Sunday, October 6, 2013

"We're in Advertising, and We Only Want to Help You"

You've all heard that line before in reference to elected officials.

But you should be downright terrified when an advertising guy or gal uses it.

Maybe I should rephrase that. What I mean is you need to make dead sure that your advertising/marketing firm is really trying to help YOU.

Huh? That sounds really mixed up. I mean who else would they be trying to help? Would any agency deliberately try to make a bad ad? 

Well actually, yes. But not 'bad' in the sense that you think.

Let's back up a little bit. Every business has a fundamental raison d'ĂȘtre - a reason for being. McDonalds sells burgers. KFC sells chicken. Starbucks - coffee, and so on and on. So what is the purpose of an advertising agency? The owners of the agencies will say, "To create great advertisements!" 

Well, yeah. But what is the purpose of those advertisements? And how does one define "great?" And here is where the answer starts to get muddy. 

The clients will undoubtably say that the purpose of the ad is to either sell products or help build their brand (or both). And it therefore follows that the "greatness" of the advertising is measured in how well it does those things. 

But what about the creative staff and the executives at the agency? Well, there you have some issues. Many agencies are driven not so much by what reward you the client get, but rather the professional recognition that they can glean from your campaign. And I've got news for you - while there are some awards given for great results, many (or most) sought after awards in the advertising biz are strictly based on perceived creativity and "WOW" factor. The result of this is that agencies that tout the number of awards they've won may have done little to actually sell their clients' products, even though they've produced millions upon millions of dollars of flashy advertising. Often, ads are trumpeted for "retention" or "penetration" or for other ambiguous terms. That's fine and good if you're trying to win bragging rights for "agency of the year," but when people are spending hard-earned money on advertising, they can't afford stuff like that. They need "results" not "retention."

Don't get me wrong! The two are not mutually exclusive. Flashy ads CAN work, They just don't ALWAYS work. The primary focus should always be on finding the best solution for the client - even if it's not the glitziest.

Case in point - I know a fellow who runs a small business. A while ago I happened to speak with him and he mentioned that he was looking to do some advertising. I told him what I felt was the best approach. Namely a well thought out presentation of what he offered, and what concrete benefits consumers could hope to get from his firm. He happens to be a very "with it" kind of guy, and he felt my style was not cool enough. He decided to use a designer who, while extremely talented, was not that schooled in advertising and marketing fundamentals. The ads looked really great. They were very - ahem - eye catching and I'm sure they were great performers - for that designer's portfolio. But I don't know how much business they brought in. I recently saw a new ad for the same place, designed by a more established firm, pretty much exactly following the formula that I had suggested in the first place.

I know this will sound heretical, but the bottom line is that if an ad or marketing campaign fails to sell then it's not a success - no matter how many awards it wins, or how many people if impresses.

Moral of the Story: Don't be won over with ad-speak and marketing lingo. Make sure that your advertising pro really is in it for you, and has the chops to deliver.

Danny Kay is a marketing and advertising consultant, designer and photographer with over 25 years of experience. His work has appeared on products sold at small little known establishments like Costco, PC Richards, Target, Toys R Us, BJs, Sams Club, A&P, and other national chains you've probably never heard of. He has also done some work for small firms such as Glaxo SmithKline, Lilly, Novartis, Proctor & Gamble, J&B Scotch, The Miami Heat, Anaheim Angels, and a number of other piddling professional sports teams and mom 'n pop Fortune 500 shops. He can be contacted through his website,, or at

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