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When Advertising Is Not a Game

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In my prior career, I was an architect, and in my training were lectures on professional practice. One of those was on the topic of why professionals don’t advertise. Sounds familiar?

It’s a matter of economics, I was told, and a matter of professionalism. I was told that professionals advertising would cause a snowball effect. Once begun, it would start a rivalry where ultimately all advertisers would lose. “The Nash equilibrium!” I’m pretty sure someone chanted. “We are all professionals here,” the common reasoning goes, “so we agree it is in our mutual interest to reject the game and act in fairness. We will not advertise, and to protect our word is our reputation.” Thus, we concluded that advertising is an unseemly act among professionals.

But, of course, professionals do advertise (and if you are a fan of the collusion/ game theory argument, I expect to count you among them!). What we were taught in college is wrong. Professionals advertising is not about winning games or profits. It’s about conveying value from the firm to the customer. Sure advertising can raise profits, but advertising is about beneficence.

Let’s consider an example:

When I studied at CUNY in 2012, I did some research into how patients use media to help them solve their urgent medical concerns. I talked to people who had a strong need to find a doctor – a third or fourth opinion, a dreadful diagnosis – and inquired how they found that provider.

One of my study subjects was a mother of a young woman with a difficult vision impairment who, despite having an accurate diagnosis, wasn’t finding satisfaction in the course of treatment for her daughter. They had exhausted the referrals in her known network. The condition was deteriorating, and the family felt afraid and ignored. The mother said she searched the internet for two or three weeks trying to find someone who could help, and finally she discovered the ophthalmologist to treat her daughter.

“How did you know he would help?” I asked. “Well, he had published an article online about how he treated my daughter’s condition. I could just tell he was the right one,” she answered.

Did you catch that? In product development we call that “secret sauce.” What this mother revealed is that the way for doctors to get discovered by patients is to write and publish articles about conditions you treat. I heard this same secret sauce revealed in 75 percent of my cases. They said that your persona – who you are, what you look like, how you speak – will signal in an instant whether you are the right provider because, ceteris paribus, patients can’t tell one ophthalmologists’ skills from another.

Maybe you’re thinking, “That’s great, but what does it have to do with advertising?” My point is this is advertising. Advertising means to issue an alert, give notice, inform. Advertising occurs when you intentionally signal to customers that your firm can meet their needs. In contemporary media, the fastest growing advertising segment is native advertising, or essays like this mother found, because they are a win-win for everyone involved. Customers need your services and learn you are out there. You gain validated customers who, after first impressions, still want to work with you.

Professionals advertise because they have a mission to improve society through their training and skills, and if professionals want to fulfill that mission, then they must somehow communicate to society what they can do for them. Through this telling, advertising conveys value (information) from the one who created it to the one who benefits from it. Thus, advertising is mutually beneficial.


Megan Campbell Smith is the digital publisher of MD-UPDATE. Contact her at