The trouble with funnel vision

—Whenever Headspace Marketing president Éric Blais has written for The Message, his deep industry knowledge and forthright attitude have proven enormously popular with readers. So, we asked him to become a regular contributor. This is the second instalment of a new column we’re calling “Free to Disagree.”—

Why use a butter knife when you can use a scalpel? Why carpet bomb when you can hit the target with a surgical strike? I’ve heard variations of these surgery-related analogies too many times to count.

They speak to marketers’ near-obsession with engaging people one-on-one, the way salespeople are trained to do, instead of relying on the generally more far-reaching nature of advertising.

There’s a simple reason for this. The return on investment of sales efforts can usually be accurately measured: You closed the deal, or you didn’t. Advertising’s ROI, meanwhile, remains an elusive concept despite advancements in attribution measurement tools.

Let’s face it, chief revenue officer sounds much better to the CEO than chief marketing officer. One brings money in. The other spends it on brand-building.

The attraction of precision 

It’s no wonder the concept of “Precision Marketing” has become so popular. Its emergence was probably inevitable from the moment business media started talking about the Big Data revolution. Add to this the army of data scientists with access to online platforms and social media—some with magical black boxes (e.g., Cambridge Analytica)—and we were easily convinced that we can get pretty much anyone to do or think anything, in the order and time we wish them to.

To be clear, precision marketing plays an important role in many organizations’ marketing mix. It’s necessary to retain, cross-sell, and upsell existing customers. The problem is how some of its practitioners have morphed it into a new science that supposedly signals the end of everything that preceded it.

It’s fashionable to claim advances in marketing tools mean the end of traditional advertising. But as a young account guy excited to be making TV commercials in the mid-’80s, I attended a presentation that left a strong impression. Advertising wasn’t dead yet, but it was only a matter of time, according to the head of a new sister agency.

There would no longer be a need for mass advertising because we could now reach specific individuals with a personalized envelope (or a fancier mailer) directly to their home. We would be able to address them by name, tailor messages to specific segment profiles, and get them to respond using proven methods like applying a sticker on a mail-in response card. I left feeling I was in the wrong business. Advertising was dead, and I should be working for a direct response agency.

That feeling didn’t last long, and I’m glad I stuck with advertising, because it has proven quite resilient and remarkably effective over time.

But, once again, its role is being questioned by many. This is particularly true of those under pressure to deliver short-term results by spending less on longer-term brand-building, or those who believe advertising should operate and deliver the way sales operates. The former need to make the case for advertising to those who question its value. The latter need to avoid what I call “funnel vision.”

Funnel vision

One of the first advertising models I learned in university was the simple AIDA model (Attention, Interest, Desire, Action) attributed to Elias St. Elmo Lewis:

The mission of an advertisement is to attract a reader, so that he will look at the advertisement and start to read it; then to interest him, so that he will continue to read it; then to convince him, so that when he has read it he will believe it. If an advertisement contains these three qualities of success, it is a successful advertisement.”

Notice how the outcome (the action) is implicit but not immediate. At the risk of stating the obvious, that’s because most advertising doesn’t result in immediate action following exposure.

But we’ve become impatient—accustomed to the ability to optimize ads in real time and pause or cancel a campaign that does not show immediate results.

We’re also increasingly adopting a sales funnel to guide our advertising strategies and tactics.

Not as easy as top, middle, bottom

It’s a purchasing funnel built on the AIDA model, which requires top, middle, and bottom of funnel programs and activities to deliver results. But it’s not as simple as it seems, and with its enthusiastic adoption, we seem to have forgotten how imprecise it is. Particularly when applied to advertising.

But don’t take my word for it. Here’s what Les Binet, group head of effectiveness at Adam&EveDDB, recently told The Drum columnist Samuel Scott:

An entire new generation ofdigital’ marketers now thinks only about what is stupidly called ‘performance advertising’ because it is deceptively simple. You put an ad on Twitter. You see how many people click to visit your website and buy. You attribute those purchases to Twitter. Easy. But its actually not that easy. If you say this ad generates a million in sales, the true answer could be anything between [zero] to a million. It looks very scientific, it looks very precise, and its extremely unreliable.”

He added this:

The idea that one channel can be given creditfor a given lead or sale is nearly always nonsense. Each sale is usually the combined result of multiple channels working together, often over a period of months or years… Think about all those TV ads you remember from childhood. A sale is rarely caused by the first exposure, or the last one, but the combination of all previous exposures.”

Binet’s observations are music to my ears. I’ve not only struggled to believe that people move along a funnel in the way we expect, I’ve also been around long enough to see proof of the lasting power of great advertising years after it ran.

I’ll leave you with this thought—one requiring no action, no need to learn more, no need to order or apply, and no need to provide your contact info to get a PDF of this column. Instead, it’s just a thought: advertising is similar to, but distinct from, salesmanship.

It’s a thought I came to while reading a 1909 article titled “Advertising and Salesmanship” from a publication called Profitable Advertising.

What’s most striking about the text—aside from the blatant sexism—is how much of what it argued more than a century ago about the difference between sales and advertising still applies today.

“Advertising is concerned with many of the same acts and functions that the salesman is concerned with when he makes a personal sale; and advertising is also concerned with the goods, and the nature of the men who are to be the buyers. Advertising has also to study to influence the man who buys, though in a different manner and under different conditions. In this, advertising is the more difficult and subtle variety of salesmanship. Advertising can make but one appeal to the reader, while the personal salesman can vary and modify and enforce his appeal until he perceives that he is winning his customer.”

 “The advertiser can never make his appeal to a man. He must ever speak to men. He may appeal to a class, but never to an individual…

“The great fact of the direct personal contact working for the advantage of the personal salesman, and the absence of that contact in the work of the advertiser, differentiates the two varieties of salesmanship, and very clearly indicates the field of the advertiser, and the nature of his effort. Yet along the great primary lines, up to a certain point in the refinement of the principles of salesmanship, the salesman and the advertiser must be fellow students, in the same class and using the same textbooks.”

While data and digital tools offer incredibly powerful ways to sell that were unimaginable in 1909, we may have blurred the lines between sales and advertising at the detriment of effective brand building.

Feel free to disagree by emailing me at I promise, you won’t become a qualified lead for a pitch from my firm.

Éric Blais is president of Headspace Marketing, a consultancy that helps marketers build brands in Quebec. He can be reached at

Eric Blais