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September 15, 2011
Subjectivity in Advertising: A Losing Proposition
A while back Mike Ogden wrote an excellent article for Talent Zoo called  “Advertising is Subjective?” He said, “I wish I had a nickel for every time I heard that advertising is subjective. It’s like a built-in excuse for the work we do...” If you work with creative services then you probably feel his pain too.
In answer to Mike’s question, I’d say the answer is “Yes” — at least to the extent that the behavior of creative service firms and their clients would indicate that subjectivity is a part of the business accepted by both parties. This is a pretty weird arrangement when you consider that subjectivity implies there is no objective fact to support any conclusion, so instead you give up on objective reason and rely on one individual’s opinion colored by culture, beliefs, mood, etc. This may be valid for judging abstract art or modern dance, but advertising? Besides, depending on people’s whims to create work and get approval (no less payment) seems like a pretty risky and wasteful way to conduct business. So I wonder:  Is there a better way?

The Blame Game 
I often hear ad folk complaining about clients who reject brilliant ideas for purely personal reasons (e.g. their spouse did not like it). But just as often I’ve seen creatives develop and defend work that was very loosely tethered, if at all, to the brief or any defined marketing problem. So I think both sides of the fence have contributed to the problem.
I don’t accept that advertising has to be subjective because it’s simply the nature of the business. True, communication is inherently subjective because to be interpreted it must be filtered through the experiences and perceptions of the recipient. Fortunately, large subsets of people tend to share common experiences and perceptions with regard to specific topics. That is, or should be, the starting point for any creative assignment: Defining these segments and their beliefs objectively so we can target messages in a way that increases the probability that they will have the desired effect. Is this an exact science? No, but it is precisely because communication is so subjective that ad agencies and clients should strive to agree on objective criteria to create and assess it.
Paying the Price
One very real consequence of inviting subjectivity into the business relationship is that payment for creative services also becomes a subjective thing. If you work in creative services perhaps you have heard these excuses for not paying:
"We ended up not using the work."
"It's really not what we wanted after all."
"We got someone internal to do it instead."
"We canceled the project."
"We actually didn't get the funding that we thought we were going to get."
"We feel we have already paid you enough."
"It's really not what we were hoping for."
"Sorry, the person in charge of that project has been laid off."
"We've brought in another agency."
Mike Monteiro runs a design shop called Mule. He asked these questions to a group at his Creative Mornings talk in San Francisco earlier this year. The name of his talk was “F-You. Pay Me.” The title of his talk is based on a scene from the movie Goodfellas, but it was inspired by a career in creative services rife with clients who have been taught that creative work is subjective and therefore payment for creative is also subjective. He makes the point that good contracts make good clients. More importantly, he makes the point that to remain credible in this business you need to believe in the objective value of your work at the outset and not see it as a subjective matter.
Five Steps Toward Objectivity
In addition to clear contracts and creative self-esteem, I’d offer five more points. These are all things that most clients and their agencies are doing today, but could do a lot better to spark creativity and introduce more objectivity into the mix.   
1. More emphasis on discovery. Finding an insight into the target’s collective mindset is the heavy lifting at the outset of a project that is also the easiest to under-budget, if not overlook completely, but without it there is little more than one person’s subjectivity vs. another.
2. Better creative briefs. Once an insight is found, a planner needs to articulate it clearly and focus the team on how it might best be leveraged to accomplish the marketing task at hand. This is really the only objective measurement of the team’s success because it defines what the project is trying to accomplish.
3. Respect for good research. Research the research to make sure it is focusing on the right issues and being performed correctly. Once that is satisfied, immerse yourself in it, learn from it, and abide by it. This applies to everything from market research and target profiles to creative concept testing and post-launch analytics.
4. Measurable success goals. What does success look like in stats? Discuss measurable goals upfront with the entire project team and client.
5. Metrics to navigate. Measurement should not just tell you whether you have made it to your destination or not. It should serve to guide you along the way. So in addition to measuring the success goal, be sure to carefully select and track the ongoing metrics related to your final goal that will tell you what course corrections may help increase the effectiveness of your efforts moving forward.
The problem with the “advertising is subjective” argument is that it replaces intellectual rigor and research with a shoulder shrug and back-to-the-drawing-board mentality. Not good for profits or morale. But, as you have noticed, our industry is changing. In today’s metric-centric digital society I’m wondering if subjectivity will soon go the way of rubylith and other quaint advertising anachronisms. We have all the tools we need to make advertising more objective. The question is: Will we choose to use them? 

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Sean Duffy is a founder of Duffy Agency, the digital marketing agency for aspiring international brands. Sean has over 25 years of experience working with strategic marketing in Boston, San Francisco, Stockholm, and Copenhagen. In addition to his involvement with Duffy Agency, Sean is a frequent speaker on strategic international marketing and online brand management. He serves also as Lecturer and Practitioner in Residence at the Lund University School of Economics & Management and as Mentor in their Masters Program in Entrepreneurship. Sean is an active member of  TAAN Worldwide where he has served two terms as the European Governor. He is also a speaker, bloggerTwittererand is on LinkedInWith offices in Malmö and Boston, Sean splits his time between Sweden and the States.

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