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On The Contrary: 2018 APG Strategy Conference – my review


I recently had the great and thought-provoking pleasure of attending the APG’s 2018 Strategy Conference.

Inspiring, world-changing activists spoke alongside – sometimes uncomfortably alongside – industry big hitters. The theme of the day was how contrarian thinking can inspire change and growth, and as the day unfolded it became clear that what’s in most urgent need of change is the advertising industry itself.

Here are my key take-outs from the day.

Speak to who people are, not who we want them to be:

In a rousing and critical talk, Martin Weigel shone a light on the vast and widening chasm between most London-centric, digital-first, post-ironic ‘industry types’ and the real world. According to Weigel, we are “living in a self-imposed exile”, in which we too readily either assume our target audiences are either just like us, or treat them with casual contempt.

This really resonated with me. “The truth of real people in the real world is our raw material and best chance of defying convention”.

Honour the relationship consumers want with your brand, not the other way around

This introspective criticism wasn’t limited to one talk, as Nils Leonard informed us that “the woods are burning” and we should be very concerned for our industry. He asked us to consider “what kind of company would you create if you wanted to create one that people in the real world wished existed”?

The feeling was that too many agencies and brand managers are so focused on creating brands that audiences love that they lose sight of how people actually behave. Agencies are busy “creating strategies for audiences that do not exist” while real people go about their daily lives, largely ignoring what we pour blood, sweat and tears into producing.

Don’t take what people say at face value

Professor Nick Chater asserted that what we understand about conscious and subconscious thought is largely a fiction. He compared the brain to an expert conjurer, summoning up illusions and decisions in the blink of an eye and then tricking us into thinking we’d known it all along.

Thus, the human brain is the ultimate unreliable witness. There is no such thing as a ‘decision-making process’ as “we have no conscious access to the reasoning behind our decisions”; only the post-rationalisation of a brain constantly extrapolating and interpreting from context.

So traditional market research, which asks people to explain how they think or feel about something, isn’t anywhere near as profound as we think it is.

Professor Chater’s talk left me with two key thoughts: firstly, that we as an agency are absolutely right to focus on behaviour, not attitude; and secondly, what a relief that we have the capability to use neuroscience testing here in the agency, side-stepping the self-deluded conscious brain entirely!

Seek disconfirmation

The ultimate antidote to the problems posed above comes in Margaret Heffernan’s advice to “seek disconfirmation” – don’t assume you’re right, assume you’re wrong, and set out to prove it. If you can’t, you know you can be confident in your assertion, whatever it may be. It’s easy to think we have all the answers, but that is what divorces us from the very people we serve outside the industry.

Heffernan urged us to accept that great collaborations are not always harmonious – but that is what makes them great.­ A team that challenges your thoughts, pulls apart your strategy, questions your insights, is ultimately doing you a favour.

The over-arching theme of the day was that we in advertising need to get out of our own way. We must always be cognisant of the very real risk of getting lost in our own nonsense and never lose sight of why we exist. This, in a nutshell, is at the heart of HeyHuman’s approach, which is to focus on people’s behaviours, give them the relationships they want with brands and make it easy to engage with their communications.


BrainKind Bulletin 003: Do you trust people who speak with an accent?
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About Author

Annie Lancaster
Annie Lancaster

Senior Planner

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