Confessions of the Admen

It’s not all about you…

One of the first lessons a market researcher is taught is not to project their own behaviour and attitudes onto those of others. It’s not always an easy rule to follow: we naturally draw from our own experiences and opinions when we are designing questionnaires or analysing results.

Clients are not immune to this either – one of our clients, a high-profile NZ CEO, once told us that the experience he received when dealing with his brand was always top-notch – that fact that he would always receive the best service because of his role didn’t occur to him.

Furthermore, a study by Accenture found that 23 percent of senior managers surveyed described personal experience as ‘very important’ when making decisions about their customer needs. It’s human nature of course, and the official term is ‘Déformation professionelle’, which describes the tendency to perceive the world through the perspective of your own profession.

So the questions we have posed here are: do advertising people see the world as others do, and does it affect the decisions they make? The answers are ‘probably not, and possibly yes’.

The Perils of Perception

This isn’t an agency beat-up. Ipsos has previously fielded research which compares what people think is true and compared it to reality. The 2015 study, Perils of Perception, ran in 33 countries (including New Zealand) found that across the world people tend to have perceptions of their countries that are quite out of touch with reality.

Here, our results showed that New Zealanders think our population is wealthier, better educated, younger and thinner than we really are. To put that another way, we are poorer, fatter, older and less educated than you probably think. There are many reasons why such gaps can arise: it’s the company we keep, the news sources we consult, the neighbourhoods we live in (I once lived in a street where every household had somebody in sales or marketing). The media’s preference for younger, good-looking clever-seeming people also has a role to play in this.

Déformation professionelle can also be a reason why perception and reality can differ. In the advertising and marketing business, there has been a strong push in recent years towards preparing for a world where people are spending more time online via their PCs, smartphones and tablets and carrying out a growing number of transactions on them. Advertisers hear that they need to embrace the digital world and few media agency mission statements omit words like ‘digital-first’, ‘mobile-first’ or ‘programmatic.’

There can be no doubt that this digital trend is a real one. But averages can hide great variability. Young Grey Lynn sophisticates are far more digitally and mobile-savvy than, say, Westport retirees. And this can be a problem if these same urban sophisticates are making decisions about how best to reach potential consumers for a wide variety of goods and services. A classic New Zealand example is the all-too-common use of QR codes for tourism signs in areas that have no cell phone reception.

This isn’t just supposition – two recent UK studies suggest that people making decisions on advertising budget allocation certainly have atypical media usage…

The London Media Planner

In July 2016, Newsworks (the UK marketing body for national newspapers), asked a group of media planners and managers to keep an electronic diary of their media activities. It was based on the same method used by the well-regarded IPA Touchpoints studies and found that these media people, responsible as they are for millions of pounds of advertising placement, had very low levels of media usage compared to the rest of the population.


The findings of the Newsworks study were echoed in a larger survey that Ipsos ran recently for Thinkbox, the UK marketing organisation for commercial television. We found that differences between ‘ad people’ and the British public definitely extend past the obvious demographic factors. Ad people are more active on online services and websites including Netflix, Buzzfeed and social media sites. They also use more devices to watch TV than the British public – for example via their tablets, laptops and smartphones.

When it comes to estimating their media behaviour and opinions, we compared the industry perspective of the British public to BARB and Touchpoints data to reveal that ad people do indeed fall into the déformation professionelle trap: they think that people engage with media and care about advertising much more than they really do.

For example – where ad people and reality diverge…

  • When asked what share of viewing they thought the overall population devoted to live-viewing, the average prediction from the ad industry was 49 percent but the reality is that live viewing accounts for 87 percent of the total.
  • Advertising professionals were also wide off the mark in predicting that 37 percent of viewing takes place on devices other than a TV set. The true number is around two percent.
  • Practitioners estimated that YouTube was watched on average for 62 minutes a day per person. The actual figure is just 16 minutes.
  • Staying with the general assumption of the ubiquity and constant presence of digital devices in people’s lives, industry pundits assumed that half of all viewing would be accompanied by multi-screening (checking phones and other devices while in front of the television set). Official data from Touchpoints suggest the figure is closer to 19 percent.

What was scary in these results is that the data these professionals were asked to recall was all available in the course of their work – but their personal experiences overrode the true numbers.

It’s OK to be Different

To be fair to advertising professionals, I conducted a similar exercise some 20 years ago when I surveyed New Zealand market researchers and compared them to the general population. Not surprisingly, market researchers are better educated, more urban, and more ‘sophisticated’ in lifestyle than the average Kiwi (e.g. less smoking and gambling; more arthouse movie-going etc).

But the key difference is that market researchers’ entire raison d’etre is to understand how other people think and act – recognising that people are different is at the core of what we do.

In contrast, and through no fault of their own, advertising professionals can unwittingly fall into the trap of thinking that everyone else is like them. I can recall more than one conversation with advertising professionals who have expressed astonishment at how other people live (to be fair, these people had recognised their ignorance, hence the market research).

So the lesson from my Ipsos colleagues and me is that while it’s human nature to view the world in a certain way, it’s almost always incorrect, and hence solid market research is crucial for a lot of successful marketing and advertising. But then, déformation professionelle probably would lead we researchers to say that, wouldn’t it?

  • Andrew Green is the global head of audience solutions
  • Daniel Blackwell is a senior research executive at IPSOS UK
  • Jonathan Dodd is a research director at IPSOS New Zealand
  • Contact: [email protected]

This story is part of a content partnership with Ipsos. 

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