On Bad Websites by the People Who Should Know Best

badsite

 

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.


On the Value of Advertising

Blitz Magazine, March 2000

advalue

As soon as the first issue of Blitz came out, back in 1997, I started getting calls asking, “Do you know what the Canadian advertising industry is worth, or do you know anyone who does?” Ever the professional, my response was always “Nope”.

Now we know. The Institute of Canadian Advertising finally had KPMG conduct a study (based on 1997 stats). The results surprised everyone, including industry insiders.

The study reports absolute expenditures of $14.5 billion. This is over 1% of Canada’s GDP and comes from industries and organizations that use advertising, the companies that create it, the media that carry it, and related industries.

As Institute of Canadian Advertising president Rupert Brendon notes: “This is a lot of money circulating through the economy, especially when you add the multiplier effect that kicks in as advertising helps businesses grow.”

The advertising sector accounts for 212,000 jobs, or 1.7% of all jobs in Canada—139,000 in direct employment, 73,000 in related services. The value-added to the Canadian economy is $11.4 billion—$7.5 billion in employment income and $3.9 billion in business income (direct and indirect). This is greater than the financial contribution from such sectors as insurance, real estate, accounting and legal services.

“It also matters where the money goes,” says Brendon. “For a lot of Canadian industry, a high proportion of the money leaks off-shore. In the advertising sector, 80% stays at home. Advertising is a driving force in the economy. This news, from respected and independent sources, shows that advertising is far more significant and positive than some detractors would have us believe.”

Note the qualifier. It’s funny how people in the ad biz are always on the defensive, apologetic for a whiff of shadiness hovering over their industry—the perception that there’s something low-rent about the business.

At a school reunion a few years ago, I asked someone what had become of a classmate. She replied: “Oh, he did really well at Yale, but then he went into advertising.” You tell someone you’re writing an annual report, they say ‘Oh!’. That you’re working on an ad campaign for toilet paper, they say ‘Oh.’ As if you’ve fallen from the rank of Chief Surgeon to that of Hospital Janitor. 

Advertising is essential—businesses can’t compete, or survive, without it. But it is interesting to note that even those in the industry don’t understand how important it is. You would be astonished if I told you who has told my sales staff that they never advertise and that they rely on word of mouth to generate new business and stay ahead of their competition. These are people whose incomes, and those of their employees, are derived solely from creating or selling advertising and related services. It’s inexplicable. A head-shaker.

Perhaps KPMG should study this perception—that advertising is somehow inferior as a career choice, a communications medium and a business practice. Clarity would be helpful.

 

 

Lautrec: The Father of Advertising

poster

poster (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 Blitz Magazine, March 1999

        

That’s what the experts call him. They say that, by challenging conventional assumptions about artistic content, and by being the first to use creative realism as a sales tool, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec invented advertising and revolutionized the art of marketing.

          Considering the crew that spawned him, it was a miracle that he fathered anything. His aristocratic family was inordinately concerned about ‘pure’ bloodlines–his grandmothers were sisters, his paternal aunt married his maternal uncle, his parents were first cousins. Consequently, their boy maxed out at 4’11” and required a cane. He was knock-kneed and weak-chinned, with a perpetually runny nose, gaping nostrils, bulbous lips and an enlarged tongue which left him with a lisp and an excessive salivation problem. His father (a cross-dresser given to lunching in a tutu), knowing that the only way his son was going to get a date was by paying for it, introduced him to the Montmartre brothels where the lad learned to flirt with his eyes and do other things with other things (the bawdy babes called him ‘The Coffee Pot’.)

          This was 1880, the Banquet Years. Paris was reaping the rewards of industrialization; it was a time of feasting, fun, high living and hypocrisy. In  Montmartre, while the Church hurriedly completed Notre-Dame du Sacre-Coeur at the top of the hill, the bordellos and nightclubs below became beacons for slumming lords. Lautrec, finding his sanctuary and inspiration, moved in.

          By night, he lived in the clubs and brothels, sketching everything he saw and immortalizing his friends–the labourers, prostitutes, entertainers and the reveling elite. He depicted the mundane and the erotic, always with wit, without pretension or sentimentality, expressing la joie de vivre without ignoring its depravity.

          By day, Lautrec was an industrious artist, working out of a dingy studio to produce 6,200 canvases, water colours, prints and drawings. Financially, he could afford to reject the Salons and exhibit his work where he chose. Creatively, he believed that art was for the masses, and this belief transformed his voyeurism into a new form of modern art–the poster.

          Competition among the Montmartre cabarets was fierce; letterpress handbills were not cutting la moutarde. Lautrec knew that advertising had to arrest the collective eye. Fascinated by Japonism and the ability of the Japanese masters to capture a subject’s essence with minimal lines and colour, he exploited technical innovations in lithographic printing to produce designs with bold colour and incisive images, providing depth and silhouette with vanishing lines, monochromatic areas and subtle juxtapositions. His stunningly effective posters turned the streets of Paris into a permanent exhibit and forever altered the form and purpose of graphic design.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec 019

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec 019 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

          While Lautrec designed advertisements for other purposes–he did book covers, menus, song sheets, bicycle ads–it was the poster Moulin Rouge-La Goulue (1891) which made him famous. Instead of  portraying the cabaret, Lautrec presented its key elements so as to make them familiar and implant them, and the venue’s name, in the public mind. It was this poster, often called the most important in the histories of lithography and advertising, that initiated the movement of artists into commerce.

Lautrec moulin rouge, la goulue (poster) 1891

Lautrec moulin rouge, la goulue (poster) 1891 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

          One can only wonder at how far Lautrec would have pushed the creative and commercial envelope. But pain, alcoholism and syphilis turned him into a delirious wreck–he died in an asylum, in 1901, at age 37.

 

 

On Advertorial

Blitz Magazine, July 1999

advertorial

I’m standing in line behind two women; mid-30s, middle-class. One reaches into her bag and retrieves a magazine article. She presents it to her friend and says: “Look at this article on cellulite-reducing cream. It says it works.” We all look at the paper. The word ‘Advertisement’ does not appear, but it is clearly advertorial. The friend replies: ‘It’s not an article. It’s advertising made to look like editorial. You can never believe that stuff.’

                Most people know the difference between editorial and advertorial. The ploy works with some consumers but most, when they see the telltale conflicting fonts and absence of by-lines etc., know that the piece was written by the firm’s marketing department or agency. A well-designed ad with some creative juice behind it is much more effective, for the simple reason that advertorial has no credibility. If people know you paid for it, they don’t believe it.

                I’m not talking about contract publishing, which is OK because readers know, when they see a show guide or catalogue, that the enclosed editorial is meant to be self-serving. But it disturbs me to see publications which purport to be journalistic in content print glowing pieces about companies which have paid for that editorial, without telling readers that it’s advertising.

                Another, similar, practice has lately been growing at an alarming rate. A publication says to a corporate president or marketing director: ‘You give us your client list and we’ll do a feature on you. We’ll approach all of your suppliers and sell advertising around your story. We’ll supply the writer, or you can write the article yourself. Either way, you’ll have editorial control.’

                I used to write for a company whose business was based on this practice. The parameters were simple: Say nothing negative or controversial. Speak only to the people on the pre-approved list. Send the article to the client. The client will remove anything objectionable.

                There are three reasons why this practice is disturbing. First, the subject sells his supplier list to the publication. Those suppliers are approached by the publication’s sales reps. While the suppliers may not be overtly pressured, they may feel that they’ll insult the client if they don’t advertise. Their marketing budgets are reduced by what it cost to advertise in a vehicle which may be inappropriate for them; they wind up resenting both the client and the publication.

                Secondly, publications involved in this practice lower themselves to a decidedly unattractive level. When a magazine or newspaper slaps its logo and journalistic reputation onto editorial which it has sold, it receives a short-term profit and a long-term loss of respect amongst both advertisers and readers.

                Finally, today’s savvy readers are not fooled by these artificial ‘articles’. The pieces are not read. The ads are not read. The featured subject loses credibility. The publication loses credibility. People do not read publications which they do not find credible. No readers, no revenue.

                There’s a lot of doom and gloom now about the publishing industry. It seems to me that if newspapers and magazines focused on providing readers with useful and accurate information, rather than on generating short-term monetary gain, everybody would be a lot happier.