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Chapter 5: The Problem With Advertising

It’s awfully easy to whine about bad marketing, but that’s a little like faulting the vodka for your hangover. Alcohol is inert; blaming it is silliness. Sometimes we just make bad choices. Marketing is a part of life, and the reason it so often fails relates to who does it and for what reasons.

We’re all in it for ourselves

Ineffective marketing is often the result of poorly-aligned motivations. It would be easier to succeed if everyone involved was shooting for the same goal, but often we play altogether different games.

Let’s suppose that your goal is to get people to love your brand. Consider some of the players and what their objectives might be. You, as the owner of the company (assuming you are this person) likely care the most about succeeding. Of all those involved, you have the most to gain but you’re likely distracted by a number of things. Perhaps you’re concerned about not going over budget. Maybe you have doubts about the ideas presented and want to hold on to the idea your husband suggested. Alternately, you could be fighting with a supplier and finding it difficult to concentrate on any of this.

Your internal marketing team is doing its best to stay the course, but they’re exhausted. The project is turning out to be much harder than they initially expected. With numerous programs to run, calls to respond to, emails to address, and a few fires to put out, they really just want to go home for the weekend.

Your agency wants to make you happy and knows it’s important to keep clients like you. But no matter how much they do for you, they have other clients who also need support. (If they only serviced your company they wouldn’t stay in business very long.) The ad agency has many motivations. Their principals are in a position similar to yours: just trying to keep all those balls in the air.

Those within the organization have lives of their own to consider. Some want to build their portfolios and move into better positions. A few are happy to work in a fun place but not that interested in the work itself. Add office politics, economic pressures, and the egos that can be found within the industry, and it becomes rather amazing that anything ever gets done.

Ad agencies are great… if you’re already famous

The advertising and marketing world is typically focused on the big guys and for good reason. They have the most to spend, and their dollars are highly coveted by agencies vying for their business. The problem is that most of us aren’t multinationals and few of us have budgets like theirs to devote to marketing our companies.

When you’re big, though, marketing is a bit of a different game. Big players have something I think of as social currency. Patagonia, for example, has a fair amount of this. Most of us know the company and its ethics; some of us can even picture the logo when we hear the name. Similarly, everyone knows about Apple, its ethos and its aesthetic. It’s hard to think of another company that commands as much social currency as Apple. Many simply want to know what they’re up to, as is evidenced by all the blogs that speculate on the future of the company and its products.

You, on the other hand, probably have very little social currency. When mentioning your company to an outsider, you likely have to explain what you do. Famous brands like Coke, Snickers, and BMW are simply ahead of you on this level. They’re known, and in business being known is often the most important thing. Advertising helps established players like these reinforce and defend their brands. You might run some ads and perhaps even do so effectively, but the sheer cost of entry makes doing so prohibitive. There are always exceptions, but I’d encourage most small companies to find other ways of building their brands than paying for ads.

It’s a changed game

Although the people in ad agencies are mostly nice and well intentioned, a large number of them are doing just what the rest of us are: selling enough stuff to get by. This is actually turning out to be much harder for big ad agencies as of late. The landscape is changing, and many of the rules these people know are being challenged by the decentralization of media.

You could compare these changes to the one faced by horse drawn buggy manufacturers at the dawn of the automobile era. Some of them probably made great buggies, but that really wasn’t the issue, nor was the reliability, comfort, or aesthetics of their product. All that mattered was that the buggy was a dead technology. Most people in this position don’t like to admit this sort of thing, no matter how true it may be. I can almost imagine the argument: “Horseless carriage? It’ll never catch on! People like buggies! They believe in buggies! You just watch; the whole thing will turn out to be a fad!”

In hindsight, of course, it’s easy to mock others for their lack of awareness regarding the changes afoot. It isn’t altogether that different these days, though. A few scant years ago, I remember hearing top-level ad agency folks muttering that the internet was a passing fad. Most of those same people are now aggressively purchasing interactive shops or building teams to make web services part of their core offering. Ad agencies will be here for a long time; that doesn’t change how baffled many of them are by the new landscape. After years of complete control and a fixed supply of media, they’re facing a world in which little is in their control and the supply of media is infinite.

It used to be different

Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let me back up and provide a little perspective. It used to be easier for ad agencies. Until more recently, the ways to spread your company’s message were limited and expensive. There were ads on television, in newspapers, and on the radio; there were billboards, flyers, and plenty of general marketing collateral. With time, the notion of sponsored events, product placement, naming rights for arenas, and the like, also came to light. All of this was centered on the same general principle: interruption.

Ads were intrusive and thrived on the notion of frequency. Advertisers believed if they put a message in your face a sufficient number of times, you’d become familiar with their stuff and eventually buy some. (Admittedly, I’m oversimplifying here.)

This practice worked very well for big companies that had enough money to make a suitable number of impressions. Just go to the websites of companies like Procter and Gamble or Unilever and see how many of their brands have become household names. This was accomplished through well crafted strategies and millions of advertising dollars aimed at building mindshare. The problem was that it didn’t work quite so well for everyone else.

Put simply: The little companies found themselves sort of screwed. Most had limited options for advertising due to budgetary restrictions. Actually, most of them would have done better by avoiding advertising altogether, but we were so fixed on an “advertising lens” that we couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

While working at a newspaper in the mid-1990s. I watched tiny Mom & Pops buy an ad every few months. Typically they opted for the smallest space available, and it was crammed next to a dozen other similar ads. These companies usually filled every bit of the purchased ad space in order to get good “value.”

Selling these ads always seemed a little questionable to me. The ads didn’t appear to accomplish much, but the customer’s money was taken anyway. I suppose the newspaper had to stay afloat, but I never really thought a business should be built like this. These sales didn’t seem to have much value for the client. In my mind this represents a missed opportunity. We could have talked the client into a small but highly-targeted campaign. Or we could have urged the client to hold off on advertising until the budget was adequate. Instead they ran some ads, likely saw little return on their investment, and in the long run probably spent less money on advertising.

I like to think that forgoing a sale today can be an amazing sales strategy. If it shows that you are really looking after your client’s best interests, it can build loyalty and substantially better long-term gains. I digress, however.

I suppose you could look at advertising as a pyramid. It’s awesome for the people at the top. For the rest of us it just doesn’t deliver the same value. That doesn’t stop advertising from being one of the primary methods people use to build interest in their companies, products, and services. When you ask most people how they could increase awareness for their company, many will shrug their shoulders and say, “Uh, I don’t know... Maybe we could try advertising?”

The times they are a changing

Many of the people in advertising are interesting, well read, and worldly. That’s part of why some advertising transcends its initial purpose and becomes part of our culture. People who make culture tend to be tapped into what’s happening. These people are well aware of changes in communication enabled by the web, and many have quite significant and informed opinions on the topic.

One thing that can’t be said, is that any of this is getting easier. Just imagine if your company needed to work with a new set of tools every day. Today’s advertisers and agencies have all kinds of new avenues available to them. As a result, connecting with buyers seems ever more complicated. That doesn’t stop most agencies, and many are left adding new services whether they like it or not.

While agencies have always had to understand customers, culture, humor, psychology, media, and entertainment, they’re now tasked with even more. Today’s full service agency needs to have offerings in spaces including: digital, social media, design, environments, naming, events… oh, the list goes on. And as we all know, doing an increasing number of things rarely makes you better at any individual one.

Not this too!

I’m assuming you’re part of a small to medium-sized company; there’s little reason to read this book if you’re in a large one. So I’m going to keep presenting notions as though large companies are the enemy. In a lot of cases they probably aren’t, but it’s sometimes useful to have someone in your sights. It can help you stay sharp and focused. I always find that we move more efficiently when we know who we’re “against,” as this motivates us to “up” our game. (We don’t really dislike the big guys; this is just a trick to spark our competitive characteristics.)

Here’s a little insight that might give you a leg up: Social media is an utter pain in the ass for big companies. First of all, most of the people in these companies are just as confused as you are about it. They had decades to figure out press releases, ad campaigns, systems for tracking customers, trade shows, and all of that other (not necessarily easy) stuff. Now they have to do all of that and much more.

Let’s pretend you’re the head of marketing for a company with 500 employees in 12 offices across 7 countries. In the past, you fought just to keep people from using the logo incorrectly or sending out a press release with unverified information. Now the floodgates have really opened. Everyone has the potential to communicate directly with your customers, and they may say things you don’t want them to. They could be rude, post inaccurate information about your company, or present themselves inappropriately.

Consider the actions of Kristy Hammonds and Michael Setzer: a couple of Domino’s Pizza workers who have since been dismissed. Hammonds recorded a video of Setzer spraying snot on sandwiches during their preparation, sticking cheese from them into his nose, and finally farting on them. They then uploaded the video to YouTube, after which it was viewed by a great number of people. As Domino’s spokesman Tim McIntyre remarked, “That’s the challenge of the web world. Any two idiots with a video camera and a dumb idea can damage the reputation of a 50-year-old brand.”30 Domino’s responded actively and dealt with the situation well, but it certainly shows how vulnerable we all are.

Add to this the distraction that comes from everyone wanting to play with sites like Facebook. Do you accept this as a cost of business and encourage everyone to play? Doing so might result in your staff gaining insight, and establishing better relations with customers. Or is it simply a waste of time? Should you deem it unnecessary and restrict access to such sites on company time? I’d have a hard time coming up with a steadfast plan for this sort of thing, and I certainly don’t envy those who have to make these decisions. It’s a mess.

If you’re the person who has to help a large company answer these questions, you have your work cut out for you. Not only do you have to take on all of these new tools, you have to figure out what it all stands for in your organization.

Whose message is it anyway?

I don’t envy a large company having to deal with all of the tools available to them. It’s a tough spot, and I can understand why they look for partners who they can unload these tasks on. Still, I’m not convinced that having someone communicate for a company by proxy is the best thing either.

A few years ago we hired a publicist to work with us. We were swamped and offloading some work seemed like a good idea. We interviewed a few people and found one who was sharp, focused, and direct. I liked her, but that didn’t change the fact that working with her was sometimes cumbersome. (To her credit, I think we were a very difficult company to work for.) We wanted to give her what she needed, and she did try to help us. Some things just got lost in translation. It turned out that no matter how hard we all tried, it was simply easier for us to talk about what we do than it was to ask someone else to do so for us.

I think some of our clients must feel similarly. It’s our job to dive deep enough to understand their companies and needs, in order to craft an effective strategy. Most times this works reasonably well, and our outside perspective is useful to them. Additionally, we try to outfit them with the right tools and ask them to do most of the actual speaking. This helps ensure it doesn’t sound as if someone’s doing the speaking for them.

As a result of our blog, I’m regularly contacted by publicists who want us to write about a particular product, company, technology, or author. On almost every occasion they send a boilerplate press release that has little actual relevance to my readership. (I’ve learned to hit the delete button quickly.) The thing is, it’s not like these are bad people; it’s just that they confuse quantity with quality. Publicists are likely being asked to make more calls; in doing so, they can’t possibly get to know everyone they reach out to.

If you, as the owner of the company, aren’t directly involved with your messaging, you’re in big trouble. The days of putting layers between you and your customers have long passed. If you employ outside help, you might opt to bring in professionals to set up the framework and strategy for your messaging and interaction with clients. In this arrangement, you’d harness their advice, take an active role in the execution and delivery, and then bring them in when you needed to tap their expertise again.

If you want to unload more of your work, you’ll have to build a closer relationship with these people. They’ll need access, knowledge, and latitude. If these folks are to speak for you, they’d better know you and what you do, as well as if it were their own company.

Ads work

With the critical things I say about advertising, some might start to think that I don’t see any reason to use it. Such a notion would be wrong. I don’t question for a moment that advertising works—even for small companies. The reason I sound out against it so vocally simply relates to how ad-centric many of us have become. After so many years of things working in the same fashion, most don’t ask if there might be a better way. In my experience, there increasingly is.

I do think some small companies are wise to run ads. In doing so, I just ask you to carefully consider if this really is the best method for building awareness for your brand. If it is—perfect! If not—then it’s time to go back to looking at your other available options. In using advertising to spread your message, you simply have to be smart and selective. It’s a costly method, so you need to be shrewd about how you go about it.

The best way to save money in your ad buy is to know exactly what you are saying, and to whom. Reducing the number of variables involved can make a massive difference in both the effectiveness of your advertising and the size of cavity it leaves in your pocketbook.

My continual reminder of just how effective advertising can be comes down to a local realtor who has invested intelligently. My wife and I have been searching for a new home for our family. We’re particularly interested in a part of Burnaby called Forest Hills. As we’ve looked at houses in this area, one realtor’s name has come up time and again. This fellow seems to concentrate all of his ad buys in this one specific area. He has his ads on what seems like every bus shelter, street bench and any other available space here. Additionally, he aggressively markets himself with direct mail in this area.

Were he to advertise all across the city, he’d likely find his message spread overly thin, but by going narrow like this, he’s able to get substantial bang for his buck.

While some over-rely on advertising, I probably lean towards the other end of the spectrum. I simply believe that it’s just one method of reaching people, amongst many others. If it works for you, great! Just be sure that you know your market, clarify your message, monitor your success, and have defined objectives from the get-go. Just like any other marketing initiative.

Advertising for some, a different path for the rest

If you’re a big company that needs to reinforce a message to a broad audience, it may be prudent to keep advertising, and continue working with a big ad agency. Your objectives are likely focused on defending your brand’s position. Agencies are very good at this and have a wealth of domain knowledge that would be difficult for smaller marketing and design companies to compete with.

If you’re small, you’re playing a different game. You still need to communicate but won’t have the same resources to do so. You’ll also have to develop a unique strategy, as yours is a battle of creating awareness amongst key people. It would be difficult for you to do this entirely on your own; you’ll need to connect with an individual or team with expertise in this area that can help you develop a strategy and plan for execution. (It’s up to you to determine how much help you need in this capacity.)

The important part is that you remember to keep your company’s focus on the goals you initially outlined. Little of this should be about being clever or trying to push boundaries, unless that actually meets a directive you’ve established. Many confuse marketing a company with doing fun and creative things. Although this may sometimes be the case, it surely isn’t always. The point is that you find a way to converse appropriately with your audience.


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Next chapter: You’re the One to Market Your Company



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