Ahead of WARC's session at Cannes, Nigel Hollis of Millward Brown asks 'Is the creative industry losing its ability to sell stuff?' 

Next week I will be speaking at a WARC panel session at Cannes on purpose marketing. It is an interesting topic but I believe the mindless pursuit of purpose is just one reason that the advertising is struggling to drive sales. Far more important is that I think marketers have forgotten how advertising actually works.

If, as the title of the WARC session states, the creative industry is losing its ability to sell then the pursuit of purpose is hardly the most important reason for its decline. Far more important is the context in which creative needs to work – advertising overload, cultural fragmentation and our seek and skip mindset – and the fact that so much effort is being put into targeting and marketing in the moment.

I will address the issue of how advertising works in a session hosted by Kantar Millward Brown (spaces are limited, but direct message me if you'll be at Cannes this year and would like to join us). In that session we will address how to develop content that makes a lasting impression and drives brand growth. But in this post I want to talk about a basic misapprehension that seems to have taken over the advertising industry.

The misapprehension is that closing the gap between advertising exposure and purchase occasion is a good thing. The whole 'marketing in the moment' trend is based on the idea that if you can reach someone during the shopping process then your advertising will stand more chance of influencing the sale. There are a couple of reasons why this idea is flawed.

First, for any product or service category that people believe is important or risky then they are likely to put some deliberative thought into the purchase decision. They will actively assess the value and reliability of 'information' that they have to hand, including ads. Not only will people's mental filters be working – 'Oh that's just advertising'. – they will be seeking 'rational' evidence to guide or support their existing inclinations – think functional claims and price discounts. That way lies meaningless innovation and lost profit.

Second, targeting people in the decision window is likely to reach people already predisposed to buy the brand. For instance, we see this in the way programmatic tends not to build awareness but does appear to impact purchase intent. As Gordon Euchler, Head of Planning at BBDO, notes in his thoughtful Admap article, "How to grow brands by targeting the masses", targeting people with a high propensity to purchase "has a tendency of emptying the pool of people in the market without refilling it".

Decoupling advertising exposure from the purchase decision actually allows the ideas, impressions and feelings left by the advertising to influence people's decision making without their mental barriers being engaged. Instead these brand associations either prompt a positive intuitive response or help people "make up their own minds"  not realizing that advertising helped shape their impressions at some time in the past.

Sadly I suspect that the ad industry's preoccupation with targeting and technology is going to continue because relying on people's memories to influence a sale just seems too indirect.

Originally published on the Millward Brown blog.

If you are going to Cannes, make sure to check out our session Is the creative industry losing its ability to sell stuff?