Advertising is rocket science

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Recently, midway through a business lunch, my host, a well-known advertising executive, leaned over to me and smiled.

"You know, advertising is not rocket science,"he said.

I almost choked on my turkey foccacia.

The advertising agency industry is in perilous shape. Revenues are down as clients continue to whittle away at agency commissions, and falling revenues and profits have pushed tens of thousands of mid-level executives into unemployment lines. Even for those who still have jobs, most agencies are no longer the fun and exciting workplaces we envied in "Bewitched" and "Thirtysomething." Every day is a grim slog.

And that's in part due to dumb statements like "advertising is not rocket science."

For years, senior advertising executives have leaned across the lunch table, winked, and told clients that advertising is not really all that hard. How can anyone blame clients for concluding that what ad agencies do isn't worth all that much-and haggling accordingly?

The real problem is that the statement isn't even true.

Advertising is complex

Yes, rocket science is hard. Fuel is pushing one way, gravity is pulling another way, the wind is blowing this way or that, the earth is moving through space and every variable is changing every microsecond. The math is very intricate and the calculations must be exactly and precisely right or the rocket ends up not in a geosynchronous orbit but with its nosecone buried three feet deep in a field outside of Albuquerque. One little mistake and hundreds of millions of dollars of high-tech plastic and metal are nothing more than pasture sculpture. (Or worse.)

But advertising is just as complex.

The customer is pulling one way, the client is pushing another and the competitors are shifting this way or that. One little mistake and hundreds of millions of dollars of advertising becomes nothing more than a bathroom break during halftime.

The truth is that in many ways advertising is harder than rocket science. It's news when a rocket launch fails. It's news when an ad campaign launch succeeds.

In part, that's because advertising is far more dynamic than rocket science. In advertising, it's not only the variables that are changing every microsecond. So are the constants.

If I'm a rocket scientist, I can pretty well count on gravity being the same today as it was yesterday, or being the same in Cape Canaveral as in Houston. But if I'm a media planner, I can't count on the same number of people reading a magazine or tuning into primetime network as tuned in last year-or last week.

If I'm a copywriter for the leading detergent brand, I can't count on the same pitch working for a second-tier acne medicine. In advertising, the fundamental rules are always shifting.

But it goes beyond that.

Advertising attempts to reach inside a person's brain and change the way she thinks about something so that an hour from now-or a day or even a month from now-she will behave differently. That's a very, very intricate task involving a poorly understood set of biological processes. However complicated the space-time continuum, it isn't anywhere near as complex as the mental process my teenager goes through trying to decide whether his orange Abercrombie & Fitch shirt is still hip enough to wear on a Saturday night.

That's why you meet so many brilliant people in and around advertising. Irwin Gottlieb of Mediaedge:cia; Steve Heyer, formerly of Y&R and now at Coke; Abby Kohnstam at IBM; Marc Particelli at Modem Media. Those folks have brains as big as volleyballs. I'll put them up against a room full of rocket scientists any day.

Einstein as ad man?

Maybe, on average, rocket scientists probably are smarter than ad people. They're certainly on average more numerate. But averages can deceive. Einstein could understand the universe, but he wasn't so hot at understanding human behavior, and that's where the great ad people excel.

Great advertising looks effortless. That's as it should be. But that doesn't mean people in advertising should go around telling everybody it's not rocket science. I don't see people who win Nobel Prizes and National Book Awards and Oscars standing at the mike and telling everyone that it's no big deal. Perhaps if clients really understood just how hard and complicated delivering cost-effective strategic advertising is, maybe budgets would be a little less vulnerable.

Maybe the day will even come when I will have lunch and have an astrophysicist lean across the table and say, "You know, Sam, this is just rocket science. It isn't advertising."

Sam Hill is a management consultant and author and president, Helios Consulting, Chicago. He also has served as chief strategic officer of D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, New York. His most recent book is "Sixty Trends in Sixty Minutes" (Wiley, 2002).

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