Talk to me

It seems that everybody on this planet wants to help me take care of my money. And everybody wants to get my attention about it.

It seems that everybody on this planet wants to help me take care of my money. And everybody wants to get my attention about it.

As a man of advancing years and intermittently advancing net worth, I get cute communications, assertive communications, we-got-the-best-rate communications, we-give-you-bonus-points communications, we-want-to-help-you-retire communications, we-want-to-help-you-keep-going communications, etc., etc. Many of them have embossings, heavy stock and expensive photography to help imply that the relevant company knows its way around rich guys like it somehow thinks I am.

They all vanish quickly, either into mental oblivion or the circular file, or both.

And then not too long ago, I saw an ad in the New York Times Magazine, for a company called U.S. Trust. It had no photograph at all. It had no colour at all, save one central paragraph in spot burgundy. It must have had – heaven forbid in this busy world – 300 words of copy. It was dynamite.

Its headline said, ‘MONEY IS NOT THE END OF WORRY. IT IS THE BEGINNING.’ And the copy started like this:

Face it.

You worked your whole life to feel comfortable, and here you are feeling decidedly otherwise. You have more dependents, more possessions, more investments, more taxes, more responsibilities and more to lose. Yet still you’re expected to fight your way through a zillion e-mails and voice mails each day, just trying to hang on to your sanity, your ideal weight and your quality time with your family.

It went on to talk about ‘the incredible pressure of trying to protect a lifetime’s worth of missed weekends and vacations.’ The goal of ‘ worrying a little less about your money and having fun with it a little more.’ Okay, okay, it went way out of my league once in a while, as in ‘How can you explain to other people the fear that your children might never need to work?’ But by and large, it talked to me. It sounded as if it knew who I am.

I have the queasy feeling that advertisers these days don’t usually know who their audience is. Oh sure, the quick profiles are there: BEER, sex-crazed and desirous of being out of one’s mind. MOVIES, sex-crazed and desirous of watching things explode. But the true, deep understanding often isn’t there.

When the empathy really is there, as it is with U.S. Trust, communicators can start to do excellent work. I have the occasional privilege of working with a small agency that focuses on agriculture, and man, do these people understand farmers. They have a gut knowledge of what will and won’t work, because they know the difference between deep and shallow seeding, they know the impact of a nickel-a-bushel price cut, they know a world where bad weather forecasts mean a lot more than ‘ Oh, darn.’

I think the continued success of President’s Choice is tied to the audience understanding they displayed at the very beginning – and it was a mass audience, not a niche like wealthy people or farmers.

They knew they had to change perceptions. They knew they had to move the image of private-label food from ‘ inferior to national brands’ to ‘ Wow!’ They had to develop and promote a single product that would excite the taste buds and the psyche, across the board, across the demographics.

As history records, they chose the chocolate chip cookie to do this and called it The Decadent. As history doesn’t always record, the choice itself was brilliant. The chocolate chip cookie was an acceptable sweet – not seen as sinful like candy, or fattening like cake (unless you eat 17 of them, of course). It had never been heavily promoted, but it was part of everybody’s life – straight out of Mother’s oven, an epicurean reward for doing your homework in Grade Three. And you could tell it was better – lots more gooey, chocolatey stuff, plenty of sugar – without having to read a Toronto Life column on the origin of the balsamic vinegar.

Brilliant. Empathic. Understanding.

Today, the economy remains pretty good, and we know there’s a lot of clutter, so we spend lots of money on really big ideas and good TV production. (See Rogers’ ‘Beatlemania.’) But we leave out the audience’s depth of understanding. (See Rogers’ ‘Beatlemania.’)

Seems to me, if we’re as good as we think we are, we ought to be able to offer both. Seems to me we ought to be able to have our cookie and eat it, too.


John Burghardt’s checkered resume includes the presidency of a national agency, several films for the Shah’s government in Iran, collaboration with Jim Henson to create the Cookie Monster, and a Cannes Gold Lion. The letterhead of his thriving business now reads ‘STRATEGIC PLANNING * CREATIVE THINKING.’ He can be reached by phone at (416) 693-5072 or by e-mail at