Ideas alone are worthless. Implementing ideas can be worth billions, save lives, and overthrow governments. Testing ideas is as old as having them. It’s the underwriting of man’s progress.
Advertising great George Lois is known for proclaiming, “Great ideas can’t be tested. Only mediocre ideas can be tested.” Lois helped spark the creative revolution of American advertising that has since fed the egos and lined the pockets of many smart, clever ad men and women. The mid-20th century formula for success was the Big Idea plus reach and frequency. A world where you could reach a high percentage of your audience in several key placements and the audience trusted your claims.
I’ll spare you op-ed about traditional advertising’s decline and the significance of post-Google advertising, or how measuring success by GRP is incomplete at best. (Quick note: roughly 96 percent of Google’s $29 billion revenue in 2010 came from advertising). This article isn’t about media buying strategies; it’s about challenging the notion that great ideas can’t be tested.
How did you test ideas in 1959? Well, we know George Lois didn’t have the amazing tools we have today. He lived in a world without tracking software, Google Analytics, or Websites like KISSmetrics, Clickable, or Kickstarter. His clients didn’t have the ability to automatically capture real-time customer shopping behaviors or track conversion metrics of multiple concepts, headlines, calls to action, button colors, button locations, etc.
The best they had included their two-martini-lunch-filled guts, accounting, and agency reviews. Don’t get me wrong, mid-20th century advertising in NYC was some of the most innovative thinking of its kind, though it’s marginally meaningful in today’s post-Google world.
But apparently, not much has changed in regards to testing ideas. What I’ve learned from working with certain ad agencies is they’re scared to death to test live ideas. When pushed why they won’t run a simple A/B test on a banner ad, defensive, irrational, and bogus reasons abound. One client tried to argue they couldn’t afford the $25 media surcharge for an A/B test. The media budget was over a quarter of a million dollars. Obviously there were other reasons.
I think it might be that testing ideas for banner ads, landing pages, or calls to action undermines the “agency knows best” mind-set. It dilutes the drama in the big pitch where the agency presents and sells the almighty Big Idea. Testing concepts requires the agency to park their ego outside and adapt a different problem-solving approach.
Agencies still do things no other business can do, and are capable of more than clients typically give them credit for. But it’s hard not to be critical, if not cynical, of the myopia agencies live in if they think their untested ideas are great. They’re not great until customers act on them and they help achieve the client’s objectives.
Like the radical ideas of George Lois and his contemporaries that changed modern business in the pre-Google world, new post-Google radical ideas are among us. Time to adapt and test their greatness, or watch them die.