Crap Ad Syndrome: 10 Tell-Tale Signs

Your new campaign/ad/video is ready. 

Dollars have been spent, media has been placed, and expectations are high. 

But will it work? 

Ah, the multi-million dollar question.

Who knows? Advertising is an unquantifiable beast at the best of times and a wholly subjective one to boot,

What I can tell you is that if your heroic effort has succumbed to any of the ten suck points listed below, it hasn’t got a hope in hell.

Ok, get your pencils out and let’s see how you fair.

There was never any buy-in on the brief This is a biggie from the get-go. The brief is the tablet of stone by which all is judged. It should set the direction of the communication, guide the creative process and be the touchstone for whether the work is strategically sound, creatively impactful and ready to go to market. It needs to be kept to a single page, and both agency and client need to be on it.

The client has given the agency “direction” Yeah, I wouldn’t do that if I were you. Client direction is, after all, code for “do my idea” and that rarely works. All you’re doing is putting the brakes on minds trained to take base elements and turn them in gold. Best let the agency do what agencies do best: come up with great ideas. 

The work has gone through more than 3 rounds of revisions Anything more than 3 and there’s a substantive flaw in the brief. (See #1) It usually means there was never a consensus on what needs to be accomplished, and the vagueness and woolliness of the original brief are starting to show through in the ideas. No good can come from pushing on regardless and hoping for the best – best step back, re-focus, re-write the brief and start over.

More than 3 people are approving it One point to contact with ultimate say-so on either side of the client-agency relationship. That’s all you need. Anything more leads to mixed, diluted messaging that tries to accommodate too many opinions and points of view. An ad or initiative that seeks to say too many things fails to say anything at all.

The Creative Director doesn’t have the final say There’s a reason he or she is called the Creative Director – they’re the person best able to direct the creative and assume the role of guide and touchstone. In the best relationships, the client has absolute faith in their agency CD’s judgment. In its absence, client seniority usually takes precedence – again resulting in a mixed bag of potential outcomes. Take away: If you don’t believe in your Creative Director, replace them with someone you do. Failing that, let them do what they’ve been hired to do.

It’s been focus-grouped Never a good sign. A crutch for the marketing director who’s unsure of themselves, focus groups essentially cede the position of Creative Director to the loudest, most persuasive voice in the room. They usually hog the M&Ms, too. Not good. If you look for nuances rather than definitive analysis, then they maybe hold a modicum of value. But I’m not convinced. Bad idea.

 It lacks impact So much for the politics of the ad, now let’s get to the nitty-gritty of what it looks like. Impact is the first rule of advertising regardless of media. TV, social, print,  radio, if it lacks impact, it means that one thing: No one’s going to see it. And if no one sees it, everything else is a complete waste of time.

It doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable Impactful work signals its presence by generating a feeling of uncertainty in the pit of your stomach. This is because the work is fresh and unfamiliar and, as a consequence, you have no compass with which to pre-judge it. Conversely, a feeling of quiet satisfaction means your ad is a homogenous glob of same-old, sameness and you’re in big trouble.

It’s trying to say to many things at once Is your ad predicted on a single-minded thought provocatively executed? Or is a bloated amalgam of mixed messages, each desperately trying to shout over each other? If it’s the latter, save your money, your ad’s dead on arrival.

It looks like everything else in its category Uh-oh, sounds like you may have created a piece of safe advertising – an ad that desperately wants to look, feel and act like all its competitors when, in truth, what it needs to do is the exact opposite. Safe advertising is predicated on fear. And fear is a guarantee of failure.

So how did we get on?

If it’s any consolation, most ads exhibit some, if not all, of these tenets.

It’s why only 4% of ads are ever remembered favorably.

On a positive note, think of the ads that are memorable, command attention, talk persuasively and stay in the memory?

How many of those fall foul of the no-nos cited above?

Exactly.

It’s junk mail, Jim, but not as we know it

Kirk.jpg

It’s always been a topic of some debate as to which of the traditional advertising media today’s data-driven content most resembles.

Most opt for outdoor.

For one thing, it’s immediate. Static or moving, simplicity is mandatory. Headers can’t be more than 7 words long. Less, if possible. 

That’s because, like outdoor, time is short. You’ve only got a couple of seconds to grab your audience – about the time it takes to pass an outdoor board in a car.

I’m not buying it.

I think social is essentially direct response advertising.

Take the creative.

It’s almost always built around a call to action and its sole and only purpose is to generate a click-through. 

Much like a tear-off coupon, reply card or 1-800 number.

Its primary directive also informs its tone and manner, which is almost always of a shrill, hectoring, “act now” nature – another sure sign that the tropes of direct response gurgle around in its DNA.

It’s also riddled with rules – prescriptive dos and don’t, imperatives on how to frame a message, generate a response (that word again), what language to use, etc.

A social campaign will “drop,” too.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, you’re talking to one individual at a time. An individual, moreover, who is, thanks to data, highly targeted, from the who and the why, to the what, when and where.

You’re not broadcasting to everyone.

You’re narrowcasting to a very specific demographic.

There are no shared perceptions, peer agreement or opting in.

Whenever the desired action, it’s an action taken in isolation.

One-on-one.

Just you and the snake oil salesman. 

Like junk mail.

And like junk mail, it’s all incredibly dull.

But that’s a post for another day.

The Delivery System That Fails To Deliver

For the last ten years, data-driven content has been heralded as the universal panacea for all marketing ills.

You can’t throw an iPhone X in New York without hitting at least ten data agencies promising millions of impressions.

They’re in the business of delivering eyeballs. Lots and lots of them.

Propelled by analytics, sales history, viewing preferences, and a truckload of huckster jargon, they’ve sold the ad world on the numbers, the programmatic buys, and the reach.

If you want to target a grumpy, male, ex-pat adman with a wet cappuccino habit and a passion for the kind of football where you actually use your feet to propel the ball around the field, well, these guys and gals know where he lives and precisely how to reach him.

The problem with this perfect delivery scenario is that once it gets its target in its sites and exactly where it wants it, the whole shebang manifestly fails to deliver.

How else to explain the universally acknowledged fact that the average click rate for an online banner ad is about .07% or 7 clicks for every 10,000 ads.

And that’s before we take into account bots, click fraud, the vagaries targeting, and what the hell actually constitutes an impression.

Part of the problem seems to be an assumption that success depends solely on being able to drop the right message in the right place at the right time.

Quite how this fallacy ever gained currency, I’ll never know.

The truth is that delivery is only half the job. 

The real task begins the second the ad is seen, in other words, when it’s transformed from a bunch of 1s and 0s into a communications message. 

It’s here that the purveyors of data-driven content fail to ask themselves the most fundamental of questions:

Why on earth would anyone want to stop what they’re doing to read this?

What’s in it for them? 

Does it in engage, shock, cajole, or seduce?

Does it pique their interest in any way? 

Does it compel them to react, or, the multi-million-dollar question- click?

This new task isn’t about data, it’s about selling and its best practitioners, mostly senior and ergo expensive, have been dumped out of the industry in recent years, the chief victims of our endless mania for mergers and consolidations.

Put out to pasture far too early, they’re now needed more than ever.

True, these folks don’t look the part. They look ancient – many are actually in their 40s and 50s. They like to go to their kids’ soccer games and dance recitals, don’t sport beards or tats, and more than likely don’t have an earthly clue who Childish Gamino is.

But they do know how to put a provocative ad message together, and how to do so with the wit, charm, persuasion, and impact.

Bring them in from the cold, listen to what they have to say, trust that they know what they’re doing and, who knows, you might just get a banner ad that actually works.

Because without impact an online campaign will never be seen.

And a campaign that’s never seen isn’t a campaign.

It’s a waste of money.

Scotland the Brave

Scotalnd The Brave

In the spring of 1997, Britain was in the throes of a general election.

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown had re-invented Labour, and the party was insurgent.

The incumbent Conservative Party, on the other hand, were in a mess and up against it.

The country had grown weary of its failed promise of trickle-down prosperity, principally because it was all a sham.

Never more so than in Scotland where Labour had always polled well.

So it was an either brave or deluded Conservative campaign chairman that had decided that the line for its 48 sheet poster campaign north of the border should be thus:

Your Best Bet For A Better Scotland – Vote Conservative.

It was a type-only affair, modestly laid out, boasting a small box with a blue tick in it.

Crucially, there was a lot of white space. And this was to be its downfall.

It was late one Saturday night when I saw the posting.

It sat on a small rise above a well-known pub in the west of the city. The pub’s clients, worse for wear from a night of drinking, were falling out on to the streets.

Here my imagination takes over and attempts to join the dots on what had latterly happened prior to my arrival on the scene. 

A punter is taking a moment to get his bearings, clear his head, and is maybe looking to hail a cab when he spies the poster.

It doesn’t exactly chime with his polictical views.

What happened next to again subject to conjecture. My best guess is that our hero ran home and was back in a thrice with a can of red spray paint. I say this because when I happened upon the board that fateful night it read:

Your Best Bet For A Better Scotland: Vote Conservative MY ARSE!

An early example of guerrilla marketing perhaps?

Brand takeover?

Possibly.

What I do know is that the size, position, and general air of anarchic chaos of the daubed addition had transformed the world dullest poster into a potential award-winner.

And that I laughed my socks off.

Especially as the cad who had applied the amendment had had to scamper up a pretty steep incline to do so.

But as we all know, getting great creative to run is never a walk in the park.

How badly do you want it?

When I was first getting started in advertising back in the mid-1980s, I participated in the D&AD student workshops.

For six weeks you’d be set six briefs by six different agencies. 

One week you’d be answering a print brief for Saatchi’s, the next a TV brief for DDB. 

Best of all, you got to present your work to the person who set it – typically, this meant getting one-on-one advice from the likes of Dave Trott, Nick Wray, Paul Grubb, Neil Patterson, Adrian Kemsley, and Charles Hendley – the smartest minds in the biz at the time.

On one particular night, the host agency was Collet Dickenson Pearce, and true to form, we had a badass tutor: John O’Donnell.

The brief was for an imaginary product called Mathews Thermal Underwear, and the medium was posters. As was the norm, every student pinned their work up on the wall and awaited their fate. 

Few got off lightly. 

O’Donnell cited the usual flaws: weak ideas, ambiguous executions, crap headlines, etc.

Halfway around the room he stopped and paused. In front of him were three neatly drawn up layouts. They were thematically linked visually with the headlines that were subtle variations of a single thought.

One featured a young man clambering up the side of a two-story house to reach his girlfriend’s bedroom window on a bitterly cold night. The line read: “Matthews Thermal Underwear: For Adventurers.”

Another read, “Matthews Thermal Underwear: For Explorers” but its visual and the entire third concept have slipped the realms of my memory. 

Without looking away from the work, O’Donnell said, “Who did this?”

A tentative hand went up at the back of the room.

He turned and eyed the speaker.

“These are great. I wouldn’t change a thing. Put them in your book.”

And that was it: A first-hand example of what would cut it, what it looked like, and how it worked. In the pub afterward, we all congratulated the campaign’s creator and silently resolved to come back with better stuff the following week.

Which leads to me to the other remarkable thing from that night.

At the end of the workshop, as everyone was packing up, O’Donnell addressed a question to the entire room.

“How many of you really want a job in advertising?”

I’m not sure what prompted the inquiry, but to a man and woman, everyone replied that, Yes, they did.

He took a moment to collect a thought and then said:

“Well, if you want it badly enough, you will.”

A gauntlet had been thrown down in front of us, a tacit challenge issued.

O’Donnell knew there would be casualties. That, whether through attrition, hardship, bad luck or disinterest, many would fall by the wayside.

For one, it was tough.

In those days, getting a job hinged on your folio of spec ideas. Developing your “book” from a half-formed mush of dubious thoughts into a job worthy tome of advertising goodness required a pathological degree of single-mindedness – a willingness to scrap, re-do, revisit, revise, refine and revise again, until you had twenty or so ads that any Creative Director could flick through in sixty seconds or less without ever having to stop and say “I don’t get it.” 

So, yeah, it was tough, but that’s what it took to get into a shop like CDP.

O’Donnell would have been right to assume that not all would go the distance – of the 20 or so assembled before him that night, perhaps six ended up in the business.  

It’s why I think the gist of O’Donnell’s statement should be posted in the reception of every ad agency, design shop, and client office in the land.

How badly do you want it?

If you’re a creative, how badly do you want to create great work?

How many with a good, even great idea, will keep going and make it exceptional? When a client rejects a beloved campaign, how many will roll up their sleeves and vow to double down and come back with something even better?

How badly will the account director want to champion it before a client?

How many clients will go to bat for it against an intransient superior? Or take the time to argue, rationalize, defend and support what they know works?

Simply put, how many will support the right way when the path of least resistance gets a quick result and a chance to beat the 5:00 traffic?

Like those students in the workshop all those years ago, some will stay the course. 

Others will bail out early. 

It’s easy to get jaded.

Bored even. 

To just say “It is what it is” and be done with it.

But sometime soon there’s going to be a moment when a great piece of work is on the line, and it’s down to you to fight for it.

That’s when this post will come back to haunt you.

Because that’s when a little voice in your head is going to ask:

How badly do you want it?

The Math vs. The Myth

Time Spent Consuming

Take a look at this sucker.

It’s from a recent report from the Interactive Advertising Bureau, and it pretty much confirms what many of us have known all along.

That TV, far from being dead, is alive and well and kicking digital’s ass.

Really kicking digital’s ass.

It also rather debunks the theory that everyone and anyone is viewing everything and anything on a mobile device.

They patently aren’t. 

So here’s my question:

Why isn’t it a holy-shit topic of debate right now?

Call me crazy – and believe me, many have – but these figures seem to point to a vast misappropriation of focus in three significant markets. Is it too fanciful to suggest that our industry take them just a little seriously?

Maybe rethink an assumption or two? Perhaps take a closer look at the current ROI on digital platforms? Maybe dump the latest media buy and initiate a reallocation of marketing dollars?

At least call a meeting about it.

Yeah, not going to happen.

This report, like those that have come before it, will be avoided like the plague. In a mind-boggling display of counterintuition, brands will continue to pour vast sums of money into digital platforms.

It’s not difficult to see why.

To accept these numbers you’d first have to admit you might have been duped. Or at the least acknowledge that you’d got it very wrong.  

And to act on them, well, that would mean flying in the face of received wisdom, and it’s a brave marketing chief or agency head that’s going to do that.

But someone will eventually.

And when that happens, the game will be up.

The day digital platforms are judged on their numbers will be the day they’re recognized for what they really are: a developing channel that’s currently delivering modest results.

The math will have prevailed over myth.

By the way, the IAB’s study has affected one immediate change:

TV’s last rites have been canceled indefinitely.

Read more on the IAB study here https://bit.ly/2DYNjC9

​Real Advertising: The Comeback

I sometimes wonder if our industry hasn’t wandered off the reservation.

How else to explain the banality of thinking that informs much of what passes for advertising today?

It seems to me that we are obsessed with targeting.

By targeting, I mean our destructive preoccupation with analysis, tracking, habits, preferences, and trends.

Targeting is not the same as relevance.

Relevant work isn’t binary.

It can’t be computed.

It’s not predicated on what website we visited yesterday or might tomorrow.

And you can’t run an algorithm to create it (though I’m pretty sure many have tried).

Relevant advertising, let’s call it real advertising, is founded on the wants and desires of real people with real blood running through their veins.

It posits a well thought out argument persuasively.

Moreover, it does so with a fundamental understanding of the larger world outside it.

The target-them-and-they-will-buy approach has none of these virtues.

The data-driven content that clogs up our web pages and social feeds has little or no connection with real life. No grasp of what ordinary people are facing every day –  bills, rent, health, love, marriage, work.

For real advertising, all this is backstory, the context within which a brand, product or service must be seen to exist if its to add value in some meaningful way.

Here are two examples, picked entirely at random, of what I’m talking about – both are nearly 50 years old.

13683f7f30dcabf41972dcd108f03235

d9adb332ff0333541256177d462d6a56

What these pieces have is a degree of humanity.

They’re confident, but they don’t brag.

They are reasoned but not unreasonable.

And because of that, they resonate.

More than that, they stand out.

It’s not easy to create work like this – part of the craft is that it looks so simple, so logical – but, hey, that’s why we have creative departments. Or, at least, used to.

A degree of empathy can help frame a brand in the hearts and minds of its audience. Better yet, it can give it a direction and a sense of purpose – something everyone from the brand manager and agency creatives to the employees and customers, can get behind.

If social media marketing really is the future, we might want to invest it with a little old school nous and wisdom.

Time to bring real advertising in from out of the wilderness.