Ask me why I’m here

Saw a funny thing over the holiday weekend. In the middle of nowhere - nothing but farmers' fields for miles - was a naked-looking billboard, with a small poster haphazardly plopped in the middle. The poster, dwarfed by the billboard and the bleak expanse of pasture, advertised the availabilty of talking billboards. The only passersby there - or anywhere remotely near - were cows.

Saw a funny thing over the holiday weekend. In the middle of nowhere – nothing but farmers’ fields for miles – was a naked-looking billboard, with a small poster haphazardly plopped in the middle. The poster, dwarfed by the billboard and the bleak expanse of pasture, advertised the availabilty of talking billboards. The only passersby there – or anywhere remotely near – were cows. ‘Heeeeeeeey’ (or should that be ‘hay’?) jokes immediately filled the car, but the odd juxtaposition was more puzzling than amusing. Possibly this remote northern one-lane highway was en route to some little-known media buyer enclave (we were pretty much lost, so who knows), but it was a definite What Were They Thinking moment.

Regardless, there are too many examples out there of marketing that mystifies masquerading as advertising. In Baseline this issue, Barry Base cites an example of finding a new car, despite the overly stealthy ‘ad’ he had flipped past five times.

That’s why Sergio Zyman’s new book The End of Advertising as We Know It is timely, and deserves consideration, despite the fact that the ground it covers should be familiar territory for ad execs. Zyman rakes a lot of advertising over the coals for its lack of focus, in the former Coca-Cola CMO’s usual no-bullshit, show-me-the-money, results-grounded manner. And reminds those overly in love with TV that marketing is much more than ads, and will only be successful if all the other customer touchpoints deliver the brand promise.

The gist of his theory as to why this wake-up jolt is necessary is that ad agencies and ad execs ‘fell in love with themselves’ and focused on ‘award-winning ads that end up more as works of art than works of communication.’ Zyman forcefully reminds anyone still under that illusion that the point of advertising is ‘to sell more stuff to more people more often for more money’ – and supplies some new rules to follow on the road to bottom-line enlightenment.

Zyman backs up his arguments. Fr’instance, Bud’s 2000 ‘Wassup?’ campaign was an awards circuit sweeper, but share dropped 1.5% to 2.5%. Meanwhile, since the AAA-FLACK duck spots launched in 2000, sales have risen 25%. What really resonates is Zyman’s assertion that the old ‘Awareness is king and assume people get it’ rule should be ‘awareness is irrelevant, so overcommunicate.’ As per Zyman’s rule numer two: ‘One of the biggest advertising mistakes companies make is to assume that just because they understand what they’re talking about or what their strategy is, the consumer will too.’

‘Companies spend millions to put their name on football stadiums [that would be hockey here], develop packaging, buy TV and radio time…and then sit back and wait for things to happen. If you don’t tell [consumers] exactly…why they should buy your product, they’ll ignore you and take their wallet to someone who will tell them those things.’

The book goes on to illustrate the many ways in which marketing must evolve to match the new business environment, with specific case studies and stats for the different categories. Like the fact that 75% to 80% of a consumer’s purchase decision is made at point of sale, that in grocery stores an average of less than 10 seconds is spent in any single product category, that over 30,000 new products are introduced each year and that research has shown having a lot of messages on your product decreases the likelihood of their being read. On the other end of the scale is packaging that’s so powerful it can reduce the amount of advertising needed, like Tiffany’s.

Personally, the fact that Bick’s has a pickle question hotline number on their label, while intriguing, has never been a deal-killer. However, you get the point.

In other weekend reading, I found a way-beyond-focus-group example of testing rule number two. Graphic designer/now novelist Chip Kidd’s intriguing bestseller The Cheese Monkeys is narrated by a 1950s art college student, taking an extreme ‘Commercial Arts’ course from a sadistic, but inspiring, prof. One class assignment involves a field trip, wherein the few students who hadn’t fled the class yet are deposited in the middle of the country, in the middle of winter, with one shot at coming up with a hitchhiking sign that will get them picked up.

PLEASE! FOR GOD’S SAKE!! HELP ME!!

This entry caused three cars to whiz by. The fourth only stopped when the kid ran into its path.

ASK ME WHY I’M HERE!

stopped the first car that showed up.

The first, while dramatic, is too desperate, and doesn’t tell you what exactly is required. This kid likely went on to make packages that shout at you (or invisible car ads). The latter (done by the novel’s protagonist) gave a clear call to action, in an optimistic way that promised some entertainment.

Or, as per Kidd’s fictional prof Winter Sorbeck: ‘It has to flag people down, either by invitation or mystery, or any other means, actually. And by limiting your materials I gave you a huge break. Always remember: Limits are possibilities. Formal restrictions, contrary to what you might think, free you up by allowing you to concentrate on purer ideas.

‘You can be crippled by too many choices, especially if you don’t know what your goals are.’

Well, Zyman’s taken care of reminding anyone who remained unclear on that point, and the challenge that remains is to spot when you’re unleashing a FOR GOD’S SAKE!! HELP ME!! campaign on the unsuspecting public, or have connected with an ASK ME WHY I’M HERE!

There seems to be a theory, process and rules for just about everything to do with marketing, but flaggability remains an art, as well as a science, which is much harder to write the definitive guidebook on, and likely why the creative side of advertising is so easy to hit on, and so hard to defend. Mary Maddever, Strategy editor