The real science of advertising

Despite popular opinion, it's not just data and measurement, says Heroes & Villains' Emma Hancock.

shutterstock_129560924This story appears in the October 2014 issue of

By Emma Hancock

Have you ever had this happen? You’re on a plane when suddenly the flight attendant makes that announcement we all dread, “Is there an advertising professional on board? We have a medical emergency and we can’t find any doctors.” No? Me neither. I’m not a doctor, so I can’t do what doctors do. And presumably, doctors can’t do what I do.

Or can they? I decided to ask my doctor for a second opinion.

During my yearly physical, I asked her whether she believed she could do my job. “Well, I find advertising intriguing. But I don’t think I could do it because I am used to doing things I know, have been trained for and done research in. I believe someone in your field needs to be an expert the same way they do in mine. To suppose there isn’t a science behind it is preposterous.” And just like that, from the top of the professional food chain, total affirmation.

Today, the popular opinion is that data and measurement is the science in advertising. I beg to differ. The real science isn’t an elaborate targeting scheme with its gang of accomplices: Optimization, Deployment and Metrics. “Advertising is communication, and communication theory is a social science,” explains Charles Leech, partner at ABM Research. “It’s systematic in analysis and is based on knowledge of how people encode, transmit and decode visual, aural, kinesthetic, olfactory and other phenomenological input.” Sounds intense, because it is, and it may be the only advantage left in a world of product parity repressed by disposable content.

Some brands, even great brands without parity, I might add, bank on the science.

“Advertising is about competitive advantage, and the science of business and communications make advertising kind of like a guided missile of ideas – weapons of mass attraction,” as David Brimson, director-Europe, marketing and sales, at McLaren Automotive, describes. “It’s the processes behind the agencies’ internal brief that must have the most discipline and process. It’s this bridging role, the transition from client internal thinking to the shaping of the external consumer expression where the real agency value is – harnessing and directing creative horsepower makes that missile of ideas a smart missile.”

I’d hate to see where that missile would go without a plan.

So where do you learn the science of advertising (surely there’s a course for all this)? Well, sort of.

“In many ways, the discipline of advertising is learned on the job. This can be a great thing. Or not. It depends, obviously, on where you work,” says Stuart Macmillan, CD at Lg2 in Montreal.

Like that great doctor, we glean so much of the critical knowledge, experience and skill from living it, in practice, with real consequences. And unlike media metrics that churn out stats at the touch of a button, the ability to not only create but also predict what your audience will like and respond to takes nothing short of brilliance.

Because it’s not an exact science – humans are hard to predict. “Without emotion, consumers are trapped in rational decision paralysis,” says Leech. “Science has shown that only emotional responses as registered by the central nervous system are capable of physically galvanizing a consumer to reach out and click or pick something off the rack or shelf.” Therefore, everything we put out, even short-lived daily content, must have strategic depth and make an emotional connection.

So you’d think that all agencies would be focused on the true science, right? Michael Farmer, chairman and CEO of Farmer & Company in New York, a leading agency compensation consultancy, shared his point of view: “The simple answer is ‘no.’ Agencies are being relegated to executional roles at commodity-level fees…disinvesting from account management and strategic planning head counts. They’re hanging on to their creative resources, but these other departments are being downsized and juniorized in an effort to generate holding company profit margins.”

He goes on to say, “At a time when the marketplace and media possibilities have never been more complex, agencies are simplifying in an effort to make profits in the face of declining fees.”

So there it is. Maybe we’re not doctors, but we better start paying more attention to the discipline of advertising and brand building. Clients are looking for strategies that drive brand growth, profitability and share gains. They’re also looking for a defensible position in just about every decision they make. They crave science, they need science…Let’s just make sure we guide them with the real science.

Emma Hancock_SM.BW

Emma Hancock is a founding partner of Heroes & Villains Advertising

Image via Shutterstock