​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.

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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.

The Monday Conundrum​​

Let’s kick the week off with a conundrum.

Every day we are told of the protean capacity of social media marketing to reach hundreds upon thousands of highly targeted, ready to buy consumers.

Yet at the same time, we are also reliably informed that the average click rate for an online banner ad is 0.07

That’s 7 clicks per 10,000 ads.

How does that work, I wonder?

Fantastic Reach vs. Laughable Conversion.

Discuss.

In the two-cents saloon of social opinion, I’ve got a dollar to spend, so here goes.

Let’s suppose for a minute that the reach numbers touted by data-driven media really are all they’re cracked up to be – I have my doubts, but I’ll let that pass for now – how is it that so many eyeballs can be delivered to so little effect?

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say it’s because THE WORK IS CRAP.

In our rush to embrace this shiny new channel as the solution to everything, we’ve forgotten that delivery is only half the task at hand and that the real job begins the moment the ad is served up.

That’s when Data Delivery switches to Message Delivery.

Message Delivery requires a powerfully crafted message that communicates a single strategic thought persuasively and with impact. It will engage, intrigue, provoke, compel, seduce and, dare I say it, sell.

Dumping a bland message in the general vicinity of the viewer isn’t going to cut it.

Message Delivery is a whole different skill set from Data Delivery. 

The knack for grabbing people’s attention is a learned discipline, and it’s one that the new generation of digital natives just don’t have.

The irony is that the folks who do – the seasoned ad pros who’ve seen it, done it a hundred times – are being laid off in vast swathes right now.

Replace the people who can with people that can’t.

Beats me why anyone would think that’s a good idea.

But that’s a conundrum for another day.

Apples & Oranges

Steve Jobs

When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, the company was in turmoil.

It had a bloated roster of bland products that included a dozen different versions of the Mackintosh. 

Within weeks Jobs had reduced it to just four.

Legend has it he lost it during a particular turgid product review meeting. Grabbing a marker pen, he marched up to a whiteboard and drew a two-by-two quadrant. Above the two columns he wrote “Consumer” and “Pro”; next to the two rows, “Desktop” and “Portable.“

“Here’s what we need,” he declared.

And that was it. 

Everything else was scrapped.

Armed with this new stripped-down, laser-targeted objective, Jobs’s engineers set about creating a series of products that would come to define their categories for a generation.

Later, anyone enquiring into an Apple product in any of the four product quadrants Jobs had identified would be faced with just one option. And it would be exceptional.

More than exceptional, in fact.

When Apple unveiled the iMac in 1998, its iconic style, intuitive functionality, and vivid colors profoundly changed everything we thought and felt about the home computer. 

The world and his dog wanted one.

In 1997, Apple had posted a $1 billion loss. In 1998, it posted a $300 million profit.

Jobs’s insight was to realize that less is more. 

Less clutter meant more focus, ingenuity and innovation.

How would it be if agencies and brands lived by similar principles?

Instead of cramming every last product feature or reason to buy into your communications, why not concentrate on just one? 

But make it a compelling one.

Take a stand.

Execute against a single thought and do it exceptionally well. 

If you’re a company, product or service, find the one thing you excell at and dedicate your energies toward it.

The ability to be the best you can be is a whole lot easier when you have nothing else to distract you from your goal.

You can’t be everything to everyone.

But you can be something to someone.

After all, if you throw someone 12 oranges, they probably wouldn’t catch any of them.

But if you throw them just one, they’ll catch it every time.

It saved Apple. 

Think what it could do for you?

Built Ford Dull

Ford Mantra

This came across my desk today.

It’s some sort of manifesto, rallying cry or mantra from Ford.

The new Ford, I’m guessing. 

The one that’s trying to throw off the shackles of a troubled past, the legacy of years of woeful management and a product line that simply has never run as well or lasted as long as its Japanese competitors.

Don’t get me wrong. The TV spots with Bryan Cranston are exceptional. Reved up on blue-collar grit and brimful of no-nonsense, zero bullshit attitude, they do a fantastic job of resetting expectations. An excellent first step in what promises to be a long process of brand invigoration.

But this… this is just sloppy.

How best to put it?

Muddled?

Flabby?

A random mish-mash of meandering paragraphs bereft of any semblance of flow or story?

I’ll stop there and offer the benefit of the doubt.

Almost certainly there was something better in the beginning. 

I’d go further and say that a respectable missive went into the Ford Corporate Prose Mangler ZX211® and after a series of mindless executive tweaks, suggestions, mandatories, revisions, and changes, we ended up here.

I’ll give you that. But, folks, now its time to send for the cavalry.

This sucker needs a re-write. 

A big gun to bring a little clarity to proceedings, add an injection of poetry, vim, energy and, pardon me for this one, drive.

As luck would have it, our industry has recently laid off a huge swathe of very senior ad writers, experienced pros one and all, many with gongs and Gold Award thingamajigs. Anyone of them would kill this brief.

Alternatively, get the team that worked on the TV to have a crack at it.

Give ‘em a week. I guarantee it’ll be night and day.

I applaud the intent and desire to galvanize everyone connected with the brand: The consumers, the dealers, employees, engineers, the men and women on the line, etc.

Reiterating your purpose after a turbulent couple of decades makes perfect sense.

All the more reason then for this thing to sing not sag.

Ford, buddy, you deserve better. 

Throw this out and start again.

Give me a call if you need some help.

No one cares about your ad

Sorry to break it to you but they really don’t.

Today’s consumers don’t care how long it took to prepare the brief.

Or the rounds and rounds of revisions the creative work went through.

They don’t care about buys, flights, analytics, reach or the fact that you managed to incorporate five product benefits into the whole shebang instead of the original one.

Oh, and that last-minute change of image? 

Yeah, they don’t care about that either.

They don’t care because they’ve got much more pressing things to worry about. 

Mundane everyday stuff like buying groceries, dropping the kids off at school, making rent, paying down debt, getting a raise, getting fired, getting laid, getting coffee, etc. 

You know, life. 

It’s this indifference that accounts for the fact that only 4% of advertising is ever remembered favorably. 

And the secret to being one of the lucky 4%?

Be noticed.

Stand for something and, by doing so, stand out.

It’s not going to be easy.

You’re going need to be creative.

Not lip-service creative. 

Provocative creative.

Never-been-done-before creative.

The kind of creative that’ll need to be championed, supported and stood by.

Exactly the kind of creative, in fact, that gets killed or dumbed down by the machinery of the modern approval process.

Risk-averse superiors, overzealous legal departments, all conspire to rain on the parade.

They win the battle but lose the war.

The war for the customers’ attention.

If your new ad campaign doesn’t compel, intrigue, shock, move, surprise or otherwise engage the recipient, chances are no one is going to read it, watch it or engage with it.

They’re certainly not going to act on it.

And isn’t that the whole point of advertising in the first place?

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

George Tannenbaum, author of the blog Ad Aged, wrote a great piece on Content Marketing recently.

Do yourself a favor and give it a read: https://bit.ly/2q3eWRs

It covers a lot of bases but what I particularly liked was his assertion that in our rush to take advantage of every social opportunity, we’re losing the capacity to properly marshall the work and exercise brand oversight.

This shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise. As we devolve the powers of content creation to more and more people, it is perhaps inevitable that the quality of the work wavers.

Here are a couple of factors.

The cost of entry for potential content makers has never been lower. A couple thousand bucks will get you a professional standard camera, a mic kit, and a passable lighting package. Editing, sound, and FX can be executed from a laptop. 

The result is that soup-to-nuts production options are everywhere. The vast majority are good, many flat-out great, but let’s not pretend the bad and the downright ugly aren’t out there, too.

The other contributing factor is the experience levels of those entrusted with the stewardship of the brand.

There is an enormous gulf in nuance and understanding between the Head of Marketing with 5-10 years’ tenure on a brand and a new account coordinator who, out of necessity, is immediately charged with overseeing the brand’s smaller, less attractive projects.

This is not to apportion blame, only to point out a simple truth. 

The result is that the average Joe and Josephine Schmo are receiving mixed messages.

To take automotive as an example. One moment they’re being presented with a luxury TV spot that looks like a million dollars and probably cost as much. It boasts high production values, is voiced by a movie star, and utilizes the very latest FX to support its claims of styling, performance, and advanced engineering.

Later the same day, they are subjected to a poorly made piece of content in their social feed. 

Same brand; two totally different brand perceptions. 

The recipient may not be able to articulate what’s wrong with all this but they will feel it. The feeling is one of confusion and an overwhelming sense of being short-changed.

The real question is what can we do about it?

I have a couple of suggestion, take them as you will. 

I would start by embracing the idea of “Less is More.”

Rein things in so that fewer people have the authority to act on the brand’s behalf.

Ensure that those that do are senior, knowledgeable and proven.

Next, try and instigate a policy of 360 quality. Allocate a reasonable budget and swear off the falsehood that the need to turn things around quickly makes cheap and shoddy work okay.

It doesn’t.

Either make a pitch for larger resources (easy to say, I know) or cut back on the number of executions in order to maintain consistency. 

If we all hold to the belief that everything is branding at some level or another, then the poorest execution will lower and stain a brand far more egregiously than a slick production will lift it up.

It’s a tough nettle to grasp but grasped it must.

The brand that lives in the heart and minds of its audience must be the best possible iteration of itself. It can’t waver or be subject to whim, circumstance or parsimony.

Our industries brightest and best already know this. It’s why they earn the big bucks.

They might need to earn a few of them right now.

“You’re a writer!”

You're a writer!

The British don’t go in for the whole High School Reunion thing.

Sure, there may be the occasional get together here and there, but ritualized gatherings at five, ten, fifteen and twenty-year intervals? Not going to happen.

I was mulling over this fact recently and got to thinking: What would my former schoolmates say if they found out I made a living as a Creative Director and more to the point, as a writer and wordsmith?

Answer: They would say, “Ian David? A Writer? Are you freaking sh*$ng me!”

To be fair, I think the 16-year old me would have agreed.

Truth be told, I was a bit of a dunce back then. I lolled and gagged, drifted aimlessly between classes, and showed little or no interest in learning about anything. I was particularly useless and inattentive in the two subjects that with hindsight I really wished I’d pull my finger out in: English and French.

My only saving grace was that I was good at Art. Not great at Art. Just better than most of my peers – a top 3 sketcher and doodler in any given class from the age of 6.

Looking back it was a lifeline to something different, an opportunity to stagger towards some kind of vocation, and to my credit, I took it. Not actively or with full consciousness but with all the vagueness that you’d expect of a 16-year-old preoccupied with football, Deep Purple and this strange new phenomenon called girls.

At the time, I only knew what I didn’t want to do – I didn’t want to work in a factory, bank, or shop or anything frankly that reeked of sweat, dirt, and physical labor.

And when the results of my exams came in I knew another thing: I had to improve my grades. 

College required 5 Ordinary Level Grades and 1 Advanced Level Grade. I had one O Level. And that was it. I had two years to get an A-Level in Art and find 4 more O Levels from somewhere.

So it was that I took an elective English class filled to the brim with reformed dullards like me.  Benefiting from the fact that everyone in the class was there for a reason and actually wanted to learn, the kindly teacher introduced myself and the class to “To Kill A Mockingbird”

It was a watershed moment. Light bulbs went on, clouds parted, vistas appeared. Suddenly I got this whole reading thing. Really got it. The second book she plonked in front of us was “Catcher In The Rye.” I was off.

This would be the conversation I would have if my school ever had a reunion.

It never will, of course.

But on the slim chance that any of my old classmates from Greenford High School follow my blog and are reading this, my name is Ian David and I’m a Creative Director, Writer, and Blogger. 

I love what I do and people seem to think I’m okay at it.

I know it sounds crazy but it’s true.