Karen McGrane

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.