Jack Simcock: how we can solve adland’s biggest problem by abolishing the ‘tyranny of averages’

For an industry that talks a lot about creativity, innovation and the future, advertising strategy is surprisingly rooted in the traditions of the past. DDB’s 50s creative teams and JWT’s 60s planning revolution were innovations created in times of cultural change that founded great agencies – but today those fine foundations face major disruption.

Culture is evolving thanks to technology that empowers people with variety and choice – and many are choosing to avoid advertising. They’re doing this either by default through paying for TV streaming, consciously by installing ad blockers or by ignoring content they don’t want to see.

This change has shone a light on what has always been advertising’s biggest problem, a concept called the ‘Tyranny of Averages’. This is a statistical term where the mean (or average) is given too much ‘weight’ and considered to be ‘normal’ or even desirable.

In advertising this means award-winning creative is that which is palatable to most people most of the time and the aim of media agencies is to push it across as many platforms as possible, for as long as budgets allow. The result is what people in the street understand to be advertising: millions of mass appeal messages carpeting the world around us from the street to the TV set in your home, even your sports team or a family trip to the movies.

People have been subjected to this tyranny since advertising’s Madison Avenue heyday but it is becoming ever more costly and ineffective. It’s time for change.

Omar Tawakol of Bluekai/Oracle took to the stage at the recent Lions Innovation to talk about bringing an end to the tyranny of averages, and with it the foundations of traditional advertising.

In his talk “how big data is transforming creativity and marketing” he said that behavioural data was “the future of our business” and would lead to new era in which “multiple creatives that serve different people with different interests” sit at the heart of effective marketing strategy. A view supported by DataSift’s CEO Nick Halstead whose talk entitled Social data is the new Don Draper suggested that we are moving to “a world where we really understand audience behaviour.”

So, in today’s ‘tinder’ culture, where consumers volunteer data about their likes and dislikes as they swipe away, skip or ignore advertising – and with ad blocking looking set to come as standard with the next iPhone – the industry needs to pay more than lip service to the relationship between audiences, data and creative. And more than that, there’s a chance to escape the aforementioned tyranny of averages.

The result of data and creative working together could lead to a renaissance in which ideas understand people’s true interests and work on their behalf, not those of judging panels at industry events. As the golden age of advertising fades, what could replace it is a brighter world where campaigns take on new forms that work smarter and harder for audiences and advertisers alike.

We’re seeing the demand for audience-first ideas rising as the #BuyTheWorldAHope movement (below) gathers momentum by asking Coca-Cola to spend a year’s advertising budget ($3bn) on combating deforestation. Or Vodafone committing to ‘use mobile for good’ by making people safer with their Easy Rescue app that allowed over 100,000 Turkish women to extract themselves from domestic violence scenarios.


On the data side, smarter targeting is being delivered through programmatic campaigns from brands like Australian supermarket Coles working with MediaMath to “drive individualised creative communications, and activate attribution data, to deliver real business results.”

Ultimately, this means the tyranny of averages that has shaped the world looks set to subside and, over time, be replaced by audience-first ideas led by behavioural data insights and new approaches to creative campaigns. Brands and their agencies need to adapt quickly. Those that do should be excited to join a more egalitarian future, free of the tyranny of averages.

unnamed-12Jack Simcock is a founder and strategy director of Telegraph Hill.

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