Think Like a Butler, Not an Advertiser

Rudi Anggono
Mar 16, 2018 · 6 min read

When the organizers of Shoptalk, the world’s largest conference for retail and ecommerce innovation, reached out to me (thanks to the introduction from my dear friend, Abigail Posner), I wasn’t sure what I’d talk about.

I don’t fit the profiles of most of the attendees and speakers at Shoptalk. I’m not an advertiser, nor am I an under-30 CEO of a cool, new e-commerce site.

I’m a hybrid strategist and creative director. I’m also a design thinker and an architect wannabe (I graduated from architecture school but the call of graphic design was too strong). I’ve spent the majority of my professional career in the creative agency world. I’m more accustomed to speaking the language of design, systems thinking, technology and communication art — things like that.

Then, it struck me. I’m a consumer and a user, just like everyone else. My attention is as valuable and coveted by advertisers as everyone else’s. And, having sat on both sides of the fence, in the agency world and now in the tech side, I’m conditioned to always look for ways to hack the conventional wisdom. I have noticed certain shifts in user behaviors that haven’t been properly addressed yet — hence my title, “Think Like a Butler, Not an Advertiser.”

Why should I think like a butler?

Because user expectations have changed. Users today are accustomed to practical, intuitive services like Amazon, Netflix, Uber and the likes. They expect nothing less from any brands that try to get their attention. Users expect to be assisted and engaged. They are willing to give their attention, their dollars and even their data, but only if they’re rewarded with assistive and delightful experiences. Users don’t want the old kind of advertising where brands pummeled them with intrusive sales pitches totally without context or purpose. In this new era, users expect brands to serve them. To assist them. To anticipate their needs. Just like a good butler would.

Shoppers spend a lot of time researching ideas and products to buy in tech platforms, like Google and others. Google data shows 86% of users use Search and YouTube as a sounding board, a consigliere. The relationship has evolved from “tell me where to buy item A”, to “advise me what to buy”. In the past two years alone Search and YouTube have seen a tremendous increase in keyword searches with the word “ideas” in them, 55% and 135% respectively.

This means today’s consumers are constantly in discovery mode: Collecting, pinning, following, creating playlists, watching, and so on. Shopping today is an ambient activity. In the future of retail, you’re never not shopping (Harvard Business Review, 2016). They spend their discovery time on platforms like Google, Facebook, and others, and this presents a great opportunity for advertisers who are learning to think like butlers.

What is the opportunity then?

To meet and exceed user expectations through advertising that is useful, assistive, contextual and delightful. Don’t forget the delightful part. You’re still advertising to humans, not machines yet. When they’re searching for ideas, be there, be the butler that they expect you to be.


(1) Start with wanting to be useful and helpful to your users. Help them get the right thing for the right occasion. Use what you have, the data about your customers and the vast arrays of targeting technology and insight tools, not to bombard users with ads and upsell , but to help solve their needs. The priority should always be trying to help. The selling will come naturally.

One of the clients I worked on in the past was a niche, organic supermarket chain. Planning and research surfaced insights that many of their customers were not millennials as the client thought, but parents with small children who were always worried about what to feed the kids. Instead of running a typical circular-like ad with offers on fresh, organic grocery items, they shared tips on how to to turn those items into healthy family dinners. That’s a service that parents could use. They also ran ads during evening commute time for family meals that could be prepared and delivered to their homes. This is very helpful. Most parents know the end of day is the most difficult time. Feeding, bathing, putting the kids to sleep. If a brand can help alleviate just one of those chores, like a butler would, that brand will win these customers’ loyalty and wallets.

(2) Resist the muscle memories to treat advertising like what advertising is expected to act and sound like. That’s an old paradigm. Advertising is basically another form of conversation between a brand and its users. Conversation evolves over time. It is also better when it’s engaging and when it respects the intelligence of the people in the conversation.

I recently saw a Valentine’s Day ad from a lingerie brand that featured a gorgeous model with a huge 50% off superimposed on the image. This is muscle memory. Use sex and shout the deal. I did a quick focus group and asked the guys around me, would they buy from this brand? They were mostly indifferent. That ad was irrelevant for them because it was out of context. It didn’t solve a problem for them. Or even a potential problem that they might not realize they had. They weren’t thinking of lingerie. That gorgeous model wasn’t their girlfriend. That ad was neither useful nor helpful. Imagine if the advertiser had observed who their true targets were here and discovered anecdotal evidence that many relationships break up or sour every year because the men forget to buy something on Feb 14th. If they combined that insight with location data, consumer behavior and precision targeting, this ad could’ve been reframed as helpful reminder for men not to screw up. Imagine this headline instead, “Today is Feb 14th. Guys, don’t forget to get her something nice. 50% off.” Those who had forgotten the holiday would find this very useful. Those who had already planned something might want to add something extra thanks to the reminder. Either way, you won’t get indifferent reaction. This is both performance and branding at the same time. This brand just saved these men from a pothole. Again, like what a butler would do. They will look at the brand favorably from now on.

(3) Orchestrate the user experience your customers need, not the advertising you think you want. This shows you care and put your users’ needs first. Provide delightful, even surprising, experiences beyond transactions and checking media boxes. The creative destruction of retail as we know it and the rise of mobile economy make it essential that every interaction be a blend of customer service and marketing.

One of the smartest examples I’ve seen was something that was done in New Zealand for a pet food brand. The brand understands their users’ worst nightmare is losing their pets. By the time pet owners post all the missing posters, the pets could’ve gone far away or worse. To mitigate that, the brand created the user experience that makes it easy for pet owners to post the missing photo to Google Display Networks within seconds after their pet is lost (every pet owner has photos of their pets in their phones). The ads appear within the geographically identified area where the owner posted the photo to increases the chances of somebody identifying the pet and rescuing it. Is this an ad campaign? Yes, of course. It’s branded and it contains the brand promise: well-being and happiness for pets. Is this also a utility? You bet. It’s useful and helpful in moments of stress. Does the brand act like a reliable partner here? Absolutely. Without shouting, the brand quietly provides more valuable service that the users can’t live without.

In all three of my examples, the brands act and think like a butler. They provide assistive service, helpful/useful reminders or empower their advertising media network to solve a user’s problem.

So, to recap: Stop selling, start serving. It works!

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