In a blog post for Adaptive Path, president Peter Merholz recently called out the advertising world as it relates (or doesn’t) to the world of designing for user experiences.

Dear Peter,

It really bothers me that my two industries, Advertising and User Experience might start a battle based on some strong accusations from your recent post. This really made me feel abandoned by a hero (Adaptive Path), and like the message was so counter to the helpful nature of the UX community. So here is what I think is the list of misconceptions about Agencies and Agency UX that you are currently spreading, in my opinion unnecessarily.

Misconception #1: We have a poisonous core.

“Advertising, as it is widely practiced, is an inherently unethical and, frankly, poisonous endeavor that sees people as sheep to be manipulated, that vaunts style over substance, and deems success to be winning awards.”

Wow Peter, I want some of what you are smoking. Advertising is not unethical. Maybe we aren’t talking about the same thing, maybe you should start by defining Advertising?

So to be clear, I define Advertising with the following definition from Princeton: the business of drawing public attention to goods and services

Well that doesn’t sound unethical – that seems like what you have to do to be successful in business. And why are you so quick to write off people as being able to be manipulated by campaigns vaunting style over substance. In my experience, these are the campaigns that fail – and therefore don’t win awards. And yes, sometimes agencies push ideas harder in order to win awards. But who is that even hurting? Every industry needs their Prom Court… no harm no foul.

Misconception #2: We serve sheep.

“[Jerry Michalski on consumers]…a gullet who lives only to gulp products and crap cash.”

First, I love the above quote for its drama. But it used so flippantly that you can almost miss how counter it is to Peter’s next statement:

“Advertising and marketing perspectives give priority to the client over the clients’ customers…”

Hmm, now maybe I am being naive but — if my goal is to get the “gullet” to “gulp products AND crap cash” – how will serving my clients interests alone ever work?

In my agency experience at least, we help clients to understand advertising and how to reach and engage their consumer. Clients in turn help us to understand their business and how much they need us to help them to move the needle to stay successful.

Misconception #3: We are overworked drones. Moo Cogs.

“Employees are expected to work long hours, work weekends, and exhibit a willingness to drop anything in order to serve a client.”

I have never seen during my time in the agency world anyone MAKING anyone do anything. To me this world is more about autonomy than anything – sometimes to our demise.

“[on utilization rate] The greater that percentage, the more hours billed, and the more revenue generated.”

The thought that utilization rate has affect on your creative result is valid – yet I (and many others) have held UX jobs in consulting, financial services and healthcare where this was similar practice – so I am not sure this is unique to the Ad World.

“User experience projects are complex and take over your whole brain.”

While I agree that there is a certain need for mental dedication in the work I do, I think where this point falls down is in looking at the kind of projects UX people in agencies work on. For the most part, we aren’t designing highly transactional or regulated systems (in some cases we should be – but that’s for another article)

So when something needs full time UX allocation — we work to make that happen, even if that involves freelance resources. For the most part I have to keep 3-5 active projects to keep myself a happy cow and I see nothing wrong with variety. It is the spice of agency life.


Misconception #4: We slight our clients, rush to solves and can’t trust up-and-comers to execute.

“Clients are sold a shiny flashy bill of goods by slick senior folks who are then never to be seen again. In their place are squads of junior and mid-level designers, working across multiple projects, with little chance to reflect and improve their skills. This means worse work.”

In my experience, some of the best ideas we get are from our most junior people – as it should be in an idea business. Our executives spend a lot of time with our most junior people culling and shaping their ideas into stories that can be told to inspire our brands to be better.

“The nature of the user experience problems are typically too complex and nuanced to be articulated explicitly in a brief. Because of that, good user experience work requires ongoing collaboration with the client. Ideally, client and agency basically work as one big team.

Unlike the marketing communications that ad agencies develop, user experience solutions will need to live on, and evolve, within the clients’ business. If you haven’t deeply involved the client throughout your process, there is a high likelihood that the client will be unable to maintain whatever you produce.”

This is the longest statement I agree with in the whole article. It is simple. True. And an applicable learning for the ad world to hear. But we are moving this direction, not just in our UX work – but across the board. We know that our skill-set is best when paired with the skills of our clients.

“…one of the most absurd ad agency practices, “the pitch.” As part of a sales process, ad agencies will often spend tens of thousands of dollars, and heaps of people’s time, to demonstrate how they’ll solve the client’s problem. The idea that you can credibly address a client’s concerns before you’ve actually started working with them is ludicrous, and, frankly, damaging”

The pitch isn’t about finding or proving a “solve” — it is about immersion into an experience with a client to see if you jive. And more often than not it ends with some really great questions, a few hypotheses and some yes some ulcers and major bar tabs.

Misconception #5: Copywriters and Art Directors beat UX down.

“In user experience, design teams need to recognize that great ideas can come from anywhere, and are not just the purview of a creative director.”

Agreed but, I request the following revision:

“Design teams need to recognize that great ideas can come from anywhere.”

This principle isn’t unique to UX design, or Advertising. Just words to live by if you design anything for anyone.

In my experience dealing with agency creative teams: collaboration and a willingness to help make an idea bigger, better and/or more bulletproof is always wanted.

They fully understand that UX people do the part of the creative’s job that they hated for years >> explaining their ideas to business people and developers before wasting lots of time in pixel manipulation and being told to change it all. They would rather do the work once. Trust me.

But the interaction is still new, so there is team building to be done. I tell our creative teams that UX can play however they want – but that our preference is to be involved the minute the start talking about people interacting with whatever it is. This feels nebulous from both sides the first time with a new pair, but the break-in period is totally worth the collaborative result. Design with, not for.

Misconception #6: We lead with our logo and ignore our users needs

“And, to put it bluntly, ad and marketing agencies, for all the reasons mentioned above, are perhaps the people least suited to choreograph a truly satisfying and empowering customer experience across channels. Yes, the logo and typography might be consistent, but that’s insufficient.”

At Draftfcb and many others, we have not so recently been shown the light about empowering customer experience across channels. We know that the market is now more complex than it ever has been – and we know that the needs and expectations of our consumers are changing. We are interested in working within this new world, not continuing our megaphone tactics of a broadcast-based world

In an industry where we live and die by Forrester reports (for better or worse) — I really wonder how you could really think we could have missed that memo: For example, this year’s Forrester Consumer forum was themed around empowerment of employees and consumers through experience design – in attending, I heard nothing but advertisers and marketers talking about changing everything about themselves to adapt to this new world. I left energized at how far ahead my own organization is – but also excited to hear we would soon have to fight to keep that lead.

Misconception #7: We care what Adaptive Path thinks.

Peter, you are waiting for us to die, while I and others are happiest thinking about how we can grow up. The job of bringing a new skill-set to an aged industry is hard enough without taking on my own industry.

So why did I take the time to respond?

Am I obligated to protect my fellow Ad Men from your sharp tongue? Heck no and some of it is deserved feedback from someone who used to be involved and continues to observe from the outside.

Am I disappointed that a hero in my own industry is railing against something that is so fixable by the people within my industry? Heck yes.

Do I ultimately think that your whole post is nothing more than an Adaptive Path advertisement with a defamation angle targeting the Ad industry? Heck yes.

Was my blood boiling while writing this? Heck yes.

Thanks for reading.