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Putting Customer Experience First

September 2017 | Pete Buckley

4 September 2017


One of the greatest books ever written on advertising is ‘Testing to Destruction’ by Alan Hedges, first published back in 1974. The man is an unrecognised genius.  A lot of the thinking we parade as innovative today is covered by Hedges in this book. Recommended reading for all, pdf here.

In his chapter on how advertising works, he says “advertising seems to work best when it is mutually beneficial to the advertiser and the consumer: which is an interesting thought.” Indeed, and one which feels pertinent today, as customer experience increasingly dominates marketing.

Little did Hedges know that over 40 years later this thought would result in Facebook and Google becoming two of the most valuable brands on earth (5th and 1st according to BrandZ ). Both advertising fuelled brands built on the belief that the user comes first. Advertiser effectiveness is essential but it can’t come at the expense of user experience.

Generally, the advertising industry doesn’t behave like this.

Our briefs state “what do we want the audience to think, feel and do”, there’s little regard for what they want.

If a 0.1% click through rate results in brand growth, who cares about the other 99.9%? Not us.

We put effectiveness first, the experience of those we’re reaching is less of a concern.

This isn’t a surprise. While more people than ever claim they find all TV advertising annoying (see graph below). The IPAs latest effectiveness study by Binet and Field shows TV is more effective than it’s ever been (below).

Source: Kantar TGI 2000 - 2016

Source: IPA Media in Focus, Binet & Field, 2017

Experience and effectiveness don’t always align. May be that’s why we create this type of work:

So, what should advertisers do? Pay lip service to experience but carry on regardless? Or start to fundamentally shift the model we work to? I’m going to use my time as guest editor to investigate this across 4 posts each building from a classic text that’s worth reading:

1. What does putting “customer experience first” mean for advertising
Advertising is a stupidly broad term. To be more specific I’m going to build on Stephen King’s useful Scale of Immediacy (which pulled apart the different roles advertising can play). I’ll take these roles and map them across the purchase journey to see how advertising will look with a greater focus on context and customer experience. 

Key source text – A Masterclass In Brand Planning by Stephen King (Chapter 8)


2. Should we even bother?
There’s a good argument that says advertising mostly works in the background at lower levels of consciousness, why should we care about experience? Can’t we just stay as we are, beating people around the head with the same banal messages? I’ll dive into the work of Robert Heath and his thinking about low level processing to see if experience in advertising really matters at all.
Key source text - Seducing the Subconscious by Robert Health


3. Isn’t this what we’ve always done?
Isn’t good customer experience just good advertising? Haven’t we always thought about the customer? The truth is the best campaigns have always been built from a deep customer insight. I’ll use the fantastic history of advertising planning John Griffiths has written to help plot how our relationship with customer experience has changed. Oddly it seems we used to care more about experience when it may have mattered less.
Key source text – 98% Pure Potato By John Griffiths / Tracey Follows


4. Concluding thoughts for the future
Back in 1960 Theodore Levitt wrote his classic text Marketing Myopia in which he introduced arguably the most influential marketing idea of the last century – businesses do better if they focus on customer needs rather than selling products. As an industry, it’s a lesson we still need to learn, search engines, social networks and recommendation engines have all come from outside of advertising and yet are central to customer discovery today. What needs to change for the industry to get on the front foot?

Key source text – Marketing Myopia by Theodore Levitt


Throughout I’d love to hear any thoughts, feedback, suggestions, disagreements, anger, which will undoubtedly make it a better experience for all of us.

The Golden Rule That Fits Everybody (and advertising)

11 September 2017


“If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” - William Morris “The Beauty of Life”, 1880

In 1987 psychologist Alice Isen and her colleagues published a landmark study that showed when people feel happy they are better at using creativity to solve difficult problems, they perform more effectively in brainstorms and come up with better ideas. Yet when people are anxious, unhappy or generally feel bad they narrow their thought processes, concentrating on aspects relevant to the problem, and don’t consider new options.

Further studies by Isen have found this to be true of brand choice. People feeling happy have a higher acceptance of brand extensions to product types that are less typical of a brand’s usual domain and use an expanded consideration set (bad if you’re a well-established category leader, great if you’re a challenger).

This idea of positive feelings aiding effectiveness has also been evidenced in design. Studies show that attractive things, that make people feel good, work better. They’re more effective. (See Emotional Design by Don Norman).

It seems that positive customer experiences which makes people feel good, matter not for the sake of it or because it’s a buzzword today, but because it gets better results.

And the same is true in advertising.

Advertising which people like, is consistently shown to be the most effective advertising you can create.

In the 90s the ARF Copy Research Validity Study found that ‘ad likeability’ was the single best predictor of sales effectiveness. These findings have been repeated and validated numerous times since. Even Byron Sharp has got in on the act running a study that helpfully reminds us that whilst ad likeability is an effective objective, without brand recognition it’s useless. You can always rely on Byron to add value.

But what makes an ad liked?

A classic paper by Biel investigated this, he ran large-scale quantitative study that showed 'likeability' is a complex concept made up of numerous factors but the most important is what he termed ‘meaningfulness’. To quote him “people most like commercials they find personally meaningful or relevant”.

So a good step towards making advertising which create a better customer experience is ensuring we create communications which people like and find personally meaningful.

Obviously what people find meaningful, relevant or likeable isn’t consistent. It all depends on what’s on their minds and where they are on the purchase journey.

If I’m in the market for a small practical car then an ad explaining in detail the benefits of a Ford Focus might be meaningful to me, whilst its more likely to be irrelevant if I’m not in-market. The quality of the experience is determined by where on the journey I am.

So, how we create the best experience for people will depend on where they are on their purchase journey and the role for advertising.

King’s Scale of immediacy
Back in 1972 Stephen King wrote a theory of advertisements which looked to segment the different advertisement roles (see chapter 8 of this) . He called it the ‘scale of immediacy’, it consisted of 6 layers (including direct response), and it’s still a useful model for today (see below), especially when most of the industry still lumps everything into direct or brand.

King’s scale focused on the role of advertising from the perspective of the advertiser. To see where these roles fit from a customer perspective I’ve used a simple model of the purchase journey we use at MEC which consists of four parts, Passive (everyday life, not thinking about the category), Trigger (a need or want that brings people into Active (people thinking consciously about the category) and finally Purchase.

Across the Purchase Journey I’ve plotted a simplified version of King’s roles going from the most to the least direct.

5 roles of advertising
Activate, Inform, Discover, Reinforce, Associate

This model may be useful for thinking about how advertising aligns with what’s important to the people we’re trying to speak to. Below I’ve highlighted a few thoughts on how advertisers can do a better job with this, using MEC research into 350,000 journeys:

1. For most categories 90%+ of category buyers at any point in time are in the passive stage. This means for the majority meaningful communications are unlikely to be information heavy, as this type of communication belongs when people are in-market and interested. Yet most ads today are still rational benefit focused. Advertisers need to take a lesson from Apple with their World Gallery campaign. Using beautiful photography Apple transformed what could have been a rational information ad (“we’ve got a great camera”) into a highly likeable beautiful campaign, perfect for those in the passive stage.

2. Effective advertising which meets the discovery role (triggering unknown wants) is rare. Our studies show that advertising is a weak force in triggering people into the active stage, they’re driven more by their own needs or wants. But advertising can play this role, a great example is the Economist campaign, which used contextual dynamic messaging to show how the Economist was personally relevant. Interestingly, the idea of discovery has still not been effectively resolved digitally. While search is highly effective at answering the Inform (provide information) and Activate (facilitate action) roles, it can’t do discovery, you need to know what you’re searching for. You’d imagine with their mountains of data Facebook or Amazon could eventually corner this role, but as Benedict Evans from Andreessen Horowitz has suggested, cracking effective discovery is still a massive opportunity.

3. While the industry is becoming ever more short term in focus (see Media in Focus by Binet and Field), the active stage is becoming ever more expensive, with significant inflation across most direct digital channels. It’s never been more important to make communication in the passive stage work harder so we rely less on the active stage. To do that we need to think of how we make advertising which people will like when they’re not at all interested in our product or category.


Undoubtedly the model can be significantly improved upon, it isn’t comprehensive, nor does it consider that the most effective advertising often performs multiple roles, but hopefully this bastardising of classic advertising theory has shown that thinking about where customers are on the purchase journey could help advertisers create more likeable and effective communications.

To go back to the quote at the start of the post, if we aim to make advertising useful in the active stage and beautiful in the passive stage, it’s more likely we’ll create communications which offer a better customer experience and more effectively drive brand growth.

Is less attention better?

20 September 2017


“Requiring less, not more, processing is probably a mark of better more effective advertising.”
- Byron Sharp

If Samuel Johnson was still alive he would have been 308 years old this week. That gives you some idea of how long people have been moaning about advertising clutter and fragmented attention. Back in 1759 Johnson wrote:

“Advertisements are now so numerous that they are very negligently perused. It is therefore necessary to gain attention by magnificence of promises and by eloquence sometimes sublime, and sometimes pathetic.”

For the most part advertising is and always has been in the background.

Surprisingly this isn’t reflected in how advertisers and agencies often work. We constantly talk of engagement, participation, driving people to places, having impact and getting people so excited they can’t but help generate “talkability”.

When you consider that most ad impressions, whatever the channel or format, aren’t actively processed, this all starts to sound a bit like over-claim.

If it’s in the background does experience matter?
I’m guilty of this over-claim myself by focusing these posts on “experience”.

The idea of “experience” in advertising implies that advertising is something that’s consciously consumed or engaged with – like the user experience of a website. Yet for most advertising this couldn’t be further from the truth.

The ad campaign you’re working on right now, whatever it is, will only be actively processed by a tiny proportion of the billions of impressions it’s likely to benefit from. (See page 70 of Testing to Destruction for probably the most realistic description of how advertising works ever written)

The distraction test
When we plan advertising it’s rare for us to admit most people will only glimpse at our hard-fought creation, or they’ll only see it out of the corner of their eye, or just hear the soundtrack as they play on their phone. We’d rather think it ‘captures attention’ every time.

But today more than ever we need to consider, how does the ad work if people aren’t focused on it? What if they only see the first 2 seconds? What associations would half a glance create?

Because this will increasingly be the reality, however much we’d like the opposite to be true.

“No one reads advertising. People read what interests them, sometimes it’s an ad”
Howard Gossage, The Book Of Gossage

Of course it’s true that people have always chosen what they read and attend to but now choice is super-charged and on-demand like never before. By all accounts people are focusing on advertising less. The latest IPA study out last week stated 92% of adults now dual consume media and media consumption is now 7hrs 56 mins a day on average for each adult.

The answer – shorter ads?
We’re seeing the advertising industry respond to this. In the US the TV networks have started to trial the 6 second TV ad, a natural step in a much longer journey. Like press advertising before it, video advertising is slowly losing its depth and duration.

Campbell's Tomato Soup press advertising in the 1910s, 1960s and 2010s (left to right)

Back in the 1970s the average TV ad in the US was 60”, by the 1980s 30” ads accounted for 85% of airtime, by 2016 the most popular ad format had become the 15” ad. The 6 second ad is the latest format, which has been echoed by YouTube and Facebook, both launching 6 second formats recently and evidencing their effectiveness (YT here and FB here).

Shorter experience – cause for concern?
Should the advertising industry be afraid of these shorter formats or do they create a better experience and more effective advertising? As usual the real answer is it depends on the objective and where on the purchase journey the advertising is looking to work, but in addition to YouTube’s and Facebook’s own studies there’s further evidence that ads processed with low attention can influence behaviour and build brands.


Over the last 15 years Dr Robert Heath has shown comprehensively that low attention processing can and does influence the brands we buy. This isn’t just an advertising theory, one of the world’s leading psychologist Professor Daniel Schacter from Harvard states:

“You may think that because you pay little attention to commercials ...your judgments about products are unaffected ...But a recent experiment showed that people tend to prefer products featured in ads they barely glanced at several minutes earlier ... even when they have no explicit memory of having seen the ad.”

In fact studies, have shown that TV, the most effective advertising channel of all, appears to be so effective precisely because it delivers emotional messages which work at low attention levels.

There are two schools of thought on how low attention processing influences behaviour:

  • Robert Heath speculates that emotion oriented ads work by inducing less rational thinking and hence stimulate fewer counter arguments

  • Byron Sharp believes that emotional ads are more enjoyable and therefore easier to watch, they’re easier to process, so can work with very little conscious processing.

It’s kind of ironic that at a time when attention is more fragmented and choice has exploded the industry starts to invest more in rational activation messaging (according to the IPA) and focuses ever more on developing long form ‘content’.

All the above suggests that to create a better experience and greater effectiveness we need to make advertising which requires less processing.

We need to plan advertising for the reality that according to BARB the average adult in the UK is exposed every day to 43 ads on TV alone. That this ‘audience’ is unforgiving, constantly distracted, brutally selfish and don’t care about what advertisers want to say. Advertising just isn’t that important, it lives in the background of their lives. We’ll need all our creativity to get into the foreground.

Because the truth is advertising which requires less processing but generates more, is probably the most effective advertising we can make.

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