Learning Lessons

By The Cog Blog Archives
Cover image for  article: Learning Lessons

Why is it that we are so bad at learning from the mistakes and successes of the past? It's something that bugs me and, I suspect, anyone who's been around for any length of time.

I'm in good company as this failure to learn is a theme explored by Bob Hoffman, the AdContrarian in his blogs and in his interview with me as one of the Crater Lake and Mediatel "Making Sense Of It All" series.

Bob talks about our weird ability to keep repeating the same mistakes over and over; almost as if it's a weakness to accept that anything that happened in the business longer ago than a week last Tuesday can possibly have any relevance at all, given the speed that things are changing.

This idea that good ideas somehow have a use-by date is hogwash. In the same way that in sport we are used to the mantra that form is temporary, class is permanent. The basic principles that drive our business are not fundamentally changed because some digital evangelist somewhere tweaks an algorithm or writes a new piece of code.

I think the problem runs deeper than a belief in the now over the then.

Bob talks of other industries, like travel, automotive and computing. There, learning and changing are a part of life -- if they weren't, the end user would have something to say about it.

In advertising, the end user who ultimately decides what appears is the client. Clients apply their own definition of learning and changing -- and in far too many cases these definitions, like improving meaningless metrics like clicks or likes, are superficial. They are far too often not connected directly to that hard-to-define measure: "business success," let alone to "creativity."

A client can improve his performance metrics and still destroy his brand's image and reputation. Eventually a poor reaction amongst consumers will lead, as we all know, to fewer sales and reduced margins, but that takes time and by then the client has any number of options when it comes to apportioning blame.

Many of us find creativity hard to recognize. Great marketers don't, but there aren't so many great marketers.

On the other hand, all of us recognize that a small number is, well, smaller than a big number.

So -- which is easier? To go out on a limb and argue that the best way to sell chocolate is to feature a gorilla playing the drums; or to hang your hat on paying less per second, scaling back the creative "idea" to a two-second pack shot, ramping up the frequency to absurd levels, and buying more followers?

Agency leaders used to be great at standing up for their art (as that is what it is, in this instance). I worked for Leo Burnett whose London chairman, the late great Richard Wheatly, once resigned an account over an argument about the number of bubbles the client insisted on having in shot in a glass of a well-known hangover cure.

The best agencies understood instinctively what was good, fought for it, and often won. Ater all, if it was that easy to do great work then the client would have done it himself.

The skill in producing great advertising was recognized, and respected.

Today, we don't fight often enough. Agencies give in rather than risk losing the business over a principle. Media agencies may know very well that online advertising doesn't engage and doesn't deliver brand effects, yet they buy it anyway. It's cheap. It reaches loads of people. What could be better?

Don't confuse me with talk of definitions or research. Beat the audit, give the client what he wants, not what he needs. In short: "anything for a quiet life."

We don't learn. Learning is hard, the whole process can and usually does involve confrontation. If we don't stand up for something, if we just say "Yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir," then what we get is poor advertising appearing in the wrong places.

We console ourselves with increases in irrelevant metrics, and then express amazement when we end up with consumers not noticing the work or, even worse, telling us they find it boring, irritating and irrelevant.

Meantime, we kid ourselves that we're being smart by talking to ourselves, ignoring the inconvenient truth that nobody is paying us any attention. ("But we won an award / We bought more likes / We have more followers.")

One of the strongest points in Bob's interview is his contention that if you walked into the average agency today, and asked the average executive about Peter Field, Les Binet, Karen Nelson-Field -- all people who are doing their damndest to explain what works and what doesn't -- you'll be met with ignorance and indifference.

We should celebrate learning. Hold general sessions for clients on great cases, on what they tell us. This used to happen in creative agencies as a way of opening up a conversation on what was great work, and why. Maybe it still does. I don't know if it happens in media agencies; it should, but I doubt it does.

If we don't learn we'll become an insignificant, low-paid, automated supplier looking back and wondering where it all went wrong.

And we'll fully deserve our fate.

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