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Most advertising ‘looks just like wallpaper’

Marketers employ agencies who are supposed to know more about advertising than them – and then they tell them what to do

I grew up on a council estate.

Every few years the council would redecorate our house.

They would send a man round with a big book of wallpaper samples.

Mum would choose what wallpaper she wanted for each room.

She’d pick whichever colours and patterns she liked, and a decorator would wallpaper the rooms.

But it was different when it came to plumbing.

When the council sent a plumber round Mum would make him a cup of tea.

But she didn’t need to know what he was doing.

Plumbing was seen as a very different job to decorating.

Decorating had one function: the tenant had to like it.

Plumbing had a very different function: it had to work.

The plumbing was there to do a job, not be liked.

Most marketing people can’t understand the difference.

They don’t think the advertising is there to do a job, like plumbing.

They think it’s there for them to like, like wallpaper.

So they choose the advertising the way my mum chose wallpaper.

They want to see a huge selection of ads from which they will choose the ones they like.

This is fair enough with wallpaper, where they are the only person it has to please.

But plumbing is different, it has to do a job.

It has to move a lot of water from one place to another without any of it leaking.

That’s why the council employed people who knew more about plumbing than my mum did.

They didn’t want my mum telling the plumber what joints she thought he should use, or what ballcocks were prettier, or what colour pipes to put in based on what she liked.

When it came to plumbing, my mum’s personal taste wasn’t important.

And that’s the way it should be.

Because that’s the difference between function and decoration.

Marketing people think they should choose the advertising they like.

But that’s not the job.

The job is to run advertising that solves a business problem.

So the personal preferences of marketing people are irrelevant.

As they would be to a plumber.

The plumber is simply there to deliver a result.

If they can’t deliver that result, if the pipe leaks, you don’t ask to see a selection of pipes, then tell them which pipe you’d prefer.

You get another plumber.

You get a plumber who can do the job properly, and you get out of the way.

But most marketing people can’t see that.

They choose the plumbing based on what they like.

They employ a person who is supposed to know more about advertising than they do, and then they tell them what to do.

Because they believe the job is to give them what that they like.

Which explains why most of the advertising we see around us looks just like wallpaper.

Dave Trott is a consultant, author and former ad agency creative director. This article was first published on his blog

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