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.

advertising, strategy

Using celebrities in advertising: does it pay off?

This is what we want to do when clients tell us they insist on having celebrities in their ads.

This is what we want to do when clients tell us they insist on having celebrities in in their ads.

We advertising agency workers hate, hate, hate, hate it when clients mandate us to use celebrities in their ads –even before everyone agrees on what the real problem that needs to be solved is.

As a strategist, I personally abhor this “putting the cart before the horse” thinking habit. My colleagues from the creative team feel using celebrities will castrate their creativity. Suits don’t usually look forward to wheeling and dealing with celebrities and their entourage.

Signing up celebrities to endorse a brand comes with a certain price tag. The more famous or in demand a celebrity is, the higher the price she will command. This means using celebrities in advertising is a relatively major investment. Assuming they behave rationally, clients will only invest on celebrities if they believe it will “pay off”. To reinforce this belief, many of them will point out how obsessed Indonesians are with celebrities –look at those high-rating infotainment shows on TV!

Do we have evidence to support the belief that “using celebrities in advertising pays-off”?

Unfortunately I don’t have specific data for Indonesia. I don’t know if any local advertisers have done rigorous undertakings to validate this. Even if they have, they probably will not share it with me. I also could not find open-access studies that measure the impact of celebrity endorsement in Indonesian market.

What I’m going to do here now is to put forward literature from the industry about the effectiveness of using celebrities in advertising. I get them from, a global online database of ideas and evidence in marketing. The data and evidence that I got are not specific to Indonesia, but I believe it’s possible to intelligently extrapolate. I will try to answer the following questions: Does using celebrities in advertising really work? If it’s not always the case, what’s the best way to do so?


Does using celebrities in advertising really work? Does it pay-off? To answer, let’s be clear on what we mean by “work” and “pay-off”.

There are two ways to assess if an advert “works”. Firstly is by seeing it’s immediate effects to the viewers. In this case, the discussions revolve around whether the ad is noticeable, enjoyable, or emotionally-involving enough for the viewers. Can the viewers recall from which brand the ad is?

Millward Brown, a global market research company, has been in the business of testing advertising to measure immediate effects for years and years. From their global database, in 2007 they conducted a comparative study to see if using celebrities help ads perform better. The results are interesting:

  • There is very little overall difference between the performance of ads with celebrities versus those without.
  • Ads with celebrities tend to be slightly better enjoyed than those without.
  • In some countries (notably US), ad with celebrities are more emotionally involving.
    Yet this is not the case in countries where celebrity ads are more common –I extrapolate this is what happens in Indonesia.
  • In Japan, viewers can’t really recall from which brands the celebrity ads are. The study estimates this is because there a celebrity usually endorses so many brands. Again, I extrapolate that the same thing happens here in Indonesia.

From this perspective we can feel that using celebrities in advertising doesn’t guarantee success when measured by immediate effects on viewers. But what about their impact on business?

This leads us to the second way to assess advertising effectiveness, i.e. by measuring its business effects. Business effects don’t only mean increasing sales result. They also include growing or defending market share, increasing market penetration, increasing consumer loyalty, etc.

Elberse and Verleun (2012) came up with a mathematical model and test it against the data in US. To cut a long and complex story short, they came up with the conclusion:

Signing the kinds of endorsers that featured in this study on average generates a 4% increase in sales which corresponds with around $10 million in additional sales annually –and nearly a 0.25% increase in  stock returns.”
—Elberse and Verleun, 2012

So using celebrities in advertising does pay-off. Nevertheless, this study comes with a big caveat. The study made and tested the model based on celebrity athletes in US, where sports fandom is a huge part of culture. This is something that we don’t have here. Only very few athletes become celebrities in Indonesia.

Fortunately we have other data from Institute of Practitioners of Advertising (IPA) in UK. IPA has been rewarding advertising effectiveness awards in UK and from other countries for more than 30 years. They keep a database of the winners’ case studies. From that database, we can see that

“Campaigns featuring stars have done disproportionately well in the IPA Effectiveness Awards.”
Pringle, 2012

Does this mean ad agency people’s reluctance to use celebrities in adverts is unjustified? Well, not so fast. IPA Effectiveness Awards database is filled with winners, the elite group of highly profitable advertising. There are also winning adverts that don’t use celebrities, and there are celebrity ads that don’t belong in this database. For the latter, there are two possible explanations: some celebrity ads are simply not effective, or that some are actually effective but their case studies are not submitted to effectiveness awards. Therefore it is misleading to conclude that merely using celebrities will make adverts effective.

So what makes an advert effective to bring intended business effects? Combing through the database of effective advertising, it turns out that the best predictor of advertising effectiveness is fame and emotional responses.

“…Fame means more than just awareness. It’s not enough for people to just know your brand. You want people to be actively thinking about your brand, and, crucially, talking about it.”

“Fame campaigns are much more the most profitable —almost twice as profitable as other forms of advertising.”
Binet, 2012

“Campaigns that aim to get the brand and its marketing talked about are particularly effective. Most campaigns of this nature are highly emotional, but the additional element of “talk value” seems to boost effectiveness even further.”

“The more emotions dominate over rational messaging, the bigger the business effects. The most effective advertisements of all are those with little or no rational content.”
Binet and Field, 2009

What makes fame campaigns? Featuring famous people in them is not one of the characteristics.

These are the hallmark of fame campaigns (Wood, 2010):

  • They elicit intense emotional response, high levels of happiness (elevation, awe, or bliss) and some surprise.
  • They don’t rely on language to generate emotional responses.
  • They often use humour, but don’t rely on it entirely.
  • They don’t feel like “typical ads”, more like sponsored entertainment. They are very memorable and distinctive. But if they are pre-tested, they will score low on rational measures like relevance, persuasion, and intended purchase.

In short, an ad becomes a fame ad if it triggers intense positive emotions and has some unexpected elements that are surprising, so that people will start talking about it amongst themselves.

Thus, a celebrity ad is more likely to pay-off if it becomes a fame ad. This means the celebrity in the ad must be used in such a way so that the ad elicits intense positive emotional response and contains unexpected or surprising elements. Since people generally have some perceptions about celebrities, it’s actually easier to twist them in the ad to make it surprising and entertaining.

Let’s see a particularly good example of how to use celebrities in a campaign:

In these ads, we see a consistent creative idea: Nespresso is so great that it even outshines the gorgeous Clooney. This idea plays with public’s perceptions on Clooney, twists it to make it unexpected, charming, and enjoyable to watch. Using Clooney paid off, as the ads helped Nespresso to exceed its business targets and won a gold medal in an effectiveness award.

The best way to ensure that using celebrities in adverts will pay-off is by making him or her “a servant” to the creative idea. The creative idea should be “the master” that drives the ad to be emotionally powerful and unexpected. This is not unlike the process in movie production: we start with a screenplay or a story that ideally drives the casting decisions.

If the idea is primary and the celebrity is secondary, then clients can actually save a lot of money not by signing up overly-used celebrities, but by demanding the agency to produce a powerful creative idea and execute it well.

To sum up, dear clients: using celebrities in your advertising may give you a head start in terms of ad awareness (not necessarily brand awareness) or noticeability. But if that celebrity does not run properly, and she is burdened by wearing too many logos from other brands, another ad powered by a brilliant creative idea will surpass and beat her on the race of effectiveness.



Millward Brown Knowledge Point, 2007, What are the benefits of celebrity-based campaigns?

Elberse, A. & Verleun, J, 2012, The Economic Value of Celebrity Endorsements, Journal of Advertising Research, Vol. 52, No. 2

Pringle, H., 2012, How to use celebrity in brand building, Warc Best Practice

Binet, L. 2009, The dangers of common sense, Market Leader, Quarter 3

Binet, L. & Field, P., 2009, Empirical Generalizations about Advertising Campaign Success, Journal of Advertising Research Vol. 49, No. 2

Wood, O., 2010, Using An Emotional Model to Improve The Measurement of Advertising Effectiveness, Brain Juicer.

advertising, social marketing

Advertising workers, please help me disconfirm my prejudice about us

A poster for the movie “Agency” from

I have a confession. I have a strong prejudice against what agency people call as “initiative PSA”.

(For those outside the ad agency business, PSA stands for public service announcement. It’s advertising about public or social issues like climate change, human rights, domestic violence, etc. In “normal” PSA, usually government or NGO clients commission ad agencies to make them. In “initiative” PSA, the agencies make them first, and then finding the clients who agree to sign them off).

The first reason I’m very skeptical about initiative PSA is because too often they are not well thought of. Of course agency people have much more limited understanding about, let’s say, child trafficking in rural Java compared to my friend who heads The Center of Child Protection in University of Indonesia.

The lack of understanding about the problem often contributes to failure to think through about the basic strategy, such as:

  • Let’s say we want to try to reduce the numbers of children being trafficked in a village. Whom will we address as the audience? The children being trafficked? The children who are vulnerable to be trafficked? Their parents? The village head? The villagers? The policy makers? People who can influence the policy makers?
  • What is the barrier?  What exactly hinders the target audience from doing the thing we want them to do? For vulnerable parents, is it about abject poverty? For villagers, is it about the attitude of “mind your own business”? For the village head, is it about the belief that he has no power to do anything? For policy makers, is it about lack of interest in that subject?
  • What needs to change? At the most fundamental level, I second Clay Shirky that behavior is motivation filtered through by opportunity. This means that to start a new behavior or stop an old one, we must decide where we want to focus on. If we target the parents who face dire poverty so “selling” their daughters to a trafficker doesn’t seem as a very bad idea, do we really think we should focus on their motivations? If we target the vulnerable children, should we ask them to keep motivated to continue their educations, while the nearest junior high school is 20 km away from their village?

The second basis of my skepticism is about the intention of the makers. It disgusts me when I find out that their main intent is to win some creative awards. They don’t actually care whether the real problem being solved, or whether real people get the help they need. My suspicion comes from the fact that in many agencies, conversation about initiative PSA often starts with something like, “Hey, I have this cool idea for an interactive billboard about the homeless (or HIV, or bullying, or whatever). Let’s find a supplier who can help us build this for free and an NGO whose logo we can use.”

Please understand that I’m not accusing that all agency people who have come up with initiative PSAs are driven by selfish agendas. This is not the case, as proven by the real story behind one of the most wonderful ideas advertising people ever came up with: “Help I’ve Cut Myself and I Want to Save A Life”.

“Help I’ve Cut Myself and I Want to Save A Life” bandages and bone marrow kit

“Help I’ve Cut Myself and I Want to Save A Life” is a first-aid kit that consists of bandages and bone marrow kit. You accidentally cut yourself. You’ll need a bandage. And hey, while you’re at it why don’t you use that blood for the bone marrow kit? Post that kit to the written address, and who knows your blood will match someone’s who really needs a bone-marrow transplantation. After all, the odd of a matching blood between a donor and a recipient that’s not family related is 1 in 20,000.

Graham Douglas of Droga5 came up with this idea. His identical twin brother had leukemia and was saved by a donor. This is why Douglas has always been preoccupied with this topic.

But what I’m afraid is (and I genuinely hope I’m wrong on this) in most ad agencies the above story is an exception rather than the rule. I’m afraid that we advertising workers fail to see that when making initiative PSA, we are so close to exploiting people with dire problems for the sake of our fame and paycheck.

I’m not advocating that advertising agencies stop doing initiative PSA. Not at all. After all, I am still in this business because I still believe that done right, advertising can change the world for the better.

What I’m asking us to do (and I know this is a big ask) is to stop thinking about making initiative PSA. Start thinking about solving non-commercial problems that are close to our heart.

Just like the story of Graham Douglas above. I  think this is why the idea of bandages and bone marrow kit combo is brilliant. It is based on a very clear understanding on what the problem is, on what needs to change. It has a laser sharp focus on who the target should be, their barrier, and what they should do next. And the execution is simple, effective, and efficient.

If we want to make initiative PSA, I suggest that the good place to start is this question, “What bothers me?”

What irks you? What kind of stories boils your blood or drives you to tears? What kind of news shakes your emotions? Do you passionately believe that something needs to change in your environment or the society? Start from there. Let your anger, or frustration, or passion fuel you.

What if you can’t answer those questions? What if nothing really bothers you in your environment today? What if you don’t see any needs for social or political changes?

This can happen, I believe.

If this happens to you, then I suggest you to meet non-advertising people, read non-advertising books or websites or articles, go to places advertising people don’t bother to visit. In other words, I suggest you to start living the real life.