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INTERVIEW: Advertising Guru Ahmad Abu Zannad Confronts Noam Chomsky in Latest Book “Adman vs. Chomsky”

DUBAI: “As an industry, we may have lost our mojo,” writes Ahmad Abu Zannad in his book “Adman vs. Chomsky ”. He talks about the advertising industry, of which he has been a part for over 15 years – first as a marketer at Saudi telco Zain, then in various strategic roles at Leo Burnett, including a stint as Managing Director, leaving in 2020 to set up his own consulting firm Native Communications.

He specifies that the book is “neither a reminiscence of the history of the industry, nor another article reflecting on its future, of which there is now much more than enough (given that a Google search for ‘The future of the advertising industry’ returns 600 million results and counts).

The book is a “defense of the industry as it has presented itself in its recent history and as it appears today.” In fact, I will argue that there has been a serious misunderstanding of what the advertising industry is. “

Besides being a marketer and a creative strategist, Abu Zannad is also an author. He published his first book in 2012, titled “Speaking ‘Human’ in the Land of Dichotomies: A Guide to Leo Burnett’s HumanKind Approach to Building Brands in Saudi Arabia”. In 2016, he published his second book, “De-Commoditizing the Ad Industry”, followed by “Adman vs. Chomsky ”in 2020.

Arab News spoke with Abu Zannad to discuss his latest book as well as his thoughts on the advertising industry today.

What prompted you to write this book?

“It is the conviction that it is crucial for everyone to feel good about their work and to be proud of the work they do, day after day, even if they are still only working towards an aspiration or an ideal. .

“As the great Khalil Gibran said: ‘Work is love made visible. And if you cannot work with love but only with disgust, it is better that you give up your work and sit at the door of the temple and take alms from those who work with joy.

Why an advertiser against Noam Chomsky?

“If the intellectual community sees a practice as manipulative or part of malware, it’s a slippery slope. It becomes less attractive to ethical and talented individuals, it deters investors from buying into the industry, it causes customers to seek alternative solutions, and it creates a negative overall perception among the masses.

“Today, the most intellectual human alive is Dr Noam Chomsky. He has described the advertising industry, throughout its history, as part of an established program with one main task: “To ensure that uninformed consumers make irrational choices.” Therefore, in the book, Dr Chomsky represents not only the intellectual community but also all the other academics and theorists who have an unrealistic view of how our market should work.

“And while Dr. Chomsky and others have made such statements, we haven’t seen anyone from the industry come to our defense. Thus, the “Chomsky” in the title replaces the theorists and the “Adman” represents the practitioners who have to face the realities of the market and its real functioning.

Leonardo Da Vinci once said: ‘He who enjoys practice without theory is like the sailor who boards a ship without a rudder or a compass, and never knows where he can launch. I believe that advertising, as a practice, cannot be operated competently and ethically without the support of clear theoretical frameworks.

“And no theoretical framework for advertising can be properly validated if advertising practitioners do not fully integrate it. Unfortunately, we’re a long way from there, and the book is an attempt to bridge the gap between theorists like Chomsky and practitioners like your everyday advertiser.

The book defends the growing negativity around advertising. However, more recently, especially with social media and data-driven targeted advertising, there is more to be concerned about than ever before. What do you think about this?

“The problem arises when advertising works without a solid scientific framework or a clearly defined main task. Every industry uses new technologies and increased access to data in order to be more effective and efficient. But, we should not completely redefine the task of an industry in its ability to be more efficient. This is what happens with the advertising industry – we don’t care about our main job anymore, as long as we do things more efficiently.

“When scientists and theorists examine the frameworks that marketers and advertising professionals apply, they are disappointed at how unscientific and myopic we have become.

“For example, as we strive to use big data to understand consumer behavior, psychologist Geoffrey Miller tells us our methods are outdated and out of step with the past 30 years of advancements in psychology, warning us that looking at the people like numbers will make our efforts useless.

“At the same time, environmentalist Dr Ethan Decker asked himself, ‘What is the science of marketing?’ The only response he could come up with was, “It turns out there isn’t much.

“Increasingly, advertisers are using their abilities to personalize and target messages, attacking individuals in intrusive ways, which has led audiences to use similar tactics to avoid such targeting. 50% of consumers in UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt use some type of online ad blocker. Yet the same people would purposely seek out great content on their own. After all, 67% of Arabs watched the Arab Idol finale. What we need to do is give them something worth listening to.

Just as advertising can transform a brand for the better, it can also have devastating consequences for the brand. What is your opinion on this?

“Yes, of course, advertising can have devastating consequences for brands. However, without a clear framework for how advertising should work, it is difficult for such activities to be clearly characterized as professional misconduct.

“One consequence could be that people start to find the mark boring. One problem we need to highlight is that 90% of people find targeted ads boring. Marketers blindly divert their budgets from creative work – which 63% of people say would attract them to a brand – to strictly focus on targeted ads, which most people find irritating.

“Another consequence could be that the brand appears to be ignorant of the culture of the public. This happened some time ago in the United States with Pepsi and Kendall Jenner, where the brand seemed completely oblivious to the cultural issues surrounding police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement. More recently in Egypt, we have seen a backlash similar to Citroën’s announcement with Amr Diab. In an attempt to push their new shooting feature down people’s throats, they asked male celebrity Diab to sneak photos of a passing woman, making the brand appear completely unaware of local issues of sexual harassment. .

Can you give us some examples that illustrate the power of advertising for good?

“Here are three of my favorite examples from the book: Dove commissioned a study of 3,000 women in 10 different countries that found that only 2% of women thought they were beautiful.

“In response, they launched an ongoing advertising campaign with encouraging and motivating messages, urging women to confidently embrace their natural beauty, and 71% of women who interacted with these positive ads said they felt more beautiful. .

“In Turkey, Ax decided to tackle the general cultural stereotype that real men don’t apologize. The deodorant brand wanted to combat this stereotype by incorporating its advertising into a popular local television series “The Pit”, which has long encouraged this specific stereotype. As a result, in just 30 minutes, 3,750 apology messages were shared on Twitter by Turkish men.

“The Always brand has tackled the difficult issue of girls’ self-esteem, which typically drops dramatically once they hit puberty. Boys suffer from the same, but the decline is twice as severe for girls. What’s even worse is that while the data shows that men’s self-esteem ends up rising higher than it was before puberty, the reverse for women.

“In response, Always decided to challenge the cultural stereotype of what it means to do something ‘like a girl’. Instead of presenting a specific stereotype, their advertising showed that doing something “like a girl” just means doing it like anyone else. Subsequently, nearly 70% of women and 60% of men said watching the ad changed their perception of the phrase “like a girl”.

Do you think there has been a shift in power from creative agencies to media and digital agencies? And what are the consequences?

“Data from Google’s Media Lab shows that 70% of a campaign’s performance is attributed to creative work, while only 10% of the budget is spent on creative development.

“As an article in ‘The New Yorker’ says, we’ve gone from creative ‘mad men’ to geeky ‘math men’. And we did it in the pursuit of short-term profits in total disregard of what science tells us.

“All of behavioral science tells us that people look for brands with a purpose and people are drawn to engaging storytelling. They are looking for beauty and color. Our consumers tell us that humans are symbolic creatures, and they want to know what a brand symbolizes. This is the power of creativity: to move the masses and lead them to the brands they love. “

After working in large multinational agencies, you created Native. What sets him apart?

“Native is not an agency but a consulting firm. We help agencies and brands find a ‘native’ role for themselves in people’s lives, and we also help them create branded content with a ‘native’ fit to the platforms where that content resides. . Our mission is to populate the market with brands that play a native role in people’s lives, as well as branded content with native fit.

“We believe that brands that populate content with native adjustment but ignore the brand’s native role are intrusive brands. They’re there at the right time and in the right place, but they’re not really welcomed by 90% of consumers.

“On the other hand, brands that have a native role but whose content is rarely found in a native fit are tourism brands. Consumers understand the brand, but don’t hear, see or experience it enough.

“Brands that lack both are foreign brands.

“Today, we are convinced that no other consulting firm is as capable or as equipped to offer such solutions. “

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