Going west by heading east: Why direct, ‘rational’ online advertising doesn’t work

Brand Editorial Marketing, Thinkpiece view

Going west by heading east: Why direct, ‘rational’ online advertising doesn’t work

Unfortunately for online advertisers, winning customers isn’t simply a matter of finding out what they want and telling them they should buy it from you. Sometimes you need to take an indirect approach to get to your destination, as Gareth Williams explains…


The shortest route from the Atlantic Ocean in the east to the Pacific Ocean in the west runs, strangely, from west to east.

This is the route taken by the Panama Canal:

When you arrive at the Balboa port on the Pacific coast you are some 30 miles to the east of Colon, where you left the Atlantic… Ships go eastwards in order to reach their westwards destination more quickly and economically. They follow a trajectory that is oblique.

This is from the opening pages of Obliquity by John Kay, which ‘…describes the process of achieving complex objectives indirectly’. The Professor argues that most direct way to achieve an objective is often not the best one.


Taking an oblique approach, one where you achieve your objective through doing things that don’t address it bang-on, can be more effective. This is particularly so when there’s an element of complexity, and when humans are involved this is usually the case.



The indirect approach to creating value

The book looks into lots of human activities, but its major preoccupation is business. For instance, directly targeting shareholder returns as your business’s objective is self-defeating. If you manage by this metric, putting shareholders first, it’s less likely you’re going to do a good job looking after your customers, employees, and product range.

And it’s those that make a good business, one which earns a return on its efforts from customers that’s sufficient to give good returns to its shareholders. Want to create shareholder value? Then focus on creating value for your customers and employees through doing good business. That’s an oblique – and effective – approach to achieving an objective.


Why online advertisers are too rational

It struck me that if Professor Kay was writing his book today (it was published in 2010), he might point to online advertising as a great example of his thesis.

Adtech involves taking a data-driven, targeted, and quantifiable approach to achieving the goal of advertising your wares. And why wouldn’t this sound attractive?

Finding someone who fits the profile of your existing customers, who has demonstrated an interest in what you sell, who you can advertise to in a targeted way that doesn’t take in lots of people who don’t fit the bill, and where you can measure the effect of your advertising via response rates? Sounds like a wonderful idea to an advertiser. Targeted! Efficient! Personalised! Measurable!

However, in focusing on this direct, mechanistic and rational approach brands have tended to forget that winning customers isn’t simply a matter of finding out what they want and telling them they should buy it from you. That’s rather like the art of seduction beginning and ending with asking someone if they’d kindly oblige. It leaves out those things that really win people over: charm, humour, generosity, favours, respect, and so on.

And when advertisers keep banging on with the direct approach, serving up ad after ad whilst chasing someone around the internet – and why wouldn’t they given they just know the target wants to buy their stuff? – things become even more mechanistic and charmless.

What started out as a clever way to sell very directly to the right prospects ends up becoming quite alienating, to the extent that those prospects begin finding ad-blocking a necessary idea – a sort of restraining order for ad pests.

That thesis would fit in very nicely with the good Professor’s critique. The best way to persuade a customer often involves telling them something that’s funny, useful, entertaining as well as relevant. That’s the really effective sell. The best offline advertising has always known this.

More online advertisers need to find this route too, and Brand Editorial Marketing, by the way, is wonderfully oblique.


Gareth Williams is Chair of Thinkpiece.

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