Les Binet: “Nothing Kills A Shit Product As Quickly As Advertising”

Les Binet: “Nothing Kills A Shit Product As Quickly As Advertising”

He’s one of the globe’s most revered marketing brains and B&T had the pleasure to chat with Adam & Eve DDB’s Les Binet at the Vidcon conference in Melbourne over the weekend. Here, he talks the dangers of short-termism, why TV still works, and why he loves a jingle in his ads…

You’re all about brand building over the quick wins. Do you think the problem there is that marketers don’t stay in the role long enough to see a plan through?
I don’t think so. People say that a lot, but people have been complaining about the short tenure of marketing personnel for a long time. I remember people complaining about it 30 years ago… has anyone seen any data? Has it actually changed? The biggest thing going on now is about data and metrics…

But that’s a very new phenomenon to marketing?
We have much better short-term data than we used to, and data is getting shorter. What data does is, it allows you to steer your brand. A marketer has lots of dials in front of them and some of them are flashing red intensely and they’re the ones that you pay attention to. But the more detailed short-term data we get the more attention we pay to it and the more we end up doing short-term things. Your attention gets drawn to the short-term, getting drawn to that short-term hit. If marketers are measuring their success on how many clicks and likes they’re getting then they’ll do short term things to make sure that happens.

I once worked with a retailer and the CMO was getting twice daily reports from each of the stores. Suddnely he could see at the granular level what was happening, but he completely took his eye off the ball where the whole business was going, and that business is defunct, it went bankrupt. Distracted by short-term data, he didn’t notice that the company was basically running into the ground. You don’t need big data, you need long data.

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You’ve said we’re living in the golden age of marketing. We’ve got AI, VR and AU, do you think it’s all become too gimmicky and confusing for a lot of marketers?
That is a problem. We have all these new tools and they’re fantastic, but the more superficial people – and agency people often fall into this category – do get on a treadmill of what’s the latest new things. Creative agencies love this stuff – whatever is new, and, yes, creative people are interested in the new. But sometimes we lose sight of the enduring, the fundamental principals, the things that don’t change. I’m all for new technology, but what we need to remember is that while somethings change, a lot of things don’t.

I think a 22-year-old agency person would fundamentally disagree with that, though?
Ha! You’re right. But all our research shows that things like the optimum spend on brand and activation does appear to be changing, although not in the way that many people think. Somethings do change and somethings don’t. And what you need to understand is that the fundamentals of human psychology and the bedrock of human values and needs doesn’t change very much. As biological beings, humans haven’t changed much since the ice age.

You’re all about the long-term. In terms of brand building, what works these day sand what doesn’t?
Brand building is very different from immediate selling. Brand building is about making people prefer your brand when they eventually do come to market. You have to create an enduring preference for a brand and there are three key ingredients: increase mental availability, and by that I mean do things that are memorable. You have to create a network of emotionally charged associations and, thirdly, you have to do that at scale. So, it’s reach, emotion and memorability to put it simply.

Do we live in age where most brands are great and if you’re terrible then social media will quickly kill you off?
First of all you have to get the product and the service right. Then there’s the four Ps of marketing – product, place, price and promotion. So get the product right, put it in the right place, sell it at the right price and then advertise it. And so many marketers forget this and they go out and advertise it and promote it when the product and the service wasn’t absolutely right. As someone once said, “Nothing kills a shit product as quickly as advertising”. Advertising only ever really works at the margins. Take an upmarket restaurant. If you do a lot of marketing to persuade people to go, and they think they’re going to have a fantastic time, people will get carried along with that even if they’re actually having a dodgy experience. My wife has this habit of cooking meals and saying, “I’ve made this Mexican dish but it’s probably not very good”. And I’ll say, “Please don’t say that, please frame the dining experience for me in a positive way.” If someone has made you a shit dinner, you don’t start out in a position of joy. People taste with their minds not their mouths. I’ve seen some data on beers where people were asked to rank the taste of various beers both blind and branded. In blind tastings Stella Artois came out as the worst tasting beer, but in branding tasting it came out as the best tasting. Marketing up to a point frames the experience, but there comes a point when you go, “I’m not having a good time in this restaurant”, it’s terrible and everything comes crashing down

You’ve done a lot of research into the effectiveness of TV advertising. What are the opportunities and threats there for the free-to-airs?
Video in all its forms is tremendously powerful for brand building and video at scale is what marketers need in order to get the maximum effect. So, anyone who has the budget for it is going to want to use all the video channels at their disposal. There’s a big place still for TV because it still offers very broad reach. There’s evidence now that TV is working better than ever and that’s partly due to the amplifying effects of online video and other digital channels. It’s not as if there’s a conflict between the new media and the old media, the new media is just making the old media work better. So, if you can afford it, I’d use TV, I’d use online video and I would use them together dovetailed.

Are the Millennials still watching free-to-air?
Sure, if you want to reach younger people you might dial up the online video and if you want to reach older people you’ll dial up the TV. They work well together.

You’ve touched on this yourself, that we’ll often remember great ads from our childhoods but can’t remember any ads from the past 12 months. Why do you think that is?
I think some of the old techniques have become unfashionable. Take jingles as an example, they can be so memorable if they’re done right. Jingles, music, catchphrases and rhymes… we’ve been doing some stuff at Adam & Eve with rhymes and poetry and that’s just not done very much anymore. And some of those tricks for lodging a message in people’s memories are unfashionable and maybe we need to start to re-learn some of these old marketing tricks.

What’s a brand that you love at the moment that you just think is nailing its marketing? Alternatively, what’s a brand that you think is getting things terribly wrong?
A brand that I think exemplifies lots of things I talk about is [UK retailer] John Lewis. They do that emotional storytelling, they do the emotional brand building, they do it at scale, they use TV and online video working together, the’ve got the fame, the memorability, their creative is just so slick and it’s massively profitable. They’re the best performing UK retailer bar none. Each one of their Christmas campaigns pays back 10-to-one on what they spend. It is phenomenally successful and they tick every box of what I talk about. Some of their ads still leave me with tears in my eyes they’re that good; it’s the kind of advertising that you can’t fight against.

And a brand you think could try harder?
None that I can think of or I’d like to say. Well, there was one brand that we were working with that was fucking it up and then turned it around and that was the AA Automobile Association. What they basically did was cut all their brand budget for about eight years and you could just see that everything was going south for them until they stepped back in and started doing brand building again.

Your advice to marketers reading this, where should they be investing their budgets now so they’re ahead of the pack and jogging on the spot, say, in five years’ time?
Again, I’m all about the long term trends, the big picture and fundamentals. So learn the fundamentals, read Byron Sharp, read Mark Ritson, read what you can is what I would say.

Looking at the disruption in the advertising industry – new tech, the consultancies, brands bringing services in-house – how do you see the industry playing out in the coming years?
Well, I wouldn’t say that the advertising industry is necessarily my speciality. What I would say is there’ll always be a need for creativity and, take Specsavers in the UK, they’ve taken their advertising in-house and it’s very, very good and it’s very creative. But creative agencies exist for a reason and that’s because you have an immense amount of talent there and talent that has worked on many different kinds of business problems and in many categories. When you work with a creative agency you’re buying a collective experience and a talent pool that any one firm could hope to have.

Lastly, in this age of media disruption, who will thrive and who might possibly not survive?
I don’t know. It is getting to harder to make money and that means there’ll be concentration. But the boundaries between TV and online video are blurring and I think the future will be that it will become harder and harder to see the differences between, say, a traditional TV company and an online video company, as an example.

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