Advertising is Not Voodoo

Mister squishy

Because the universe speaks to us through coincidence, or because of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon [also known as the frequency illusion] - whichever you prefer - I had a few Squishy encounters of late. 

I just read DFW's brilliant, remarkably disturbing, short[ish] horror story and comment on corporate culture Mister Squishy, and lo and behold it was recently adapted as a stage play

You should read the story for its merits as a story [it's available in the collection Oblivion] but for those in advertising, marketing and market research, it's remarkable for a whole different set of reasons.

It was published in 2000 but set in 1995 which obviously gives it a sheen of false prescience, but even so, his laser like analysis of market research, marketing and its future - its now - is amazing. 

On Targeting

"The 18-39 Male demographic, the single most prized and fictile demotarget in high-end marketing."

On Data

"The whole problem and project of descriptive statistics was discriminating between what made a difference and what did not."

On Advertising

"One of the first things a Field Researcher accepts is that the product is never going to have as important a place in a TFG’s minds as it did in the Client’s. Advertising is not voodoo.

The Client could ultimately hope only to create the impression of a connection or resonance between the brand and what was important to consumers. And what was important to consumers was, always and invariably, themselves. What they conceived themselves to be.

The Focus Groups made little difference in the long run—the only true test was real sales, in Schmidt’s personal opinion."

On Herd Behavior  

And if you wondered why your kid was wearing them of course the majority of the answer was simply that other kids were wearing them, for of course kids as a demographic market today were notoriously herdlike and their individual choices in consumption were overwhelmingly influenced by other kids’ consumption-choices and so on in a fadlike pattern that spread like wildfire and usually then abruptly and mysteriously vanished or changed into something else.

This was the most simple and obvious example of the sort of complex system of large groups’ intragroup preferences influencing one another and building exponentially on one another, much more like a nuclear chain reaction or an epidemiological transmission grid than a simple case of each individual consumer deciding privately for himself what he wanted and then going out and judiciously spending his disposable income on it.


And it goes on, in gloriously observed detail, about how we often start out in agencies full of passion, hoping to move clients and agencies to do the rights things, to be honest to consumers and drive brands to do better things for the world, but eventually we realize that companies are structured to only care about money; and how that affects people, and their relationships, as they run ever faster on that hedonic treadmill, hoping to get to the next level, to get a raise, but always with the sneaking suspicion that life is a hoax and worse that every human interaction is self-serving, political or mercenary because that's what business ultimately wants to teach us. 

As I said, it's a horror story. 

And finally, on what all that data of the web would do to advertising and market research:

But where most agencies still saw the coming www primarily as just a new, fifth venue* for high-impact ads, part of your more forward-looking type vision for the coming era involved finding ways to exploit cybercommerce’s staggering research potential as well.

Undisplayed little tracking codes could be designed to tag and follow each consumer’s w3 interests and spending patterns. 

Britton said that Focus Groups could be assembled abstractly via consumers’ known patterns—as in e.g. who showed an interest? who bought the product or related products and from which cybervendor via which link thing?—

that not only would there be no voir dire and no archaic per diem expenses but even the unnecessary variable of consumers even knowing they were part of any sort of market test was excised, since a consumer’s subjective awareness of his identity as a test subject instead of as a true desire-driven consumer had always been one of the distortions that market research swept under the rug because they had no way of quantifying subjective-identity-awareness.

Focus Groups would go the way of the dodo and bison and art deco.


Which isn't exactly what happened, but the market research industry itself tells itself that it has, despite knowing that it hasn't


Bump The Lamp

Who Framed Roger Rabbit was a fantastic film and was one of the first times I remember feeling oddly drawn to the female character Jessica. 

Part of that was my age but part of it was the incredible job the animators did - by hand and eye - of creating the illusions, especially the illusion of physicality and physical interaction between the Toons and the humans. 

This video explains how, the level of commitment to detail that makes this film stand up even today. 

It generated a phrase coined by Disney while working on the movie: Bumping the Lamp. It means going above and beyond what was expected of the animators, watch the video to understand why. 

"Seemingly superfluous details help sell the effect at a subconscious level".

Always take the chance to bump the lamp in your work. 

Moebius and The Martian

Moebius Martian

In 1979 the legendary French comic book artist Moebius did the conceptual art for Ridley Scott's sci-fi masterpiece Alien.

Some things of course weren't used for the film, like the illustration of an orange spacesuit above left. 

In 2015, three years after Moebius' death, Ridley Scott made The Martian. 

The above drawing sat in Ridley's "bottom drawer" for 36 years. 

For more on Moebius - here's a 19min BBC documentary on him and his incredible legacy. 

DDB's First Ever Ad Was a Cat Meme


Every time you think something is completely knew, you should remember that nothing is. 

From DDB's website:

N.M. Ohrbach knew Bill Bernbach when Ohrbach's was a client at Grey Advertising. Mr. Ohrbach, who was not happy with Grey, suggested that Bernbach launch his own agency with Ohrbach's as its first client.

Ohrbach even agreed to pay for the work in advance, enabling Doyle, Dane and Bernbach to pay their initial bills. The campaign transformed Ohrbach's from an unfashionable store in an unfashionable part of town to a "high fashion at low prices" boutique that attracted the attention of such people as the Rockefellers and drew "high fashion" coverage from Life magazine.

Darkest Night

Darkest Night

I don't watch horror movies. I don't like them, I don't enjoy being scared. Things get stuck in my head and I'd rather have nice things in there. 

So I also wouldn't listen to a horror podcast. However, I found a new podcast in my app. It was called Darkest Night

I assume I saw a Tweet recommendation and hit subscribe without realizing it was a horror anthology. I also didn't realize until after I had started listening. And now I'm hooked. 

To be honest, some of the gorier images still make me queasy, but the podcast is wonderfully produced and I'm enjoying it. 

It's a nice reminder for me that sometimes I need to do things that scare me [literally in this case].

I would never have opted to listen to it because of a label, a category in my head I've decided I don't want any part of.

But this is its own kind of filter bubble and since I prize diversity in my thinking, in my influences, in my inspiration, I can't just read, watch and listen to things I think I'm going to like. It's logically inconsistent. My preferences set parameters for the world. 

So I'm glad for the happy accident and recommend Darkest Night, if you like horror, and especially if you don't. 

Future Of Work

Uture of work blueprint

We just wrapped the second phase of a content project we've been working on for BOX.COM on the Future of Work. 

As part of it, Rosie and I [and other contributors] have written pieces over on their Blueprint publication, several of which were selected for the front page of Medium, which was nice.  

To Sell Is Human. To Sell Awesomely, Divine. Here’s How. 

Stop Using Data Like a Drunk Uses a Lamppost

Unlimited Vacation is a Gimmick

Taking Your Company On The Road

If Your Employees Are Stupid, That’s Your Fault [my most hearted piece on medium ever - so it seems to have struck a chord] 

The 8 Immutable Laws that Govern The Future of Work

That Time a GOP Raver Showed Me the Future of Work at Burning Man

En Plein Air


Back in the mid 2000s a lot of planners starting blogging and meeting each other online, mostly inspired by Russell Davies' pioneering blog. It was an exciting time, as the community found itself, started talking, trying to imagine a future, grabbgin drinks with people all over the world, just because of blogs and that. 

The word blogosphere was salient at the time, and the planning subsection got called the Plannersphere, which also became this nice resource of planning tools and links.

There was even a heated debate as to whether blogging was somehow "killing planning"

Open Strategy is the excellent spiritual successor, an updated resource of strategy tools and resources, reflective of the planning>strategy evolution of the last ten years, which we talk about in the podcast below. I don't think blogging was killing planning, by any means, the idea is obviously fatuous, as many "death of" stories tend to be, but planning and strategy-inside-agencies has definitely changed in the last ten years. 

One of the people I met during that time was the lovely Paul McEnany, who is now the CEO of a new model agency Plein Air

He interviewed me for the finale of their new podcast series Real Famous

All [career] advice is autobiography, to some degree. When people give it they are really just explaining their own choices and how they turned out, which are highly contextual and perhaps not that useful for other people, except at the very highest level, where they are inherently generic. 

That said, people like hearing the stories of people's lives and choices, for the same reason people like stories in general, as highly simplified models of choices, causes and effects in the complex world. 

We get from the past to the present, how we are working with clients, some of the broad set of things we've been doing, some new thoughts on 'peak attention' and why your career is like your health. 

Plein Air Real Famous Podcast