The Ultimate Marketing Challenge - Paid Attention

What is marketing today?

Back in 1999, we started a marketing agency called StrawberryFrog to disrupt what looked like an episode of Mad Men. There was a select group of others in New York and London. What followed was the most disruptive period in marketing since the television was invented. There was an explosion of innovations and platforms and agencies for brands.

We've witnessed brands go through the transition from mass advertising to a complex fragmented media environment with consumer engagement and the explosion of social media. Seventeen years on, our world has become inundated with platforms and technology, where the business models change almost monthly to keep up with the pace of innovation.

Most marketers and brand managers have difficulty keeping up. According to the Harvard Business Review "...what marketers do to engage customers has changed almost beyond recognition. With the possible exception of information technology, we can't think of another discipline that has evolved so quickly. Tools and strategies that were cutting-edge just a few years ago are fast becoming obsolete, and new approaches are appearing every day." In the same article HBR said that most CMOs primarily use data and analytics to improve marketing effectiveness, which to many are table stakes now.

Surprisingly according to the author of the HBR story CMOs pretty much use the same approach as when brand management was invested fifty years ago.

A new book as been written to punch a hole in this convention: "We've always known that an "Opportunity to See" is also an opportunity to miss. People, to quote Howard Gossage, don't read ads, they read what interests them and sometimes that's an ad. In a digital world, we are operating in a live, global attention market for the first time, so the fight for attention is greater than ever." says Faris Yakob, a modern genius in marketing (who unapologetically steals ideas) and the author of "Paid Attention: Innovative Advertising for a Digital World", published this month by Kogan Page.

"We've been buying attention for a long time but we can never sure if people are paying attention. We translate attention, the foundational idea of advertising, into a binary currency. It's a messy, complicated analog phenomenon. Market research is flawed."

I wanted to dig deeper into this thinking. The following is an extract of Faris' thinking, just enough to tickle the tongue so that you'll read the book.

Scott Goodson: What does your idea mean to traditional advertising brands that rely on buying attention?

Faris Yakob: In a scarce media environment, it was possible to simply buy your way into the popular consciousness if you had enough money. The mere exposure effect meant you could drive preference simply thorough presence. In an infinite media environment as we have now, where everyone and everything is clamoring for your attention, that's no longer the case.

SG: If you are a brand director how should you be thinking to outsmart your competition?

FY: Everyone in advertising has the same strategic advice about outsmarting the competition: disruption, zag, etc. Don't do what everyone else is doing. Instead, I'd suggest stealing the best of what everyone is doing, inside and outside advertising, and building from there.

SG: In your book you talk about translating attention, the foundational idea of advertising, into a binary currency. Please explain what binary currency means.

FY: Attention is a many splendored thing. It has different modes, aspects and so on. Impressions are a binary currency in that there is either an impression served - 1 - or there isn't - 0. In fact, impressions encode a possibility - it's not really one person seeing an ad, but rather one person being exposed to an ad, which is different. That uncertainty is ignored in the binary nature. The implications of System One / System Two thinking from behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman disrupt the embedded assumptions of advertising as messaging and persuasion. Market research is flawed because System One is activated to explain the subconscious operations of System Two. Brands are a socially constructed idea, and their value is created in part through how much attention they have been able to aggregate.

SG: How is research flawed and if so what's the better smarter way to get insights and mine feedbacks?

FY: Almost all classic market research relies on asking people what they think. This can no doubt be interesting, but will produce explanatory fictions for prior behavior, and will not accurately predict future behavior. So much of how decisions are made is subconscious - by asking the conscious mind about them we always get inaccurate results.

It depends on the nature of the insights being sought but in general it's better to triangulate from as many approaches as you can, and look to actual behavior over utterance.

SG: If the internet shifts us to an infinite content space, share of voice becomes a nonsense. What replaces share of voice?

FY: It depends on what we think SOV was for. It's a measure of relative activity in the marketplace amongst competitors; so really what we are measuring is competitive spend on attention. Attention is increasingly being acquired in different ways. Perhaps we should consider impact rather than activity. In that case, share of search volume is a better measure of salience and brand share. Share of voices also shows impact: competitive social media volume for a brand or a campaign.

SG: So, as media content technology advertising merge then how do we understand ideas, advertising, strategy, and so on? What is the answer?

FY: There is no one answer, just as there is no one model for how ideas or advertising work in the world - there are many. The take away is that there are a lot of lazy assumptions underlying the advertising edifice. And they need radically re-thinking.

SG: And so you're sitting on a plane in 1a and beside you is a CMO: you talk and what is your recommendation?

FY: Overall, interrogate assumptions where you find them, especially in marketing. Consider the attention of your audience as inherently valuable, seek to earn it, respectfully and see the value it creates for your bottom line.

SG: Why should brands care?

FY: Many of the pains currently experienced by brands in how they understand and implement marketing with their agency partners are aspects of this new attention market.

SG: What is your booked called what it's called?

FY: It's called PAID ATTENTION because it encodes the idea that attention is inherently valuable, that it's something that is being bought and paid for, that we all want people to pay attention to our ideas, and because it's almost an inside joke for ad people.

SG: And finally, from one author to another, why did you write it?

FY: For the last decade or so I've had people in advertising asking me for book recommendations for strategy, or creativity. So I decided to write my version.

Faris is also the co-founder of Genius Steals, an itinerant consultancy working with brands like Coca-Cola, Marriott, Gibson Guitars, Nestle in places like Turkey, Dubai, NYC, LA, Australia. They help companies think about how to use creativity to solve business problems. Previously Faris was Chief Innovation Officer of MDC, and Chief Digital Officer of McCann Erickson NYC.

Scott Goodson is the author of Uprising: how to build a brand and change the world by sparking Cultural Movements.