Giles Keeble: blinkered economics, personalisation and those betting ads that drive you nuts

1. CLR James in ‘Beyond a Boundary’ wrote: “What does he of cricket know who only knows of cricket?” I used to substitute ‘advertising’ for ‘cricket’ – a point Jeremy Bullmore has made in the past with particular reference to James Webb Young’s ‘How to become an Advertising Man’ (written in the days when there weren’t many women in the business but no less relevant despite that). This came to mind when I read the criticism of many economists for poor analyses, with the observation that many of them did not bring to the ‘dismal science’ anything from other disciplines or interests. Generating hypotheses is a form of creativity. Advertising is a study of human behaviour, and the creativity on which it depends, like humour, often comes from putting different things together to create something new.

2. Panorama’s programme on Facebook raised a number of concerns about how much information we are prepared to give away, not just to advertisers. As one adman who was interviewed said: ‘We are all walking barcodes.” I suppose this is big data made small, the idea that ads can be personalised. I wonder how much this is really true at an idiosyncratic as well as an algorithmic level.

The best personal ads I’ve seen tend to be agency leaving cards, as the writers know the individual very well. But if I were to look at incontinence pants for an ageing relative, for instance, I am likely to get pop up ads for some time – possibly until I actually need them myself. I also have a concern for creativity in these ads: they are not personal(ised) in the way a leaving card is. A great book or painting or piece of music is not necessarily written for an individual and yet individuals get something from them that has meaning for them. It will also mean something different to someone else, but still gets a personal response.

The ‘targeted’ ads based on data analysis may occasionally have a superficial veneer of understanding and emotional connection, but they are edging us back to direct response, a message with no idea. Given that the ultimate objective of advertising is to (help) sell, that is not necessarily wrong, but as studies have shown, longer term ROI for a brand needs ideas and creativity.

3. Wear out. I wager that the next time you watch a sports channel you will see a repeat of a betting ad. Advertisers don’t seem to worry about the effect of rerunning commercials again and again. I think there used to be a view that after a number of OTS there were diminishing returns. Separately, the fact that there are so many ads for betting is an interesting sign of the times, maybe a reflection of hope over reality.

Of course, if you dislike or disagree with what an ad is saying about the brand – detergent ads, beauty products among others- then there is a solution: don’t buy the brand. Don’t use Facebook. Don’t use Uber or Amazon if you have any qualms about how they treat their ‘employees.’ For the moment, I confess that convenience beats principles. I still buy books occasionally from a bookshop, I avoid Facebook if possible, but Google a lot. I just wish they knew that my wife bought those shoes ages ago and didn’t actually like them.

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About Giles Keeble

Giles Keeble started as a rep (account man) at JWT before moving to BMP. There Stanley Pollitt told him that JWT’s Stephen King had wanted him to become a planner. John Webster encouraged him to become a writer but after a number of years Giles moved to French Gold Abbott and, for a while, did become a planner of sorts. Returning to writing he went to David Abbott’s new agency AMV followed by WCRS and was then ECD of Leo Burnett for six years. He then returned to AMV before moving to Publicis and then Lowe in Hong Kong at the inception of the ‘World’s Local Bank’ campaign for HSBC. He now works as a writer and strategist as well as running advertising courses for senior clients.