Business Models

Cherchez le buyer: Thoughts on UX and advertising

It pains me to have to admit this: I know a lot about the intersection of the user experience field and the advertising industry. Working in New York, I’ve met (and counseled) lots of people who work at both traditional and digital agencies. I’ve been recruited for many agency jobs. I even worked for Razorfish, a company that—much to my chagrin—decided to become an advertising agency halfway through my tenure. I work with many, many publishers, and in order to understand their business, I had to learn the advertising business.

I’ve been poking at the problem of how to integrate user experience processes into advertising agencies for a while. I ran a survey on this very topic last year. I gave a talk at the 2009 IA Summit on what user experience designers need to know about the advertising business model. I’ve consulted with traditional advertising agencies on how to restructure their creative group to better integrate UX (no link there, but I bet you wish you could see my findings.) I talked about how advertising works online at length on my recent Big Web Show interview with Jeffrey Zeldman and Dan Benjamin.

Normally I wouldn’t wade into the murky waters stirred up by a fractious, link-baiting blog post, but unfortunately this muck is the water I stand in every day, and I’ve already got toenail fungus from it, so I guess I might as well engage in a pissing contest in it too.

Follow the money

What I haven’t seen in any of the debate about Peter’s post — the most important thing, and certainly the first question any user experience professional should ask is: Who’s the user of the advertising agency? Who’s the buyer? And what do they want? Advertising agencies exist, in all their dysfunctional glory, because there are still people who choose to pay handsomely for their services.

What are these people thinking? Why don’t they love the internet the way we do, and shift more of their traditional advertising budgets online? Why do they choose to spend their multi-million dollar online budgets on Flash microsites? Why don’t they get that they need to engage customers through better product and service design, not just through glossy campaigns?

Given the economics of our industry, I believe this is the 64 billion dollar question. And we as user experience people should be doing everything in our power to persuade these buyers to consider our point of view. Thinking our potential clients are stupid because right now they choose to work with advertising agencies is probably not a good start.

Hate the ad, love the business model

UX people hate ads. Trust me, I get it. They’re annoying. They’re distracting. Users hate them. So UX people hate them.

I can’t say this strongly enough: if you’re a UX person, and you’re going in to talk to your clients with a snotty, condescending attitude about advertising, then you’re not doing your job. Advertising isn’t the only business model on the internet. But it’s the most important one. Look around you: publishers, startups, Facebook, Google—all based on advertising.

If you hate ads, then figure out a way to make the experience of ads better. That’s your job, isn’t it? (Also, there’s good money in it.)

UX is organizational change

You know what’s the easiest UX job in the world? Running a small UX consultancy. (She says, as the head of a boutique UX consultancy.) Your clients come (mostly) pre-qualified: they seek you out because they know they need your services. Small size means you can be picky about your clients, and picky about your employees. You only have to work with people who already grok your values.

You know what’s the hardest UX job in the world? Trying to change the culture within an entrenched, traditional business. This isn’t just advertising: it’s financial services, healthcare, media, government… any business that isn’t already on board with user-centered design. News flash: this is most of civilization. It’s going to be hard.

To me, being a UX person working in an advertising agency sounds a bit like being a Log Cabin Republican—an admirable attempt to try and change the system from within, though not something I’d personally have the stomach for. But that’s why I have so much respect for people like Abby the IA.

Advertising is no better and no worse than any other traditional industry that doesn’t get UX. But if you want more money to go towards UX design, the best place you can look is to try and take it away it from marketing and advertising budgets. Believe in UX and hate advertising? Fight the good fight, and take their money — even if it means working on the inside.

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14 thoughts on “Cherchez le buyer: Thoughts on UX and advertising

  1. LOVE this. “Advertising isn’t the only business model on the internet. But it’s the most important one.” Uncomfortable truths are no less true–they are pressing problems worth solving. Thank you for skewering anti-advertising chauvenism and calling it out for what it is: easy, predictable, safe.

    Now, speaking of the intersection of UX and org change: can you please write a future post on workflow redesign?

  2. tom says:

    Nice post.
    In the end advertising agencies are in the entertainment business. This whole “digital” thing has thrown us for a spin because where we do we deliver the punchline? And people tell us that our User Experience stinks? Well true but wasn’t it funny? And isn’t that what we get paid for?

    The UX ad agencies should be looking for is the way to best connect with their consumer in whatever space they are in. The continued conversation about what ad agencies don’t understand only continues to push the divide. Digital shops feel they can own the ad biz because they understand the space better. Ad agencies think they have it all figured out because they’ve been the life of the party.

    In the end the consumer just wants free stuff (not coupons and products but access to content) and to be entertained. Ads aren’t going away, they just need to get better and the only way they are going to get better is if we all understand what they want. If UX does that, great. If traditional planners do that, great.

    Me, I just want to make stuff that people get excited about. Maybe only for 15 seconds or for hours. If UX helps that then great, I’ll carry the flag.

  3. Thanks for yet another exceptional contribution. Alas, most of the UX folks who hate advertising don’t really know much about it. All advertising isn’t bad – and there are some ads people actually like (check out some of the most popular YouTube links).

    The saving grace in this story is that the advertising industry doesn’t understand UX either. Which gives us a rare opportunity to really make a difference before a more business-savvy crowd takes the discipline away from us.

  4. Great points, Karen. Like Eric, I think there’s a lot of opportunity to integrate advertising and UX. One example that intrigues me is Mint.com, which offers financial product and service suggestions. Those suggestions are basically ads, but they’re not annoying. They’re very relevant, from trustworthy brands, and don’t interrupt the user.

    But, I realize the advertising industry still has much to learn when I see columns like this: Why Interruption Still Trumps Engagement.

  5. I don’t hate advertising. I hate the advertising industry. I hate the conventional way of practicing advertising, and how that spills over to user experience work.

    The difference between advertising and the other industries you identify (financial services, healthcare, media, government) is that those other industries, at their most noble, are about service and empowerment, helping people lead better lives. (Yes, there are many examples of those industries not being noble). So, while they might not grok user experience, when you talk to them about the need for organizational change in order to better serve their customers, you can have a common starting point.

    The advertising industry is not about service and empowerment. It’s about manipulation. It’s also not about the end-customer, it’s about the client. To change the advertising industry, and most agencies within it, requires such a fundamental shift in their DNA that I simply don’t think it’s possible.

    Again. My post was not about advertising. It’s about the advertising *industry* and it’s conventional practice.

    • Karen McGrane says:

      It’s good that you don’t hate the business model. However, I have observed or heard about many situations in which UX people have a bad attitude about ads and advertising. Designers try to do things like take the ads off the page, complain about premium placements for ads — really just don’t think about how to create an experience that works for both the user and the advertiser. And so if a respected thought leader writes a post hating on the advertising industry, it’s a quick leap to a designer walking into a meeting and hating on the ads. I wouldn’t bring it up if this wasn’t a real problem.

      So we both agree that ads are here to stay, and the business model is one we have to work with. You don’t like the advertising industry (and I’ve got my issues with it too, don’t get me wrong.) But your argument that it’s just about manipulation and not caring about the end-customer rings false. My experience is that the agencies—and more important, their clients—care very much about understanding and influencing behavior change in the end customer, just like we do. They just approach the problem differently.

      Good god, what has become of my life where I’m defending the ad agencies?

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  7. The good news is that some ad agencies are getting it–more and more every day. I worked at an ad agency for three years and watched as, through the hard work of a few people, information architecture and content strategy became more and more integrated in projects and annoying pop-ups and prominent SELL, SELL, SELL messages took a backseat or disappeared altogether, replaced by more graceful, useful content, offers and designs. Still a process, but I think things are improving.

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