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Customer Review

on 12 June 1998
A Review: Truth, Lies and Advertising by Jon Steel. Wiley, 1998. Written and Submitted by Neal M. Burns, Department of Advertising University of Texas at Austin
What a book Jon Steel has written! It is lively, intelligent and in chapter after chapter it showcases his analytical ability as well as his commitment to finding the basis for some of the best advertising we have seen. Steel is the consummate planner and his writing reflects the thought processes and the workings of an agency that has claimed and kept the strategic high ground. It is the firm so many of us envy and the one our students want to join. Truth, Lies and Advertising is , in short, a wonderful book written by an Englishman about what may be -- or clearly was at one point in time -- the best agency in America. Steel uses his agency as a vehicle to describe the process and orientation of account planning and advertising. In that authorship lies both the many strengths and the occasional weakness of Truth, Lies and Advertising.
Steel understands the importance of relationships when he describes the nature of exploring the consumer, the brand and the societal framework in which it all takes place. In his discussion Steel recognizes the monumental contributions of Bill Bernbach and the influence his work had on the awareness of the consumer as an intelligent and sympathetic target. Steel suggests that the resulting humanity and sensitivity that Bernbach's work produced had a significant impact on the thought processes of British advertising agencies and, in fact, helped spawn a new discipline known as account planning.
The emphasis was clear: the advertising industry needed to gain insight into human nature so that it could create ads that spoke to their target and were perceived as being relevant. By recalling a brilliant little adage Steel reminds his readers that the way in which the target feels about the ad and interacts with it characterizes gre! at advertising: when baiting a trap with cheese always leave room for the mouse! The book itself reflects this principle and the reader will enjoy the sense of discovery and enlightenment that accompanies one's interaction with it. Steel's style and ready reference to key issues and personal experiences further enhance the advertising wisdom this book delivers.
In addition to the wonderful "got milk" case Steel's best moment in the book for this reader is the discipline and use he provides for the creative brief. For Steel the single purpose of making the advertising better -- of getting the advertising right -- is the potent driving force for the brief. It is not, Steel admonishes us, merely a series of questions that must be asked in a particular order or the submission of enough weighty evidence to justify a doctoral dissertation. Rather, the brief is the synthesis of the planner's works and thoughts represented in a solid fashion that -- ideally -- becomes the doorway for the creative process.
Steel's appreciation of research may appear mysterious to those less familiar with the rather doctrinaire approach of many British planners to quantitative methodology. There is even Steel's assertion that the better thought out the research plan the less valuable it's results will probably be! His reference to the Heisenberg principle is much less shocking than I believe he expects; few researchers or planners today are so unthinking as to fail to recognize that their intervention -- in a physics lab or in a focus group -- somehow alters the results in ways we may not understand.
Steel is generally hard on the usefulness of statistical measures -- and on the intellectual abilities of those who shepherd such activities. Yet he is pleased to report research results he likes --for example, when discussing the successful attainment of specific objectives in the "Got Milk?" Campaign. To the extent that Steel's views are similar to the widely held belief that advertising research fr! equently killed good creative and drove a long lasting -- if not permanent -- wedge between the researcher and the creative departments, the point is important to make from an historical perspective.
Yet, the issues we are trying to resolve call for all our resources, including personal and subjective points of view, so that we can -- as Jon Steel would have us do -- get the advertising right. There is as little room in this competitive profession for bad research as there is for bad planning. Account planning is, as Steel asserts, most likely to work best when it is a combination of many points of view. Then, the insertion of a brilliantly straight forward notion that transcends the data and takes us to a new place (e.g."got milk?", or "see what develops") is really what account planning is all about.
Steel's book is, as he says, more than a description of account planning. Yet, it is the best description of the way in which the process works that the profession has so far. In addition, the book is a wonderful tale of a time in an agency's life when the right juxtaposition of talent, brains, raw energy and empowering clients came together. The feeling the reader receives is that the pages open before them have been written by someone who loves advertising. Those who know Steel -- or have even briefly met him or heard him speak -- know that to be true.
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