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Bob Hoffman’s Road to Reality and Adjusting the Balance of Crisis

Bob Hoffman’s Road to Reality

This post is by TrinityP3 Business Director, David Angell. David has extensive commercial and media experience gained most recently as the Regional Chief Operating Officer at Havas Group and through an almost twenty-year career in media agencies, which he uses to help drive optimal results for TrinityP3 clients.

Last week, the Ad Contrarian’s most recent post arrived in my inbox.

Titled ‘The Road to Reality’, the central premise is that marketing as an industry has been living in a fantasy land in which consumers care deeply about the brands marketers work so hard to develop; and that we should all re-evaluate through a ‘hard-nosed assessment of real-world consumer behaviour’. In short, people’s involvement with almost all brands is more transactional than it is emotional.

Speaking where others think

As with many of his articles, Hoffman is saying what I believe many of us are probably thinking. Including those who actually are involved in trying to deliver emotional attachment to a particular brand of cereals, beans, rice, bleach, paper towels (to name a few of his examples).

Hoffman invites us to ‘look at your [own] behaviour and see how it correlates with the practices and beliefs of our industry’.

Surely, on the inside, people already do that? Speaking generally and to coin a clumsy phrase, I can’t believe that everyone in this industry entirely believes in their own marketing efforts. People already know that at least some marketing – including their own marketing activities, in their own jobs – has to be bullshit. They’re just scared to look in the mirror, or outwardly admit it.

The problem is that we’re all bound by the fact that we’re human beings, with livings to earn and careers to develop. In my own hard-nosed assessment of real-world behaviour in this industry, the majority of people are, like the consumers they chase, ultimately transactional, rather than emotional, in the way they approach their careers.

This road could end up littered with corpses

Hoffman’s article stops at what the destination at the end of his road to reality actually looks like – he offers that ‘formulating our marketing and advertising activities from a real-world perspective may lead to startling insights and revolutionary strategies. Or it may convince us that our current efforts are on the right track. Or, most likely, it will lead to a little of each.’

I find this a curiously insipid conclusion from one normally so forthright. If we really want to confront it, we could envisage that based on his view and in a final assessment kind of situation, the ‘road to reality’ would be littered with the corpses of battered marketing teams, remnants of the brand, sponsorship, advertising, media and entertainment budgets diverted into trade, POS and promotion, and associated casualties across the industry.

Which, of course, is why the majority won’t travel, especially if they’re told that their current way of thinking is ‘fantasy land’.

This road isn’t empty: Taking inspiration by example

So what’s the answer? What’s the answer for those who care about the industry, where it’s going, the power it has in the economy and the lives of thousands of people working in and around it?

Perhaps we start by inspiring change via consideration of the flip side, one that the article, like much of the Ad-Contrarian’s work (much as I love it), fails to note.

Which is that even today, it’s not all bad. There are marketers out there doing great work, fantastic work. Work that isn’t in fantasy land. Work that maybe just evolves the norms of marketing thinking, rather than binning them entirely. Work that does actually blend emotional and transactional motivation in a way that’s true to reality.

The article paints the ‘road to reality’ as empty – as if no-one is on it, as if everyone is living in a marketing fantasy camp as if everyone and everything needs to change. It even talks about ‘changing every marketing plan in the world’. When in fact there are those who have already travelled or are on the road. I think that’s worth shouting out.

Some great marketing work will never attempt a close emotional connection or try to tell a story, but it does connect. Look at the work ALDI does. Or IKEA. Rooted in reality, designed to sell stuff with a smile.

And some great marketing work proves that done right, people do actually care, and can engage in a marketing story.

Let’s take three completely different brands as examples, and for the sake of our own reality, let’s make two of them Australian.

Look at AAMI’s Rhonda and Ketut and tell me that people aren’t ever interested in stories. This campaign was recently resurrected after a number of years out and the consumer interest in and recall of the original story remained strong.

Watch Nike ‘Find Your Greatness’ and tell me if the hairs on the back of your head don’t stand up as you engage with the sentiment, and feel something about the values of this brand.

Yes, it’s trying to sell shoes, everyone knows that – but it’s also shining light on real-world issues. To quote the article – yes, if Nike disappeared tomorrow, ‘Nike loyalists would throw on a pair of Adidas without having to enter rehab.’

But the thing is, Nike hasn’t disappeared. And it continues to prove, time and again, that great marketing, rooted in real-world consumer sentiment and behaviour, sells sneakers. ‘Find Your Greatness’ has 7.3m views on YouTube alone – that’s just the version I looked at.

Consider the great work Coles has done over the years in linking products via advertising, sponsorship, endorsement, spin-offs and content, into a through the line marketing approach that delivers brilliant sales results, and tell me that people aren’t following the trail.

Their emotional connection may not be deep – but then it doesn’t have to be, it’s not trying to be, it’s aimed squarely at middle Australia and it stands or falls on transactional engagement.

I’d guess that some of the individuals involved in creating these campaigns carry the ‘preposterous’ job descriptions lamented by Hoffman. Doesn’t stop them from being great.

Adjusting the Balance of Crisis

From a pure marketing perspective, I agree with much of the sentiment. There’s a lot that could and should change to become more practical and less pretentious.

Emotional connection can exist for a minority of brands but for sure, consumers don’t care as much as we want them to. There is an inherent problem with the quality and effectiveness of marketing and advertising. There are many marketers and organisations who, frankly, should take note and take their fingers out of their backsides.

Having said that, I wish The Ad Contrarian would try less hard to be singularly provocative and inject more of his serious writing talent into balancing things out with what’s already great in the industry.

Does everything have to be couched in such a perpetual state of unalloyed crisis? We’re all guilty of it to some degree. Hell, even our mechanism for celebration – awards – are now increasingly tainted with ever-growing cynicism.

I understand what the word ‘Contrarian’ means. But he’s such a powerful voice. His article could be a demonstration of what has been achieved and what more could be achievable by broader application of his thoughts, rather than what should be achieved if everything wasn’t a proverbial pile of shit.

TrinityP3 has developed a suite of products aimed at increasing your marketing performance to achieve improved business outcomes. Find out more here

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    David has been a media agency practitioner for fifteen years, holding several senior positions in the UK and Australia. During this time, he has worked with a number of blue-chip organisations. David is the General Manager and Head of Media at TrinityP3. He lives in Melbourne with his wife and children.

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