A Sometimes Simple Science

[This piece originally ran as part of my Mythbuster series in MediaPost Magazine]

Many of us in advertising claim that what we do is a blend of art and science. Of course, it helps when one can reap the benefits of keeping such a mantra around. To the client who complains that the proposed creative doesn’t offer enough product information, we can answer: You’re failing to appreciate the art of what we do. The media plan doesn’t have enough emerging contact points? Now you’re failing to understand the hard science behind creating a proven plan with quantifiable metrics.

Of course, the concept that advertising is both art and science should make our jobs easier for reasons other than the opportunity for doublespeak. Consider, say, our infatuation with content integration.

Few facets of our industry get more attention than this one – simply because it’s bandied about as the solution to the “problem” of consumer empowerment.

Specifically, as traditional sponsorship models (that is, the exchange of discounted content for consumer attention) break down, content integration’s pedestal has grown taller. After all, if those darn consumers, with their pesky sense of entitlement, must opt-in before we can communicate with them, what easier way to persuade them than hiding amongst the content? They can’t fast forward through that, right?

But frankly, the problem is much broader. The issue is that our “deal” with consumers has fundamentally changed, and it keeps changing. The old deal involved granting access to content in exchange for accepting our advertising. But now their demands are increasing; many times they don’t even know what they want until we offer it to them. We’re no longer successful when we simply manage to avoid detracting from the consumer experience. It seems now that we only have a deal when we explicitly enhance that experience.

The old sponsorship model doesn’t work when consumers no longer believe the exchange rate is in their favor. Free content is something they expect in certain environments, and they don’t plan on giving up their valuable time or attention for nothing. So why not take a step back and make our focus the simple science of determining where we can add value?

The misconception here is that a brand can only add value when it’s creatively relevant. Sure, it’s great when we nail it (I herald Burger King’s Xbox 360 games as spot on), but we all know that, as an industry, we simply won’t get the art right that often.

The science is actually much simpler anyway. It boils down to determining what consumers want and giving it to them, regardless of whether it’s rooted in content, technology, convenience or basic finance. It’s why I like seeing examples as elementary as Virgin Mobile’s Sugar Mama and ABC’s streaming media player. They’re not exceptionally sophisticated, and they don’t need to be. They both provide a straightforward deal in which people opt-in to receive something they want (free cell phone minutes and free primetime TV content, respectively) and think it’s valuable enough to warrant their attention.

I’m not saying we can’t be more creative than bribery, but I am saying we don’t always need to be. The key is to find something valuable and unique that can’t immediately be offered by another brand, and then position our brand as the provider in the deal.

It sounds a lot like sponsorship, doesn’t it? Don’t be fooled, though. Once consumers feel like any brand can and will step in to provide the same deal, they feel empowered and the cycle starts afresh. But as long as the offering is new, consumers tend to agree to the terms. It’s our job to stay focused on the consumer and identify (or create) the value they’ll find most relevant, then provide it, all the while not hiding the strings we’ve attached. Sure, others will eventually follow suit when one brand or vendor stumbles onto a deal consumers think is worth their while, but the need for constant renegotiation of a deal is much easier than the need to constantly reinvent the ad model.

You could even say it’s where the art meets the science.

Saneel Radia is VP/group director of Denuo’s premiere gaming division, Play, and is based in Los Angeles.

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