This original piece is brought to you by The Content Council.
Bob Hoffman has been the CEO of three ad agencies and has created advertising for McDonald’s, Toyota, Pepsico, Bank of America, AT&T, and “more companies than he cares to think about”.
Hoffman, who has been described by Time, Inc. as “fabulously irreverent”, and by Fuel Lines as “the most provocative man in advertising”, is the author of three best-selling marketing books including “Bad Men”, and “Marketers Are From Mars, Consumers Are From New Jersey”.
His blog, The Ad Contrarian, has been named one the world's most influential by Business Insider.
Content Magazine sat down with this most sought-after international speaker on advertising and marketing to talk about the realities of content marketing and why most marketers are operating under three delusions.
Read on for our unabridged and frank conversation.
Content: What do you think about content marketing?
Bob: I think it’s a very silly term that doesn’t really mean anything. I have no idea what anyone means when they say content marketing.
Content seems to mean anything. And something that means anything means nothing.
But it’s what we marketers do. We take something that doesn’t have a meaning, and we make it sound important.
You tell me. What does content marketing mean?
Is it about using words, or images, or video to reach out to consumers, or an audience, whether they’re a B2B, or B2C, to try and influence them, or try and engage with them in some way, or to provoke thought?
Here’s my problem. Anything can be content.
If I find a dirty old pizza crust in the street, it’s garbage. But if I take a picture of it, and upload it to my website, it’s content.
What isn’t content? If you can tell me what isn’t content, then I can understand what is content.
Anything you can upload to the web is now called content and to me, that’s very silly.
Anything of value should have a specific designation. If you write something and it has value, it’s a book, or an article, or it’s a poem, or it’s a play. If it doesn’t have a specific designation, if it’s just words, then it’s content.
What are the principles of content marketing? I have no idea. If there are no principles to a discipline, that’s not a discipline. It’s just a bunch of words.
So, that’s my uninformed opinion of content marketing.
With the rise of ad blockers, what is the best form of advertising?
The best form of advertising is television.
The best form of web advertising, I think, is search, because people who are searching are actually looking for something.
People who are not searching are going to ignore ads on the web.
Do you know what the click rate is for display ads? It’s reported to be about five clicks per 10,000 ads. It’s hard to get much closer to zero. And of the five clicks, how many are accidental? How many are fraudulent?
We thought when digital advertising started it was going to be like traditional forms of advertising, television, radio, and print and outdoor, and it was going to create demand, but it seems not to have been able to do that.
At the moment, what web advertising is good for is fulfilling demand, and that’s what search does.
When you’ve decided you’re going to Hawaii for your vacation, and you’ve already made that decision, you’ll use the web to fulfill demand. You’ll find out who has the cheapest fares, and what the good hotels are.
The proof of that is, where are the brands that have been created by online advertising? My belief is that the highest calling of marketing is to create a successful brand. That’s job #1.
I mean, look in your refrigerator—are there any brands of anything that have been created by online advertising? Look in your cabinets—are there any brands? Look in your garage. Where are the brands of soft drink, and fast food, and beer, and soda, and cars that have been created by online advertising?
The answer is, they’re pretty much non-existent. They’ve all been created by traditional advertising.
We’ve had online advertising for 20 years now. The only thing that online advertising has been successful at helping create are web-native brands. You know, Netflix, and Amazon. But a vast majority—I don’t know, maybe 95% of the brands in the world—are not web-native.
So, finding brands that have been created by online advertising is very hard and then, finding brands that have been created by content marketing...are there any?
Is there a famous big brand in the world that has been created by content marketing? If there is, I’m not aware of it.
Content marketing is a footnote. And there’s nothing wrong with footnotes. But thinking you’re going to have a big marketing success is unlikely.
Sure, some people do. But marketing is about likelihoods and probabilities, and what’s the probability that you’re going to create a successful brand using content marketing?
I think it’s very low.
You’ve previously said that marketers have been operating under highly questionable assumptions that have disconnected them from the thinking and behavior of the average people. What are the assumptions being made, and how are they skewing the practice of marketing?
The biggest assumption that marketers are making is that consumers are “in love” with the brands, that consumers want to “have relationships” with brands, and want to read branded storytelling, and all that stuff.
Consumers don’t care that much about brands. Consumers have lives of their own to worry about.
Our brands are very important to us marketers, but not very important to most consumers. Most consumers don’t really care that much about your brand.
There’s a delusion called “brand love”, where consumers are supposed to love their brand of, say, peanut butter, or whatever. But it’s a fantasy. To consumers it’s, “Yes, I prefer this one to that one. I don’t know why, but I certainly don’t love it.”
There was a study by Havas media in North America, and Europe. Consumers said that if 92% of brands disappeared, they wouldn’t care. So, how much love is there for brands?
Most of the stuff is not that important to us.
Marketers have been hoodwinked into thinking we want to “join the conversation” about their brands, right? What conversation? Where is there a conversation going on about a brand? Go to your Facebook page. See if you can find a conversation about brands.
There’s no such thing.
Go to your Twitter feed and try to look for conversations about brands. It’s a fantasy. It doesn’t exist.
**Although, that said, to challenge you, brands are aligned to status, and status for the average westerner is important.
People wear particular brands to reflect that they’re part of certain group. Affluent people want to drive around in expensive cars to show their wealth and supposed success.**
Yes, and that’s the value of brands, and that’s where brand preference comes in. That’s what we’re trying to create.
But we’ve taken that and twisted and tortured it into believing in “brand love”. And that’s where the social media fantasy that we want to “join the conversation” and read “branded storytelling” and “co-create” with brands was born.
The idea that people want to have conversations about brands, and share them online with their friends, and this is going to create other conversations, that’s a fantasy. There’s very little of that going on…
Sure, there are some people who do it, but it’s very unlikely.
What about the people like the Kim Kardashians of the world? The so-called “influencers”? These people are wearing branded clothing, eating branded food, talking about brands and living out the brand values, they are influencing thousands of people, whilst making lots of money doing it?
They are one in a million. They’re the outliers.
For the average marketer, thinking that you’re going to be like that… or that people care about your stuff like they think about Kim Kardashian.
It’s silly. It’s chasing rainbows. Marketers take the most unlikely scenarios, and pretend that that’s average, right?
They take things that are two, or three standard deviations from normal, and they use that as an example of how things work.
It’s arguing from the extreme. You take the most extreme case of something, like a Kardashian, and you pretend that that’s how marketing works.
That’s not how marketing works.
That’s how marketing works for one in a million things.
To try to extract principles from odd ball cases like that is going to lead you down some very strange, and unproductive paths.
You have to be more realistic about how stuff in your category works, and not get lost in fantasyland that your brand is going to be like Kim Kardashian, because it’s not.
You’ve said that marketers have lost touch with reality, and they’re laboring under three delusions; the brand delusion, the digital delusion, and the age delusion. Can you elaborate: What’s the delusion, and what is the reality?
The digital delusion was that online advertising was going to be more effective than traditional advertising, because it was going to be interactive, and that was a complete delusion.
Nobody wants to interact with online advertising. The idea that the same person who was frantically clicking her remote to escape from advertising was going to joyfully click her mouse to interact with it is going to go down as one of the greatest delusions in the history of marketing.
So, the digital delusion was the fantasy of interactivity.
The brand delusion is the one that I was just talking about, that consumers are in love with brands. For the most part, they are not.
What advertising and marketing should be doing is trying to create brand preference, and forget about the delusion of brand love.
The third delusion is the age delusion. Marketers are obsessed with millennials, and are now starting to get obsessed with Gen Zs.
They are ignoring the most important market in the history of commerce, and that is people over 50.
People over 50 are, by far, the wealthiest, and the most productive market segment in the history of the world.
They are being completely ignored by marketers.
In the US, for example, if Americans over 50 were their own country, they would be the third largest economy in the world, after the US, and China.
And we’re completely ignoring them.
We’re ignoring them because the people in the marketing industry are all young, and marketing has become strategy by selfie-stick.
“I’m an advertising person. Everyone thinks the way I think. Everyone is like me, and I need to talk to them the way I talk to my friends.”
That’s not how it works.
People over 50 have a whole different set of ideas than people who are 18, or 21, or 25, and most marketers are not recognizing that.
Are there any marketers, any brands, getting it right, in your opinion, in terms of attracting the audiences, and converting?
Yes. There are some brands who usually do very smart work. Apple is one example.
It’s one of the biggest companies in the world. Generally, it does smart advertising.
Curiously, despite the fact that it is the largest tech companies in the world, and despite the fact that it has two of the largest online stores in the world, in the iTunes Store and the App Store, almost of Apple’s advertising is traditional.
It’s television, it’s outdoor, and it’s print.
I don’t think they even have a Facebook page or a Twitter feed.
If you could impart one piece of advice to fresh-faced marketers entering the industry right now, what would it be?
Study the facts, and become an expert on the facts; not on whatever the current trendy jargon is, and whatever the obsession of the week happens to be in marketing.
Marketers jump from one obsession to the next in remarkably quick leaps.
Understand the fundamentals of marketing. Understanding the fundamentals of advertising.
Don’t be mesmerized by what the latest trendy bullshit is.
Ignore everything you hear, and read, about the future. Nobody knows what’s going to happen in the future.
Focus on what’s happening now, and do what’s happening now to the best of your ability.
If you study the last 10 or 15 years of advertising and marketing, it’s pretty obvious that the “experts” were wrong about most things.
Give yourself the wonderful freedom of skepticism.