The Truth about Advertising… and some of the lies too

I have often heard people in the advertising industry refer to the process of creating an ad campaign as the search for truth. That is a theory I would like to prescribe to.

Advertising, however, has a long and complex history fraught with lies and deceit. This includes everything from miracle drugs that promised to cure cancer, through to cigarettes that help sufferers of asthma and hay fever.

false advertising posters

Smoking must be good if even Santa got involved… Right?

To be fair to the people who created these campaigns, they did so in the early part of the 20th century, but as recently as 2012 Sketchers told people that all they had to do to lose weight was tie their shoes. I’ve been tying my shoe laces consistently for around 20 years now and I’m a yet to see the effects. I’m not saying that my own personal experience in a lace tying weight loss regime is a robust scientific experiment but I have to admit, my confidence in the method is starting to falter and the $25 million dollar slap on the wrist that Sketchers received didn’t do anything to boost my belief in the campaign.

All in all, the people who have chosen to involve themselves in the wonderful world of advertising have bought into a less than stellar reputation.

The best advertisers of the modern age have attempted to cast off the cloak of incongruence and tried to communicate with users in a more personal and honest manner. This, of course, is a good thing.

As an industry, for a long time, we simply serviced our clients and their goals. The objective was to sell hard and sell fast and we did that by being disruptive to our users. Advertising was (to a certain extent) a competition and the brand that won was the one that could shout the loudest for longest.

Selling is obviously still a hugely important part of what we do. We cannot survive if we do not sell, nor can our clients.

David Ogilvy said:

In the modern world of business, it is useless to be a creative, original thinker unless you can also sell what you create.

This is as true today as it was when he first made the statement. He also said:

Never write an advertisement which you wouldn’t want your family to read. You wouldn’t tell lies to your own wife. Don’t tell them to mine.

So the father of modern advertising was a man in search of truth himself in one sense or another.

What’s your point?

Good question. I suppose my point here is that “truth” and “sales” are not mutually exclusive. Selling out is a concept that cannot exist if you truly believe in the thing you are selling and the benefits you think it can offer to your users. If your product is great and you sell with honesty and integrity then what’s the problem?

The real problem is that although truth as a constant may exist in some ethereal corner of the universe, most truths are subjective. Our truth is filtered and coloured by our own beliefs, politics and the thing that we may have watched on the news when we woke up this morning. As we grow and learn our truth changes and moulds itself to fit the container that we create in our mind and as brands are fundamentally controlled by people, their truth changes too.

I started this article asking myself the question:

In the search for truth in advertising, who’s truth should we prioritise…the brand or the user?

If I’m really honest I’m still not sure I have reached a conclusion but, this is where I am with it right now.

If a brand exists already then, somewhere, deep in the recesses of its hierarchy and process, there exists a truth. Something that describes the very essence of who they are and what they do. Something so inextricably linked with the brand that it cannot be denied. That is the thing we have to try to find before anything else.

Once we have this it’s all about finding people who relate to or aspire to the same truth as the brand and talking to them in a personal, human way.

Human, you say?

Yes… human. There has been a shift in the consciousness of the advertising masses in recent history. Many of us have made a move towards a much more holistic approach in the way we deal with the campaigns we create.

Most of us don’t see our users as idiots and many of us have decided to cease shouting and begin to have human conversations. Granted some of these “human” conversations may well be started by bots but, you get the idea.

In the golden age of advertising, finding truth may have given you a tagline that said everything you could possibly hope for but, it’s not enough anymore.

Whatever truth you find has to permeate everything you do.

Every social media post, every customer service call, every Google ad, every passing conversation. A truth means nothing if it is not congruent with the thing it claims to represent.

The United Airlines Example

United Airlines is a perfect example of this very thing. Up until 1996, the brand tagline was “Fly with Friendlier Skies”. This is not a bad statement really? It does however set a standard for how the brand should represent itself. United broke that brand promise when they forcibly removed a paying passenger from a flight to accommodate its staff on an overbooked flight. In an age of instant communication, the video of the situation went viral and the internet was in an uproar.

In addition to this, the United CEO showcased the importance of having a congruent brand both internally and externally. To increase the severity of the situation, his public statements and his internal company communications varied vastly in tone and intent. Publicly he apologised and said the incident would be investigated. Internally he sent emails to all staff blaming the passenger for the incident.

When I say that your truth has to permeate everything you do, this is exactly why. Everything your company, your staff and your users say and do is a direct reflection of your brand. There is no hiding from this. Incongruence has a heavy price from a reputation and financial stand point. This one act of incongruence wiped out $1 billion in market value for United Airlines overnight.

This is not to say that mistakes won’t be made. There is no person or brand that is invulnerable to this. In these situations, it is our reaction to the situation that defines who a brand really is and what it stands for. Ownership of problems and the creation of solutions has to be the driving force behind mistakes. Showing the world your vulnerabilities and owning them can have a hugely positive impact. It doesn’t mean you can continue to make the same mistakes over and over again without consequence but it often gives you a reprieve.

Finding the Truth

I recently read a book by the hugely talented author Patrick Lencioni. “Getting Naked” is one of the most insightful business books I have ever read. The whole concept challenges service providers to act with complete transparency and vulnerability with clients. Patrick uses this approach to help people to overcome three fears which he describes as:

  1. Fear of losing the business
  2. Fear of being embarrassed
  3. Fear of feeling inferior

I think these fears exist within any organisation and not acknowledging them leads to severe disadvantages.

The reason I mention this book specifically is because I truly believe the “Naked Service” concept is key to finding a client’s truth. Getting to the core of a clients business ethos requires you to connect with the people within the organisation on a level that extends beyond just doing business. It requires transparency and vulnerability from both the brand and the agency. It requires the ability to debate, disagree, question and listen.

Having worked in agencies and in-house over the past eight years I have been lucky enough to be a part of multiple branding, strategy, advertising and pitching processes. Generally speaking, in my experience, most businesses use similar processes to get to their intended endpoint.

Advertising agencies going through the process of pitching to a potential client, for example, will accept a request for proposal, receive a brief and based on that brief create some kind of document (usually a powerpoint deck)that they will ultimately present to the client. This deck will contain an almost complete creative idea, strategy and the cost associated with those services. In many cases an agency will not speak with a client directly during the process.

There are occasions where there will be a “tissue meeting” (worst meeting name ever created) where the agency will get the opportunity to go through a variety of concepts they have started to develop and get a steer from the client as to whether they are moving in the right direction or not.

In-house, branding decisions are often communicated from the top down with little to no involvement from the team at large. Business and brand decisions are communicated in a “Moses on Mount Sinai” style and have to be adopted by the team at large.

The problem on both fronts is the lack of communication and understanding. Change in every situation is difficult, but it is much easier to deal with if you buy into it personally and feel like you have the power to help drive positive change for the good of the company and brand. In order to present solutions that have longevity, you must be sure that you have established what the actual problem is first. Based on the hundreds of briefs I have encountered, the problems presented and the questions to be answered are rarely the right ones.

In “Getting Naked” Lencioni discusses getting rid of the big presentations, the masses of industry research and the reams of tactics in the initial meetings. He simply recommends sitting down and having a real conversation with your clients. Ask questions, admit you don’t understand, make suggestions, challenge the status quo. In fact, he suggests that you simply start working with the client from the off. Instead of telling them all of the things you can do, start to actually do those things.

Before pitching and presenting a document, have conversations, ask “stupid questions” and challenge assumptions. You often reveal things about the business, the people and the processes that you and the client would never heave realised otherwise.

It is in these revelations that truth can be found. It is these relationships that give the client a trust in you that allow you to push the boundaries of their brand with honesty and transparency where any other agency would receive push back.

What does the truth look like?

I am tempted to say you’ll know it when you see it but I’m not certain that is always true. With time and experience, I think we can all get to the point where we have a good feel for what is right and what is not.

There are occasions where everyone in the room arrives at the same point and you all just… know.

During a pitch process recently, as a team, we collectively found a single statement that perfectly described the company we were looking to work with. It encompassed their product and their ethos and as soon as we said it, we knew it worked on every level. We had spoken with the client on multiple occasions (face to face and over the phone) prior to the pitch so getting to this point was relatively simple.

On the same page, I went through a similar process with a much bigger brand last year and the team came up with a simple brand statement. In this case, we all felt it worked and bought into it, however when it came to the pitch we discovered that a lot of what we were saying didn’t sit particularly well and the brand statement itself was very similar to another brand thought they already had in place. Needless to say, we didn’t quite get the gig for a number of reasons.

The only difference between the big brand pitch and the second pitch (apart from winning and losing) is that we hadn’t created the opportunity to get to know the people and processes within the business with the bigger brand. We made a lot of assumptions based on the size of their business and brand many of which turned out to be wrong. We didn’t get to the truth of the brand.

Now when it comes to pitching a new client I ask myself these questions:


  • Have I spoken to the client at length?
  • Do I understand what the business is trying to achieve?
  • Do I understand the people within the business are trying to achieve?
  • Can I truly add value to the business and the people within it?
  • Can I talk to the client with honesty and transparency without an ulterior motive?
  • Am I focussing on what I can do for them, not what they can do for me?


If I can answer all of these questions positively then I am in an incredibly strong position and so is the brand. I know I fully understand them and they know that I am interested in what is best for them, not for me.

I’m not saying that all advertising agencies are crooked, only in it for themselves types, but as an industry, we have left a lot to be desired.

Telling the story & creating the experience.

Once you arrive at the essence of the brand, everything from then on should be about representing that single thing.
It’s time to start telling the story. Creating the experience.

The importance of the overall experience is so important.

What does experience add?

At the weekend I was at a teppanyaki restaurant. The food was nice. Not the best food I have ever tasted in my life by far but also not the worst. It sat directly in the middle of those things.

The experience as a whole on the other hand was amazing. Having your food cooked in front of you, the interaction with the chef, getting involved at the grill and best of all the fire. Real fire only feet from my face. The food remained good/average but the experience made it taste so much better.

A well-told story can turn a product that is simply “good” into a brand that is “amazing”.

These stories and experiences can be translated into almost any tactic or asset. Visually you can tell your story through video, animation, banners VR etc. In written form it can be applied to blogs, magazines, social posts, PPC ads and emails.

Having a central statement, a central vision to tie all of these things together means that no matter how someone arrives at your brand they still get to experience what it really stands for.

The Ring Doorbell example

When started creating video doorbells and searching for venture capitalists to invest, their truth was that they wanted to “Make Neighbourhoods Safer”. This is something that people struggled to grasp at first but, before they create any new product or service, they ask themselves the question “Does this make neighbourhoods safer?” If the answer is no, the simply don’t do it. That doesn’t mean the idea is bad, it’s just that it doesn’t fit with their truth. In terms of marketing, they use videos submitted by their own users to show how the Ring doorbell has helped prevent crime in their neighbourhood.

Advertising & Truth should be inextricably linked

Advertising and Truth don’t have to be mutually exclusive. The truth is out there if you have the right intentions and ask the right questions. Not only do I think it can help improve campaigns and results I also think it can help to improve client relationships which will have positive impacts across the board.

The only question now is:

“What brand truth will you find first and what story will you tell?”

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