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The Wizard of Ads Interview – Roy H. Williams (Part 2)

Brand Shorthand

Mark and Lorraine share part 2 of the interview with the Wizard of Ads, Roy H. Williams. Roy discusses deep insights on his understanding of the human condition and why we buy what we buy. From discussing reductionism and spirituality to "dead cows everywhere," Roy provides insights that any advertiser will appreciate. Learn: why demographic targeting is a myth and how to properly target through the message, why media targeting is so costly and the alternative we should consider, why a prospect's realm of association is so critical, why positioning is one of the most critical components of marketing, and which books Roy recommends for marketers (it's only 3 titles long).

28 min

Mark Vandegrift:
Welcome to the latest episode of the Brand Shorthand Podcast. I'm your host, Mark Vandegrift, and today we share part two of three of Lorraine's and my interview with our special guest, Roy Williams, the Wizard of Ads. If you didn't hear the first part of the interview published on October 16th, we encourage you to listen to that episode first as we pick up in the middle of the conversation discussing human nature and what makes us buy the things we buy.

Roy H Williams:
Reductionism. A reductionist believes that a human being is just a product of their glands and their hormones and brain patches and brain lobes and chemicals. And there is definitely some truth in that. There is definitely truth that chemicals control our feelings, chemicals control our mood and when you alter the chemicals you alter the mood otherwise we would not have hallucinogenic and addictive drugs and it's the chasing the mood -- chasing the chemical feeling -- that can be delivered but I've often said that as a matter of fact in one of the Wizard of Edge trilogy I wrote that, if we look at the human brain and we compare it, this is before DVDs were even created. If we think of the human brain as a VHS tape, and I said, now your life is a movie, but your brain is just the VHS tape that carries the movie from place to place. The VHS tape is not the movie. The movie is much bigger and much more beautiful than this little plastic, black cartridge with this little tape spooled up in it. That's just a tape and a black cartridge, but the movie that is encoded on that is this amazing, beautiful, magnificent, spellbinding thing. So your life is the movie. And I said, if the tape is damaged, if your brain is impaired, then it makes the movie more difficult to experience. And I said, so if you mess up the tape, you mess up the movie in this life.

But the movie exists even if the tape is destroyed. The movie continues to exist. It's still there. And so I'm not a reductionist. And I think reductionists have got it backwards. I believe that we do have a meat body that carries our spiritual being from place to place. I know you'll both understand this, but somebody smarter than me said years ago, we're not humans having a temporary spiritual experience, where spiritual beings having a temporary human experience. And I happen to believe that.

Mark Vandegrift:
Well, it's interesting, Lorraine and I were in airport one time reading the 150th anniversary of Atlantic Monthly. And there was a comment in there that at that time, the vocabulary of the average American was 25,000 words. And as of the time of that reading, the average was 3000. And that was only 20, maybe 20 years ago. Do you think that's a factor of us losing connectivity to this idea of the way the mind works? What do you think is a great factor around that?

Roy H Williams:
Well, actually, I wrote about it. If you look at the Monday Morning Memo this week, I wrote about the underdog phenomenon. And I forget who it was that wrote, 'Today, people will only learn the things, the minimum amount of stuff that will make them more successful. And they don't have any interest in becoming a more well-read or informed citizen.' They don't want to be culturally literate. They don't want to be informed. They just want to learn the life hacks that will bring them fame and money. And so when you reduce your scope of life to fame and money, then you live in a very small world and you know fewer words because so many words don't have anything to do with fame or money. They have to do with depth of understanding and relationship and interaction with the world around you, and just general awareness. And you know, Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of the founders of the Atlantic Monthly. I don't know if you knew that. And recently I wrote about him as the great patriarch of all the motivational speakers that followed, all of them. And I show how who followed who, who followed who, who followed who. There's no one. There's never been what people sometimes call a thought leader who was a success-oriented person, a motivational speaker. All of them go back to Ralph Waldo Emerson. He was the first. And when you follow that whole sequence, it's really kind of fascinating, but he was a very well-rounded...

Matter of fact, this is a shocker. This is documented and I even have bought the history of it, actual indicative, you know, heritage things. Whenever Abraham Lincoln was in the presidency, he invited Ralph Waldo Emerson to the White House for dinner to tell him, 'I was a young lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, when I heard you speak.'

And Ralph Waldo Emerson was wildly his entire life against slavery. And he so moved this young attorney, Abraham Lincoln, that Abraham Lincoln told him to his face, this is all documented, you can Google it, that he said, 'you changed my life.' And Abraham Lincoln credited Ralph Waldo Emerson with inspiring him to free the slaves. 

And so he became president. And it was because of the impact Ralph Waldo Emerson had on him that day, when he was just speaking to a group of people in Springfield, Illinois, that the man who would later become president Abraham Lincoln said, 'you're the one who convinced me this needed attention.' And so whenever you look at the life of Ralph Waldo Emerson, I say he's one of the founders of the Atlantic Monthly. And so he is, in a lot of ways, the prototypical American, if you think of America as the way we like to believe America is. So I'm sorry again for taking off on that tangent, but your comment about the Atlantic is what put me off on that.

Lorraine Kessler:
Well, this is fantastic. So Roy, obviously you have an insatiable curiosity about all things, the human mind and how it works. So I'm gonna go off the question for a minute. You just ask, you know, tell me a little bit about your education when you were younger and what inspired this hunger for this thirst for connecting past knowledge with current living?

Roy H Williams:
I wish I knew. Whenever I was in high school, I was extremely, desperately poor, raised by a single mom, and did incredibly well on the standardized tests. And so I had a free ride to any college I wanted to go to, and they would pay for everything. I could go to college for free, and just everything's paid for. Because you're really poor and smarter than average, back in those days, it was easy to get a free ride.

I went a day and a half. I said, yeah, I was promised that you got the really good teachers when you finally got to college. And these are the same knuckleheads I've been trying to get away from for 12 years. 

And so I dropped out after a day and a half and I read a lot. And so my education is I just read a lot and I listen to people and I think about what I read and think about what I hear and then I make up stuff. And if the stuff makes sense to me, it'll likely make sense to other people too. And then when you can support that with some actual study, you know, in the 21st century, even in the 20th century. Second half of the 20th century, you didn't have to go to college to learn things. Just go to the library, you know, and once we had the Internet, go online. You can find out anything you want to know. It's just not that hard. And so, yeah, I'm woefully uneducated, embarrassingly so.

Lorraine Kessler:
And happily so, I would say. So you reminded me of a book by Tom Holland called Dominion when you talked about the underdog. Because that book, which is really quite beautiful, my son gave that to me, traces how much Christianity has influenced our operating systems and what we think and our values and without even knowing, you don't have to be a Christian, in other words, to go to church and worship to understand that we love the underdog. Movies like Rocky, right, take us because we have this concept. And before that, before the event of Jesus Christ, the underdog was never celebrated. So it's just a really interesting book, and I'm sure you read it, but it put me in mind of it. So I want to jump to, you do use some provocative words, and maybe it's because I hear them this way, but in one of your books, you talk about dead cows everywhere.

So that creates quite an image, right? It's not apocalyptic necessarily, but you relate that to the three reasons why ads don't work as well as they should, and you blame this on these three, I guess, sacred cows, right? Demographic targeting, gross rating points, and media mix, which you're gonna have every media person from here to whatever upended, but I think these three concepts merit some conversation. So if you could elaborate on how these revered and relied upon concepts, more so probably today than ever before, are really could be the root cause of advertising not working as well as it should.

Roy H Williams:
The great myth is the secret is to reach the right people. It's crap. It's just not true. The secret is to say the right thing. Targeting is done with copy. Targeting is done with words. Words are a filter.

You can attract the right people and repel the wrong ones by your choice of words. And so I believe in targeting, but I believe in targeting through the message, not through the media. And so this idea of demographic targeting, this illusion that baby boomers believe this, and Gen X believes this, and Gen Z believes this, it's crap. It's always been crap. It's idiotic.

To assume that your worldview when you were a teenager puts you in a locked position from which you can never escape is insane. As a matter of fact, during the baby boom, what we think of as the baby boom era, which was basically started in about 1963, what we think of as baby boomer values, okay, were just off the hook 63 to about 68. That was the heart of the 60s. That's when the baby boom belief system was its most vital and vivid. And then it began to fade until it got to 1983. And all of this beautiful belief and individuality and self-expression and march to the beat of a different drummer and let's all be unique, it became hollow phony posing. And dentists with a do-rag are riding Harleys trying to pretend they're bad guys. You know what I mean? And it was Kiss and it was Michael Jackson swept the Grammys, nine Grammys that year for his Thriller LP. That was, no, that would have been 83, yeah. 1983 and Ronald Reagan said, 'Mr. Gorbachev, bring down this wall. And it's all superhero crap.' 

Well, what's interesting is it wasn't just people born during a, it wasn't birth cohorts. It wasn't just people born between this year and this year. By 1969, everybody had that belief system. No matter what age you were, grandma and grandpa, everybody believed they're dressing that way, they're listening to that music. Everybody has adopted this belief system and this way of looking at the world. And so when you start talking about the Baby Boom generation, you're not talking about people born between a certain year and another year. You're talking about everyone who was alive during that window of time was part of that generation. 

It's not birth cohorts, it's LIFE COHORTS! And so I look at it today and I'm going, there's no baby mourners left. There's nobody that believes the way they believed back in the sixties and seventies. They, there's nobody does that anymore unless you're one of those brain dead leftover hippies still running around in a tie dyed t-shirt saying stop the war. And they're talking about, yeah. And so,

Mark Vandegrift:
They're at the universities.

Roy H Williams:
My point is...

Demographic targeting is too often based on the belief that people of a certain age have a certain income and believe certain things. It just isn't true. It's never been true. And the reality is this idea of demographic targeting all comes from the illusion that all advertising is priced the same. So if I can reach exactly the person I'm looking for, why wouldn't I? Well, all right. So think of a category with which you're pretty familiar. And give me a pretty good, attractive cost per click. Because you're going to target the right people with the right keywords. And you have a bid strategy. And boy, howdy, you're just going to reach out to exactly the right people at the right zero moment of truth. So give me a good cost per click.

Mark Vandegrift:
$4 to $5.

Roy H Williams:
Oh, $4, great. Well, here's the deal. So for $4, somebody clicks this, and they give me, I don't know, however much time I can win from them, based them on whatever page I had them land on, right? OK. Well, I don't want to just reach that person. I want to reach all their influencers.

Did you know if you're the average, normal American, just a normal, average person, on the day you get married, there's about 250 people that would come to your wedding, if invited, and if they could work it into their schedule. And the day you die, there's about 250 people that would come to your funeral, if invited, and if they could figure out how to get there. It's not the same 250 people.

Lorraine Kessler:

Roy H Williams:
It's a rolling number. Some people fall out of that number and new people are added to that number. That's called your realm of association. And your realm of association, if you're average and normal, is about 250 people. Extremely well-connected people can have as many as 400 people, but no more, in their realm of association. Now wait a minute. Decisions were never made in a vacuum. Ever. This idea of reaching, quote, the decision maker, is crap. It's an idiot idea. It's never been true.

If you do any research at all, you'll find out that we are wildly influenced by the people around us. And so if I reach 10% of the town in which you live... Canton, Ohio is it? I'll say, if I reach 10% of Canton, but I didn't reach either of you, I've still reached 25 of your best friends. And so if I own those 25 of your best friends, if I own 10% of Canton through highly compelling messaging and relentless repetition. Relentless. Yeah, I don't need to reach you. You can run, but you can't hide. I reached 25 of the people in your world and they believe in me and they believe in my client and they are going to wildly, enthusiastically endorse us. Oh, wait a minute, what if I can reach 20% of Canton? Now I'm reaching 50 of your best friends. 

I didn't reach either of you, but trust me.

My message reached you. I'm a household word. So stay with me.

In most cities, I need to reach the identical person an average of three times within seven nights sleep, 52 weeks in a row, to become a household word. Involuntary automatic recall. When you need what I sell, you instantly think of me. Involuntary automatic. It's called procedural memory.

If you want to study the work of Dr. Alan Baddeley, B-A-D-D-E-L-E-Y. Anyway, and he revolutionized cognitive neuroscience in 1986 when he wrote a book called Working Memory. Anyway, bottom line is, I can accomplish that in most towns. I can reach specifically you, Mark, and specifically you, Lorraine, three times a week, 52 weeks in a row. I can reach you 156 times with a 60-second radio ad. You're actually listening when I reach you. You actually hear it 156 times in a year for about $0.30. A year.

Now, wait a minute. I'm reaching you for a quarter of a penny with a 60-second radio ad. And even if you're not hearing it, I become a household word. Involuntary automatic recall of my name when you need what I sell. I've been doing that for 40 years. It works on TV, it works on radio. Now here's what else is interesting. A quarter of a penny compared to four bucks.

Do we need to keep talking about this? This illusion that targeting costs the same amount of money as not targeting? And by the way, with $4 worth of people, I'm reaching.

Mark Vandegrift:
1600 people. 1600.

Roy H Williams:
At a quarter of a penny apiece, OK, a quarter of a penny apiece. I'm reaching. A thousand people, a thousand people for the price of one click. Now, wait, do you have any idea how many of those thousand are exactly precisely the freaking target you were looking for your four bucks? I can reach probably 50 of those people and get the other 39 get the other 950 for free.

And so I'm going, so please, this illusion that targeting and not targeting costs the same amount of money? Yeah, if it all costs the same, I would target. 

Have you looked at the work of Les Binet and Peter Field? OK. Go on Google, just type in Les Binet, the short of it. It's a little seven minute video, the short of it. My Les Binet. Binet is B-I-N-E-T. And basically, these guys spent like 10 years monitoring 1,500 businesses. And they're only data scientists. And their only goal was cause and effect and advertising. What did you do and how did it work? And they tracked these people for a decade. And they came up with some absolutely stunningly, just irrefutable insights based on huge data. And when they published it, one of them whether it was through D2D, which as you know is cloud based, basically AI helpers looking at how to process complex data. So D2D did it with online stuff. And then Nielsen did it, of course, with television and radio broadcasting. Totally different studies, totally different. One of them was all digital online, and the other one was all broadcast.

And you know what both of them concluded independently of each other? This is recently.

Targeting works about 10% better than not targeting.

So if you can target your customer for less than 10% more money, so if it costs only 10% more to target than not target, it's worth doing. But if it costs more than 10%, forget it. You're better off not targeting. Procter & Gamble proved this. Marc Pritchard. Marc Pritchard spent $11 billion one year online. And then his speech is recorded. This is five, six years ago.

And his speech is recorded and you can listen to it. Where he's telling all the digital marketers, he goes, look guys, you keep telling us, oh, it can't be measured in the traditional way. It can't be measured. You just need to trust us. And he said, well, let me tell you what we've learned. And he gave the actual example. He said, we kept doing what you told us. We kept believing what you said and it kept not working. Now I've spoken many times at the world headquarters in Cincinnati at Procter and Gamble. Okay.

They have a fantastic auditorium in Cincinnati, and I've been invited to speak there a number of times to speak to all the brand managers of 72 different nations come together, and we'll spend a day together. And I've talked to their media buyers. And we've had this conversation, and the unofficial slogan at PNG: 'In God we trust, all others bring data.' Yeah, I'm telling you. 'In God we trust all...' So they keep data like you can't imagine. And he said, Fabris, we were targeting for Fabris, large households and households with pets. It's about odors and smells, right? Large households, plus households with pets, odors and smells. Yeah, really disappointed.

So they said, screw it. Let's spend the same money, but quit targeting. Let's just reach whosoever will. Sales went way up. Why? Because targeting costs money. The more layers that you target, the more the cost goes up. And if you just say, I'll just take whoever. I no longer care, results go up. And so this illusion of targeting is crap with more crap piled on top of it.

And all the data has proven it's a bad mistake. And so then he said the only time that we actually saw targeting work was for Pampers. And if you target disposable diapers to pregnant women, it works. And so we saw a meaningful difference. Yes, exactly. And said, so we did see with Pampers, it's worth targeting, but none of our other products.

And so when you spend $11 billion in one year, and it's the largest ad budget on the face of the Earth. It's bigger than number two and three put together. And I'm sitting back going, yeah, I've known that for a long time. So this illusion, people are like, target, target. And I'm going, have you looked at the cost of, if you look at what you're paying to target, and what you could be doing with that same money if you didn't target, have you done the math? And so that's my rant against demographic targeting.

Lorraine Kessler:
Well, I wish you were in some of the media meetings because I didn't have the data that you have and the eloquence to, but I just know in my bones that demographic targeting is just a mindless game that doesn't help. And would you agree or not agree? One of the things I've kind of advocated to client service and to our media department is that psychology comes first, which to me is that's where the message aims.

So what is it that people want? They wanna feel happy, they wanna feel rich or successful, they want other people to emulate them or they wanna be emulated and so on and so forth. And so those motives and that psychology, and then, hey, then see who bubbles up. You know, okay, but that's secondary.

Roy H Williams:
Lorraine, I agree with that. I agree with that unconditionally. I agree with that emphatically. And so most purchases, I won't say most, I'll say more than half of all the things we buy are just an expression of identity reinforcement. We want people to...

What we wear, what we eat, what we drink, what we drive, where we live. All these things are just identity reinforcement. How do we want to be perceived? And When marketers understand that, that people are just trying to announce to the world who they are.

And that's what most marketing is really about. And when you understand that, it becomes really easy to decide who you're going to talk to and how you're going to talk to them and what you're going to say to get their attention. So it's a filter and it attracts your targeted customer powerfully through your message, not your media. And it repels the wrong customer just as powerfully through your message.

Lorraine Kessler:
Right, and that's great. That's why positioning to me is so exciting because it not only helps me make a choice based on what emotionally I need to self-identify or be satisfied, but it also removes the person who I don't want to respond, who is zero value for my company or brand.

Roy H Williams:
You know, I've said, I've said for 25 years, I said, there's only three books in advertising anybody needs to read. And my books are not among them. Okay. The only three books anybody ever really needs to read is 1987, Positioning: the battle for your mind by Al Reese and Jack Trout, and then the 22 immutable laws of marketing that followed it just a couple of years later. And then the third one is Ogilvy on advertising.

I think Ogilvy on advertising said some really brilliant things. And I think both of the recent trout books did. And there's a lot of stuff in the original Positioning book, The Battle for Your Mind, that when I tell people what was in that book, they don't believe me. And I'm going, buy a copy. Find a copy of the 1987 book and you'll find it in there. It's like, this was really gigantic groundbreaking stuff. So I'm a huge fan of positioning. I've practiced it and believed in it all the world. And I recognize you guys as the number one positioning agency in the world.

Lorraine Kessler:
Yeah. Yeah, and I have every edition of that book, every iteration of it, because you just, and what we have to instruct people, Mark knows this, that sometimes the examples are old, but we're like, don't follow the example, follow the principle. Here's the principle. How does the principle apply?

Mark Vandegrift:
That completes part two of our three-part interview with the Wizard of Ads. We hope you'll join us again next week when we publish the last part of this amazing interview. Please like, share, comment, and subscribe. Go tell your best friend. Until then, in the words of our special guest, the Wizard of Ads, go tell the story that is uniquely and wonderfully your own.

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