On Communicators Needing to Think Things Through

Blitz Magazine, November 2007

thinking2I was watching Leno last night. He did his regular Headlines bit. It’s funny because it contains ads which are hilarious by virtue of careless errors, ignorance, laziness, and that old bane of writers: the do-it-yourself mentality of those who refuse to hire people who can actually write.

Lately, it has occurred to me that, when communicating with the public, more and more professionals are just not thinking things through.

Last summer, the White Spot restaurant chain ran a TV spot (ad nauseam) in which the gag was that the chef was left to clean up after a team of chefs worked all day to come up with new menu items. But, in the final shot showing the messy kitchen, every pot, pan and utensil was spotlessly clean. ‘Little problem with the props and art direction budget, I guess.

In October, I was one a judge on the Registered Graphic Designers of Ontario’s Design at Work show. I was judging the publications section and saw some beautiful work. But, being me, I had to read the pieces. And found that there were typos in some and grammatical errors in others. Well, if you’re producing a high-end publication, doesn’t it follow that you should hire a writer who, you know, can actually write? And who might stoop to proof the final before it goes to press?

It broke my heart to have to discard an absolutely stunning catalogue. Well, the first part was stunning. Then I got to the copy, and found that the designer had used silver type on a white background. Well, when you put silver type on a white background, you can’t read the type. And if you can’t read the type in a publication, the publication ceases to be a publication and it becomes a waste of paper.

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‘Same thing with web designers who slap 8-point type against a black background. What’s the point in putting words in view when there’s no hope of those words being read? This is why there’s now an entire mini-industry of Usability Experts—people who spend their lives teaching people to think things through.

A current TV spot for Maltesers shows two lovers cuddling on the couch. The guy is feeding the gal the balls of candy with the help of a straw. Which would be fine (sort of), except that the guy is 17 and the gal looks to be in her mid-40s. It’s actually pretty creepy. It’s as if the creative director wanted to appeal to that massive ‘high-school-kid-sleeping-with-his-teacher’ market.

President’s Choice has a new campaign, in which the tag line is ‘Worth Changing Supermarkets For.’ That’s kinda’ catchy. Or would be, if Canadians used the (American) term ‘supermarket’.

Then there’s the ‘Christmas’ v ‘Holiday’ thing. Here’s a case where communicators are really failing to think things through. ‘Christmas’ is a Christian holiday, celebrating the birth of a man named Jesus Christ. It is a very old holiday containing all kinds of rites that have been practiced for a very long time. And, even in today’s cynical world, a lot of people take it very seriously. To millions, it’s not just a retail bonanza.

But marketers say: “Well, we don’t want to insult Muslims and Jews!” And they point to some survey they did, in the course of which maybe 100 carefully-selected people who happened to answer their phones skewed in a certain direction and that was extrapolated to the population at large. Lame lame lame.

In the first place, I’ve yet to hear a Jew or a Muslim complain about feeling excluded from Christmas festivities. And I’ve yet to hear a Christian complain about feeling excluded from Hanukkah or Ramadan celebrations. Every religion has its own stuff; how hypocritical to praise multi-culturalism and diversity and pluralism and then lump the observances of three religions into a muddy term called ‘The Holidays’.

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Secondly, if non-Christian religious groups are so important marketers, why aren’t large advertising dollars spent on advertising specifically to them? Crafting advertising that is clearly trying to sell ‘Christmas’, while failing to tip-toe around two other religious holidays is not only nonsensical, but arrogant, disrespectful and insulting. To everyone.

Third, marketers are not getting it right. They use the term ‘For the Holidays’, but their stores are decorated with all of the accoutrements of Christmas. At the moment, in most malls and shops, all you can hear are Christmas carols. Why not play the Dreidel Song? It’s still All Christmas All the Time—it’s just that no one wants to say that word.

This is very weird. It’s taking political correctness to a foolish extreme. Marketers say it’s ‘good business’. It’s not. It’s just silly.

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Public Relations ‘Professionals’ : The Damage Done

Blitz Magazine, January 2004

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Some of the PR people out there may have noticed that I’m not returning their calls. If they want to know why, they need only look at the recent issues of their favourite magazines. They’ll notice that these publications are markedly thinner than they were two years ago, six months ago. This is what happens when magazines lose the support of those who need them. We can no longer blame 9/11; the Canadian economy is healthy. I place the blame squarely with the Public Relations industry.

There’s a company in Western Canada that provides firms with short-term marketing and advertising personnel. Blitz is the perfect advertising vehicle for this firm. Its president, an MBA and years of marketing experience, was about to sign a one-year contract with Blitz. Then he called to say that he had changed his mind, and had entrusted his entire marketing budget to a PR consultant. The PR consultant is sucking up a good portion of that budget in fees, is industriously spitting out news releases and has placed all of his client’s allocated advertising dollars into the sponsorship of golf tournaments. ‘Strange, and dumb, but true.

I start getting said releases. Aside from the fact that they’re replete with spelling mistakes and grammatical errors, they’re irrelevant. Do I care that this company is sponsoring golf tournaments? No—it doesn’t fit my editorial mandate. But the consultant doesn’t know that because he didn’t do his homework. He can’t write, he’s lazy and he’s sabotaging a firm that had great potential but which, I now believe, will not be around for long.

(My favourite is the Web marketing thing. People channel their marketing dollars into developing their websites. They pay PR firms to send out endless news releases announcing their new sites. Then, instead of advertising the sites, they sit and wait for Net surfers to stumble upon them.)

There’s much talk these days about ROI, which everyone wants. Lately, the word is that advertising isn’t bringing in ROI. But, despite what people say, ROI is very difficult to measure. Media buyers look at numbers of people reached, who those people are and the costs to reach those people—they don’t demand guarantees that the advertising will work, because they know better. What advertising does is keep a company’s name and services in people’s faces. It supports all other sales and marketing efforts. It’s not the magic bullet for increasing business—it’s the gun.

Last week, a certified PR professional said to me: “We provide tangible ROI—the evidence is in the write-ups our clients get in newspapers and magazines, or radio mentions, or whatever.”

Or whatever. It’s illogical, and foolish, to assume that mentions in the media will bring increased business. There’s no guarantee that an editor will do more than glance at a news release. If a release piques interest, there’s no guarantee that the release will culminate in a positive story—it could end up sparking a career-ending expose. And so what if your company gets a positive media mention? Is that going to send consumers scrambling for your product? Of course not.

PR people are great persuaders. But those who sell PR as a solution, rather than as a small part of an overall communications strategy, are doing huge damage. They’re not bringing their clients closer to ROI nirvana. They’re wasting tons of money, they’re hurting their clients’ long-term prospects and they’re damaging the media properties that cannot stay in business without advertising dollars—plus all the designers, writers, producers etc., that rely on those media properties.

If PR ‘professionals’ continue to divert dollars into their own pockets, and away from advertising vehicles, they’re not going to have any media properties to contact. They can send out all the news releases they like, but there will be no magazine editors left to read them.

 

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.

On the Bad Business of Selling Editorial

Blitz Magazine, March 2002

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We’re all familiar with the practice of selling editorial. It’s nauseatingly common. Blitz does not engage in this practice. Why? Because everyone can tell when editorial is paid for and, once they realize that, that piece of editorial has no credibility. Then everything else in the magazine has no credibility. No one wants to read a magazine that has no credibility. And, since advertisers want their ads read by the magazine’s audience, there’s no point in advertising in a magazine that no one believes and/or reads. Forget journalist ethics—selling editorial is bad business.

I speak of magazines because (call me naive) I tend to think that newspapers aren’t as easily swayed by outside interests. There are many instances of editors and columnists going ‘too far’ and consequently having to apologise (on the insistence of their publishers) to representatives of ethnic groups, trade groups. But I like to think that these PR moves do not keep serious reporters from continuing to do what they should do, which is find the facts and truthfully and objectively report them.

My philosophy is: if it’s true, print it. If someone’s insulted, they’ll get over it. If a journalist reports on shenanigans at ABC Widgets, and ABC Widgets pulls its advertising, fine—it can find another way of reaching your valuable audience and other advertisers will be smart enough to stay with you because yours are the publications that people will read. Because they have credibility. Objectivity and fearlessness, therefore, are not only good for journalism. They are essential for the success of your publications.

Oh look. I seem to have slipped into saying ‘your’ and ‘publications’. I’ve somehow begun speaking to the Aspers, whose CanWest/Global Communications now owns the majority of Canada’s daily newspapers. What with the mess being created by media convergence and the negative ink that CanWest is getting over its convergence efforts, I have mixed feelings. This is a positive move for media buyers and sales reps. I think it’s a great idea to use CanWest journalists for cross-promotion. But I feel absolutely sick about the fact that CanWest, as a corporation, appears to intend to dictate the content of its newspapers.

The slope couldn’t be more slippery. CanWest is a huge company. Its owners (duh) could have corporate and personal financial interests in all sorts of conflicting areas.

What if a CanWest bigwig owns a large share of a pharmaceutical company and it releases a Wonder Dug—let’s say a cure for baldness. A Vancouver Sun journalist finds incontrovertible evidence that the drug attacks the liver. He does the story, head office finds out, the story’s yanked. No competing journalists find out about the problem. People take the drug, their hair grows, sales soar, profits rise. A year later, those customers are waiting for liver transplants and the other investors in the pharmaceutical company have lost their money.

What if the Aspers have a particular religious position?  Political position? Could this policy lead to the end of any reportage that goes against their grain? Of course it could. Should we care? Well, yeah. Every day, millions of us make decisions based on information taken from newspapers. If that information is tainted by the influence of private interests, our lives can be so tainted.

Should those in business care? Sure they should. Businesses of all types rely on print advertising—in most cases, a marketing plan without print advertising is no marketing plan. Further, because PR is often as important as advertising, businesses want their activities (well, most of them) reported in publications which are deemed to be legitimate.

Newspapers are integral to the smooth functioning of a society. But if people think that the material in their papers is inaccurate, incomplete or biased, the trust is gone. No trust, no credibility. No credibility, no readers. No readers, no advertisers. No advertisers, no newspapers.

It ain’t brain surgery. If you own newspapers, you leave your journalists alone. Your only communication with them should be your signature on their cheques and the order to ‘Find the Facts, Then Tell the Truth’. The worst that could happen is that your papers develop stellar reputations and your profits go up.

Communication Gone Wrong

Blitz Magazine, July 2002

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Direct marketers always talk about how precise their methods are. About how, when they send out promotional mail, they know exactly who’s getting it. They say they can target by income level, age, children’s ages. That they know that their clients’advertising pieces are being received by potential buyers.

In the mail, I receive an expensive package from a purveyor of yacht accessories. I don’t have a yacht. I receive an elegant package from a private school, asking me to consider sending my child there. I have a poodle. Now that I’ve announced that, I’ll start receiving samples of cat food.

Trade magazines also claim to be precisely targeted. (I’m one of the few publishers who can truthfully say that, as I up-date the Blitz mailing list every day and know exactly who’s getting it.) But my mechanic receives Strategy and Reel West. He doesn’t know why, he just does. I know this because I found them on the floor of his waiting room.

Technology has allowed for marvelous developments in magazine design. With the wrong result, I believe. I glance at Maclean’s and Vancouver. Both are so over-designed as to be unreadable.

Companies that can afford to commission good creative are airing TV commercials that are cloying (Toyota), nonsensical (Suzuki, Microsoft), badly written (Nestle) and annoying (Mott’s, All Bran). Even if people can stand to watch them, or make sense of them, the ads are bad enough to turn people away from the products they’re pitching. (And how about that McDonald’s slogan: ‘There’s a Little McDonald’s In Everyone’. Think about it. Ew.)

The Internet Advertising Bureau claims that an increasing share of marketing dollars is being committed to Internet marketing. Internet marketing firms say that advertisers can be confident about spending thousands of dollars in this fashion because web advertising is now so targeted—so precise.

I am a single, heterosexual female. When I open my email, I’m offered discounts on Viagra, potions to increase the size of my husband’s penis (by 3”!!!), potions to remove the hair on my chest, and something about a virtual experience wherein I can have sex with an Asian girl.

On a per-capita basis, Canada is the world’s most wired nation. Yet 1,000,000 Canadians have closed their Internet access accounts. It was recently reported that the editor of a popular e-zine has disconnected his incoming email address. His receipts were too time-consuming, too stressful.

Broadcasters are making TV unwatchable. We have an endless stream of propaganda pieces for the US military. Laughably bad sci-fi series. Shamefully stupid sit-coms. A special on the most passionate movies in history. Anniversary specials of once-popular TV shows. Weakest Link. Reality shows. Crap.

I now use the Internet only for addresses. If an email message doesn’t immediately appear to be relevant to me, it’s gone. My recycle bin runneth over. Friends report that they own TVs for the sole purpose of watching rented movies—they now refuse to watch television.

So this is The Great Age of Communication. Communication is so easy, so quick, so efficient. Marketers are spending untold sums to communicate, and they think that their messages are reaching the right people. Methinks they’re wrong.

Worse, where the correct people are reached, they’re turned off messages by their quality. Because, more often than not, that quality is so mind-numbingly bad, so insultingly inferior, that people are rejecting both the message, and now, the medium.

Good-Bye to a Master: David Ogilvy

Blitz Magazine, September 1999

David Ogilvy passed away in July, at age 88. Surprisingly, many people you talk to these days have never heard of him, but he was perhaps the most famous of ad men; certainly the only one credited with contributing to the Industrial Revolution.

 ogilvy

He started out as a cook, then became a door-to-door salesman for Aga Cookers. During the war, he worked with  British Security Coordination, then moved to Pennsylvania to live with the Amish and work as a farmer. Somehow, the next logical step became a move to New York, and the advertising industry. In 1948, he co-founded Hewitt, Ogilvy, Benson & Mather; in August, Vancouver became home to Ogilvy & Mather’s 360th office.

Among Ogilvy’s pet peeves was the fact that many agencies, in their never-ending quest for increased billings, waste their clients’ money. By failing to learn from the experience of others in their industry. By encouraging or condoning Creative by Committee (a.k.a. ‘team work’ and ‘brain-storming’). By expending gobs of time and money on trying to be creative and entertaining and artistic, instead of producing advertising that makes people want to buy their clients’ products.

Another complaint was that agencies, often only for the sake of creating something new, replace advertising that is working perfectly well, instead of staying with it until it stops working and product sales start to slump. You know the line in today’s Dove (soap) commercials: “Dove doesn’t dry your skin the way soap can”? Ogilvy wrote that. In 1958.

Ogilvy believed in the power of imparting information through words. Today, writers have to slash copy to fit design, and grammar is rendered irrelevant; in one of David Ogilvy’s most successful car ads—for Rolls Royce—the ad consisted one photo and 607 words.

ogilvy2In his view, education and research were paramount and the biggest waste of clients’ money stemmed from the failure of agency personnel to learn. About the products they’re trying to sell, how and why the products are made, how they work, how they fit into their industries, how they are viewed by consumers. And he urged everyone to watch what direct -response advertisers do—he believed that they were the most knowledgeable of all advertising professionals.

He wrote three best-selling books on advertising. They should be read by everyone involved in marketing, advertising and public relations. Because there is no disputing that, even if he was a little pedantic, David Ogilvy was always right.

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On Official Advertising Complaints

complaints

Blitz Magazine, May 1998

I just received my copy of Advertising Standards Canada’s Ad Complaints Report. Previously, the ASC provided only statistical information on complaints. Now, for the first time, it publishes details about complaints lodged by consumers and sustained by the ASC’s National and Regional Consumer Response Councils.

Last year, 598 complaints were received, 296 were pursued, 132 were sustained. Most complaints were about misleading pricing or product claims. The automotive industry accounted for most, there was a sharp rise in reverse sexism complaints and, for the first time, complaints about the negative portrayal of men were sustained. The most notable feature of the report was the increase in the number of advertisers revising or withdrawing ads before they were evaluated.

A few complaints caught my eye. An Alberta show retailer ran a newspaper ad featuring a woman posing behind a large cowboy hat, wearing only cowboy boots. Two people complained that it was offensive to feature the sexualized image of a woman in order to sell footwear. The panel concluded that it was indeed sexually exploitative to show a woman wearing nothing but cowboy boots in order to sell a product that was unrelated to sexuality. (Footwear has been a form of sexual communication for centuries, and Gucci can barely supply the demand for its bum-boosting, 6” spikes, but never mind…)

The panel upheld a complaint about a newspaper ad run by an Ontario automotive repair shop. The ad showed a man, from the back, wearing swimming trunks, under the headline ‘We Specialize in Rear Ends’. One Sensitive Man found that his inner child was offended and that was it for the ad.

The most amusing instance involved a national television campaign run by a food manufacturer. In the spot, a virile delivery man provokes sexual fantasies in a group of women. One complaint was received, claiming that the commercial degrades women by depicting them as slaves to their sexual desires. But the panel found that the commercial exploited men’s sexuality by objectifying the male in a purely sexual role.

This is funny, but it’s also annoying. Ads are pieces of communication, created to catch attention and sell something. Period. No one wants ads that make false claims or encourage dangerous activity but, in these ultra-competitive times, the last thing any business needs, after spending thousands on creative and production, is to have negative action taken to placate one or two people. I like the fact that Canadians are known to be clever and polite—I’d prefer that the term ‘anal-retentive’ remain out of any description of our national identity.