Why instinct is dumped in today’s advertising

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In an insightful article, The ad industry needs more Simon Cowells, Russel Ramsey , executive creative director at J Walter Thompson London bemoans the practice in advertising nowadays, of relying solely on data derived from consumer research and not paying any heed to good old gut instinct. His reference to how One Direction came only third in the show X Factor but Simon Cowell relied on his instinct and signed them on drove the point very well. Imagine ignoring ‘research’ feedback from millions of consumers and taking a decision based on what one ‘feels’ instinctively – a rarity in marketing and advertising these days.

In the marketing world, however, we’ve stopped trusting the people with the knack. The people who just know, the people with an instinct. The people with the skill for knowing what will capture imagination. Advertising was once full of them. Creatives, planners, directors, composers. All with a special skill, a knack. An indescribable ability to make a decision based on their experience, knowledge and instinct.

I have spent hours in marketing rooms where numbers are sliced and diced in myriad ways and nothing but a number is sacrosanct. One may find a TV script – just on paper – to be just right for the brand and has all the makings of a good ad in the right hands. But the decision to go ahead with it or axe it will be based on that dreaded LINK test score. Sometimes even a script which scores very high on that score is re-researched just to double check if that score was authentic. Hours were also spent analysing why the Facebook engagement rate (a metric common then) was 0.25 in a particular month versus 0.28 the previous month. Everything hinges on a meeting a number, gut feel be damned.

It is unlikely to change in a hurry. Why? Because everything is about short term success. In that One Direction example above, Simon Cowell can look back with satisfaction now and everyone can marvel at his success. But no one would have been able to predict future success back then…because it is in a distant future. The only metric available here and now is the number of votes. Similarly any metric which is available here and now is what we fall back on now to satisfy ourselves that our decision was right. That’s the reason why bogus metrics like ‘millions of conversations generated’, imaginary monetary value, a position in hashtag trends and the volume of shares come into the picture now.

The habit of relying on something else beyond one’s control (consumer’s preference) is also a good CYA strategy. If things go wrong or (most likely) just garner a tepid response one can always say ‘I went by what research said’. Since job stints at a particular position in a company is also short it pays to have metrics which show success in the short term.

A few decades ago, the agency CEO had a working equation with the client CEO who was most likely involved closely in the advertising process. So if one of them said ‘trust me with this decision’ pertaining to advertising, the other would do just that – trust. Today, we don’t have CEOs involved in advertising creation. That job is left to CMOs and brand teams who have to perforce show data to back their decision. In this scenario it is no surprise that gut instincts have no role to play.

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