The lowdown on advertising

Jan 29 2012 11:11
*Ian Mann

WE all consume advertising, some of us buy advertising and some of us are involved in the process of making it. What we all have in common is some reaction to advertising ranging from interest to annoyance. Bob Hoffman, a veteran advertising man, has been writing a blog titled The Ad Contrarian for over four years and this book is a collection of his best pieces and as well as a number that appeared in Adweek magazine. It provides keen, often unique, and always provocative insights into both the advertising industry and adverts.

The book opens with a conversation between Robbie and his aunt Ruthie, who would like some advertising for her pickle business which is beginning to do well. I have truncated the conversation slightly, but the general thrust remains.

Aunt Ruthie: The ad should say that my pickles are home-made, taste wonderful and I use fresh ingredients.

Robbie: We first need to understand the consumer, and how they consume your product, and why they use it.

Aunt Ruthie: You mean why people buy my pickles and eat them? Because they taste good.

Robbie: We need to understand your brand and its personality.

Aunt Ruthie: My pickles have a personality?

Robbie: You see, Aunt Ruthie, we believe advertising isn't really about selling pickles. It's about developing a relationship between the consumer and your brand through integrated communications that create brand advocates by over-delivering on relevant brand expectations and engaging brand conversations…

Aunt Ruthie: Are you having that problem you had back in college? Why you talking like this? Is this how you talk in your company? Your cousin Stanley majored in English. I’ll just ask him to write the ad… You know I love you, right? But listen to me, darling, you people are crazy.


This conversation will not be unfamiliar to anyone who has thought of having a brand developed for their product, service, or company.

Hoffman sees the problem from two angles – that of the agencies and that of the adverts that they create.

The industry, Hoffman explains, seems to thrive on hysteria. The industry has been scaring itself with reports of the demise of advertising on television with the advent of PVR’s that allow viewers to skip the adverts. (A Duke University study on the subject shows that PVR owners still watch 95% of the TV live.)

Similarly the industry has been scared by claims that “the internet has changed everything!” Clearly the internet is pervasive, but it is not a powerful force. No major brands have been created using the internet with the exception of web-native brands such as Google, Amazon and Facebook. This would be equivalent to TV only being good at creating brands such as BBC, Sky and CNN.

Today the largest advertising agencies are publicly traded entities led by lawyers, accountants and financiers with no understanding of advertising. In the US today the five global behemoths control as much as 75% of the nation’s advertising. As anyone who uses the services of a consolidated industry knows, it doesn’t matter whether the industry is advertising or airlines, retailing or telecommunications, consolidation is a service nightmare for customers.

Having been in the industry for decades Hoffman has seen the industry no longer attracting talented young people as it once did. Instead the talented are creating websites, games, social networks, blogs, or videos.

Today these talented people have an alternative to what was considered “commercial art.”

Among the solutions Hoffman suggests is to specialize. Most agencies are trying to convince clients that they can do it all, but the agency that does one thing exceptionally well, whether it is a specialization within retail or in selling to people in a defined geography is the one that will thrive. He recommends that talented creative people “keep small” and do the work themselves or through a confederation with other likeminded people. The economics of the industry are unsustainable any other way, and it is getting ever harder to make money.

There are other glaring flaws within the industry that hobble it. The mode of the gaining client acceptance for their work is usually made in a large group presentation, the death knell of good advertising. When you gather many people together the meeting becomes a vehicle for the display of power relationships and opportunity for lower-level people to showcase their analytical abilities (another way of saying ‘finding flaws'.) Every idea has weak points, Moby Dick did and so did The Great Gatsby.

Contrast this with the Award-Winning Australian based, Mojo agency, founded by Morris and Johnston, both of whom abhorred big meetings, fancy presentations and anything that smacked of formality. They had an unusually successful methodology, they shared an office, worked as a creative team and when they had something to share with a client would invite the real decision maker over to the agency. They would sit in their office with their layout and storyboards on the floor and explain their ideas. No big setups. No PowerPoint’s. And they only had to engage and persuade one person, the real decision maker who could say, “Yes, go and do it.”

This is where the best work happens. The worst work is a result of layers of people supervising layers of people.

Hoffman points out an anomaly: Ad campaigns that are brilliant, strategically perfect, and beautifully produced, fail miserably. And then there are the stupid, ill-conceived campaigns that work miraculously. Perhaps advertising, he muses, is like quantum physics and is not impacted by the law of cause and effect. Things just happen for no reason in advertising which involves understanding human behaviour with its infinite rule structure. If the whole universe can appear for no good reason, the odd marketing success can, too.

Contrary to what advertising mavins write, advertising is not dead. Advertisements are everywhere – in urinals, on grocery carts, restaurant menus and carrier bags. Advertising is thriving even though agencies aren’t.

There is a crisis in advertising, but it is not because customers are becoming immune to adverts. The crisis is because the people making adverts get too clever for themselves and others. The job of an agency is to sell the client’s products. Hoffman believes that many in the ad business don’t like hearing that – that is dirty work and hard on the creative ego.

There is a basic principle to producing persuasive as copy and it is this: Being specific. When people have a preference it is usually for something very specific. “We answer on the first ring” is more powerful than “World class service.” Hoffman describes his favourite example, the launch of the iPod. It wasn’t launched with “World class mp3 player,” it wasn’t launched with “A whole new way to enjoy music,” but with this: “A thousand songs in your pocket.” The job of the copywriter is to persuade us to experience a product. It is a job that requires a good deal of artistry, finesse and tact.

It was Albert Einstein who said in an interview on his grand unified theory that he had so far failed to identify: “The answer to this problem, when found, will be simple.” Ditto advertising.

Readability   Light +---- Serious

Insights   High --+-- Low

Practical   High ----+ Low

*Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy. 

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ian mann  |  book review  |  advertising



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