Watching TV with the 85%
Most of the UK lives outside London, but most of adland is in London. This can skew understanding of normal life, says Cravens’ Mark Hadfield.
Brands advertise on television because it gets their messages into every nook and cranny of the UK. It is, as research consistently shows, a true scale and reach medium.
Yet, curiously, that scale and reach does not tend to apply to the businesses who create for TV. In fact, quite the opposite is true: 85% of the UK communications industry is based in London. Yet 85% of the UK population live outside the capital.
I find this disconnect problematic, for it surely risks skewing any understanding about what ‘normal life’ is actually like for the majority of people in the UK - the tens of millions that make up TV’s mass audience.
Yes, marketers can carry out research, or, as is more likely, have others do it on their behalf; but what mislaid assumptions will they carry if they never go and meet these people and witness how they actually live their lives? What strategic or creative insights might they miss? And how can they truly benchmark the authenticity of their messages?
Of course, I’m not suggesting London does not have ‘normal people’ within it - of course it does - but they are still the 15%, a minority, and so I argue more brands and agencies should go further if they want to genuinely understand the UK-wide mainstream.
Fortunately, some do recognise the disconnect. Nike, for example, has tailored its TV ads because it understands regional nuance; hence why it produced both Nike Londoner and Nike Liverpool.
For many years, the Royal Navy has taken a similar approach, and in the one instance it got it wrong, it caused a backlash - helpfully proving that understanding your audience really does matter.
However, most brands attempt to speak to the masses by using a neutral-accent voice-over and homogeneous settings. It’s a fence-sitting identity that might work, but with some added nuance could work much better.
The living rooms of reality
Although born and bred in Hartlepool, and now living and working in Newcastle, I spent six years in Asia and over 15 years working in London-based ad agencies. I’ve seen the problem, as subtle as it can sometimes be, firsthand. It’s why I launched Meet the 85%, a project to better understand how people outside London think and act.
Through interviews and photography, we’ve been documenting people’s lives, never focusing on the outliers or masking the mundane. It’s simply about spending time with a broad range of people to capture their own reality, truths, and beliefs. Some of these reflect existing knowledge, some contradict it. Neither are correct nor incorrect - they are the powerful truth of one.
Ultimately, this is about trying to help brands by showing real people doing the real things they do, rather than what looks good in a research debrief. We’re taught in creative agencies to ‘look for the outliers’ - but by their very nature they’re the niches. Aren’t most brands after the volume?
We’re not seeking (nor finding) extraordinary audience ‘insights’ - and why would we? Most people don’t live such extraordinary lives. But what we are doing is adding a bit more diversity to the way our industry operates and perceives the world it is trying to engage with.
Rightly, adland is making much needed moves to tackle its systemic diversity issues, both internally and through its creative output. But brands should not forget that also includes geography and socioeconomic status.
There’s power in being relatable
As a lead channel for mass market campaigns, TV has a critical role to play in brands building understanding and relevancy to the mainstream. It has the ability to reflect the lives of the people brands are targeting.
However, the past few years have seen a deluge of big data purporting to get us closer to our audiences, but in many ways it has taken us further away - hiding nuanced beliefs behind gigabytes of information.
If marketing professionals continue this approach, misinterpretations and flawed stereotypes will abound, and will likely become the industry-recognised norm, shared and shared again.
So ask: is the aspirational scene you are creating for your ad based on reality, or is it a facsimile of another marketer’s own misunderstanding?
Did you read the expression on someone’s face to match your reading of the data?
At Meet the 85% we speak to people about their daily lives, habits, principles and brand preferences, and it’s keeping us rooted; reminding us about the real people we’re trying to connect with. Yes, advertising should be entertaining, informative, emotional - but it should also be relatable and believable.
Never forget that adland, despite all the money spent trying to gain audience insights, failed to predict Brexit (and I suggest you look up the brilliant Steven Lacey and The Outsiders’ research in this area if you haven’t).
Perhaps if more marketers had spent time away from their desks in the capital, that would have been different.
And also remember just how enduring and influential a part of British culture TV can be. Because of that, it remains an exceptional and hugely effective place to advertise. But our ads could go the extra mile if marketers would dare to watch a bit more of it in someone else’s living room.
Mark Hadfield is Strategy Partner at Newcastle-based creative agency Cravens and founder of Meet the 85%. Meet the 85% is powered by Cravens and Flume.