The more I understand UX design, the more pessimistic I am about the future of advertising agencies

Our Separate Ways by Jukka Zitting

Our Separate Ways by Jukka Zitting

I am a keen voyeur when it comes to watching how people use computers. We have this undying faith that computers will allow us to produce better output, or same level of quality but in much less time. Yet time and time again we find ourselves feeling confused or frustrated because some apps or softwares are poorly designed, unintuitive, and thus hard to use.

Before jumping into the advertising world, I used to be the Head of Product Development in Indonesia’s first internet portal (yes, it was during the early days before the tech bubble burst). That was when I taught myself about web usability and information architecture. The bubble burst, and I found myself starting up Ogilvy Interactive in Jakarta. Now my day job revolves around crafting strategies for brands and campaigns. But my interest in this field —I realised later that it was called “user experience (UX) design”— never fades away.

Last July this year (2014), I took UX Design Intensive Course from New York University. This course ran for 3 weeks. Each day started at 9.30 am and ended at 5.30 pm, and most of the hours were spent on practice assignments rather than listening to lectures on theories. All the instructors were practitioners and most of the lectures are full of examples from real projects.

In a nutshell, I learned about discovering user needs and expressing what we understand using personas. I learned how to conduct research to test our hypotheses on user requirements. I learned how to write and use scenarios and do story-mapping when developing user-journey maps. Of course, no UX design courses will be complete without lessons on building wireframes and making prototypes from various levels of fidelity. I learned about user-testing, and lastly I learned about how we should present our ideas and prototypes to the likes of venture capitalists. For my final assignment, I presented a prototype of a mobile app that allows citizens to report the incidence of public officials asking for bribes.


UX Treasure Map by Peter Morville from Semantic Studios

I can’t say that I learned things I never knew before, but for me often the penny dropped when I was working on the practice assignments. In short, I find the course valuable although there are some rooms for improvement.


I found a lot of small similarities between campaign planning with UX design. Both are the work before the (development and production) work, both regard utmost importance on consumer or user understanding, and in both we employ the problem-solving mode of thinking.

Despite these small similarities between campaign planning and UX design, I become even much more aware of how big the gap is between traditional advertising agencies (the ones whose cash cows are making TV, print, radio commercials) and start-ups or digital foundries that are UX-centric.

For so long, the bigwigs of ad agencies have constantly been shouting about the need to “go digital” or “go integrated”, to diversify agencies’ capabilities or talent pools, and to innovate the way they do business because profit keeps eroding as clients’ procurement departments play an even bigger role. “Start-up envy” becomes contagious amongst ad agencies people.

The irony (or the tragedy?) is, the more I understand UX design and the more I am involved in it, the more I become pessimistic about the future of the traditional advertising agencies. It’s not because of ad agencies don’t have talents with digital capabilities —although it is a problem too. The biggest problem lies in the culture of ad agencies itself. This culture is perpetuated by the way agencies make money.

Of course, few ad agencies managed to build digital products like (micro)sites, social media pages, and even mobile apps. Usually these products are made as a part of “integrated campaigns” for clients’ brands. But on average how many people download this kind of apps? And on average, how many times are these apps used by users, and for how long?

Most of the times, the numbers are not palatable, especially for clients who are more ROI-minded. It leaves us with a difficult question: how sustainable is it for ad agencies to develop digital products like these? Until when are clients willing to consider this road?

Why do this kind of digital products have low usage rate? The way those digital products are made in the ad agencies differ significantly from how UX-centric start-ups or digital foundries build theirs. This is because:

Firstly, ad agencies are used to create “ideas that tell” stories on behalf of their clients. Meanwhile, UX-centric start-ups or digital foundries create “ideas that do”, or more precisely, “ideas that enable people do things” (read more about “ideas that tell” vs. “ideas that do” here).

When an agency planners asks, “What’s the problem we’re trying to solve?” she is referring to a brand’s business problems (while the mediocre agency people ask “What do the clients want?”). But when a UX designer in start-ups or digital foundries asks, “What’s the problem we’re trying to solve?” he is referring to users or people.

Secondly, the consequence of creating “ideas that tell” is, agency people have been focusing on storytelling (and the good ones on emotional storytelling) that usually takes place by interrupting people. Meanwhile start-ups and digital foundries think about utility that is provided to people who opt-in to use the apps or sites.

The first and second differences are about mindset. But can this be tackled by hiring new talents from the digital world? Sure, brave agency boss may bite the bullet and hire digital talents of the month. But as long as the culture hasn’t changed, those talents will fail to become the change agents of that agency.

At best, the true-blue digital superstars will work in isolation, perhaps unhappily and in frustration, until they move to a different place where they can fully flourish. At worst, those digital talents will be assimilated into the ad agency culture that prevents itself from innovating. After all, cucumbers get more pickled than brine gets cucumbered.

The ad agency culture (“the brine that pickles the cucumbers”) is strong not only because it’s pervasive. It’s strong because it’s the result of and therefore is perpetuated by the way agency makes money.

So the third difference between traditional ad agencies and start-ups or digital foundries lies in the business model that perpetuates the culture. Adam Glickman writes,”Tech startups exist to service an opportunity in the marketplace. Agencies exist to service a client’s opportunity in the marketplace… Tech startups begin with the big idea, then seek to monetise. Agencies start with a budget, then seek the big idea.”

Ad agencies make money by selling time (that’s supposedly used to develop ideas) of their people to clients. The agency bosses are incentivised to sell more billable time, and most of the times their incentives have nothing to do with the ROI of the ideas the agencies produce.

Murat Mutlu confesses that in his personal experience, “There is a extreme fear of failure and lack of desire to do anything innovative outside of paid client work which stems from the very top of the organisation.” This is not surprising because a boss in an ad agency must deliver the financial target set by his boss, and that his boss has to deliver the number to his boss, and so on.

And this is why I become more pessimistic. The billable time business model leads to risk-averse culture that perpetuates certain mindsets and habits of the agency people. And considering that many agencies are part of global networks, we can’t really expect changes will come from a solitary local office.

James Cooper writes extensively about different approaches that ad agencies have taken to behave more like start-ups. There are much more failure than success stories, and at the end, he concludes that it will take:

A budget. A serious budget. A stand alone team, that probably includes weirdos from outside of adland. No client work, not ever. Even that make or break pitch. And an agency management that stays 100% behind the team no matter how badly they fuck up.


So what could a traditional ad agency worker bee do? I don’t have the answer yet. I personally try to focus on helping my colleagues adopt the UX-centric mindset (solving people’s problem first not brand’s, “ideas that do” instead of “ideas that tell”, utility not just storytelling) when they develop digital products as parts of campaigns. I also have an intuition that developing digital products with UX design mindset may be easier in the context of behaviour change within the non-profit sector (more about this later).

Aside from that, for the time being I pacify myself by quoting John Mayer’s “Waiting for the world to change”:

It’s hard to beat the system
When we’re standing at a distance
So we keep waiting
Waiting on the world to change

Because of the content of this post, I believe I need to reiterate that the views I express here don’t necessarily reflect my employer’s, and that the examples I cite here don’t necessarily refer to my workplace. 


Cutting through the jargon: brand positioning, brand essence, brand equity, and brand idea




One month ago, out of the blue an ex-colleague (he left my agency to start his own creative boutique) texted me. Turned out he needed my help to make him understand what his clients actually wanted when they asked for “brand positioning”, “brand essence”, “brand idea”, and “campaign idea”.

Unsurprisingly and uneventfully I helped him and let my thumbs do the explaining. During our text conversation, silently I whimpered, “And you thought you could be free from jargon and other marketing bullshit by setting up your own creative shop.”

I am sure my ex-colleague friend is not alone in his predicament and confusion. There are many jargon in the marketing and advertising industry. To make things worse, every company and agency tries to be creative or unique so they breed their own terms (as “proprietary intellectual property”. I know. Ugh).

What does each term exactly mean: “brand positioning”, “brand essence”, “brand idea”, and “campaign idea”? How is it similar with and different from each other? To answer, let’s get back to the basic.

What I mean by the basic is Stimulus-Response (to learn more, go here). Essentially communication is about deciding what the Response (impressions people have about someone or something) needs to be, and composing the best Stimuli (in advertising or PR term, content that can trigger those impressions).

A relevant example for Indonesia is how some female celebrities with colourful reputations put on a head scarf when they have to appear in court (either for divorce proceeding or as suspects, like in this particular case). Let’s see titillating and enlightening illustrations:

Same celebrity, different outfit for different places.

Same celebrity, different outfit for different places.

Knowing what she usually wears, what would be your response?

Knowing what she usually wears, what your responses would be?


In this case, the headscarf outfit and the timid mannerisms are the Stimulus. I believe she intended to evoke Responses like “she was really sorry she screwed up”, “the reason why she became a suspect was an isolated case, normally she was a goody two-shoes”, or “she deserved my pity”. But I’m not surprised if the actual Responses from the viewers of gossip shows were “what a hypocrite”.

Having digressed with a B-class local celebrity’s attempt to stay away from jail, let’s get back to those jargon and start with brand positioning. Brand positioning is about Response. This means, brand positioning represents a set of impressions marketers want   people to have about a brand.

Thus, brand positioning can of course consist of more than one attributes or elements. These attributes can be about the physical attributes of the product itself, its features, its maker, its origin, its users or buyers, how or when or where it is being used, how it is being made, its traits and personality, and so on.

Many marketers (especially from multi-national companies) try to organise those elements so they look neat and easier to be communicated to every corner of their empires.

Some marketers try to summarise those elements into what they call as a brand positioning statement. This statement gives a quick summary in what business the brand is in. A brand positioning statement consists of three simple sentences using this format:

For. Only. Because.

This is how it works (read more from an excellent post from Mark Pollard here):

 FOR: Who you want your customers to be
ONLY: What you do that’s different – one thing (although the one thing could be the sum of several supporting parts)
BECAUSE: The reason for someone to believe your ONLY claim.

Some marketers try to organise the elements in brand positioning by using diagrams, like pyramid, onion, key, spiral,  temple, or whatever. This is “brand as shape” approach, and it is not without harsh criticisms (the best one is from Martin Weigel, here). Usually within any of the shapes, there is one box that acts as the summary of everything. Most marketers call this brand essence. So yes, brand essence is another way to summarise brand positioning, and thus a part of Response.

Brand equity is related closely with Response. Plainly speaking, a brand has a high or strong equity if there are a lot of people (consumers) who associate it with many positive attributes or feelings. A brand with strong equity is likely to be more resistant against price increase, or be more successful if extended into different kind of product.

Many marketers and agency folks (well, the daft ones) still think that brand essence or brand positioning is the same with the slogan (tagline) of the brand. This is wrong. The slogan (tagline) belongs to Stimuli.

For example, “Dirt is good” is not the positioning of Rinso the detergent brand. The positioning of Rinso is very likely to revolve around “the powerful stain removal detergent for families with progressive mindset about children’s development”. “Dirt is good” is their tagline.

What else should belong to Stimuli? They are everything that is created or designed to trigger all the impressions about a brand, and can take he form of slogan, logo design (or to use their jargon, “visual identity’), advertising, pack design, retail space design, the way service is delivered, website, social media content, and so on.

Predictably, marketers will love to organise all those elements in Stimuli and give them some sort of theme or “platform”. (somehow they don’t like to use the term container). They expect all those elements of Stimuli sit together in perfect harmony, where nobody contradicts the others. This “theme” thus becomes big and all-encompassing.

For some marketers, this “theme” is called brand communication idea. Some agencies call it creative theme or creative platform.

Going back to the Rinso example, to trigger the positioning of Rinso as the powerful stain removal detergent for progressive family the marketers use “Dirt is good” slogan and the advertising theme of the Hallmark-esque stories behind stains in clothes that children make.

Remember that brand communication idea is huge and all-encompassing. From this platform, advertising campaign is built upon. Each campaign (at least theoretically) will have a theme that’s derived from the big and all-encompassing platform.

For example, the overarching theme of Dove’s communication idea hovers around the area where women are gently provoked to rethink about how society cruelly shapes what being  beautiful means. In one campaign, the brand satirised the use of massive photo retouching in the fashion and beauty industry. Last year they showed how women tend to grossly underestimate their own appearance.

The last jargon is brand idea. Frankly this is the fuzziest one for me. I don’t know what my clients refer to when they ask me to write down the brand idea of their brands. I’m not clear whether they refer something that’s a part of Response or Stimulus. For some clients, brand idea is the synonym for brand essence. For some others, it is the other term for brand communication idea.

What I normally do when clients use this jargon is ask them to clarify. This means I will make them listen to my spiel on Stimulus-Response. This may irk them, but they pay me to be clear and thoughtful not to tread delicately on their mood.