How the advertising industry thinks

Session Title

How the advertising industry thinks


Eric Reiss, FatDUX

Session Type: Presentation

Our world is changing. Advertising agencies blew the web opportunity the first time around, but they’re not going to let this happen again. They’re smart. They understand communication. They can run persuasive rings around BJ Fogg. And they’ve been doing user research since before Jacob Nielsen was born.

Ad agencies generally stayed out of the blast range when the dot.bomb went off. And they’ve since waited patiently. Now the economy has picked up. There’s money in website development. And advertising folks can spot easy money quicker than a Las Vegas hooker.

Happily, most ad folks still haven’t got a clue as to what we do — I’ll explain why in a moment. But when they finally do “get it,” we interaction designers are either going to learn to get along with them or find ourselves relegated to an unenviable group of semi-human subcontractors — a status otherwise reserved for printers, layouters, and the gopher who delivers lunch each day.

Having cut my communicative teeth in the advertising industry, I’d like to invite my fellow IX designers into this strange and mysterious world. For starters, we can explore the concept of “concept.”

For web folks, a “concept” usually means a bulleted list of “stuff” that needs to be researched, discussed, and decided upon. Don’t believe me? Google “website concept development” and check out the first couple of links. has an all-time classic.

For folks in advertising, a “concept” simply represents a big idea. You can google this to death and you won’t find a more concise definition.

Is it any wonder that the phrase “proof of concept” is incomprehensible to advertising folks? For advertisers “proof of concept” means people buy more product. Plain and simple.

Sure, we’d love for advertising folks to understand what WE mean by concept. But maybe we should start by understanding the stuff that THEY appreciate. If we do, I think we stand a better chance of being invited to sit at the big polished table with four shades of Evian. If nothing else, it would be nice to avoid some of the classic recurring arguments between webbies and creative directors (been there, done that, worn t-shirts from both camps).

This presentation will take a closer look at what advertising agencies consider “good” advertising. I’ll examine some successful campaigns and some award-winning campaigns — these are not necessarily the same thin — and find out why they are admired by so-called “creatives” at ad agencies. I’ll explore why creatives despise web types in general and usability folks in particular. We’ll discover why stuff that “works” on screen doesn’t work in print ads — and vice versa. And I’ll dispel some of the popular myths about advertising, such as “all advertising is good advertising.”


Eric Reiss has been meddling with multimedia and web projects for longer than he cares to remember.

Born in San Antonio, Texas, in 1954, his revolutionary organizational concept for his baseball card collection (by players’ cap size) was voted the year’s most idiotic innovation by the 1962 Flynn Park School third-grade class. Despite this temporary setback, (and two completely irrelevant degrees from Washington University in St. Louis), he moved to Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1976, to accept a position as a stage director at the Danish Royal Theatre. Here, he brought user experience to new heights by actually cooking food on the stage of this venerable institution, which won critical acclaim and caused tummies to rumble throughout the audience. Snack sales during the intermission rose dramatically, which makes this one of the earliest documented examples of how UX can be used to positively affect the business model.

Eric Reiss has held a wide range of eclectic jobs including: piano player (in a house of ill-repute), senior copywriter (in an ad-house of ill-repute), player-piano repairman, jukebox restorer, pinball wizard, pool hustler, playwrite, composer, school-bus driver, cartoonist, magician, adventure-game creator, starving student (Washington University in St. Louis) showboat actor (Goldenrod Showboat), and stage director (Danish Royal Theatre). The breadth and depth of his experience have served him admirably as an interaction designer, although he is generally unable to explain exactly how.

In November, 2000, his book, Practical Information Architecture was published by Addison-Wesley/Pearson Education. In 2002, it became available in both Japanese and Korean. In 2005, it became available on eBay where it remains a remaindered best seller. Eric is also responsible for Web Dogma ’06 and is one of the instigators of the IA Slam. He is a former two-term president of the Information Architecture Institute, is Chair of the EuroIA Summit, sits on the Advisory Board of the Copenhagen Business School and is Professor of Usability and Design at Instituto de Empressa Business School in Madrid, Spain. Eric is CEO of FatDUX in Copenhagen, Denmark. He is not a vegetarian.


  1. Posted September 15, 2009 at 12:18 pm

    How can I NOT go to a presentation with “advertising folks can spot easy money quicker than a Las Vegas hooker” in the description? Eric Reiss puts on a great show, always delivering strong performances and great wisdom. I’ll be looking for this one in Savannah.

  2. Posted September 22, 2009 at 6:05 am

    I saw this talk (in a previous incarnation) at IA Summit (last year?). It is good, damn good. I actually learned some stuff, found some new books to read, and had fun. Can’t do better than that at a conference.

    Eric totally knows this stuff!

  3. Posted September 22, 2009 at 12:18 pm

    I wouldn’t change a thing — hope I get to see it!

  4. Posted September 23, 2009 at 12:55 am

    Donna was there when I did this for the first time at the IA Summit in Las Vegas back in 2007. And I left the reference to hookers in just to please Dan :)

    The current presentation is significantly updated content-wise, but carries the same basic message – we IX/UX folk just don’t communicate well with the advertising crowd.

    BTW, when I say “the economy is picking up” I’m referring to the fact that the business community has recognized that web communications represent low-hanging fruit. Alas, they often choose ad agencies for online solutions because the ad people “don’t complicate things” (true quote).

  5. Posted September 24, 2009 at 9:43 am

    Eric has never under-delivered his presentations. Advertising has always been and will always be part of any medium. Wherever there are people, there will also be ads. I had to work with them (or for them) for too long to know they won’t go away. We might as well learn how to deal with it. I love to see that topics such as this are in the mind of some of us. I WANT IT.