Your Agency's Clients Deserve the Truth -- Can You Handle It?

Digital Age Will Force You to Give Up Pseudo-Science and Rules of Thumb

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Tom Martin Tom Martin
Great marketing and sales strategies are basically common sense. Unfortunately, today sense is anything but common. Companies look to us advertising folks to guide them. What they often get is largely pontification and "rules of thumb." There is talk of proprietary models, trademarked and in some cases patented approaches, and proven processes. Companies come to us for answers. But we seldom give them a straight answer to anything in advertising because, frankly, there are no straight answers. And those rules of thumb, they are largely bullshit. But rather than dish out that truth and educate clients, we "get the biz" and figure it out later. And before you go clicking on that comment button -- yes, I know, I'm painting with a really, really broad brush right now. But stick with me for a minute.

Why people do what they do -- whether buying a product or following a leader -- depends on a variety of contextual variables that simply cannot be formulated into a set of universal rules. What is the effective frequency? Hell if I know. But it probably isn't three-plus mentions for every single brand in the universe and every single target audience. By the way, ask yourself if you even know where that little gem comes from? If not, Google it and read the backstory. You might not be so quick to throw that one out in your next client meeting. Some really stellar science there -- not.

You see, the real answer to most advertising questions is, drum roll please... "depends."

But rather than just fess up and be honest and push the client to do the necessary research, testing or whatever, we have developed our own lingo, processes and "rules of thumb" to create the illusion of logic in our world. Unfortunately, unless Mr. Spock and his Vulcan race take over the world anytime soon, logic is seldom going to be a primary driver in any decision process. Don't believe me? Go check out the latest fMRI work going on today or talk to Gerald Zaltman up at Harvard. Is the science perfect? No, but seems a lot stronger than a focus group result.

It's time for a little positive disruption in our world. For 50-plus years, we've had it pretty easy. Spend a lot of money, beat enough consumers over the head with a message and sales will respond to the point of keeping you and your client employed. Bad news. Party is over folks.

All around us are sharks. There are the strategy sharks, the digital sharks and our newest competitor for the client's ear -- the social-media sharks. These folks didn't grow up in our reach and frequency world. They grew up in the metric world of digital, numbers and business geeks. While we were debating the aesthetics of design, they were applying technology in new and innovative ways to spark new conversations and connections with consumers. Additionally, they speak the language of ROI and common sense. And not just their "account service" folks -- everyone at every level talks metrics. They get it. They understand that it doesn't matter what they think; only what they can prove. But enough of the "A Few Good Men" quotes; let's talk about how we're going to fix this situation we now find ourselves in today.


Here are my suggestions.

  1. If you aren't yet, get really digital, really fast. Don't just hire some kid out of college that knows .NET or PHP and talks of something called Cold Fusion. No, go find one of those really expensive geeks that has been in the biz for a while. Then get out of their way.

  2. If you aren't yet, get really strategic. Teach your creatives to think like CEOs and, more important, how to sell their work using a business case vs. making a creative recommendation.

  3. Question everything. Take nothing at face value and don't let your client do it either. Acknowledge that there is no universal truth and test everything. Then follow the science not your heart.

  4. Embrace data analysis. It holds the key to your future.
So what do you think Advertising Age readers? Am I full of it, or was this good advice? Let me hear your thoughts.

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Tom Martin is president of Zehnder Communications, with offices in New Orleans and Baton Rouge. He can be reached at Or follow him at @TomMartin.

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