Less heat and more light please: ad agencies, Brexit and understanding consumers

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By Jes Conway

“Less Heat and More Light, Please…”: On Ad Agencies, Brexit and Understanding Consumers

Did I miss the bulletin where MAA was taken over by The Daily Mail?

I only ask because Archie Heaton’s intemperate invective on agency shortcomings (“Adland’s Search for Equality Misses the Target in Brexit Britain”, December 20, 2019) falls well short of the incisive commentary regular MAA readers have come to know and love.

I agree wholeheartedly that “the industry’s job is to understand the average person in this country, to translate their mood for clients and to communicate with them”.

The operative word here is “translate”. There’s an industry discipline dedicated to just such interrogation and interpretation. It used to be called account planning, and it’s been around for around 50 years (full disclosure: yes, it is what I do for a living).

Account planners strive not to let private prejudice or personal taste interfere with their job. If we were the target audience our discipline would not exist. That’s why account planners are schooled through long and occasionally bitter experience to interpret consumer feedback rather than merely transcribe it. Planners know that people don’t always say what they mean and don’t always mean what they say. People often say one thing and do another, as opinion pollsters have discovered to their cost on more than one occasion.

Judging by his own analysis Archie doesn’t quite seem to have got the hang of this. Apparently a mere 23 per cent of the UK population identify as “left leaning” in contrast to a whopping 44 per cent of ad agency staff. Not sure precisely what “left leaning” means here but let’s assume (as Archie apparently does) that it’s synonymous with voting Remain. Unfortunately that left-leaning 23 per cent ‘minority’ is hard to square with YouGov reporting that 53 per cent of votes cast at the UK’s 2019 election favoured ‘Remain’ parties – Labour, Lib Dem, Green, SNP – who accounted for 1.7 million more voters than ‘Leave’ parties (Conservative, Brexit, DUP).

Furthermore YouGov analysis also indicates a substantial majority of 18-49 year old voters voted for Remain parties. So what Archie perceives as a huge skew to Remain among agency staff is simply a reflection of the national average voting pattern for their age group. Indeed it is not until their early to mid fifties that 2019 election voters nationally are more likely to vote Leave than Remain. Studies also indicate that Leave voters are disproportionately likely to have finished education at 16. So age and low educational attainment predict Leave sympathies better than working class status alone. That’s why YouGov tells us that among C2DE voters Leave party votes only exceeded Remain party votes by a slender 51 per cent to 49 per cent margin in December 2019.

Of course Archie’s right that it’s neither helpful nor professional to stereotype any group of voters or consumers as stupid. But it’s a bit rich to claim there’s some sort of conspiracy among ad agency staff to neglect this particular audience. Perhaps this omission has more to do with the ugly fact that that most client marketing directors resist spending their advertising budget to target poorly educated 60-somethings, whom they inexplicably regard as insufficiently lucrative or aspirational.

More significantly, brands and markets exist because of common needs and values that very different people share. Andy Warhol observed that presidents and film stars drink the same Coca-Cola as the guy on the street corner. In this regard at least Archie’s warning about over-segmentation and micro targeting makes a solid point – though in reality this is much more characteristic of social media than TV or outdoor.

In view of this common humanity it should go without saying that good planners cultivate the ability to relate to people whose backgrounds and opinions differ markedly from their own. So it’s unfortunate that Archie further disfigures his argument with a scattershot litany of insults directed at liberals and hipsters. Such ranting manifests the very same lack of empathy he criticises so freely in others. What happened to “be the change you want to see in the world”?

Turning to the vexed question of campaign content, daytime TV viewers might be surprised to hear they’re being subjected to “a slew of campaigns… [around] sexuality and gender identity”. That’s because I suspect such campaigns’ share of mind within the industry is far, far higher than their share of media voice outside what Archie rather rudely calls “the M25 bubble”.

In fact where messaging is concerned, Archie’s “deeper trends” of local pride and cultural identity have been selling points for over half a century (remember “You Don’t Have To Be Jewish To Love Levy’s” – below). In this context, Archie’s choice of Carling’s TV campaign as a role model for responsive brand localism may be more significant than he realises. It’s no coincidence that Carling is a domestic commodity lager which enjoys volume sales well below its late 1908s heyday. Now whether you choose to regard this type of ad strategy as celebrating localism or pandering to insularity will depend on a combination of your own outlook and the finesse of the execution itself.

Either way I’d suggest that commercial imperatives of scale and globalisation, which will continue to prevail regardless of Brexit, are apt to make this type of communication approach a pretty niche strategy that generally won’t travel well.

Part of the genius of DDB’s work for Levy’s (“real Jewish rye” lest we forget) was that it unashamedly celebrated the brand’s ethnic origins while simultaneously reaching out to Americans of every age, class, creed and colour. In other words DDB sought to make Levy’s Rye Bread rather more like Coca-Cola – and rather less like Carling. If it isn’t too “woke” a suggestion, perhaps Archie might profit by Bill Bernbach’s example?

And as for “waking up and smelling the coffee”, I’d suggest Archie sticks to something less heavily caffeinated before taking to his keyboard to accuse the rest of us of lacking understanding or insight. I don’t doubt the honesty of Archie’s personal beliefs, but I seriously question the utility of his professional analysis. What do they teach people at Wolff Olins nowadays?

Meanwhile, I do hope Archie’s ideas aren’t representative of the general quality of thinking in brand consultancies. Because if they are, then it’s no wonder that so many clients have become slightly reluctant to pay for proper account planners in their creative agencies.

Now might be a good time for those clients to rethink that policy – so that we might all generate a little less heat and a lot more light in an alarmingly polarised world.

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