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Unreasonable Growth: the (ir)rationale behind DDB’s positioning

At a time when the very definition of what constitutes an ad agency is being obscured by the ones and zeros of digital, DDB has taken a stand with a bold new positioning that outlines what good looks like in 2017.

By Damien Venuto | August 11, 2017 | features

DDB chief strategy officer Rupert Price.

There’s a YouTube clip of comedian Louis CK telling Conan O’Brien the story of accessing Wi-Fi on a plane for the first time. During the flight, the Wi-Fi stops working and in-flight staff apologise for the inconvenience. Only a second later, the person sitting next to the comedian shuffles in his seat and declares the Wi-Fi failure as “bullshit”. In relaying this story to O’Brien, CK guffaws at this response, saying “how quickly the world owes him something he knew existed only ten seconds ago”.         

DDB chief strategy officer Rupert Price showed this clip to audiences each time he delivered his presentation on the DBB’s new positioning because it provides a quick-fire summary of how the human mind works. Even when we’re sitting in a seat in the middle of the sky, moving at hundreds of kilometres an hour, we are still subject to base reactions we would have when sitting in our living rooms at home. Try as we might, we cannot escape our minds.

“It makes the point that we’re dealing with unreasonable consumers and they’re quite jaded and cynical,” Price says. “They’re quite ambivalent to the things that we think are amazing because they’ve seen so much of it before.”

This is not meant as an insult to consumers but rather as a more accurate observation of the commercial experience in 2017.

To put this into perspective, we have 51 energy companies operating in New Zealand, 174 SKUs of bacon on supermarket shelves and 1,041 new SKUs of beer entered the market last year.

Chances are consumers have been there done that, and they know they can go elsewhere to get something similar if they don’t immediately find what they’re looking for.

In this sea of clutter, where there’s little distinguishing one product from the next, Price argues that brands need to find a way to stand out. But to achieve this today means jettisoning some of the marketing cornerstones we’ve inherited from yesterday. 

Past the sell-by date       

Like a rock band still playing gigs based on albums released in the 1970s, modern advertising remains too reliant on the greatest hits of previous decades.

“We’ve been bound by some rules of the past that have become established principles of best marketing, but we need to interrogate them to see if they actually stand up,” says Price.

To do this day, Claude C Hopkins’ 1922 book Scientific Advertising remains one of the best selling titles on advertising in history. In it Hopkins reduces advertising to a science, arguing that you could persuade the customers to buy a product by giving as much information as possible.

“He came up with this idea of rational persuasion and it was absolutely embraced wholesale by Proctor & Gamble in the 1950s and used throughout the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and even into the 2000s,” says Price.

The problem with this notion today is that advances in neuroscience have shown that human decision-making doesn’t travel in a straight, rational line. It’s pulled this way and that, sometimes by rationalisation but often also by the emotional side of the brain. And this isn’t limited to the small inconsequential purchases. Even when making a purchase as big as a house, the prospective buyer is often heard saying, ‘this one just feels right’.

Also on the antique shelf, Price places Rosser Reeves who coined the phrase ‘unique selling proposition’ (USP), which emphasises the importance of finding an unoccupied space for your brand. 

Price argues that what’s particularly galling about the modern adherence to USP is that it isn’t based on any evidence and that it was first introduced as a little more than a clever catchphrase to sell the Bates agency.

On the surface, a unique selling proposition certainly seems like a great way to set your brand apart from the competition but putting the theory into practice isn’t always easy.  

“The problem with it is that when you have 51 energy companies, it pushes you further and further into the extremes of the category. It also pushes you further and further from what the customer actually wants.”

As a corollary of the focus on rationality, persuasion and unique selling propositions, Price says the industry has turned sharply toward short-term, hard-selling ads that do little to build brands. 

“There’s a reason you don’t remember 95 percent of the ads you’ve seen,” he says. 

“We’ve boxed ourselves in because most clients still think you need to talk to people rationally. And we spend a lot of time trying to talk clients back from the ledge of leaping off into shouting at customers and overloading them with information.”

In this context, Price argues that DDB’s new positioning is essentially a response to the marketing fallacies so focused on winning the category, the mind and the day through almost-religious adherence to rational persuasion.      

DDB chief executive Justin Mowday.

More than a hunch

In setting out to define what the agency should stand for, DDB chief executive Justin Mowday called on Price and his strategic partners across to base the positioning on substantive evidence rather than hunches or quirky catchphrases.        

He didn’t want another example of UPS or the more recent Love Marks, which both serve as great one-liners but offer little else.

“We didn’t want some unproven package,” Mowday says.

“I wanted facts, data and empirical evidence. We wanted independent market data that shows how you get to the point of ‘unreasonable growth.’”

He says the emphasis on ‘growth’ came about because this is what modern agencies should focus on.  

Mowday says that right around the time when DDB was investigating what to focus on, three separate studies identified ‘growth’ as the area CEOs are most concerned about.

“An Economist article said that the thing that kept 437 global CEOs awake at night is 'where does the next growth come from?' There was a Comms Council survey of 27 local CEOs and all of them said ‘growth’. And then there was also a Herald mood of the boardroom survey and it said that growth is the number one thing clients worry about.”

Mowday says that if agencies are interested in being seen as valuable to the C-suite then they have to show this value by growing their clients’ brands substantially.

This is where the ‘unreasonable’ aspect of the new positioning comes in, referring to both the human mind and the need for delivering a large amount of growth for clients.  

“Most CEOs go in expecting to get two or three percent growth on account of the growing economy and the increasing population,” Mowday says. “That’s just status quo. We want to do work that’s exceptional.”

Again, with feeling

As Price and the rest of the strategic team started to look into the issues of the type of advertising that works, they quickly realised that those traditional marketing rules had led to short-term thinking that actually damages brands in the long run.

He says the discussions on advertising effectiveness are increasingly dominated by return on investment (ROI); admittedly, an important part of the business but one that lends itself to short-term thinking.

“When you talk about ROI, all it is is a measure of efficiency,” Price says.  “And if you chase ROI, it will lead you to make decisions around reaching the largest number of people with the minimum means to do so, which isn’t necessarily the most effective way.”

He points to the work of Peter Field, which shows that while short-term sales activations might lead to a momentary lift in sales, it’s the long-term brand building work that leads to the growth CEOs crave.

Of course, short-term sales strategies will always play an important role in keeping the scoreboard ticking over, but should not be done at the expense of the long-term brand building. Price argues that both approaches need to operate cohesively across a single strategy for brands to achieve long-term success.

It’s also important to note that long-term brand building can’t be force-fed to consumers. Brand isn’t about how much people know about your product. It’s all about how people perceive you. Advertising commentator/philosopher Jeremy Bullmore once wrote that “people build brands as birds build nests, from scraps and straws we chance upon”. He updated that later and said those scraps and straws are actually “laid in our path by the brand's owner – the packs, the promotions, the price, the advertising – in the cunning hope and expectation that the brand we thereby build will be the one we'll come to love and favour”.

Another caveat is that all the data in the world isn’t automatically going to deliver you information on how to create a brand that people love (or even understand). Perhaps the best illustration of this point lies on the continued scepticism regarding climate change.  

Vox recently told the story of Veerabhadran “Ram” Ramanathan, an atmospheric scientist at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, who had spent the last 40 years writing about the impact of climate change without really getting through to the masses of people who could provoke the change. Ramanathan explains that his findings served as little more than an obituary, an endless series of facts and data points that only appealed to the converted.

It was only when he had a chance meeting with Pope Francis, during which he had three minutes to give his elevator pitch on the importance of climate change. The Pope promised to address the issue, and he later did. But rather than blasting his 1.2 billion followers with the facts they’d already heard, he framed climate change as a story about the suffering of the poorest people in the world. This led to 35 percent of American Catholics changing their views on climate change.

Regardless of the context or the topic, stories need to stretch beyond data and facts to move people one way or the other.

Fame, feeling, fluency

Reading broadly across the academic studies of Field, cognitive scientist Daniel Kahneman, researcher Robert Heath, researcher Byron Sharp and effectiveness researcher Les Binet, Price was able to piece together a model more suitable to the modern demands of marketing.

Price suggests a new approach that accepts the irrationality of the unchanging human and strives to develop advertising that appeals to these motivations.

“If we are to transform business today and create unreasonable growth we need to fight reason with unreason,” he says. 

Instead of relying on mantras of position, price and ROI, he offers fame, feeling and fluency as objectives agencies and brands should pursue.               

Fame refers to the relevance of brand in culture. Look at the stories of Polaroid, Blockbuster or PanAm and quickly becomes clear that even iconic and well loved brands can eventually become irrelevant to the culture and eventually whither away.     

The second point is, of course, focused on the unchanging irrationality of the human mind. Technology has done nothing to shift our biology and our decisions are still driven by the same motivations we’ve always had. Mobile phones have not suddenly rendered our human needs for love, fun or compassion irrelevant. If anything, they’ve become a tool by which to experience those things more regularly.

Referencing the work of Field and Binet—which shows emotional advertising leads to increased long-term effectiveness—Price argues the benefits of appealing to the feeling side of the human mind extend well beyond mere aesthetics.

Fluency comes down to popularity. If a brand is well recognised, then this automatically means it will be recognised on the shelf where competitors might disappear into a sea of sameness.

Behavioural economics has come to show that most of the decisions made in the aisles of supermarkets are made almost automatically, based largely on what was bought before.

People might post-rationalise that they went for a certain choice for numerous reasons, but the reality is that they’ll generally go for what’s familiar to them.

"Emotions drive all the decisions we make and our subconscious brain is shaped by our emotions. Most of the brand choices we make are based on intuitive gut feeling."

Standing for something  

Advertising agencies are often happy to serve as conduits to the creativity and branding for their clients, so it’s always interesting to see agencies turn the tools on themselves.

It is worth noting that DDB isn’t alone in making this stand. Others across the industry are also working hard to remind not only marketers but also procurement departments and executives across the industry of the dangers of short-term strategies.

Much of the thinking expressed in DDB’s ‘Unreasonable Growth’ positioning has parallels with the thoughts of David Thomason at FCB, Andrew Lewis and Colleen Ryan at TRA, Simon Bird at PHD and Paul Catmur at Barnes, Catmur & Friends Dentsu.

The difference in this instance, however, is that the agency has defined its identity according to these tenets. And if you’re going to shove your flag into the ground and claim a position as your own, then you need to be prepared for the likelihood of the ground moving again in the future.

In the same way that the thinking of Hopkins and Reeves have today been usurped by the behavioural scientists, there’s no telling what might come next.

Science, like art, can be unpredictable at times. And advertising just happens to be a bit of both.

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