On Advertising & Getting What You Pay For

Blitz Magazine, November 2002

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This issue is the 5-year anniversary issue of this magazine; here’s hoping that readers may look forward to more Blitz pages. Osama’s attacks and corporate corruption didn’t just rock the stock market—they knocked the wind out of magazine ad sales. You have, no doubt, noticed that every magazine you pick up is a lot thinner than in previous years. As for me, if all the people who gush about how much they love Blitz don’t start supporting it, I’m going to pitch my publisher’s hat into the Pacific.

The experts keep telling us that the Canadian economy is the envy of the G7, that we’re perfectly stable and thriving and bla bla. ‘Problem is, Canadian businesses don’t appear to believe that. The response of many has been to cut advertising budgets.

This is most unfortunate, because it is an inviolate rule of business that the uncertain, or down, times is when advertising is crucial. You can advertise when you have gobs of cash coming in—but you must advertise when it seems like you can’t afford to. Otherwise, you’ll sink.

Some recent examples: In an effort to maintain earnings, Bristol-Myers cut advertising by 14%; three of its five top-selling drugs are now losing their monopolies. Buy.com thought that cutting ad spending would save the company; sales immediately dropped by $20 million. Samsung decided to eliminate “unnecessary” costs. A spokesperson said: “The company is seeking ways to reduce travel, traffic, advertising and miscellaneous expenses.” To this, Sergio Zyman responds: “If you’re the kind of company that puts advertising in the same sentence as ‘miscellaneous expenses’, you deserve what you get.”

Zyman is the former chief marketing officer at Coca-Cola and the author of the newly-released The End of Advertising As We Know It. His point is that, in an effort to capture the attention of information-overloaded consumers, ad agencies have had to find increasingly inventive ways to reach audiences. Which is fine, except that the focus on brand awareness has shifted. Now, everybody seems to want to use every technical tool available—just because it’s there, to create hip portfolio pieces and win awards. When the focus should be on sales results, i.e. the actual goal. Zyman cites K-Mart as a perfect example: huge awareness, but it’s in bankruptcy. Remember the Taco Bell Chihauhua commercials? The ads won awards, the client’s sales tanked.

Over the last five years, I’ve had hundreds of calls from ad agencies and pr firms. The conversations rarely vary:

Caller: “We’ve done a terrific campaign for ABC Widgets and we think it would make a great article.”

Me:      “Well, the campaign isn’t newsworthy. The results are newsworthy.”

Caller: “Huh?”

Me:      “Once the campaign is well under way, or complete, the increase in sales figures would make it a story.”

Caller: “I don’t understand….”

Me:      “Your agency, and ABC Widgets, will track the campaign’s results, right?”

Caller:  “Uh…”

Me:      “So, in four months, or whenever, you should be able to tell me that, as a result of this campaign, the client’s sales went from ‘here’ to ‘here’. That they increased by ‘this much’. Then the campaign could be a cover story.”

Caller:  “But it’s a great campaign. Why isn’t that worth writing about?”

Me:      “Because it’s not a great campaign if you can’t show increased sales.”

Caller:  “Oh. OK. As soon as we have those results, I’ll call you back.”

No one has ever called back. And as it’s not likely that they passed on the chance for a cover story, I have to assume that I didn’t hear from them again because their campaigns didn’t generate results. They may have won awards, and the teen-agers producing them thought they were really cool and were able to persuade the client of same, but the work didn’t work.

It should be obvious to everyone that if anything a business does doesn’t contribute in some way to increased profits, it shouldn’t be done. To that end, marketing directors have to say to ad agencies: “This is the plan, this is what it has to achieve, I’m going to pay for your ideas on how to best achieve this. Once I, and the rest of my staff, agree that your ideas are likely to increase sales, I’m going to pay you to provide the required services.”

Marketing directors and company owners should not say: “This is the company whose products represent my life’s work. These are the products whose sales support the jobs of dozens of employees. I’m putting all of our prospects in your hands. I hope you can pull it off.”

payfor1At the same time, a marketing director or company president who expects a certain result, and who’s confident that what his agency recommends will work to increase sales, but who then balks at the cost of the work, is doomed. Ditto with company owners who think that flash-in-the-pan campaigns will produce results. This is especially true with print campaigns, where advertisers often cancel a campaign if one or two insertions didn’t generate immediate results. You want results, you have to commit for the long haul. You want more revenue, you have to open your wallet. You get what you pay for.

I thought everyone knew this. Zyman says that that is most definitely not the case. And that it’s time for everyone to think again. Because, he says, advertising is a science. And those who fail to master that science, and properly practice it, are going to go out of business—along with their clients.

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On Bad Websites by the People Who Should Know Best

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Blitz Magazine, November 2006

I admit to an obsession with the Blitz mailing list. It has to be perfect and up-to-date. To achieve this, though, I have to spend endless hours surfing the Net. I’ve now visited thousands of web sites and the fact is that most are just plain awful. The surprise is that some of the worst offenders are ad agencies.

Let’s say that I’m a French manufacturer. I have decided to launch my product in Canada, and I need a Canadian agency. So I start surfing.

Site #1: The first thing I see is that this agency has the gall to greet me with the words ‘Patience Please’. This is followed by animation. Lots of it. I’m thinking:  When I want an animation company, I’ll look for one. Do I want to work with an agency that thinks nothing of wasting my time? Non.

Site #2:  No introduction. I’m right in. But, huh? Its homepage has light blue type on a yellow background. The next page has red type on a dark green background. I’d need a new prescription before I could read this stuff. Ciao.

Site #3:  Ease of access, easy to read, well organized. I read about the company’s service offerings and awards. Bon. Now I want to find out who’s running the show. After some searching, I find the name of the president. But that’s it. I can’t find the name of the creative director. The agency says it has a media department, a production department and PR expertise. But there’s no listing of names. It seems to me that this is a one-guy agency. If it is, non merci. If it isn’t, do I want to do business with someone who won’t reveal the names of his staff? Adieu.

Site #4: This is a full-service ad agency in Alberta. The site is easy to use and well-designed. I want to find out who the president is and click on ‘Who’s the Boss?’ I find this: “Our Lord Jesus is the Boss!” Mon Dieu!

Site #5: This agency’s site has a staff listing. And look! Employee pictures! But the agency couldn’t afford a professional photographer—the images are low-res and grainy. One employee didn’t bother to wash her hair that day; another is wearing a dirty shirt, another looks like he slept in his suit. One has submitted a baby picture. Sorry, but I’m looking for grown-ups who bathe regularly. Nettoyer.

Site #6: This one looks OK. I think I’ll contact this agency. Oh—in order to do that, I have to fill out a Needs Assessment Form. Fill out this.

Site #7: Oh this is nice. Looks professional. Tres bien. I will write to this agency, and send it some information on my company. But what’s this? No address! Do I want to do business with an agency that doesn’t tell people where it’s located? Non.

Site #8: This one looks good. But look at all this copy. Pages and pages of copy, all written by a PR person, who says everything and nothing and who wants to fully enlighten me on the elements of successful marketing. What’s with all this ‘outside the box’ and ‘synergy’ stuff? Au revoir.

Get the picture? If a company is in the business of supplying perfection for clients, and if said company would never dream of producing promotional material for itself that is anything less than perfect, why would it mess up what is, in this day and age, its most important marketing tool?

The same applies to other companies who should know better. The sites for many PR firms don’t include client lists. Photographers either don’t put any work on their sites, or they include every shot they’ve ever taken. Graphic designers often use so much visual gunk that you forget why you went to the site in the first place. And a lot of sites for web designers painfully illustrate that they are not, in fact, designers.

The problem, it seems to me, is that many people still haven’t wrapped their heads around what websites are for. Websites (e-comm sites excluded) are meant to put out, to a worldwide audience, the facts about a company and its activities. They are marketing tools and should, therefore, be clear, concise and easily accessible. And as I head back for another round of surfing, I’m wishing that people would quit with the bells and whistles, think about what their visitors actually want, and just get to the point already.


A Day in English

Blitz Magazine, January 2003

On, Like, Language

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It was a dark and stormy night. John sat at his window, sipping a cup of double-half-caff-no whip-no-sugar-half-water, watching thuh snow swirl down to the streets. He wished he’d remembered to cover and plug in his Durango so it would start in the morning, and became accepting of the fact that he might have to take transit the next day. Then his thoughts returned to thuh events of his day.

Basically, I was bad from thuh outset. As he was leaving the house, his wife said:

“John, I won’t be here when you get home. And I’m also not coming back too.”

 “Ohmygod Brittni! Why?”

“Basically, our relationship has suffered a disconnect. At the end of the day, we no longer dialogue.”

“Ohmygod,” replied John, stunned. “But just because….doesn’t mean…Is there another man?”

“Yes. He’s a fisher. And his mentoring capabilities are…considerable.”

“So that’s it?”

“My people will contact your people.”

“OK…Well, ciao Brittni.”

“Ciao John.”

John was severely impacted. But he pulled himself together to take his first meeting. It was with a young hockey player—the kid was headed for NHL stardom but, when speaking with the media, he kept forgetting to say ‘uh’. John spent from 9 a.m. in the morning to 10:15 a.m. in the morning coaching him; making sure that he’d remember to say ‘uh’ after every third word. The two interfaced well, and John was satisfied that his help would positively impact the boy’s personal development and career path.

At 10:30 a.m. in the morning, he met with his biggest client, thuh owner of a grosherie store chain that was launching a line of culllinary products. John was ready to strategize. Mr. Brown’s expression indicated a negative viewpoint.

“Basically John,” said Mr. Brown, “I think it’s time for me to re-task marketing. Just because you’ve done some really great work doesn’t mean that you’re thinking outside the box. Basically, at thuh end of the day, our interactions indicate differing views and path progress expectations. And, in addition, you are also having difficulty providing my company with mentoring and leadership. At thuh end of the day, I actually don’t actually feel that our relationship is resulting in optimized and maximized potential points. And as well, at thuh end of the day, I also think that the snapshot of our relationship indicates that we need closure.”

John stared at Mr. Brown, absorbing his words. Basically, he knew that, at the end of thuh day, thuh upshot of this dialogue would be negative for his financial wellness.

“I’m sorry John,” continued Mr. Brown. “If you could up-date my accounting department… Thank you for conferencing with me.”

In a daze, John saw Mr. Brown out. Then he went to Destinee’s office and gave her the bad news.

“Ohmygod!” Destinee exclaimed. “That basically means we’ll have to downsize! And as well, at thuh end of the day, Luigi’s position will be made redundant too!”

Actually, John had basically forgotten about Luigi, the design wizard brought onboard to spearhead the creation of the packaging for Mr. Brown’s new line. Luigi was known as one of the best in the business—he was 17 and spoke no English, but he sure knew his way around a bottle of olive oil.

“He’s still fairly young,” John replied. “His career will probably recover.”

Destinee was not soothed. “Ohmygod! Our image consultant said it’s key to keep at least one New Canadian onboard! Our team will look like we’re not keeping current! Ohmygod!”

“I could care less! This is not actually a nucular disaster! Just because we lost one client doesn’t mean we’re finished! Gather the team! We need inter-office interaction! To brainstorm about how we can achieve conflict resolution! And as well, we must also identify solutions, and plan how we can best interface in order to bring about those solutions.

“In addition, we can foster new relationships too! We can spin this so the agency will be positively impacted! We will locate the box! We will envision that box! And then we will think outside it! At thuh end of the day, the bottom line is that we’re basically still here and we’ll soon be on track too! Book the dialoguing for 11:30 a.m. this morning, then order up lunch. Expense it on Mr. Brown. As well, out-place Luigi too. But in a way that will make him feel empowered.”

Basically, Destinee actually fell down on the task. As John watched the snow flurry down, he listened to the news report on the TV behind him.

“And a terrible incident downtown today. At 12:00 p.m. this afternoon, a young man who had been fired by English R Us Advertising jumped from a fourth-storey floor and landed below, on top of a young man walking their dog. The dog was unharmed but, at 8:00 p.m. this evening, the man died from their injuries.

As constable Jane Doe said: ‘It’s tragic. They’re just a kid. The gentleman that fell clearly required counseling with out-placement. We did attend the premise, and found that the incident was unforeseeable. For the next 24 hours, grief counselors and social workers will be posted on that portion of the sidewalk to assist anyone needing assistance with acceptance of the event. At the moment, I have nothing more to say at this time.”

John sighed. “Ciao Luigi.”