The Ad Contrarian by Bob Hoffman

A review by Duncan Brett

Bob Hoffman is an ex ad-man who built a successful independent ad agency according to his blog the Ad Contrarian. He shoots from the hip in a hard-hitting style. His short book, the Ad Contrarian reads like a collection of blog posts, which it probably is, but some of them are extremely insightful and for $3 on Amazon, it is well worth the money. It is certainly to the point, on the cusp of abrupt, and full of quotable bites. There is a lot to be said for his practical no nonsense line of thinking. It’s a quick fun read.

He has written another book, 101 Contrarian ideas about Advertising. The short version has convinced me to buy the longer version.

The Ad Contrarian is more about the advertising industry, than the market research industry, although research is dealt with.

You’ll probably like this book if you suspect much of modern marketing is unsubstantiated drivel, and you’ll most likely hate it if you are a new age marketer who believes the old way is dead.

I’ve highlighted a few essays or points that really stood out for me.

Chapter 1: The decade of confusion. Hoffman notes the last decade has been a confusing one. TV has not died as promised, in fact it is stronger than ever. The Internet has proved more effective at fulfilling demand than creating it. Social media is a phenomenon. Social media marketing is not. Think about it. Do you really believe people want to have conversations with brands?

Chapter 2: Precision guessing, notes that the process of creating advertising is largely a matter of what he calls precision guessing.

Most consumer behaviour is perfectly obvious – people like nicer, faster, better, cheaper. There is the mysterious bit, and what we know is speculation masquerading as knowledge. Be very skeptical of conjecture about consumer behaviour dressed up as insight. If people don’t know why they choose one brand over another, then maybe we should be more modest in asserting we do.

We don’t know in absolute only probabilities and likelihoods. Clients don’t want probabilities and likelihoods. They want results. Now.

Hoffman argues you need to get the product right and advertise it well. The brand will follow. It doesn’t work the other way around. Great products lead to great brands not vice versa. A strong brand is a by-product from selling excellent products, taking care of customers, making sure your ads demonstrate how you are different. I can hear the brand consultancies around the globe lining up to take issue with this.

To all those who say mass marketing is dead, Hoffman counters “Let’s go out on a limb and make a prediction: as long as there are masses and as long as there is marketing, there will be mass marketing”

Chapter 6: Aiming low. Is a chapter that leads him to query why advertisers pitch their advertising so young. He says it is the dumbest thing they do. These are US based figures, but 29% of the population controls 77% of the financial assets, and are the target of 10% of the advertising. Youthful advertising not only doesn’t appeal to the older generation, it alienates.

Chapter 7: Puzzles and mysteries is a wonderful essay on problems. It is very relevant to the world of research. He tells us the story of Gregory Treverton who distinguished two types of problems, puzzles and mysteries.

Puzzles are problems for which there is not enough information.

Mysteries have enough information, but need better analysis.

Hoffman thinks that in market research we treat problems as puzzles. We always assume one more study will yield the magic answer. Most companies have mountains of data about their customers and industry. This information is almost never consulted. Usually it was done by someone else. As he dryly notes, there is nothing stupider than the people who did the job before we did.

We treat business problems as puzzles because it’s easier. A puzzle has an answer. Mysteries are imprecise, filled with contradictory information. It is hard to come up with a correct analysis. Planners and researchers tend to be puzzle doers not mystery solvers. In reality, the hard part of marketing problems is not getting more information, it is solving the meaning of the information we have.

I couldn’t agree more, I am amazed at how many companies commission research on essentially the same thing over and over again, and get unsurprisingly the same result, again and again.

 Chapter 8: Salesmen and sociologists. Hoffman argues we have substantially exaggerated the importance of brand loyalty. Most consumers in most categories have little brand loyalty. They don’t care and change around. Most buying is for specific immediate reasons, not mysterious emotional or sociological reasons.

Also most brands are so similar, and brand personalities are so transparently contrived, that loyalty is thin and weak.

He argues consumers are more loyal to excellent products than to brands. Anecdotally he relates that he like Heinz tomato sauce, not their other lines.

He leave us with a thought for the day, how come psychiatrists have a hard time understanding human behaviour, yet agency strategists have it all figured out. Good luck. PS. Have you ever bought anything from a sociologist?

Chapter 9: Think like a Prussian General. Here he advises us to take a leaf from the Clausewitz principle (from the book Principles of war, by Major General Carl von Clausewitz) that the key to winning is not to spread yourself thin, but concentrate your force on a point so you break through. Advertising without impact is a waste. Or as David Ogilvy said it “ the essence of strategy is sacrifice”

Chapter 10: Facts and opinions. Hoffman tells us he spent a brief time as a science teacher, and developed an admiration for the scientific method. Research in advertising is hopelessly flawed. Online research is fatally flawed, and we are perpetuating it. Tell that to your local panel provider.

Marketers refuse to comprehend that at best advertising is a minor annoyance. It is clear that consumers are willing to go to lengths to avoid advertising. The fantasy of interactive advertising undermined by the fact that no one in their right mind volunteers for advertising.

In closing Hoffman argues that marketers should be guided by principles not fads and calls for performance based advertising based on 3 principles.

Firstly, advertising is most productive when focused on changing behaviour, not attitudes. Attitudes are very hard to change, it is not worth trying.

Secondly, adverts should be created for heavy using, high yielding customers. He advocates aiming your message at heavy users in your category. Don’t confuse this with your customers. They are the category customers. They may be light or non-users of your brand. Make sure your ads are written for the right people. Treat low yield customers well, but don’t shape messages for them. He notes it is important to study high yield customers in your category and understand what they want.

Thirdly, we don’t get people to try our product by convincing them to love our brand; we get them to love our brand by convincing them to try our product. He argues that your consumer has knowledge and experience in your category and this has greater influence than your advert. Because they know their stuff it’s hard to change their attitude. Give them a reason to try your product, – they are more likely to change their opinion by experiencing your product than experiencing your advertising. Getting the customer to experience your products doesn’t just create sales – it builds brands.