In 1973, Mike Yershon was offered the job of media director at CDP.
Mike had a reputation as the best media guy in town, so he wanted a lot of money.
He was amazed when CDP agreed to pay it.
On his first day at his new job, he asked to see the agency reel.
After he’d seen it, he knew why CDP agreed to pay the money.
He loved the reel – it was the funniest, wittiest, classiest reel of work he ever saw.
But he’d never seen any of those ads before.
It was obvious why CDP needed him.
They were doing great work, but the work wasn’t getting seen.
Although, as Mike investigated the media, he found the work was getting seen.
It was just getting seen by the wrong people.
The typical, unquestioning, buy-it-by-the-numbers industry convention was to buy eyeballs.
CDP had been spending money getting the biggest number of people to see the ads.
But there’s a difference in the quality of eyeballs.
The fastest way to get the numbers up was to spend the money where most people watched: soap operas and daytime TV.
But it didn’t occur to anyone to ask what sort of eyeballs watched those programmes.
Which meant CDP’s ads were being seen by older people, retired people, unemployed people: couch potatoes, in fact.
Mike knew straight away it was a waste of money.
You didn’t want couch potatoes, you wanted the opposite.
You wanted the people who were too busy to regularly watch daytime TV or soap operas.
What you actually wanted was light viewers.
Light viewers were working during the day so they didn’t watch soap operas – in fact, they often didn’t get home until late.
They were fussy what they watched – they didn’t watch a lot of TV, just the best stuff.
By buying light viewers, Mike got fewer eyeballs.
But the eyeballs he did get were much more influential, they were opinion-formers.
Suddenly these opinion-formers began seeing CDP’s work and it became famous.
Lots of the people running large client companies were light viewers too, so they’d never seen CDP’s ads before.
Suddenly they saw them and decided they wanted advertising like that for their brands.
Mike’s "light viewer" strategy had a massive influence on CDP’s new-business results.
It turned out that lots of people in the media – journalists, broadcasters, editors – were light viewers, too.
When they began to see CDP’s work, they loved it and helped make it go viral.
Which also had another effect.
Ordinary viewers began to see CDP’s brands advertising in all the best programmes.
This changed the context, which changed the image of the brands.
Mike had discovered the difference between signalling and targeting.
Although he didn’t call it that.
Currently, in digital, targeting is considered everything.
Targeting relies on identifying the consumer and hitting them as often as possible.
But this ignores the context the ads run in.
And consequently it smacks of cheapness, and of desperation.
It certainly doesn’t send out the best signal about the brand, the way having it seen in the best context would.
And worse, with the advent of programmatic it’s not even humans buying the eyeballs, it’s algorithms.
You’d think we would have learned the lesson from Mike all those years ago.
The difference between signalling versus targeting.
(Dave Trott is the author of Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three. This article first appeared on CampaignLive.co.uk)