The Canadian who defined advertising

This year marks the centennial of a watershed in the history of advertising, one created by an ex-Mountie and former Hudson's Bay Company copywriter named John E. Kennedy.

This year marks the centennial of a watershed in the history of advertising, one created by an ex-Mountie and former Hudson’s Bay Company copywriter named John E. Kennedy.

Okay, maybe Kennedy didn’t exactly invent advertising that day in May of 1904 when he approached ad agency Lord & Thomas, the forerunner of FCB. But he defined it, providing generations of copywriters and their clients with a formula for success.

Lord & Thomas was a highly successful ad agency – by one account, the third-largest in the world – when Kennedy sent its Chicago office a note requesting a meeting.

Junior partner, and soon-to-become advertising legend, Albert Lasker read it: ‘I am in the saloon downstairs. I can tell you what advertising is. I know you do not know. It will mean much to me to have you know what it is and it will mean much to you. If you wish to know what advertising is, send the word ‘yes’ down by the bellboy.’

Having sought an effective definition of advertising for years, Lasker responded with the prescribed answer. When they sat down together, Kennedy informed Lasker that he could tell him what advertising was in just three words. Legend has it that he wrote the words on a piece of paper and handed it to Lasker.

When Lasker read what Kennedy had written, he knew he had at last found what he had been searching for, the Holy Grail of advertising. The paper stated that advertising is ‘salesmanship in print.’ (Keep in mind that TV and radio at the time, let alone the Internet, were years from being developed.)

Lasker recognized that, armed with Kennedy’s insight, his copywriters could now go beyond just stating facts in an ad, hoping that they might compel a reader to act. And they could do more than simply list reasons for consumers to purchase a product, as dictated by the increasingly popular ‘reason why’ school of advertising. Now when a Lord & Thomas copywriter sat down to pen an ad, he would think of it as a salesperson and make it speak accordingly…and more effectively.

Considering the results that the salesmanship-in-print strategy achieved, one would think that copywriters would have kept using it. One would be wrong.

Over time, advertising became more centred on entertaining audiences than selling them. Awards for creativity flourished. Creative self-indulgence thrived. The effectiveness of advertising declined.

Three things coincided in the late 1980s and 1990s to put advertising’s focus back onto sales. One: the economy became tougher, so advertisers demanded more bang for their proverbial buck. Two: media became super-fragmented, making sales-generating creative more important. Three: advances in computers made direct mail a more effective medium than ever.

Budget-restricted, performance-conscious advertisers embraced ‘below-the-line’ promotional vehicles like sales promotion and direct marketing. Plus, they began insisting on better results from traditional advertising.

Today, you see advertisers’ insistence on results in things like pay-for-performance contracts, in advertising plans that are heavily weighted with allocations for direct mail, in e-media analyses that count clicks and sales. And, vindicating Kennedy, you see it in more of the creative that is used in all media.

Take Priceline.com. At the height of the Internet bubble it, like so many of its mistaken brethren, ran TV commercials that sought to create a brand without even establishing its raison d’être with the audience. You’d finish watching spokesman William Shatner do his comical thing, then scratch your head wondering what the hell he was trying to sell.

The company’s newest commercial still features Shatner and, like its predecessors, is amusing to watch. But now Priceline.com at least tells you what it does for a living (lets you book your holiday online) and why you should call (to save money).

In your scribe’s opinion, there’s still too much advertising that would benefit from a little more salesmanship. But at least more advertisers and agencies recognize the need to actually sell something at the end of the day.

Give it a little more time and maybe some of them will give a certain Canadian his due: the ex-Mountie who invented modern advertising.

Bob Knight is the author of Strategy’s ‘Stupid Direct Marketing Tricks’ column. However, every 100 years he also writes an article about the history of advertising. In the intervening days, months and years he creates direct, integrated and e-campaigns for a variety of advertisers and agencies.

Unfortunately, the Stupid Direct Marketing Tricks column won’t be appearing in Strategy’s new monthly incarnation. But you can continue to get your ‘stupid’ fix via e-mail at no charge. Contact ‘Dr. Bob’ Knight at b_knight@telus.net.