I was furiously scratching notes on a yellow legal pad in front of my computer. I was halfway through the David Mamet MasterClass, a series of online courses about dramatic writing. He was a human fire hose of quotable lines and witty anecdotes. Then he said something that stoned me. I paused the lecture and thought: This is why digital agencies have such an advantage over traditional agencies.
The Wisdom of the Crowd
It’s Lesson 19: The Audience. In it, Mamet recounts a famous quote about audiences from legendary film director Billy Wilder. To paraphrase: Individually they’re idiots, but collectively they’re genius -- you can’t fool them. Mamet added, “I’ve never met a dumb audience.”
An audience will tell you what’s wrong with your work. They don’t care about your feelings. It works for them or it doesn’t. Mamet goes on: “You cannot learn how to write drama without writing plays, putting it on in front of an audience and getting humiliated… If you are easily shamed, you will not learn.” And that’s when all the cosmic tumblers clicked into place for me.
Audiences know. That’s why digital marketers have so much success. They test different creative approaches in front of different audiences. The audience tells them what works best.
For decades, clients or agencies relied on prophets to predict which creative would work – often wagering multimillion-dollar budgets on their instincts and track record. But as every first-year stockbroker knows, past performance is not an indicator of future results. Yet they’re still clinging to the idea that they can pick a winner like a pony at the track. Why?
The Secret is Out
Comedians know. They doggedly work new material in front of live audiences, refining their routine, night after night, until it’s perfect. They understand the audience will let them know what works and what doesn’t. They laugh or they don’t laugh.
According to court documents, Steve Jobs did a lot of focus group testing while he was at Apple. The man might have had great taste and demanding expectations, but he was also bright enough to ask for feedback from the crowd. He knew: Collectively they are genius.
Legendary musician, Frank Zappa knew. He explained in an interview linked below. To paraphrase: In the 60s, old cigar-chomping record executives used to say, “I don’t know. Who knows what it is? Record it. Stick it out. If it sells, alright!”
And he claimed the music business was better off with those guys than with the new regime of hip, young record executives. Zappa thought they were dangerous because they thought they knew what the kids wanted. They were making decisions what people should see and hear without testing whether there was an appetite for it. Zappa concluded: “The person in the executive chair might not be the final arbiter of taste for the entire population.”
Right now, my team is serving five different digital ads to 64 different groups of people we’re targeting across the country. That’s hundreds of variables. And by the time you’re reading this sentence, we can tell our client, with absolute certainty, the best creative direction to head with their money. We’ll cut what the audience tells us to cut, and double down on the stuff that’s proving worthy.
Why Digital Marketing is Eating Everyone’s Lunch
If you ask any one person on the street, they’ll likely say something dumb, like digital marketing is successful because it’s cheap. Ask a hundred people, and you’ll probably get a lot closer to the truth.
It’s not because it’s cheap
It’s not because marketers can measure every last click across the internet
It’s definitely not because you can hire interns to do it
Digital marketing works because the audience humiliates you each and every day. If you’re easily shamed, this definitely isn’t the path for you. You quickly learn to cast aside failures you thought would work and embrace the ones that actually do. The prophets must die.
Digital marketing is successful because an audience tells us what’s relevant. It succeeds for one simple reason.
Because we ask them.
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Mike Johnston is a production executive and advertising creative in Seattle. He is available for freelance consulting, writing and directing. Contact Mike
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