INTERVIEW: Ad guru Ahmad Abu Zannad takes on Noam Chomsky in latest book ‘Adman vs. Chomsky’

Ahmad Abu Zannad
Ahmad Abu Zannad
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Updated 15 January 2022

INTERVIEW: Ad guru Ahmad Abu Zannad takes on Noam Chomsky in latest book ‘Adman vs. Chomsky’

INTERVIEW: Ad guru Ahmad Abu Zannad takes on Noam Chomsky in latest book ‘Adman vs. Chomsky’
  • Advertising veteran and author defends practice and purpose of advertising amid growing criticism

DUBAI: “As an industry, we may have lost our mojo,” writes Ahmad Abu Zannad in his book “Adman vs. Chomsky.” He is talking about the advertising industry, which he has been a part of for more than 15 years — first as a marketer at Saudi telco Zain, then in various strategy roles at Leo Burnett, including a stint as managing director, leaving in 2020 to set up his own advisory firm Native Communications.

He clarifies that the book is “neither a reminiscence on the history of the industry, nor is it another think piece on its future, of which there are now far more than enough (considering that a Google search for ‘the future of the advertising industry’ returns 600 million results and counting).”

The book is a “defense of the industry as it has stood in its recent history and as it stands today. In fact, I will argue that there has been a severe misunderstanding of what the ad industry is all about.”

Along with being a marketer and creative strategist, Abu Zannad is also an author. He published his first book in 2012, titled “Speaking ‘Human’ in the Land of Dichotomies: A Guide to Leo Burnett’s HumanKind Approach to Building Brands in Saudi Arabia.” In 2016, he published his second book, “De-Commoditizing the Ad Industry,” followed by “Adman vs. Chomsky” in 2020.

Arab News spoke to Abu Zannad to discuss his latest book as well as his thoughts on the advertising industry today.

What prompted you to write this book?

“It is the conviction that it is crucial for everyone to feel good about their job and to be proud of the work they’re doing, day in and day out — even if they’re still just working toward an aspiration or an ideal.

“As the great Khalil Gibran put it: ‘Work is love made visible. And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.’”

Why an ad man vs. Noam Chomsky?

“If the intellectual community deems a practice to be manipulative or part of a malicious agenda, it’s a slippery slope. It becomes less attractive to ethical and talented individuals, it dissuades investors from buying into the industry, it pushes clients to look for alternative solutions and it creates an overall negative perception among the masses.

“Today, the most intellectual human alive is Dr. Noam Chomsky. He has described the advertising industry, throughout its entire history, as part of an established agenda with only one prime task: ‘Ensuring that uninformed consumers make irrational choices.’ Therefore, in the book, Dr. Chomsky represents not only the intellectual community but also all of the other academics and theorists who have an unrealistic vision of how our marketplace should be operating.

“And while Dr. Chomsky and others have made such statements, we haven’t seen anyone from the industry come to our defense. So, the ‘Chomsky’ in the title is a stand-in for the theorists, and the ‘Adman’ represents the practitioners who have to deal with the realities of the marketplace and how it actually operates.

“Leonard Da Vinci said: ‘He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass, and never knows where he may cast.’ I believe that advertising, as a practice, cannot be competently and ethically operated without the backing of clear theoretical frameworks.

“And no theoretical framework for advertising can be properly validated if advertising practitioners do not fully take it on board. Unfortunately, we are far from achieving this, and the book is an attempt to bridge the gap between theorists like Chomsky and practitioners like your every day ad man.”

The book defends the growing negativity around advertising. However, more recently, especially with social media and data-driven targeted advertising, there is more cause for concern than ever before. What are your thoughts on this?

“The issue arises when advertising operates without a solid scientific framework or a clearly defined prime task. Every industry is utilizing new technologies and increased access to data in order to be more efficient and effective. But, we shouldn’t completely redefine the task of an industry into its ability to be more efficient. That is what is happening with the advertising industry — we no longer care what our prime task is, as long as we are getting things done more efficiently.

“When scientists and theorists look at the frameworks marketers and advertising professionals are applying, they are disappointed by how unscientific and shortsighted we have become.

“For instance, while we are racing to use big data to understand consumer behavior, the psychologist Geoffrey Miller is telling us that our methods are obsolete and out of step with the last 30 years of advancements in psychology, warning us that looking at people as numbers will make our efforts meaningless.

“At the same time, ecologist Dr. Ethan Decker asked himself: ‘What’s the science of marketing?’ The only answer he was able to come to was: ‘Turns out, there isn’t much.’

“More and more, advertisers are utilizing their abilities to personalize and target messages, going after individuals intrusively, which has led the public to use similar tactics to avoid such targeting. 50 percent of consumers in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are using some type of online ad blocker. Yet, the same people would voluntarily seek out great content themselves. After all, 67 percent of Arabs tuned in for the finale of Arab Idol. What we need to do is give them something worth tuning in for.

Just as advertising can transform a brand for the better, it can also have devastating consequences on the brand. What’s your take on this?

“Yes, of course, advertising can have devastating consequences on brands. However, without a clear framework on how advertising should operate, it is difficult for such activities to be clearly labeled as malpractice.

“One consequence could be that people start finding the brand annoying. An issue we need to bring to the surface is the fact that 90 percent of people find targeted ads annoying. Marketers are blindly taking their budgets away from creatively purposeful work — which 63 percent of people say would attract them to a brand — in order to focus strictly on targeted ads, which most people find irritating.

“Another consequence could be that the brand comes across as ignorant of the audience’s culture. This happened a while back in the US with Pepsi and Kendall Jenner, where the brand seemed to be completely oblivious to the cultural issues surrounding police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement. More recently in Egypt, we saw similar backlash to Citroen’s ad with Amr Diab. In an attempt to shove their new picture-taking feature down people’s throats, they had the male celebrity Diab sneakily taking photos of a woman passing by, making the brand seem completely ignorant of local sexual harassment issues.”

Can you give us some examples that illustrate the power of advertising for good?

“Here are three of my favorite examples from the book: Dove commissioned a study with 3,000 women in 10 different countries that revealed that only 2 percent of women believed they are beautiful.

“In response, they launched an ongoing ad campaign with encouraging and motivational messages, inviting women to confidently embrace their natural beauty, and 71 percent of the women who interacted with these positive ads said that they felt more beautiful.

“In Turkey, Axe decided to address the general cultural stereotype that real men do not apologize. The deodorant brand wanted to fight this stereotype by integrating its ad with a popular local TV series ‘The Pit,’ which has long encouraged this specific stereotype. As a result, in just 30 minutes, 3,750 apology messages were shared on Twitter by Turkish men.

“The brand Always took on the difficult issue of girls’ self-esteem, which typically drastically falls once they hit puberty. Boys suffer something similar but the drop is twice as bad for girls. What’s even worse is that while data shows that men's self-esteem eventually rises higher than it was pre-puberty — it’s the opposite case for women.

“In response, Always decided to challenge the cultural stereotype of what it means to do something ‘like a girl.’ Instead of presenting any specific stereotype, their ad showed that doing something ‘like a girl’ just means doing it like anyone else. Afterward, almost 70 percent of women and 60 percent of men stated that watching the ad changed their perception of the phrase ‘like a girl.’”

Do you think that there has been a shift in power from creative agencies to media and digital agencies? And what are the consequences of that?

“Data from Google’s Media Lab shows that 70 percent of a campaign’s performance is attributed to creative work, yet only 10 percent of the budget goes towards creative development.

“As one article in ‘The New Yorker’ put it, we have shifted from creative ‘mad men’ to geeky ‘math men.’ And we have done so in the pursuit of short-term profits with complete disregard for what the science is telling us.

“All the behavioral science is telling us that people seek brands with purpose and that people are drawn to engaging storytelling. They seek beauty and colorfulness. Our consumers are telling us that humans are symbolic creatures, and they want to know what a brand symbolizes. This is the power of creativity: To move the masses, and move them toward the brands they love.”

After having worked in big multinational agencies, you set up Native. What sets it apart?

“Native is not an agency but an advisory firm. We are helping agencies and brands find a ‘native’ role for themselves in people’s lives, and we’re also helping them create branded content with a ‘native’ fit to the platforms where such content resides. Our mission is to populate the market with brands playing a native role in people’s lives, along with branded content with a native fit.

“We believe brands that populate content with a native fit but do not pay attention to the native role of the brand, are intrusive brands. They’re there at the right time and place, but they’re not really welcome — by 90 percent of consumers.

“On the other hand, brands that do have a native role but whose content is rarely found within a native fit are tourist brands. Consumers understand the brand, but do not get to hear, see or experience it enough.

“Brands that lack both are alien brands.

“Today, we strongly believe that no other advisory firm is as capable or as equipped to offer such solutions.”