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“The Age of Boredom” or “How marketing data is not going to boost any company’s sales anytime soon”

Reading time: 12 minutes.   |   Illustration: Lorenzo


I’m in a cinema watching Rogue One. I’m surrounded by a crowd of dudes in hoodies and FatFace shirts. I look around and I notice that many of those people are not impressed by the movie at all. Actually most of them look like they are queueing up at a Tesco till. Some of them aren’t even really watching the movie but rather just laying on their seats, chucking pop corn at their faces while checking their Facebook feed.
So I’m sitting there, and being the busy mind I am, I compare this to what my mum and dad once told me about the first time they saw Star Wars back in 1977. Apparently they were amazed. Everyone was amazed. They told me they kept talking about it for months and couldn’t figure out how those guys made all those light sabers and spaceship stuff.

 

1977 Imperial-Class Star Destroyer
1977 Imperial-Class Star Destroyer. Good mileage, shield needs replacement.
Looking around in the cinema that night I asked myself: “How did it happen that we passed from being amazed by those “basic” special effects, to be bored by the incredible special effects of today’s movies?” Considering that Star Wars is a pretty famous and for-the-whole-family kind of blockbuster, it’s fair to say that I was looking at an average crowd of western consumers of mass-product goods, like myself. So what does their lack of interest tell us?
Please notice that I’m picking this event just to exemplify something that I’ve noticed is going on in the communication field since the last 10 years, and to ask myself these questions:
  • Is the perfect vision of alien worlds, spaceships and sword fights not enough to grab our attention anymore?
  • What would it take, with an audience like this, to get noticed as a brand?
A complete answer would probably take us hours of discussion, and turn us into a more boring version of Bono Vox. Here though I’d like to understand this phenomenon from a design and business perspective.

 

“What would it take, with an audience like this, to get noticed as a brand?”


Either you are a business owner or a creative, chances are you are probably facing this problem right now: you don’t really know how to expand your audience and how to engage with a tough crowd.
For me it’s important because in my daily practice only a few of my clients ask me to “WOW” their audience, but all of them ask me to at least grab their audience’s attention.
But how can we grab people’s attention, if even multi-million dollar blockbusters apparently can’t? Scrap marketing, use creativity. That would be my advice. Follow me for an explanation.

To understand better this phenomenon we have to go back a bit, before the so called digital revolution. Before it, Creatives were amongst the best paid (and admittedly the most spoiled) people in the advertising and design industry. Incredibly, back in those days of rampant misogyny and all out materialism, some companies trusted Creatives more than any team of “market experts”.
Companies like Olivetti, Apple, Benetton, IBM, Disney and Toyota, just to pick a few, made extensive market researches AND THEN relied on their Creative Minds in order to come up with something great.

 

Paul Rand's IBM logo
Paul Rand’s IBM logo. So literal AND YET so lateral…
Looking back at the last few decades, we can state that this approach worked out pretty well for both companies and customers. Up until the 90s creative folks had it all. They created campaigns, products and services that are still leading the way right now, half a century later.
With social media exposure, the game that has already started to change after the rise of personal computers, turned completely upside down. Creatives started to be subtly considered has human operators of a machine and marketing data started to lead the way in the place of creativity and lateral thinking.
We could lay back on our rocking chairs now and recall the days before Facebook, when no one had an online profile with real information on it and we were all wearing dungarees. Before Facebook made it acceptable to put your real life online (and stalk on other people too). We could do that and daydream or we could just accept that we gave away all our sensitive information for the equivalent of a bag of stale nuts on a Ryanair flight.
Life before the Facebook.
In the creative industry, at the beginning, it all made sense. “Sure!” someone stammered “…we…we can see what they like…we can see what they buy…we know where to find them…it’s just a matter of giving them what they want when they want it! right? Right guys?”. It seemed that one could stack people very well into categories and feed them whatever bullshit. Didn’t we know everything about them? Didn’t we know what they like or dislike because of their Facebook, Youtube and Amazon behaviour? So it should have been easy to sell them stuff. Right? Wrong. In fact it didn’t happen.

 

Here’s Bill Hicks opinion about marketing approach to life.

It was all a hoax. A transparent marketing bubble that now is slowly fading while we are still living in it. Like the Dot Com bubble of the 90’s with the difference that this one is silently draining people’s most valuable asset: attention. Ah yeah, it’s also draining companies’ money as well; literally wasted on campaigns and products that people are not buying.
Do you remember back then? In the 90’s everyone was going apeshit thinking that they had to go online ASAP. Many companies spent billions to only go bankrupt instead, while a few companies earned millions and escaped to some fiscal paradise. Or glamourously crashed and burnt themselves.
Now we know that it didn’t work out mainly because internet was in its bronze age and people weren’t ready yet. Speculation instead was so rampant that companies could earn an increase in their stock prices by simply adding an “e-” prefix to their name or a “.comsuffix. I guess it’s fair to say, 20 years after, that many businesses simply got scammed.

“It was all a hoax. A Transparent marketing bubble that now is slowly fading while we are still living in it.”


It took technology (and the audience) the last two decades to catch up with those expectations. Only now, we actually shop on Amazon regularly and buy Christmas presents from China. Currently though we are living a similar delusion: “The highly personalized marketing era” delusion. Everyone went apeshit again, this time about numbers, data, likes, trends, followers and so on. Start-up and that on paper worth millions but don’t have a single client and are not generating any revenue. Does it ring any bell? Anyway marketers thought social media insights would have led the way to an Eldorado of business opportunities, but the ugly truth is that this approach is not working as well as expected, and worst, it’s making the audience (us) more and more annoying and entitled.
All those speeches we’ve heard at Facebook and Instagram conferences were just a bunch of cool animated video with unrealistic stats and some millenial music in the background. No matter what they said in the 2000s, today our feeds are mostly swamped by click-baits and fake news. What happened to those fantastic selective advertising and tailored contents? The collateral effect of this marketing-driven strategy was seeing more and more brands desperately chasing customers, to the point of undercutting their own value on the market.
Unfortunately, because of said approach, now the average customer is expecting free-fast-fun-flexible-funky services, ads and products all the time. Social media, marketing gurus and creative agencies repeated this hoax so many times that we started to believe it and take it for granted. “Everything is gonna run smoothly, like oil.” I mean like it’s Eden all over again and everything is going to be bananas.

 

unicorns
Marketing’s Eden… Expectations VS Reality.
From a customer perspective there’s no space for ‘average’ products anymore and yet more and more products, services and campaigns tend to be increasingly plain. The more the audience is difficult to please, the more companies try to play safe; trimming their margin and delivering less and less innovative products and services. From Apple’s less than ground breaking iPhone gold, down to Starbucks extra-pc “season greetings” cups. This loss of courage, personality, creativity, boldness and foresight is costing millions even to iconic companies.
To some extent “playing it safe” is a well known weak spot in many big companies, but we are seeing this trend more and more in smaller companies too. Those very companies that were supposed to lead by innovation are exploiting established markets so much that fishing with TNT looks sustainable. It’s obvious then, that many smaller gamblers will be following that lead.

“From a customer perspective there’s no space for ‘average’ products anymore and yet more and more products, services and campaigns tend to be increasingly plain.”


I mean. Don’t take me wrong. Personalized marketing is definitely going to happen, big time. But it won’t happen thanks to any marketing agency. It will be done by A.I. and automated graphic softwares. That means: by the only tools actually able to read, interpret and act on the tons and tons of information flowing through digital media every second. It’s pretty clear at this point that technology and audience, yet another time, still have to catch up with speculation.
To this we should add that we (the creative industry) thought: “Well, we know what they like because they told us so…so why aren’t they buying now?!”. Putting aside for a moment the crash of 2008, Donald Trump and other similar tragedies that are swamping the global economy, the thing is that people are not that linear. Ultimately it’s our human unpredictability that makes it so difficult to create a successful brand. While no one ever bought a T-shirt with a marketing research printed on it, millions of other people instead spent hundreds on buying ‘Just do it’ T-shirts. Or “Make America great again” hats (sigh).
This is something no marketing insight can predict. Often you can’t tell what people will like until you show it to them. That’s the power (and uncertainty) of creativity.
Sure, you can chase them and give them “what they want” (or it seems they want) but that means: giving them similar products. You can do that and be happy with your 0.1% margin, but you probably won’t make a real difference in your business.
Do you remember the famous quote from Henry Ford: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” ? The ‘chase them/please them’ approach, won’t ever work for a simple reason: it looks into the past, not into the future. It looks at what people liked yesterday, not at what people will need tomorrow.
I’m not saying for a moment that marketing insights are useless. They are fundamental to understand the audience and give the Creatives the background they need to come up with a good idea. But nothing more.

“The ‘chase them/please them’ approach won’t ever work for a simple reason: it looks into the past, not into the future. It looks at what people liked yesterday, not at what people will need tomorrow.”


The problem is that leading by marketing is failing. It’s failing in mediocre AD campaigns that we see all around us. It’s failing in creating content which is clogging social media and websites with useless and wrong information. It’s failing in mediocre and overly politically correct marketing materials that we never pick up…
Agencies and clients are throwing money at marketing campaigns that pollute our feed and bore us to death. Marketing agencies are spreading numbers about their effectiveness that have no foundations. Planners are putting out “social and sensitive” campaigns that create embarrassment to their own clients.
On the user side instead, people are literally paying to get rid of ads with premium subscriptions. They are installing ad-block plus on their browsers. They are scrolling away as fast as possible from sponsored ads on their Instagram feed… You see my point?
Many people thought that digital market data was the answer, the Holy Grail of business insights. That it was a better way of predicting the success of a product or service, rather than relying on creative people’s ideas based on intuition. But they are slowly finding out they were wrong.
Those guys are getting very little results, especially if compared to the amount of information in their hands. I mean, in theory it should be one shot-one kill, right? Instead even mammoth companies following this trend are declining. Worst: they are disappointing their audience.
I hate to quote Steve Jobs but once he said: “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.” I agree with him on this (you are welcome Stevie). You can say whatever you want about the guy but he was smart enough to let creativity and innovation lead Apple and NeXT and Pixar, not a marketing board.
People are bored because they (we) are overexposed to too much mediocre stuff. How can a brand get through this? Especially without creating even more noise?

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”

Steve Jobs


I believe it can be done only through creativity. By leaving more space to creative people, by informing them with marketing insights and then trusting their advice. Creative people are the only ones able to turn those 200 paged marketing documents into a one liner people will remember. Or turning pages of statistics into: an mp3 player with a wheel.
Creatives are the only ones able to come up with a screenplay about a teenager who’s best friend is a 50-to-70 year old deranged nuclear physicist who built a time machine that the guy will use to go back in time to save his friend (killed by arab terrorists), while at the same time trying to not shag his own teenage mum. I mean, try to come up with that with a focus group.
If you think this sounds biased coming from me, a creative, I’d reply: Of course it is. That doesn’t make it less true though. Creative people need marketing insight to come up with ideas, but no marketing insight alone will give us another iPhone or another Ogilvy’s Rolls Royce AD or even just a decent Christmas Greetings paper cups.
The one between Marketing and Creativity is a fine balance and it takes little to make it tilt on one side. Too much Creativity and your business will float into Rainbowland. Too much marketing and you will leave your audience indifferent. Ultimately though, only creativity can really give business a soul.

Ultimately though, only creativity can really give business a soul.


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