Advertising Philosopher: An Interview with Faris Yakob (Part Two)

Later, you make the bold assertion that “all marketing research is wrong.” What do you see as the limits of marketing research and what do you envision as alternative ways of understanding consumer behavior?

Lots of tools or processes in any industry arise based on specific times and ideas and needs —and then get slowly codified into best practices that everyone uses, to the point that no one interrogates them enough. The idea behind market research is important, but often the tools and methodologies used are problematic. For example, any self reported data derived from asking people questions gets filtered through our explanatory fictions, our sense that we are and must rational agents.

But this isn’t the case – and we have tons of scientific studies that back up this thinking: that we tell ourselves stories, even when they aren’t true. Indeed, the research methodologies themselves are subject to this meta-cognitive error – we think we think rationally, so it makes rational sense to ask people why they do what they do and what they will do in the future. But asking people what they will do in future is like asking someone if they are going to go to the gym – their stated responses may not correspond well with their future actions.

I experienced this personally many times. Research comes back with insights into human behavior that feel like common sense. And yet people act in ways that don’t.

This disconnect kept bugging me. I worked on various government social behavior change campaigns and they are notoriously ineffective. Explain to people in a rational way that certain behaviors are obviously bad for them and they will agree and do them anyway. People don’t act rationally or in their own best interests, long term, most of the time.

The emergence of behavioral economics as a new lens helped frame this discussion. Dan Kaheman’s book Thinking Fast & Slow aggressively challenges ideas of rational persuasion as a key driver of behavior change. Yet that model is implicit on most advertising, built on a promise, a “proposition”, and a compellingly articulated set of benefits and differences.

Not to say this this new model has everything right or is the only way to think, but it should certainly be considered and give us pause.

Market researchers have of course always known all of this and skilled researchers use all kinds of methods to work around these issues. From abstraction and projection all the way to looking at actual behavior in the world with actual losses. There are pioneers like BrainJuicer working on new ways of understanding research in group dynamics with decision markets and so on. Large retailers often will trail products or innovations in actual markets, which is far more predictive.

BUT. We still see research being done, often very fast, to support existing ideas, or kill them, which is inherently predictive, despite the success rate of market research AS PREDICTION being laughable low.

You have a very interesting section in the book about the emergence of street artist Banksy. What can advertisers learn from the Banksy phenomenon?

Banksy is an attention hacker like no one else in this generation, a modern day Warhol. All of his work is designed to invite debate, to get into the news, to hack culture. Every stunt, every collection, is differently delivered, wrapped in mystery, laughing at and with society, advertising and the art world.

His concerns almost always reflect concerns of the time, he has clear values and well established viewpoints, he appropriates culture as much as creating it, leveraging old schemas to explain new ideas.

He utilizes technology but never fetishes it.

He manages the almost impossible balancing act of being one of the world’s most commercially successful artists but without any hint of corporate acquiescence or sense that money is a motivator. He easily traverses media, from art, to film, through PR, events, carefully curated digital spaces, protecting his brand by being utterly distinguishable in whatever he does.

It’s hard to imagine a better role model for a marketer, but that of course doesn’t mean it’s easy to steal his genius.

I was surprised that you had relatively little to say about transmedia branding in this book, given how central the concept has been to our conversations through the years. To what degree do you think this concept is still relevant to the ways brands are operating in an era of social media?

This was a conscious choice on my part, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, my IPA thesis focused on transmedia branding was being published in a new book called What is a 21st Century Brand, the same day that Paid Attention was coming out. Secondly, I had become too associated in the industry with your idea. So for practical purposes I chose to not focus on transmedia ideas in this book.

Transmedia thinking has flared up a few times in advertising since we started discussing it on 2007. It sometimes gets sidelined into a simplicity versus complexity discussion. Advertising agencies found that they are built on reduction, or distillation, on shorter utterances. Their creative muscle memory is not in long form cross-platform ideas. So the great case studies of transmedia branding tended to pull from existing worlds, especially games or films. Transmedia branding got conflated with ARG type executions.

That said, I think this is conflation. Transmedia principles, whilst derived from narrative, don’t require it slavishly. At the same time, advertising people increasingly use “storytelling” as a descriptor of what they do, but clearly this is a different sense of the word than traditional narrative. Advertising is a different domain with different requirements. So, the idea that all channels are different, that they function differently and are consumed different, that they interact with each, that people are participatory, all remain vital for today’s brand practitioners.

You sum up a section on engagement with this statement: “Some brands will benefit from developing engaging communication, some from adhering to a low involvement strategy.” What do you see as the benefits of each and how might brands determine in which category they fall?

This is the big question, or at least one of them. It constitutes one of the core strategic communication questions. And, of course, communications can be engaging without precipitating specific engagements from its audience or community. The most appropriate way is to triangulate between user behaviors of the most valuanble audience, the nature of the product and brand, the practicalities of deploying complex ongoing engeagement campaigns versus more traditonal ad campaigns.

To begin with, it got simply bifurcated along “consumer interest” and frequency lines. That is to say, more expensive products have longer buy cycles, people tend to do more research, so ARGs, for example, for cars tend to make more sense, financially and otherwise, that the same level of depth for bubble gum.

But. All companies, I believe, need to prioritize being responsive to their customers wherever the want to communicate, especially in social media. [Apple famously doesn’t use social media for customer support. They do however have stores, free Genius Bars, and Tim Cook has taken on the Jobsian habit of occasionally responding to unsolicited customer emails.]

I believe in the mere exposure effect, I believe low attention processing can be demonstrated to exist and have impact. HOWEVER, the environment is SO cluttered now it’s both difficult and expensive. Billboards are a powerful medium, but when the whole world resembles Times Square, we should perhaps look for other strategies.

Faris Yakob is co-founder of Genius Steals, an itinerant strategy and innovation consultancy he started with his wife, Rosie. He is the author of Paid Attention, which come out in April 2015, and a contributing author of Digital State [2013] and What is a Brand? [2015], all published by Kogan Page. He was named one of ten modern day Mad Men by Fast Company but hopes he is less morally bankrupt than the television show characters. Despite living on the road, you can reliably find him on Twitter (@Faris) and on his blog: www.farisyakob.com. For more information on Genius Steals head to www.geniussteals.co

Comments

  1. I find it interesting that the book’s title works off the common belief — going all the way back to AIDA — that attention paid to a piece of communication is a necessary requirement for the subsequent behavior. A growing body of knowledge (summarized by Heath, among others) demonstrates the opposite: that consciously processed advertising (the stuff we *pay attention* to) is often less effective than stimuli that rewire one’s affective evaluation of a brand on a sub-conscious level. In other words, the effect an ad has on increasing the odds of a desired behavior could well be independent from whether anyone pays attention to, cares about, or engages with the ad.