There’s a picture on the wall of our office of the British entrepreneur Tony Wilson, the man behind Manchester’s Factory Records and The Hacienda nightclub. Wilson used to put his successes and failures down to something he called praxis, the idea that you do something because you want to do it and that you work out why you did it later.
Five years ago we started a book club for people working in advertising because we wanted a forum for discussing ideas. It was only recently that we worked out why we did it: it’s because book club helps us discover our values.
We realised this while reading a book about sales patterns for products and services called How Brands Grow. The author, the Australian academic Byron Sharp, argues that your customers don’t want you to be different to your competitors. He says that if you want to grow your business you must recognise that what really attracts customers is ‘the benefits of your category’ – what interests them, he says, is your values.
‘Real-world competition is largely about competitive matching rather than avoiding competitors by delivering differences’, he writes. ‘Loyalty definitely exists, but it is a characteristic of consumer behaviour, rather than being driven by brand differentiation’.
We embraced this idea and stopped talking about why we’re different from our competitors and started talking about the values that makes us distinctive – values that are reflected in the pages of some fascinating books.
01 KEEP IT INTERESTING
"You’d think that all companies would want to keep their digital advertising interesting but you only have to look at most web pages to disprove that".
We’ve been producing engagement campaigns here at Silence since 2009, longer than any other company in the world, and this experience has taught us that people only engage with brand advertising that they find interesting. David Ogilvy writes about this in Ogilvy on Advertising (1983), the book that launched our book club. ‘When I write an advertisement, I don’t want you to tell me that you find it creative,’ he says. ‘I want you to find it so interesting that you buy the product.’
You’ll find lots of examples of Ogilvy’s print and TV ads in Ogilvy on Advertising, including his famous Rolls Royce ad, which declared that ‘at 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock’.
You’d think that all companies today would want to create interesting digital ad campaigns but you only have to look at most web pages to disprove that. An abundance of page impressions has caused poor creative standards and falling CPMs to couple-up like kids for the three-legged race, getting nowhere fast.
When Ogilvy wrote Ogilvy on Advertising, ad agencies handled both creative and media buying, and our work at Silence is reminiscent of that era. Our studio and our media buyers work together to figure out the narrative that makes our ads interesting enough for people to engage with them.
02 TEST, TEST, TEST
There’s a book about advertising from 1923 with lots to teach those of us working in digital today. Scientific Advertising was written by the American adman Claude Hopkins, one of the founding fathers of our industry. David Ogilvy said that ‘nobody should be allowed to have anything to do with advertising until they have read this book seven times. It changed the course of my life.’
"The time has come when advertising has in some hands reached the status of a science".
This is how it starts: ‘The time has come when advertising has in some hands reached the status of a science. It is based on fixed principles and is reasonably exact. The causes and effects have been analyzed until they are well understood’.
Working in newspaper advertising a hundred years ago, Hopkins motto was ‘the more you tell, the more you sell’. He proved that his ads were selling his clients’ products through extensive testing. He’d create lots of versions of a mail-order ad for a bicycle, for example, to work out the best combination of pictures, headlines and copy.
At Silence, we test wherever we can, from the content in our ads to the targeting strategies in media buying, to achieve the best possible engagement rates, interaction time and click rates for our campaigns.
03 WE ARE CUSTOMERS TOO
When you work in advertising it’s easy to forget that you are a customer too. We’re predisposed to this way of thinking in our industry.
Look at how we borrow the language of war to talk about customers: after we’ve targeted them, we capture their data; or how we put them into demographic categories with outlandish titles that we’d never see ourselves being members of; or chase them around the internet with ‘perfectly personalised ads’ without questioning whether that’s something we’d like ourselves.
"Most of us ignore or avoid the torrent of unwanted messages we slog through every day".
‘Most of us ignore or avoid the torrent of unwanted messages we slog through every day. That includes everybody in the advertising business, even if they don’t want to admit it,’ says Doc Searls in The Intention Economy.
American adman, journalist and provocateur, Searls has described adblocking as the biggest boycott in human history.
He argues that digital advertising is broken and that it’s time to stop what he calls our ‘cat and mouse’ game with customers and to start building a more meaningful relationship with them by inviting them to reveal their intentions. He predicts the arrival of an economy in which customers inform the market of their intention to buy something so that companies can compete to sell it to them, arguing that this is ‘the only evolutionary path out of the pure guess-work game that advertising has been for the duration’.
This book taught us the value of firmly standing with the customer in our work – producing ads that we can imagine ourselves or our friends engaging with because they look great and they have something interesting to say.
04 LOOK FOR THE SIGNAL IN THE NOISE
Last year at book club we discussed a book called Flash Boys by Michael Lewis, the best-selling American author. Flash Boys shone a light on the advertising industry by unpicking another industry, high-speed trading on Wall Street.
"The advertising industry is going through something akin to the automation of the financial markets in the 1980’s".
‘The advertising industry is going through something akin to the automation of the financial markets in the 1980’s,’ said The Economist in an article about Flash Boys and programmatic media buying. ‘Some advertising agencies and media companies have told their executives to read Flash Boys by Michael Lewis, a book about Wall Street’s high-speed traders, to make sure they get the message.’
Flash Boys is a story about unscrupulous middlemen putting themselves between investors and the stock-market and using complex technology to rip-off investors by making huge arbitrage profits. ‘The market is rigged,’ declared Michael Lewis about high-frequency trading.
Programmatic media buying is also a rigged market, one that economists call a market for lemons.
A market for lemons suffers from something known as information asymmetry, which is when the seller of a product – usually a specialist – knows a lot more about the quality of that product than the buyer. The market for used cars is often used as an example of a market for lemons. When you’re buying a used car, it’s difficult to know if the car you’re about to buy is a good one, a peach, or a bad one, a lemon.
Programmatic is a market for lemons because the sellers of page impressions for display ads know a lot more about the quality of those page impressions than the buyers. For example, where is the ad sitting on the page – did it even load onto the page? Where is it being served – Manchester or Marrakech? And who’s looking at it – humans or robots? The problem with this kind of insider information in a market is that it causes some companies to stay away from it because they’re worried they’ll end up buying a lemon instead of a peach.
There are two ways to cure information asymmetry in a rigged market: sellers can signal that they can be trusted, or buyers can screen products for defects.
We launched cost-per-engagement advertising to signal quality to brand advertisers looking to run high-impact display campaigns – you only pay if somebody engages. Today we still value this signal of quality above all things because it anchors the job of combining design, technology and media to create engaging digital advertising campaigns.
05 ALL IDEAS ARE VALID
We celebrated our seventh birthday with an event in Soho that we billed as an exploration of creativity. Our guest speaker, Danny Brooke-Taylor, Creative Director of the ad agency Lucky Generals, talked about how he got the ideas for some of his award-winning ads. He related them to the 5 stages of the creative process revealed in a book from 1939, A Technique for Producing Ideas by American adman James Wood Young.
“...the production of ideas is just as definite a process as the production of Fords".
Young argues that ‘the production of ideas is just as definite a process as the production of Fords’, which Danny echoed in his talk by revealing the processes that led to the creation of TV ads for clients like Hovis, Amazon and Pot Noodle. Reading A Technique for Producing Ideas and listening to Danny’s talk confirmed an important value for us – that all ideas are valid.
We’ve written about some of the values that make Silence distinct from its competitors, and the books that helped us unearth them. Our most distinct asset, of course, is our staff, whose ideas are highly valued because of the positive contribution they make to our relationships with our clients and suppliers.
Everyone working at Silence is encouraged to speak up if they’re struck by an idea. Whether it comes from one of the founders or a new starter, we want to hear it. This causes new ideas to float around us like bubbles, some of them popping because they can’t survive contact with reality, others exploding into new and cherished business processes.