Perhaps we can lay blame on the Creative Revolution of the early 1960s. That era of broadcast communications produced, on a relative basis, the largest volume of advertising we have ever seen. It is now viewed as the pinnacle of Madison Avenue’s influence. At the same time, the public relations profession was having its own golden days. The masters of spin were as sought after as the mad men.
As competition grew in the late 1960s and the phone stopped ringing, ad agencies turned to their public relations cousins and asked for help to stand out. From the mid ‘60s on, this took the form of pumping out press releases and cultivating media to cover agency activities. The vast majority of the content was announcing new clients an agency had picked up and awards won at the ever-increasing number of shows. Both of these items quickly became table-stakes material, contributing no real differentiation for the agencies. Sadly, the biggest innovation agencies introduced in subsequent decades was hiring public relations professionals to work in-house. All this did was reduce cost as these folks brought little new to the equation.
The result is advertising agencies have confused public relations with brand building for the past 50 years. Do not get me wrong: Public relations has a part to play in ensuring an advertising agency is top of mind. However, most public relations practiced by agencies remain incredibly traditional and shockingly boring for an industry that prides itself on creativity. Avi Dan, founder of Avidan Strategies, wrote in a Forbes article that agencies that hire a public relations firm as a way to solve new business struggles are soon disappointed.
The fact is each and every advertising agency needs to be its own case study in how to build a brand. It should demonstrate to clients and prospects that it is constantly innovating and experimenting with its own communications. I recognize that agencies should not make themselves the stars. Agencies exist to turn client businesses into stars. As BBDO has consistently stated, it is “the work, the work, the work” that provides differentiation in the industry. But that does not mean showcasing the amazing work done for clients is mutually exclusive from building the agency’s brand. In fact, they are one in the same.
Yet take a look around the industry, and you will discover that few agencies do this well. Even when they do something that turns heads and generates discussion, it is highly episodic because the advertising culture trains them to think and work with a campaign mentality. Not surprisingly, the campaigns are fun but predictable, like the posters promoting Biedermann McCann in Paraguay and Young & Rubicam in Ukraine.
It is not only the traditional agencies that are stuck in this rut. I am amazed that digital agencies, even with the amount of talent and tools they have, end up looking undifferentiated from each other. Websites seem static, and capabilities such as interactivity and social media come across as commodities based on the incredible similarity across the category.
The solution is to build a brand communications strategy based on thought leadership, creative excellence and real evidence that work for clients has tangible impact. This is not to be confused with sending out a press release on the number of Cannes Lions or Effies won. One frustrated marketer recently peppered me with questions: Does the advertising industry suffer from low self-esteem? Are all these awards to make you guys feel better somehow? What is the deal with all this patting on your own backs? This flustered person could not understand the extent of self-congratulation within one industry and went on to question the relevance and authenticity of the activity.
The way to go to market, be on top and stay ahead is to consistently and creatively communicate thought leadership. We all love to see finished campaigns, but there is also an opportunity to show how the agency got to the finished product. Agencies are overly concerned with either giving up something proprietary or revealing they actually have nothing proprietary. Clients know that agencies do not have a repeatable, secret sauce that works in every situation. In fact, most tune completely out when agencies share their process in new business pitches. So, there is no danger in sharing more of ‘how we do what we do.’ It is the ‘how’ not the ‘what’ that helps differentiate an agency.
The second step is to showcase creative excellence. Agencies do this pretty well but most of it has no context so the work is presented like a pristine showroom of past glories. In fact, every agency website is basically a catalogue of client campaigns that says, “See, you could have something just like this if you work with us.” Thought leadership provides the context needed to present the work in a way that actually differentiates an agency. The aggregate of the industry’s websites, print materials and social media sites is one big Pinterest board — it is visually appealing but devoid of content or context.
The third area continues to scare the industry and that is providing evidence of real business impact. I have heard and been part of this discussion for more than 20 years, and it has gotten boring. Agencies need to demonstrate that they improve the client’s business; clients need to prove that agencies add value. Surely, there is some common ground where there are metrics and measures that both can claim as the result of working together? Savvy clients are finally — and rightfully — asking prospective agencies to share business results from work with existing clients. This is where tangible differentiation resides.
As always, history is a great source for inspiration. While writing a book on the history of marketing, I came across an example in N.W. Ayer. I firmly believe it was the most influential advertising agency at any time. It was smart, self-deprecating, confident but not arrogant, innovative and focused on making clients successful. Is that not a fabulous advertising agency brand? One bit of tactical brand building it put out in 1937 was in the form of an advertisement. This clever piece communicated client satisfaction, strength of relationships, ability to service clients in multiple markets and the longevity of the business. The subtle message said ‘we know what we are doing, and you can trust us.’
N.W. Ayer built its brand in another fascinating way. The agency took it upon itself to champion the advertising industry and to answer many objections that criticized its practice. To be a symbol of integrity for the entire industry was inspired branding. Throughout the 1920s, the agency’s communication strategy told mini-stories of the role advertising played in business success. One stated: “Production is a liability until consumption is assured. That is why the experienced imagination of advertising has been so instrumental in making dreams of great industries come true.”
Brand building is not solely public relations and it is not a campaign. It is a commitment to inventively and consistently communicating thought leadership, creative excellence and real evidence that work for clients has a tangible impact. I know that some agencies are capable of this if they would just acknowledge and invest in the communications their own businesses sorely need.
Mad Men, set in the art-directed world of 1960s advertising, does a retro illustration for the new season’s poster.
Managing an advertising agency isn’t all beer and skittles. After fourteen years of it, I have come to the conclusion that the top man has one principle responsibility: to provide an atmosphere in which creative mavericks can do useful work.
Have you ever wondered where you can find bandaids with witty Shakespearean insults printed on them or a tongue cover that will help you swallow your pills or thumbtacks in the shape of thumbs. I suspect that these items do not appear on your shopping list nor would you even expect they exist.
In this world of needs and wants, these items are in their own league. They are things that we could not even dream of requiring and practically we don’t. I cannot imagine thousands of people demanded that a company produce a large T-Rex replica dinosaur trophy head to hang on a wall.
Getting ahead of the consumer has always existed in business. When asked how much research played a role in the launch of the iPad, Steve Jobs cooly replied, “None. It isn’t the consumers job to know what they want.” Of course, there big is a difference between the iPad and a designer chair shaped like female genitalia (yes, it exists).
I am one of the 25 million people who visited The Cool Hunter last year, “a truly global hub for what’s cool, thoughtful, innovative and original.”
My first visit occurred while editing an online publication and I would reference some of what they had hunted down like designer wine stores, AARK collective watches, the Bambini Kids store in Vienna, the Capsule Lamp, and an undeniably funky Farmacia in Portugal.
Of course, The Cool Hunter is not an altruistic enterprise, it prospers by blurring the line between content and advertising. It offers advertising opportunities, editorial sponsorship, and other means of getting a cool thing promoted. The site is an extensive and expensive catalogue … hardly an earth shattering observation, I know.
What is interesting is how sites of this stripe have proliferated even during poor economic times. You can now visit Cool Hunting (there must be a lawsuit between the two) and HolyCool, “a daily updated blog that features the coolest products available to buy online.”
HolyCool is great if you crave a police badge bottle opener, wood whale desktop organizer, superhero throw blankets with sleeves, and 3D cookie cutters of safari animals. There is also NewLaunches focusing on technology gadgets and the aptly named HiConsumption specializing in men’s lifestyle products. Other sites include TheCoolist, Bless This Stuff, Materialiscious, The Awesomer, and INTHRALLD.
All are prodigious promoters of the unnecessary. They have joined SkyMall, Sharper Image and Hammacher Schlemmer in an attempt to convince consumers that zombie garden figures, wooden MacBook keyboards, and Aston Martin baby strollers are now ‘needs’.
These sites are modern “Bread and Circuses”, the historical and clever metaphor for a superficial means of appeasement. The goods offered are the essence of diversion and distraction satisfying immediate, shallow desires. Their soothing, placebo effects can be incredibly short-lived.
All of us experience post purchase hangovers. We ask ourselves why did we buy something in the first place or was there a better alternative? This is natural behavior. But say you purchased stainless steel playing cards then your post purchase dissonance may not follow accepted psychology. That is because you purchased the cards with no real alternative in mind and because price played a very small part in decision-making. You just thought stainless steel playing cards would be cool. Welcome to the pinnacle of irrationality.
Sarah Kershaw writing in The New York Times observed that SkyMall and by extension these sites, are “a reflection of consumer behavior” and “a symbol of Americans’ love of shopping and curious delight with oddball items.” I see it more as oddball behavior. People choosing solar powered cat toys and home planetariums (some times over fundamental needs) is perhaps only cool if you are a consumer psychologist.
I recognize a few ironies in writing this piece. In the spirit of full disclosure, I own a remote control fart machine and a Hollywood quality zombie mask. So I am not immune to the draw of the unnecessary. I can say the fart machine has become indispensible as an icebreaker at dinner parties.
The other irony is this article is publicizing the existence of these silly sites so I may be aiding the cycle of gratuitous, short-lived self-actualization. Thankfully capitalism is democratic as we all vote with our dollars. We are each responsible for allocating our funds in the never-ending battle between needs and wants.
Speaking of which, have you seen The Killer Whale Submarine? This streamlined, two-person watercraft breaches and submerges in water just like its namesake. It hydroplanes up to 50 mph over the water’s surface and cruises up to 25 mph submerged. The cockpit’s dashboard displays live video from the dorsal fin’s built-in camera. It costs $100,000. I think I need it, I know I want it.
This is a biased piece of writing because I love quotations. It is amazing how a few words can pack such punch. They illuminate the meaning of a subject and help unravel the complex. Quotes are also witty, often self-deprecating and that makes them even more appealing.
People quote to share, incite, honor, compel, inform, and inspire. I am not talking about the self-improvement and motivational quotes that now punctuate the Internet. As Willis Goth Regier said, “Quotations calcify into clichés” and I believe many of those shared on Facebook and Tumblr are terribly clichéd.
I favor using quotes to support my ideas, arguments, and views. The content and context of a well-turned phrase coupled with the credibility of the author are powerful in communication. I don’t roll quotes out in conversations all that often but I do use them liberally in business presentations and reports to convey tone and direction.
Thankfully no one has called me pretentious for my proclivity in using quotes (nor has anyone called me pretentious for using the words ‘pretentious’ and ‘proclivity’).
What I love about quotes is that they take both sides of an argument. For any quote in favor of one view, you will find a contrary quote. There is no better way to illustrate this then to provide actual quotes for and against their very use…along with a few more because they make seem very well read.
Quotes That Support Quotes
“I quote others only better to express myself.” Michel de Montaigne
“The quote captures an idea or teaching in a few words – concisely and with impact.” J. Weiss
“When a thing has been said and well, have no scruple. Take it and copy it.” Anatole France
“A fine quotation is a diamond in the hand of a man of wit and a pebble in the hand of a fool.” Joseph Roux
“A beautiful verse, an apt remark, or a well-turned phrase, appropriately quoted, is always effective and charming.” Marie Anne de Vichy-Chamrond du Deffand
“An apt quotation is like a lamp which flings its light over the whole sentence.” Letitia Elizabeth Landon
Quotes That Question Quotes
“A witty saying proves nothing.” Voltaire
“One is more apt to become wise by doing fool things than by reading wise sayings.” Robert Brault
“A quotation is a handy thing to have about, saving one the trouble of thinking for oneself, always a laborious business.” A.A. Milne
“I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Quotation, n: The act of repeating erroneously the words of another.” Ambrose Bierce
“A facility for quotation covers the absence of original thought.” Dorothy L. Sayers
What Quoting Says About Us
“Maybe our favourite quotations say more about us than the stories or people we’re quoting.” John Green
“Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” Oscar Wilde
“When one begins to live by habit and by quotation, one has begun to stop living.” James A. Baldwin
“Life itself is a quotation.” Jorge Luis Borges
“In quoting others, we cite ourselves.” Julio Cortázar
Last Quotes on Quotes
If I were George Bernard Shaw I would have said this too, “I often quote myself. It adds spice to my conversation.” Finally this quote from Marlene Dietrich sums up my view on the subject, “I love quotations because it is a joy to find thoughts one might have, beautifully expressed with much authority by someone recognized wiser than oneself.”
This Old Hickory bourbon illustrated ad from 1956 looks to have used Don Draper and Roger Sterling as models.
In marketing, sometimes you need a “catch”.
This is one of the stories that could be as much urban legend as actual history. But Harry Reichenbach’s “Invisible Fish” is an original marketing stunt. Harry (1882-1931) was called a publicist in his day and worked largely promoting movies and their stars but on one occasion he was hired to bring customers into a restaurant.
Harry told the owner to fill a large transparent bowl with water and put it in the restaurant window. He then added a sign reading: “The only living Brazilian invisible fish.” The attracted the desired attention with people claiming to be able to see the fish.
In his memoirs Harry wrote, “I placed a little electric fan in one corner shielded from the onlookers and this blew ripples on the water. After that the crowds couldn’t be controlled. “You see it? There it goes! There! No, there!” People vied with each other to point out the fish, and the restaurant that featured such an oddity soon got trade as well.”
Harry was a character but most people believe that this idea came from a circus or carny show and Harry merely reapplied it. This makes sense to me as I remember years ago being duped at an exhibition. I paid to see a “6 Foot Man Eating Chicken” and that is what I got. There was a male human-being sitting on a chair eating a bucket of KFC.