of one department store at about 10.00am a couple of weeks ago and I was the only customer.

We know what’s coming: more shutters down on Britain’s already-depressed shopping centres and High Streets.

But perhaps not so fast if hard-pressed retailers looked at their store estates another way, according to a piece in The Business of Fashion which suggests that, instead of valuing stores only by limited metrics as sales per square foot or whatever, they think of them another way and keep them open a bit longer.

And that is in terms of media value. Of course, retailers have always used their stores as a media opportunity — in-store posters, promotions, window displays and so on.

And some retailers — Apple, Nike, example, think of their stores as theatres, there to lend lustre to the brand halo.

But as the author of the piece, Doug Stephens, says, they’ve never sought to quantify the total media value of their estate, or even a single shop.

But it’s obvious when you think about it. As Stephens notes, a store is not just a powerful media channel, but one that is manageable, tangible and measurable.

But while retailers measure their adspend via total impressions and assign a value to it based on standard CPM measures for different media channels, they never do that with a store.

But if, for the sake of argument, a store had 500,000 visitors a year, and five times that number passing the door or window displays, that would add up to a decent number of impressions. But, adding in time spent, physical proximity, tangibility of product and so on, the value of those impressions would soar way above that of one for a TV ad or a pre-roll on a mobile. For a chain retailer, that would amount to a significant media budget if looked at that way.

It’s not as if it’s difficult to do. Any media agency worth its salt could do it easily. And the OOH industry, via Route, is plenty experienced in attaching a value to footfall.

Headline misinterpreted

I can’t resist drawing your attention to this headline on Yahoo News that, with my UK-centric view of the advertising world, I completely misinterpreted.

AG Barr asks Facebook not to encrypt messages’.

Why, I wondered, were the makers of Irn-Bru, Tizer and Big Willie’s Ginger Beer getting so hot under the collar about end-to-end encryption? And why would Facebook listen to them?

Turns out that AG Barr is actually Trump’s right-hand lawman, Attorney General Bill Barr.


Caveat #2

As with last week’s column, let me apologise for any lack of timeliness today. I’m still away, and this was written before I went.

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01 Jul 2020 

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