by Mark Silveira
How Bad Is Most Advertising?
It depends who you ask. If you randomly stopped 10 people at the airport, you’d probably hear that most advertising is so- so, neither here nor there or something equally tepid. Were you to ask the leaders of any of the world’s largest advertising agencies or their clients, you’d probably be told that a significant amount of it—theirs especially—is good or at least effective at meeting its objectives. But ask one of advertising’s true believers, those people who’ve either been a part of making some enormously successful advertising or who’ve benefited from it, and you’d likely hear quite a different story.
These advertising “zealots”, as I call them, would tell you on no uncertain terms that the vast majority of advertising is awful, garbage, total shit or pick your favorite epithet. Which, oddly enough, is completely wrong. Worse still, this tendency to characterize it in such sweepingly negative terms obscures a far more insidious truth.
The fact of the matter is the people at the airport are closer to having it right. Most advertising is neither awful nor great. It’s something infinitely more dangerous. It’s ordinary. So-so, as they put it. Or just plain average, like a lot of other things in the world—products, people, intellects, you name it. Seriously, if you took all $500+ billion in marketing communications that will bombard the world this year and plotted it on a scale ranging from great to awful, what I think you’d find is a pretty standard bell curve. A small percentage being extraordinary, an equally small amount being dreadful and the bulk of it being just plain average or ordinary.
Which viewed in the void (and you’d be hard pressed to find a better void than the conference rooms in which most ads are first exposed) might lead you to think: “Well, what’s so bad about that? Isn’t that distribution curve generally the case with everything?”
To statisticians, yes, but to advertisers and their agencies, average or ordinary is a real problem. Because the minute that ad or commercial leaves the safety of the conference room it has to stand out from a million other ads and commercials. And how can you stand out if you’re ordinary or average?
Playing the Law of Averages
This presents a dilemma for many businesspeople—people in general, really—because we’ve all been schooled to believe that being average is the norm. After all, that’s what norm means. We all accept the fact that most of us will be neither Quasimodo nor Tom Cruise in the looks department. Neither Bill Gates nor a pauper in the material-wealth department. Neither Einstein nor . . . well, here psychologists have found that funny thing they call the “Lake Wobegon Effect” where people have a tendency to rate their superiority of intelligence in a statistically impossible fashion, but that’s another matter.
The point is, average is not only acceptable to most of us in many respects, it’s even desirable, thus the Japanese phrase “it’s the nail that sticks out that gets hammered down”. Anyone who’s ever been in boot camp recognizes the importance of keeping a low profile. So average is certainly not a pejorative in many contexts. In business, to grow in line with the industry average or enjoy average margins won’t get you a big party, but it won’t get you fired, either.
But this is where advertising diverges so dramatically from so many other things. The average beer still tastes pretty good on a hot day. The average car may not be a Porsche, but it will probably start in the morning. And while the average plane flight may be deductible from your time in Purgatory, you will eventually reach your destination. But there’s reason to believe average advertising does almost nothing. Like the average face in a crowded stadium, it simply fails to stand out enough to accomplish anything and thus takes its message and the money spent behind it and effectively vanishes without a trace.
In fact, I think the case could be made that a lot of companies would be far better off if they stopped advertising altogether. Running ordinary ads, at least. All that money could be deployed in other more constructive fashions or simply allowed to flow to the bottom line. Which is not what I’m advocating. What I’m saying is that for an ad or commercial to return true value to its sponsor it cannot be average or ordinary. It has to be exceptional and extraordinary. And while accomplishing this is not necessarily easy, it’s not impossibly difficult, either.
“Half my advertising is wasted, the trouble is I don’t know which half.”
Everyone’s heard this quote before, and I’m sure this wasn’t his intention, but those immortal words from the retailer John Wanamaker are probably responsible for more misguided, ordinary advertising than any other statement in the English language. (The one possible exception being “but it’s not on strategy”, but I’ll get to that later.) The reason I say this is because that “ … the trouble is I don’t know which half” part seems to have permanently imbued the process of developing great advertising with all the qualities of some episode on Unsolved Mysteries. That if the legendary merchant Wanamaker couldn’t figure it out, how are any of us lesser mortals supposed to know? It’s a hit-or-miss proposition. When, in truth, the only real mystery is why any client would ever put up with this level of fuzziness.
Clearly, no one would ever report to his or her CEO that half the plant wasn’t working or half the staff was shopping online all day, especially not followed by the “trouble is I don’t know which half” refrain. Yet somehow this seems to be the accepted standard in advertising; the analogous scale presumably being baseball where hitting .500 would be quite impressive. But let me tell you, hitting a baseball is a heck of a lot harder than identifying extraordinary advertising.
Many of my peers lament the fact that advertising people aren’t treated with the same respect as other “professionals”. But tell me about the doctor who can’t diagnose half his patients or the architect who finds that half his buildings cannot be erected. It’s just a mind-boggling vaporization of shareholder wealth. Because if ordinary advertising is essentially invisible advertising (except to its creators and sponsors) there’s good reason to believe it’s 100% useless. There is no residual value. And if we assume that only 10% of any year’s advertising is extraordinary (which is being generous), that’s a complete waste of $450 billion dollars.
Okay, maybe not a complete waste. Some of you have probably been led to believe there’s value to just getting your name out there, sort of the P.T. Barnum “I-don’t-care-what- they-write-about-me-as-long-as-they-spell-my-name-right” school. Sure, there’s value to name awareness, but if it’s not attached to some message a reasonable number of people notice, I wonder what that value really is. For example, I’m well aware of Budget Rent-A-Car, but I’ve never used them. The name Sears is not foreign to me, but the last time I shopped there was in 1981. We’re all aware of thousands of businesses with which we conduct no commerce whatsoever. So it would seem to me that the economic value of simply “getting your name out there” is pretty slim.
The other thing you may sometimes hear, particularly in support of ordinary or average advertising, is that for an ad to work it must reach people a certain number of times. Three, four, five, it depends who you ask. This is the reach and frequency argument that maintains if enough people see an average ad enough times it will magically begin to engage these people and produce results. I call this the advertising industry’s “insanity defense” because it so mirrors one of the classic definitions of insanity: Repeating the same activity again and again in anticipation of a different result.
The legendary San Francisco adman, Howard Gossage, went so far as to say that he believed any good ad needed to run just once because if it was truly effective, it changed the landscape and thus required the next good ad to say something different. That may be taking things a bit too far since it’s entirely possible some people may have just missed the particular magazine or television show the ad ran on. But that hardly leads inexorably to the conclusion that running the same ordinary ad over and over is a good idea (unless you happen to be the agency collecting a commission on it).
Just for a lark, I recently conducted this admittedly unscientific experiment. The train station I walk through twice a day is ablaze with backlit posters above the platforms. So I made a conscious effort to pay attention to them all. Sure enough, there was a poster for American Airlines that very cleverly and engagingly explained that their planes now have more room. I’d noticed it the day it was posted. Nice, got it, next? There were some interesting posters for Tide that supported my belief that Tide is a good detergent. Okay. And there was a very clever poster for California Pizza Kitchen frozen pizzas. (In it, a fresh CPK pizza is labeled “First date” while the frozen version is labeled “Third date”.)
All of these caught my eye and delivered their messages within days of their first appearance. But what was equally striking, and unnerving, were all the others, many of which had been up there for months, that I only noticed when I forced myself to look. A series of very ordinary ads for one of the local newspapers. Some supremely ordinary ads for a local news station (you know, all their newscasters trying desperately to look intelligent and likeable). Then there was one featuring the model Nikki Taylor that I had indeed noticed months before. Unfortunately, what I’d noticed was Nikki, but only during this exercise did I register on whose behalf she was appearing.
There’s something crazy about this notion that you can put an ordinary ad out there and somehow, over time, we’ll be browbeaten into noticing it. That’s just not how it works. The advertising I notice and you notice and most everyone notices is the advertising that is, duh, worth noticing, i.e. interesting, engaging and exceptional. Not average or ordinary. The rest is a huge waste of money. Which is a genuine Scooby Doo mystery to me because while I’ve known clients to be pretty hazy on a variety of subjects, money has never been one of them.
So why isn’t more advertising extraordinary?
For a whole bunch of reasons, some so simple I can deal with them right here. (Others are sufficiently complex that they merit their own chapter.)
Reason 1: A lot of otherwise intelligent people just flat out refuse to believe advertising has any influence on them. Including, oddly enough, many client and agency people. They sit there in their BMW or Volvo, swigging a Pepsi or Coke, thinking about the stock they just bought through E*Trade and hoping their assistant remembered to FedEx that proposal all the while remaining utterly convinced that every one of these brand decisions was made for entirely rational reasons. Under no circumstances did advertising play a part.
Which, given the fact that much of the advertising they’re involved with is ordinary, may be quite true. Ordinary advertising probably doesn’t influence many people to do anything. However, it does seem uncannily coincidental that 30 years ago all these same executives would have had their butts parked in a Cadillac or Lincoln because only car nuts drove BMWs and professors at small New England colleges, Volvos.
Reason 2: As if not believing in advertising isn’t bad enough, a significant number of people involved in its creation are also decidedly not in the business of setting the world on fire with their advertising.
On the client side, conservatism and a “make-your-numbers- or-else” mindset encourage the taking of very little risk. Don’t swing for the fences: If you hit a home run everyone will take credit for it, and if you strike out, you’ll be the sole goat.
Over on the agency side, you’ll find more than enough people happy to sign on to performance metrics commonly referred to as “moving the peanut”. In many cases, they’re equally clueless when it comes to turning out great advertising. Besides, there’s plenty of money to be made in doing campaign after campaign, backup after backup, concept boards and test campaigns. Who needs to mess with that golden goose? Thus the prevailing agency philosophy of “you’re happy, we’re happy”. And lest you think I’m being unduly harsh, here’s how John Hancock CEO (and former ad guy), John D’Allesandro characterized agencies in his book Brand Warfare:
“One of the biggest mistakes you can make as a brand builder is to assume that advertising agencies want to help you build your brand and sell your products. Don’t be silly; what they really want is to keep you as a fee-paying client for as long as possible. The general character of the advertising business is sycophancy. A lot of agencies will produce any nonsense you want, so long as it keeps you happy and you can pay for it.”
And then, there’s Reason 3 (which is a big one I’ll return to from time to time): At very few companies does the development of advertising command a whole lot of attention from senior management. Oh sure, the top people eventually see it, and sometimes even kill it (usually after a ton of time and money has already been spent on it). But get their hands dirty developing it? Not usually.
I remember asking my father, who’d spent 35 years at IBM, if his CEO got involved in the advertising. He looked at me as if I’d asked him if the CEO had a lot to do with making sure there was enough gas in the corporate jet. No, no, no, he patiently explained, CEOs pull the big levers—long-term strategy, international expansion, acquisitions, relations in D.C., moving headquarters closer to their country club—they don’t mess around with stuff like advertising. (Ironically, at that particular moment in time, IBM’s Chaplinesque “Little Tramp” campaign was turning the PC into a household word, so this CEO was fortunate. But many others are not.)
This lack of senior involvement—the heavy air support as it’s sometimes called—is a real impediment to doing extraordinary advertising. Because in addition to the obvious things like insight or marketing savvy or creativity, developing extraordinary advertising takes guts. The kind of courage that comes from the top. You can yak at your troops about thinking outside of the box until you’re blue in the face, but you won’t get the unexpected, the bold, the breakthrough unless you’re willing to share the risks along the way.
Powerful, exceptional advertising can actually be a very BIG lever. For a big company, $25 million wouldn’t finance much of an acquisition. The amount of stock it would buy back is trifling. And it’s not going to fund any big plant expansion or R&D effort either. But $25 million invested in brilliant advertising can do remarkable things. In fact, you can do remarkable things with a whole lot less than that as Kraft Foods discovered.
A few years back, Kraft had a product whose annual sales were basically a rounding error as far as Kraft was concerned. However, armed with an exceedingly modest budget, some very bright people at Kraft and its agency, Leo Burnett, developed an extraordinary campaign for this brand. Perhaps you’ve heard of Altoids? Well, a few years later, Altoids was number one in its category with a 30+ share. Naturally, the ad budget increased as sales skyrocketed, but I still think we’re probably looking at a 937% ROI here. Now, if Kraft could only do 10% as well across the board, their domestic sales alone could increase by $14.8 billion.
Why isn’t this the case? Because with a few exceptions every year, the bulk of its advertising continues to be utterly ordinary.
A missed opportunity of Brobdingnagian proportions
If all of this doesn’t strike you as a) tragic, and b) stupid, you might as well quit now. Because anyone who’s been in the marketing communications field for more than ten minutes should be able to rattle off a host of brands and companies that have become hugely successful (and made many of their people a lot of dough) partly or largely due to their exceptional, anything-but-ordinary advertising.
So why isn’t everyone hopping on this bandwagon? And don’t say it’s because your brand isn’t Nike. Nike wasn’t NIKE until a bunch of smart people at Nike, John Brown & Partners, Chiat/Day and Wieden + Kennedy made it that way. Saturn was invented out of thin air and brilliant communications and its annual sales in 2000 were roughly $3.5 billion. And contrary to popular belief, Federal Express did not invent overnight delivery: Airborne and Emery were already doing it, but FedEx skyjacked the entire category with a brilliant advertising campaign.
Which should be the glide path to great success. It was for David D’Allesandro, who prior to becoming the CEO of John Hancock was the Company’s marketing chief who championed its famous “Real Life. Real Answers.” campaign.
Extraordinary communications is a very powerful tool. Without it, Churchill could never have kept England from collapsing at the start of World War II. Nor could Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. have galvanized the Civil Rights movement. Bold, compelling communication can alter the playing field dramatically. Which is precisely what advertising is supposed to do but, instead, it’s the most under-leveraged asset in business.
So why isn’t everyone doing the advertising that everyone else is talking about? The ads people are tearing out of magazines and push-pinning into their cubicle walls? The advertising late- night talk-show hosts make reference to? The advertising that becomes a part of popular culture? And most importantly, the advertising that can propel a brand to grow and profit at a rate no one ever imagined possible?
It’s not the category you’re in: You’d be hard-pressed to name a category where great work hasn’t been done at some point, somewhere on Earth. And it’s not your agency, either. Believe me, I’ve worked for many of the biggest and the best (admittedly not often one and the same) and I’ve never seen an agency that didn’t have at least a few people who were capable of doing far better than average advertising.
Nope, I think the problem starts in a far more obvious place.
It’s the one thing they don’t teach you at business school
The nation’s top business schools prepare executives to handle all sorts of challenges, but identifying and cultivating compelling advertising does not appear to be one of them. This was something I’d long suspected given the expressions I’d see on many well-educated clients’ faces when they were asked to react to an advertising idea. They honestly didn’t know what to say. It was as if I’d asked them to evaluate the blueprints for a solar power station.
To confirm my suspicion, I checked out the curricula at many of the top schools, and sure enough, it seems there is virtually no time devoted to the care and feeding of extraordinary advertising. I looked at Harvard. Nothing I could see. Stanford, Sloan, Tuck, Darden? Same deal. Even that bastion of marketing, Kellogg, came up dry. All I could find was one elective at Wharton that appeared to touch on the subject (among 16 other topics covered in one semester). But why should I be surprised? Business schools like things that are systematic, quantifiable, formulaic and precise. The process of getting great advertising is anything but.
Instead, the entire subject is subsumed under the umbrella of the dreaded 4 P’s—product, price, placement and tah-dah, promotion—which of course involves everything from coupons on up. And then it would seem that far more attention is paid to the quantifiable aspects—target-audience identification, media selection, reach, frequency and so forth—than to the poor piece of communication itself.
To further validate this discovery of mine, I consulted one of those “10-Day MBA” books, which claims to summarize everything its author learned in B-school. In the chapter on marketing, what to say (strategy) is covered. Who to say it to (target audience) is discussed. Where to say it and how often (media) gets its due. But as for how to say it and how to evaluate the subjective difference between an ordinary ad and an exceptional one, I could not find one word, let alone one sentence devoted to this topic.
Which goes a long way towards explaining the expressions on the faces of all those young brand managers, not to mention those on their bosses’ faces and the faces of their bosses’ bosses for that matter. I might has well have asked them to comment on the relative merits of the ceramics of the Ming dynasty versus the Sung. They’d received no training in what advertising’s primary mission is, let alone how to determine if a particular ad is likely to accomplish it.