Fiona Field: Houston, we have a problem

Fiona Field on why media advertisers must rely on hard evidence and avoid making decisions based largely on loose assumptions

Gasps should not have been my reaction on reading the latest IAPI Census report citing that one in five of those working in adland are under 25. I have seen the gleaming white runners and headphones aplenty. What I have always loved about our business is that it is brimming with future thinkers and people with a keen eye on the new. What’s not to love, right?

But as an industry, the harsh truth is staring at us every day. We are not reflective of the wider population and this is a worry, particularly as we hurtle towards a much older age profile. By 2051, the CSO predicts that the number of Irish people over 65 will rise from 629,800 to 1.6 million. Today, this chasm is compounded by various economic factors.

The most obvious factor is the home rental crisis in Dublin, which ensures we not only have an age bias, but we also have a socio-economic and geographic challenge with which to contend. If Middle Ireland is from Mars, agencies are from Venus. Our demographic makeup is at odds with the natural population of Ireland and there lies the big problem.

Data-driven marketing is the gold standard. However, judgement can be is impaired by our own thinking and it is where confirmation bias applies. We live in a virtual marketing echo chamber. It is time to call out that the Emperor is, indeed, not wearing any clothes. Surrounding ourselves with the same people will compound this biased thinking and will surely stifle creativity, especially if we are not garnering the correct insights.

We must examine the past and understand it to unlock future opportunities. It was clearly evident from Ebiquity’s ‘Re-evaluating Media’ study in the UK. The report looked at the gap between the perception of effectiveness of various individual channels. The results painted a grim picture of current thinking and pre-suppositions versus actual hard evidence.

Agencies and advertisers ranked social media to be one of top drivers, when in fact, it was the traditional media that lead the charts from an evidence basis (TV, print, radio). For me, this was a clear indication of an overly-skewed base and, in this case, the skew was the agencies and advertisers. Diversity is now at the forefront of many boardroom conversations.

‘Adland has a duty to brands and to media owners to ensure bias is tackled’

It is no more so than in advertising, but if we are going to truly tackle this complex issue, we must take responsibility for the part that we play and how both advertising and marketing might be compounding and amplifying society in a negative way. Ultimately, if we are not checking our biases, we will be powering ineffective advertising in possibly the wrong media, by not challenging and truly listening and responding to the real picture.

Adland has a responsibility not just to the brands agencies represent, but also to the media owners to ensure that bias is tackled. How much damage is this misaligned thinking doing to the traditional media industry to the benefit of most of the FAANGs? Ironically, Facebook continues to invest in traditional media by placing full page press ads in the UK and Ireland.

Future proofing client business has never been more important, but are we living too far ahead? Is our make-up hurting or helping our brand? Perhaps it is because we operate in a world dominated by the Ubers, Amazons and an upgrade culture that we have been slowly seduced towards an over-focus on the new. But let’s face it, not all brands are an Apple or an Uber. We are all so busy transforming that perhaps we are forgetting the here and now.

Memories of Leaving Cert exams are few, bar the scarring effect of Peig Sayers, but one writer that stuck with me was Francis Bacon. In Of Youth and Age, he painted a picture of the perils of youth and age. In it, he wrote: “The errors of young men are the ruin of business; but the errors of aged men amount but to this, that more might have been done, or sooner.”

Of course, the message in this essay is not about one against the other, but what lies in the middle or a combination of youth and age to harness the strengths of both. As an industry, this is a pressing issue and we need to wake up to our blindspot. We must check our biases and hire a more diversified workforce. If so, the result could be a most potent combination.

Fiona Field is deputy managing director at Mediaworks and board director of IAPI











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