White space alone won’t sell

Saul Waring, one of my central career heroes, a guy who co-built and ran probably the best ad agency I've ever encountered, is now 70, lives like a king in New York, and is, like, pretty bummed out with the ad...

Saul Waring, one of my central career heroes, a guy who co-built and ran probably the best ad agency I’ve ever encountered, is now 70, lives like a king in New York, and is, like, pretty bummed out with the ad business.

Barry, he says glumly over lunch in a SoHo restaurant, clients in New York now hire consulting firms to tell them what to tell their ad agencies to do!

Saul’s gratuitous slur ran through my mind the other day when I saw the Accenture ad that the consulting firm formerly known as Andersen Consulting is causing to occupy vast, full-page newspaper spaces in Our Town, and undoubtedly lots and lots of other people’s towns, too.

Because if consulting firms are now telling clients what to tell ad agencies, who is telling the consulting firm formerly known as Andersen what to run in its full-page newspaper ads? An ad agency? Another consulting firm? Or like the artist formerly known as Prince, are they simply acting out some weird, incomprehensible psychodrama based upon dark, internalized imperatives we cannot know?

OK, I don’t mean to be harsh, but theirs strikes me as an odd and toothless little ad that occupies a very large and expensive space to precious little effect.

We’ve all seen, and many of us have done, the ad where, floating in the middle of an expanse of white space, are a few pithy words printed on a little jagged-edged piece of paper that appears to have been torn from yet another publication, with a nice drop shadow retouched in. Next to it, you print your witty little comment on the torn-out message that drives home your point like a railroad spike.

Accenture’s torn-out message, rather than appearing to be a found object, strikes one as transparently self-manufactured and self-serving. It reads Andersen Consulting Transforms To Accenture and Dramatically Enhances Offerings. And just when you’re wondering what the hell Accenture is, your eye falls to the line designed to enliven this pretension, which reads (Why change your name if it’s the only thing you change?) And that’s it. OK, it’s a name change. You want to ponder this for a few minutes? Give ‘em a ring and tell ‘em wow, I loved it, send me three consultants? Or just get on with your life? I thought so.

I often think that before anyone is allowed to design a message for a full-page newspaper ad, they should be compelled to read, or better, to write the kind of teensy-tiny ads that appear year after year in the back pages of The New Yorker. Mostly weighing in at one by two-and-a-quarter inches, one one-hundredth the size of a newspaper page, they encapsulate whole worlds of selling power and magic.

Listen to this: Wines ‘Off-the-beaten-Path’ Sampler Case. Exceptional pouilly fume, bourgueil, vouvray, anjou, chinon, saumur, menetou-salon and more from tiny, high-quality Loire Valley vintners the big importers overlook. $140 + shipping for 12 highly rated wines. Picture of a bottle, phone and web URL. Just over two square inches!

Here’s one, same size: Galapagos. Learn about the Origins of Species from our gifted naturalist as you explore Darwin’s islands in comfort aboard small, deluxe yachts. Swim with penguins and sea lions, savor equatorial sunsets, and really get away! Free brochure and video. Illo of a sea turtle, plus all imaginable contact info.

Want effective short copy? Listen. In typewriter face, You Write. We’ll Dig. www.factsforfiction.com. Shot of shovel in earth. Done!

In the ’50s and ’60s, there was a real estate agent in London, England who wrote astonishing and compelling classified ads for his listed properties.

One went like this: £5,995. Broken-down Battersea Bargain. Erected at the end of a long reign of increasingly warped moral and aesthetic values, it’s only what you’d expect – hideous; redeemed only by the integrity of the plebs who built it well. Originally a one-skiv Victorian lower-middle class fmly res, it’ll probably be snapped up by one of the new Communications Elite, who’ll tart it up and flog it for 15 thou. Three normal-sized bedrms and a 4th for an undemanding dwarf lodger. Nature has fought back in the garden – and won.

This, to me, is the kind of advertising the Internet was created to partner with and augment. Catch their attention, deliver a preliminary sell, a whispered promise, then send ‘em slavering to a great Web site.

And by sell, we mean wit, charm, promise, focus, empathy, romance, whatever. Space alone, garnished with guff, no matter how costly and frequently repeated, selleth naught. Or so it says here.

Please note: Doug Linton, who slaved on the Wonder Bra account at Goodis way back when, kindly phoned me to point out that the campaign I misidentified as Wonder Bra was, indeed, Maidenform. Sorry. Damn.

Barry Base creates advertising campaigns for a living. He writes this column to promote the cause of what he calls intelligent advertising, and to attract clients who share the notion that many a truth is said in jest. Barry can be reached at (416) 924-5533, or faxed at (416) 960-5255, at the Toronto office of Barry Base & Partners.