Some years ago, one of my sons, having seen several black-and-white movies and the photos from my childhood, asked me if everything was in black and white when I was a boy. I smiled of course but recognized the logic of his question. One’s perceptions are shaped by experience, and his experience told him that the past was in black and white. Only the present was in living color. It’s why Spielberg chose to shoot Schindler’s List in black and white — his experience of the Holocaust came from either testimonial interviews or archival footage, all of which was free of color. Which brings me to the title of this post.
When I first stepped into the advertising freelance pool as a moonlighter, I was working in the marketing department at THE Ohio State University (the capitalized definite article is the subject of some derision and a future post I’m sure, so stay tuned). While moonlighting, I found myself creating ads for myself. Experienced copywriters and ad folks know that this can be a difficult and perhaps a vain exercise, suffering from both hubris and futility as the word “vain” so aptly captures. But for a young tyke, it was heaven. No restrictions! No approvals necessary! The sky’s the limit!
This led me to create an all-type ad (I was, of course, a copywriter with limited software skills at the time). It was an ad filled with puns, which was standard in the 1970s and early ’80s advertising. Pretty awful stuff. Unhappily, I didn’t keep a copy of it but it had something to do with slashing prices on big words, what Donald Trump calls the best words — and who claims there is no better word than “stupid.” He would know I guess. Ten dollar words are basically words no one ever uses in everyday speech and so will of course never appear in advertising or a Trump tweet. I remember one of the words in my ad was onomatopoeia, a real sizzler at 50% off. Another was portmanteau, which was now two for one (ha, ha!). You get the gist of this. Young and foolish, I thought everyone knew what I knew or at least wouldn’t admit to not knowing what I knew. But in advertising, readers who don’t get it aren’t readers. They’re turning the page or scrolling to the next story, etc.
This naïve but informative experience behind me, I began taking a particular interest in how ad agencies promoted themselves. Over time, I saw many examples of witty ads for agencies, but the only ones that signaled a given agency's value (i.e., its creativity) were related to open houses at their new digs, clever holiday wishes, or wry invitations to a local or national advertising awards show. That's because agencies worth their salt need only one testimonial: the work they do for their clients. When you visit an accomplished, sought-after shop, what you see on their walls is work done for their clients. When you visit other shops, you see handsome displays about themselves, their insights, their USP, their unmatched approach to discovering value, and tons of other proprietary baloney. They have unique processes, liberating creative briefs, POVs, and a wealth of blather that gives yadda yadda yadda its meaning.
When advertisers get pitched, they see this stuff with remorseless regularity. It’s an experience that always baffled me because the marketers I have met aren’t stupid. Maybe they nod off during the creative part of the pitch. But typically they don’t, mostly because the presenters are creatives and are often more entertaining than the suits. After an hour or so of PowerPoint slides, anything remotely creative feels like unregulated eye candy if not heroin. No slight on suits, which will become apparent shortly. That’s because when an account is awarded, all the agency's proprietary blather — rather than just showing the work and the sales increase the work delivered or showcasing work done on spec — is COMPLETELY beside the point. The agency rate, a history of compelling work, the speed of getting it done, the quality of the media placement, deep familiarity with the category, among other winning ingredients — all those things matter more. Not to mention that the head of marketing was in the same fraternity as the new business guy or whatever personal connection the players at large have. Outside of brain surgery or nuclear physics, what you know rarely trumps who you know.
In many ways, advertising is like any number of sports. The perennial winning team presents X strategy. The other teams adopt X strategy. The next winning team revolutionizes the game by introducing Y strategy. Being different is easy. Being different and winning is generally a crapshoot. Success comes from insight, brilliance, and courage — the very qualities that accompany failure almost as often. So, when it’s time to choose your agency, choose wisely. Sometimes the half-off shop might be what you need. And when the half-off shop has a Y strategy, it might be worth your while to go all in.
©2017 John Hofmeister. All rights reserved. First published at jhofmeister.com
When I'm not writing for clients, I write about things that interest me. Quite of bit of satire, a genre that has become increasingly difficult to work in since reality has become such a farce.