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Opinion and Insight
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Honesty in Advertising: Time for a Truth Serum?

Feed , 10 months, 1 week ago

MD of Feed Matt Lynch on how bullshit builds barriers & honesty starts conversations

Honesty in Advertising: Time for a Truth Serum?

I wanted to get to the bottom of why we lie so much, especially as an industry, and try to present the case for honesty as a great return on investment.

Who is telling the truth these days?

Bankers, politicians and the media all have been caught out, and now brands are in the firing line with VW, Facebook and Amazon all desperately trying to atone for their sins. Is society in danger of becoming so jaded that honesty will become an outdated concept? Will all CEO’s soon be required to face questioning by Sodium Pentathol?

Today’s world should be about being open source, sharing, exposing the hidden workings and lifting the veil of mystery and superstition. Never before have we been handed the cultural and technological opportunity to right wrongs, to be inclusive, democratic and honest with each other.

But what have most agencies done? They've taken this opportunity; butchered and twisted it into a money spinner, a fashion, a trend, a top secret algorithm or a hashtag. Honesty has retained about as much meaning as it’s slightly more fashionable cousins ‘transparency’ and ‘authenticity’. And all this obfuscation has made us look like bad salesmen who are peddling the next shipment of whatever we've been given. Is it any coincidence that the business community is loosing total faith in our ability to add tangible business value?

The debate at Feed revolved around the opinions of three leaders in their field - Judith Secombe, Group Publishing Director, Hearst Magazines UK, Hannah Wilson, Head of Marketing, Gumtree and Ewen Macaskill, Defence and Intelligence correspondent, The Guardian. They discussed honesty and how more than ever we must fight to defend it. 

With 28 years experience in media, Judith has now focused on developing Good Housekeeping across multiple platforms. The magazine has become the biggest selling glossy for women in the UK, and has been awarded Consumer Media Brand of the Year. Her key point was that honesty as a blunt instrument doesn’t always work, Gerard Ratner can vouch for that. Honesty is a multi-faceted concept relying on authenticity, integrity and, in the main, trust. Too often data only tells half the story, truth is stifled by regulation. For instance manufacturers of fridges often test their efficiency only when the fridge is empty, so you can’t possibly get a true idea of its true performance. Now the media landscape has opened up, corporations have nowhere to hide and are beginning to realise they are directly accountable. 

Hannah Wilson has been Head of Marketing at Gumtree since February 2014, previously she was Head of Marketing at eBay and oversaw CRM at the BBC. From their research there is a burgeoning social hangover, in that whilst Millenials don’t present themselves honestly on social media they are increasingly expecting honesty from their friends, and resenting those that aren’t. Honesty becomes subjective and hypocritical. The 18-35 year old consumers are stimulation junkies, they want authentic experiences to kill boredom rather than price reductions or BOGOF deals. Authentic honesty has become the new normal. A trend that people want to be associated with without taking the responsibility to live it.    

The third panelist was Ewen MacAskil, born in Glasgow, a journalist for 42 years, about half of that time on the Guardian where he has been chief political correspondent, diplomatic editor, Washington Bureau Chief and now Defence and Intelligence correspondent. The story he has become most identified with is the Snowden affair: for which he  was part of the Guardian team awarded the Pulitizer prize for their coverage. Which also led to Ewen himself featuring in a movie about the Snowden affair – CitizenFour. 

Ewan pointed out that honesty is the very heart of his job. So much depends on it. He has a reputation for total honesty. Trust is a fragile thing, essentially his contract is with the reader, no journalist should seek to mislead. Being devious and cunning to get a story is one thing, but lying is quite another. But honesty works both ways in media. When Ewan speak to contacts or PR people, he always starts from giving them the benefit of the doubt, and, while retaining a measure of scepticism, assumes they are telling the truth.  If he ever finds out they have attempted to mislead him or lied, the relationship is over. But the jaded public are his biggest concern, as fundamentally research shows they don’t trust anyone, least of all the media. 

It seems like honesty takes bravery, tenacity, and a lot of hard work.

Funny that those same attributes are precisely the ones that lead to the creation of the best work.

At Feed, we believe that honesty in business can work like a virtuous flywheel.

The more honesty in an agency, the more relaxed the people are. The more relaxed the people, the better the work. The better the work, the better the relationship with the client. This leads to more & better work. And so the flywheel turns.

Not a bad return for just telling the truth.

Bullshit builds barriers, honesty starts conversations. Those conversations will take you to incredible places, full of social, moral and economic success.

Ultimately, telling the truth isn’t always easy, we're seemingly programmed to lie.

But try and rewrite the code. You won't look back.

Matt Lynch is MD of Feed, a digital agency based in Shoreditch, London