Opinion

Don’t believe the hype: Advertising is ‘likelihoods and probabilities, not certainties’

No agency in the world that is brave enough to say out loud that its philosophy is contingent and uncertain, but that's the reality – claims Bob Hoffman

As a former CEO of a few ad agencies I think I know something about how agencies work. One of the core principles of the agency business is to develop a philosophy about the advertising process that differentiates you from your competitors. Then you give it a name – you ‘brand’ it – and you speak to your clients and prospects in the language of this brand credo.

There’s nothing evil about this. I did it when I ran an agency, and almost every agency does it. The only problem is that it is inevitably wrong. The reason it is wrong is that advertising success is about likelihoods and probabilities, not certainties. But there is no agency in the world that is brave enough to say out loud that its philosophy is contingent and uncertain.

For brand marketers, there are no straight lines in advertising. You cannot assume that if you do this, that will happen. The best you can do is infer likelihoods. I believe in the power of probability (by the way, I wrote a curious and highly unpopular little pamphlet about this called Quantum Advertising).

I am often asked to speak at conferences and I sit there and listen to speakers talk with great certainty about how whatever it is they happen to be selling is the root of great brand success. I don’t buy it.

If you tell me that advertising success is all about emotion, I’ll show you a hundred campaigns that were successful with no emotional factors. If you tell me that advertising success is all about logic, I’ll show you a hundred successful campaigns that were completely logic-free.

You want to claim that all advertising success is based on strategy? I’ll show you a hundred successes with no discernible strategy. You want to claim it’s always about creativity? I’ll show you a hundred successes my dog could have written.

What does scepticism about fixed advertising philosophies – and belief in the power of probability – mean in the real world? It means…

  • The more people who see your advertising the more successful it is likely to be
  • The more people who remember your advertising the more successful it is likely to be
  • The more people who like your advertising the more successful it is likely to be
  • The more people who have an emotional reaction to your advertising the more successful it is likely to be
  • The more people who agree with the logic of your advertising the more successful it is likely to be

These may seem like platitudes, but it is remarkable how many marketers waste money creating messages that are directed only at their fans, are immediately forgettable, are crass and unlikable, are emotion-free and cliché-ridden.

Does this mean that advertising that is pervasive, memorable, likable, emotional and/or logical is guaranteed to be successful? No. It just means it’s more likely to be successful. And that’s all you get in advertising.

If you want to be a simpleton who believes in certainties, get into politics.

Bob Hoffman has been the CEO of two independent agencies and is the author of the Ad Contrarian blog

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