Marketing and advertising aren’t known as a thinking person’s profession, but the business actually requires more thought than most. It must marry creativity to return-on-investment, ideas to results, and art to commerce.
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That challenge is more difficult than it looks: Every ad, every line of copy, every image gets measured in terms of impressions, viewers and sales made. It doesn’t matter how beautiful or innovative your work is, because advertising is quantitative: If it doesn’t get results then it isn’t creative.
Oddly, many marketer are pretty bad at describing the thinking behind their work. Ads speak for themselves, of course. But ask an adman or woman to explain how they do what they do, and you’re likely to get some Powerpoint mumbo-jumbo in response.
Thinking about marketing — and being able to express those thoughts clearly, as a strategy that others can learn from — is therefore a real talent.
Those who can do it become sought-after speakers, writers and conference guests. Unfortunately, some of advertising’s most influential thought-leaders of all time are dead: David Ogilvy, for instance (“the consumer is not a moron, she is your wife”) and Rosser Reeves, who invented the concept of the “unique selling proposition.”
So we decided to rank adland’s current intellectuals based on influence among their peers. These are the most influential thinkers in advertising alive today.
For years, Sullivan was a respected creative director at WestWayne and GSD&M. But in 1998 he published 'Hey Whipple, Squeeze This,' a memoir/ diatribe/instructional book for budding copywriters. The title referred to his hatred of the character in the Charmin ads.
Suddenly, the book became compulsory reading for every advertising school student, and a generation of creatives has grown up with 'Hey Whipple' in its back pocket. (Sample line: 'Drop the whole thing and go do something else while your subconscious mind works on the problem.')
Now he's the chair of the Advertising Department at Savannah College of Art and Design.
Klein's 2000 book 'No Logo' was something of a watershed in the advertising world. Its premise, that branding had become so universal it qualified as a form of global oppression, was the most successful full-frontal attack on advertising since Vance Packard's 'The Hidden Persuaders' in 1957.
Her ideas were examined closely by those in the business (Nike even issued a point-by-point response to the book), who loathed her opinion but enjoyed the attention she paid them.
Although Klein's star in the ad biz has waned in recent years, many of her ideas were made concrete in the Occupy Wall Street Movement.
The concept of 'positioning' in marketing is so commonplace today that no one thinks about it. But like a lot of obvious ideas, they only become obvious years after they were discovered or invented.
Al Ries and Jack Trout coined the term 'positioning' and in 1980 published 'Positioning: The Battle For Your Mind.' It defined positioning as 'an organised system for finding a window in the mind. It is based on the concept that communication can only take place at the right time and under the right circumstances.'
Reis maintains a consultancy with his daughter, Laura.
Roberts' 'Lovemarks' books -- there are now three of them -- argue that a good brand inspires 'loyalty beyond reason.' They're not quite so clear on how a marketer might go about doing that, or what role advertising plays in it. (The iPhone inspires loyalty beyond reason, but not because TBWA is its ad agency, for instance.)
No matter: Roberts is a consummate self-publicist. One key to his success was his realisation that being able to bill yourself as an author with a branded ideology of how branding works (yes, it's that meta) is a great way to distinguish yourself from your peers. (There are lots of mere ad agency chiefs, after all.) He's also fond of catchphrases such as, 'New is over; welcome to the Age of Now.'
He also teaches an MBA class at Lancaster University in the U.K.
Camerer's experiments, utilising functional MRI images of the brain as subjects make business and 'shopping' decisions, are largely responsible for the burgeoning field of 'neuromarketing' -- the use of neuroscience to elicit new techniques to influence the way consumers make decisions.
Read Montague of Virginia Tech has been equally influential, but Montague's more recent work has veered away from the marketing side of the research.
At least one ad agency, A.K. Pradeep's Neurofocus, specialises in using neuromarketing for brands.
Bogusky made his name and his fortune as one of the U.S.'s most sought-after advertising brains. But since he sold his agency -- and cashed in handsomely -- to MDC Partners, he has re-emerged as a critic of the industry that made him rich.
Earlier this year, he donated $100,000 to a pro-Prop 37 campaign in California, which seeks to label genetically altered food. He has also authored a diet book blaming fast food restaurants for America's obesity crisis, even though one of his key accounts at CP+B was Burger King.
He is currently a backer of Made Movement, an agency that promotes made in the USA brands, and Common, an activism and advocacy crowd-sourcing web site.
Greenberg founded his agency in 1977 as a design and video production shop focused on special effects. In the 1990s, R/GA changed into a digital ad agency. Greenberg and R/GA have thus spanned five calendar decades in the business without ever being a traditional, old-media ad agency.
He is widely acknowledged as the king of media-agnostic creative ideas. It was R/GA that created the Nike+ FuelBand, an accelerometer worn on the wrist that tracks your activity.
(It also helps that he looks more like an academic than an adman.)
Godin is perhaps most famous for popularizing the concept of 'permission marketing.' That's the idea that marketing is much more successful if consumers invite advertisers to interact with them, as opposed to companies bombarding consumers with messages whether they want them or not.
Godin's influence comes in part from his ubiquity. In addition to a well-read blog and Twitter account, he's also published 18 books, with titles such as 'All Marketers Are Liars!' and 'Free Prize Inside! The Next Big Marketing Idea.'
As we noted when we crowned him one of the most influential ad bloggers of 2012, you have to read Godin because everyone else reads him.
Kim and Mauborgne make the list because their 2010 book on competition, 'Blue Ocean Strategy,' is widely read by brand managers at Procter & Gamble, the world's largest advertiser.
'Blue Ocean Strategy' argues that companies will prosper most, and see greatest profit, from creating new, wide-open categories in which they are the only competitor, not by trying to compete in already crowded 'red oceans.'
Adams is developing a bit of a reputation as Facebook's in-house philosopher. For a long time he worked at Google but left in 2011, to publish a book titled 'Grouped.' It only helped his reputation when Google rescinded an agreement to allow the book to be published in 2010 -- banned by Google!
He's as comfortable talking about Plato as he is The New York Times, and he regards Facebook as merely a stepping stone in the 600-year development of modern media.
Porter's 'five forces' of competition have been the bedrock understanding of how competitive strategy works -- particularly on the client side -- since he first enunciated them in 1979. (They are: threat of new entrants; threat of substitute products; bargaining power of customers; bargaining power of suppliers; and overall rivalry within a category.)
Porter's influence has been somewhat moderated by Columbia Business School Prof. Bruce Greenwald's more recent critique of the five forces. (Greenwald believes that barriers to competition, customer switching costs, and the efficiencies of network effects tell you 90% of everything you need to know about strategy.)
But it's fair to say that, when pitching a potential client with an MBA, any ad agency exec who isn't familiar with Porter's forces likely won't win the business.
Sorrell isn't just the founder and chief of the world's largest ad agency holding company. He also has an undergraduate degree from Cambridge and an MBA from Harvard. He's frequently quoted in the British media on economic policy as well as advertising trends, and he's an annual fixture at the Davos conference for the world's intellectual elite.
His earnings releases, for instance, always carry a little bit of macroeconomic analysis that other agency companies don't. Here's his opinion of the state of the world at the end of Q2 2012:
Although corporate balance sheets are much stronger than pre-Lehman and confidence is higher as a result, the Eurozone, Middle East, China hard or soft landing and US deficit uncertainties demand caution. The $2 trillion net cash lying virtually idle in those balance sheets, seems destined to remain so.
Gladwell is, of course, a writer for The New Yorker and not actually in the ad business. But his bestseller 'The Tipping Point' is on every marketers' favourite book list. Published in 2000, Gladwell made the case that if a few key influencers within a given population can be persuaded to do something, then that behaviour will reach a tipping point, when the trend becomes universal within the population.
Marketers love it because it holds out the promise that if your PR or events team can get just the right number of endorsements from the right number of trendy types, then a campaign will go viral all on its own.
There's a case to be made that Gladwell's oeuvre is more about elegantly stating truisms in anecdotal form than it is about the actual science of advertising. Some research suggests Gladwell is simply wrong when it comes to how marketing works.
But marketers don't care. They love a good tale well told.
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