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Insulting your customers

12 Jul 2019  |  Dominic Mills 
Insulting your customers

Reach's new study, The Empathy Delusion, is serious, sober and thought-provoking - but paints a view of adland that does not accord with Dominic Mills' experience. Plus: the screen/time debate and a suggestion for Mary Meeker

Imagine you are ready to do your weekly supermarket shop. On one side of the street is Tesco, on the other Sainsbury’s. You are about to enter Tesco when the store manager pops out and starts insulting you. “The trouble with you,” they say, “is that blah blah”, laying down a series of personal comments.

You do the obvious in the circumstances, which is to go to Sainsbury’s and swear never to darken Tesco’s doors again — regardless of whether you recognised any truth in the Tesco staffer’s comments.

I exaggerate a little, but that was how I felt when I read about a survey by Reach (publishers of the Express, Mirror, OK! and a host of regional titles, in case you’re confused by its bland corporate nomenclature) claiming that the residents of adland lack empathy and are out of touch with mainstream Britain.

I imagine the reaction of many in adland would be: “You know what, I’ll take my money and my ads somewhere else. Somewhere they don’t insult me.”

We’ll come to the survey in a minute, but that view of adland does not accord with my own experience. If I was to describe advertising, media and marketing people collectively, I’d say this: they’re like everybody else, but more so.

So the virtues they are capable of demonstrating are magnified and exaggerated: generous; fun; hugely stimulating; interesting and interested; deep thinking; challenging and clever; insightful and engaged; energetic; never beaten.

When I’ve needed it, I’ve found plentiful levels of empathy and support.

And so are the faults they are capable of demonstrating: vain; arrogant; neurotic; solipsistic; hubristic; obsessive; shallow. And by the way, I recognise parts of myself in that second group.

Like everyone, of course, people in adland are perfectly capable of exhibiting the good and the bad almost simultaneously.

It would be wrong, however, to conclude that this was a light-weight, throwaway, piece of research by Reach, chasing a cheap, if counter-productive, headline. Far from it.

It is serious, sober and thought-provoking. It’s titled The Empathy Delusion and you can read it here. Some of it is quite complicated, involving concepts such as moral psychology, obliquity, holistic cognition and scale empathy traits (look them up!).

But, insofar as it seeks to link the way advertising is practiced and media budgets (Reach is a media owner, doh!) are allocated to some of the big issues and divides that are fracturing the UK, it is highly relevant.

If I can summarise the issue it is this: because adland dances to a different moral code (in the broadest sense of the term) from the rest of the UK, and is incapable of correcting itself, its output fails to connect — hence advertising’s decreasing relevance. If it could put aside its default prejudices, Reach believes, things might get better.

Here are three short comments from the report that summarise the Reach point of view.

1) “We [i.e. adland], like everyone else, prefer to talk to people we are familiar with and understand.”

2) “Witness the industry’s continued fixation with targeting 18-34 ABC1s which is surely driven more by the composition of our industry than the demographic reality of our ageing population and the massive spending power in the older generations.”

3) “We [i.e. adland] repeatedly and unconsciously gravitate towards a demographic group that we intuitively know will see the world as we do.”

In other words: don’t be so tribal.

And yet there is an inherent tension between this and nearly all media, certainly those that Reach seeks to promote (why else would it publish this research?).

Many media channels, like the Mirror, the Express and OK!, are essentially tribal. They succeed by pandering to the prejudices of their target audiences, focusing their empathy only on them and ignoring any other groups.

Or, to borrow Reach’s words, “repeatedly and unconsciously gravitate towards a demographic group that we intuitively know will see the world as we do.”

Do as we say, not as we do.


The screen/time/money debate, part 767

The debate about the extent to which (if at all) advertising budgets should match time spent with a medium, or screen, rumbles on. Me, I can’t get enough of it.

It’s been running for some time, kicked off several years ago by the blessed Mary Meeker of Silicon Valley fame, whose annual survey compares time spent with different media against the share of ad budgets that goes into that particular channel. Her premise: that they should match.

Here’s the 2019 slide, comparing the current level with 2010, in which she celebrates mobile reaching what she calls equilibrium (33% time/33% ad spend). Previous imbalances (print and radio especially) have been ‘corrected’.

Of course we all know this is ridiculous, since she makes the cardinal sin of treating all screens and impacts as equal. Here’s Brian Jacobs having a passing swipe at it.

A more nuanced take - explanation might be a better word - comes from GroupM’s guru, Brian Wieser, in a blog last month. His view is that time and money are incidental, not causal.

He therefore attributes the shift in budgets to digital, and specifically mobile, to changes in the US advertiser community, notably: marketers getting more familiar and comfortable with what digital offers; a decline in regional advertisers, many of which used local radio and print, and a rise in the number of national advertisers (itself a factor of digitisation); the emergence of direct-to-consumer brands; and what he calls ‘digital-endemic’ advertisers, including Facebook, Google, Amazon, Netflix etc — note, however, that they also spend considerable sums of money with traditional media.

Me, I’d like to add a plea that Meeker changes the basis of her calculation so that it factors in the relative impact of advertising in each as based on the size of the screen or available canvas (to account for print and OOH).

Thus, comparing the size of my mobile screen with that of my TV, Meeker should discount mobile by a factor of, say, 30 (or multiply TV by that figure); print, based on A4 for magazines and larger for newsbrands, should have discount/multiplier of between 6 and 20; tablets about 5; and OOH…well, I have no idea but you get the picture.

I fully admit that this is crude and completely lacking in sophistication. But then so is the basis on which she makes her assumptions.

By the way, let me recommend Wieser’s weekly blog. It’s always a good read. You can sign up at the bottom of this page.

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11 Dec 2019 

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