Brian Jacobs, Co-Founder at Crater Lake and Company

Brian Jacobs has worked in the media side of advertising for agencies including Leo Burnett, Carat, and Universal McCann. He’s been responsible for media activity in multiple countries for clients including Procter and Gamble, McDonald’s, Kellogg’s, and Volkswagen. He set up Brian Jacobs and Associates in 2006 and has consulted for companies including Suzuki, the ISBA, Hiscox, Boots, Kantar Media, and a number of media agencies and tech start-ups. He co-authored (with the late Dr. Simon Broadbent) the standard textbook on media advertising: ‘Spending Advertising Money’. Brian is a Fellow of the IPA (Institute of Practitioners in Advertising).


I’ve spent my whole career in advertising. As a child, I liked the ads I saw on TV, probably because they allowed me a few more minutes before being bundled off to bed although I prefer my post-rationalised explanation that I was fascinated by their ability to communicate so much so quickly. Back then, many did seem to find advertising interesting. It was said that ‘everyone is an expert in two things: their own job and advertising’.

Ads were a part of popular culture; people knew them and quoted them. Tag lines became part of the language; depending on your era, there are many in the UK who remember ‘You’ve been Tangoed’; ‘I’m a secret lemonade drinker’; Good things come to those who wait; For mash get Smash’; or ‘I’d like to buy the world a Coke’ sung by a scratch choir on a hilltop in Italy.

The fact that the ad industry is changing is hardly surprising; the same could be said of any sector, but once again for whatever reason advertising generates interest, even if these days ‘Isn’t it all on Facebook?’ has replaced being invited to listen to thoughts on the latest Guinness campaign.

Yes, advertising is changing but certain key principles continue to underpin successful campaigns.

Depending on whether you’re an American or a Brit, it was either John Wanamaker or Lord Leverhulme who said: ‘I know half my advertising is wasted, the problem is I don’t know which half’. Given that this remark (whoever said it) is about 100 years old you might be forgiven for thinking we’ve worked out which half, and what to do about it.

But we haven’t. Rather, the percentage that doesn’t work has most likely increased. Just why some advertising does work is comparatively easy to explain after the event; producing advertising which is likely to work is quite another thing.

For advertising to do its job, whether that’s persuading people to try something for the first time, selling more to current users, improving a brand’s reputation, or requesting more information, two elements need to come together.

First, there’s the idea. Something that will grab peoples’ attention, inform, amuse, entertain, and be remembered.

Second, there are people. The right people in sufficient numbers need to see it, notice it, and do something as a result.

Getting the right idea in front of the right people, at the right time is easier said than done. It’s a matter of balance – a brilliant idea that nobody sees is useless; equally useless is reaching all the right people with an idea so dull that nobody remembers it.

Planning an ad campaign has always been a matter of judgment over exactitude. We stack the odds using insights generated from data, mixed with creativity using our expertise and hope the cards fall as they should.

We are in danger of getting the balance wrong; of focussing on data around the audience over the idea.

Originality and creativity have always cut through. Data and statistics have their place but in just the same way that you can give ten people the same ingredients and not all will produce a wonderful dish, so you need magic to create something unique.

Over the last couple of decades, the growth of online media forms over more traditional channels like TV, newspapers, or magazines has been well documented.

Not only have the channels themselves changed, but so too has the way we consume them.

The days of sitting quietly in front of the TV, watching the flickering image on the box in the corner are as we all know long past (if they ever existed beyond the world of fanciful illustrations in magazines, which I doubt).

Today we switch from screen to screen. When ‘watching’ TV, we look at TikTok or YouTube, we search, and we look at WhatsApp. We are aware of commercial messages but modern-day tag lines as memorable as those at the front of this article are hard to come by.

The majority of people these days form their view of the world not from trained journalists, or subject experts but from those they choose to follow online. Yes, sometimes these are trained journalists but often they’re not, they’re just someone with a loud-hailer and a keyboard.

Sometimes they’re not a person at all but an automated response-generator spewing out content from a bot farm controlled by someone somewhere with a particular agenda.

This in itself is deeply concerning (what even is ‘truth’ these days?), but what’s it got to do with advertising?

The answer stems from a loss of confidence in our own judgment.

The online platforms like Facebook, Google, and the rest are very largely funded by advertising. And the advertising they attract is driven there by the data they collect on the audience they deliver.

There is no question that these media forms appeal to a lot of people – they’re largely free to the end user, and they’re useful.

Yes, they attract those intent on causing harm, but then isn’t that a risk with all publicly available content? (Actually, to nothing like the same degree, that’s what Editors are for. But that’s for another day).

The appeal of the online channels to advertisers is rooted in apparent certainty. They ‘know’ that many millions use them; they see how many click on an ad; they monitor the millions of likes generated.

But this is a fake certainty; in fact, it’s not ‘certain’ at all.

Likes and clicks have been shown to have very little to do with business success. No doubt in part because the millions of likes and clicks are not all human. But human or not they’re quantifiable, (apparently) unarguable; they owe nothing to judgment.

They appear to be facts (they’re numbers after all); and relying on even non-facts is more comfortable to many than having them make a judgment on what is ‘good’ versus what is not.

One of the best creative minds in advertising is Sir John Hegarty. Sir John is also a wine buff – he owns a vineyard. Here’s what he wrote in the last couple of weeks on social media on how he judges his own wine:

“Last month I was talking to our wine-maker Jessica Servet Chardron about the best time to harvest grapes.
The perfect time is when the fruit has acid and sugar in the right proportions (this is called phenolic balance if you’re interested).
Lots of winemakers rely on lab tests to determine when this is. We prefer to trust Jessica’s palette.
Why make a personal, rather than a science-informed choice? It allows for serendipity, imperfection, and subjectivity.
You get a wine that’s unique, idiosyncratic: more human.
After all, no-one wants a data-driven wine.
It’s the same in business. Relying on stats, substantiation, and AI is a pursuit for perfection, for “correct”. It’s setting us on course for a world of blandness.
It’s not just illusionary. It’s dull.
Leonard Cohen said it well: “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

As with wine, so with advertising. The more unique, idiosyncratic, and human the more the light will get in.

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