October 31, 2011

The Universal & The Transient in Advertising

In any serious field of study there is a healthy tension between what is universal and what is transient. This is true in art, literature, history, architecture, science, and virtually every other discipline.

It would be inconceivable to have a serious contemporary writer who was not familiar with the works of Tolstoy, Proust, Joyce, or Shakespeare. It would be unthinkable to have a consequential contemporary artist who wasn't conversant in the contributions of Rembrandt, Picasso, Da Vinci, Monet, and Van Gogh. It is unimaginable that there would be eminent lawyers who didn't know the thinking of Cicero, Jefferson, or Mandela.

Being good at something requires wisdom. And wisdom requires perspective.

One of the reasons advertising is held in such low esteem by the business community is that there is no canon of wisdom. There is just the present. We shallowly pursue the transient at the expense of understanding the universal.

This pursuit is manifest in our anointing an endless stream of "things that will change everything." The literature on these "things" is dismaying and instructive.

Only someone with no wisdom and no perspective about art would have claimed that a new type of sculpture by Calder, as brilliant as it may have been, would "change everything." Influence some things, yes. Change everything, no.

Only blind fools can't see the connections between things. Only nitwits don't see the interrelationships and the evolution in disciplines.

Today, the ad industry is being overrun with people who have no idea what is universal and what is transient in our business. They are not being taught principles, they are being taught tactics.

To them, Bernbach, Ogilvy and Riney are just names of old dead guys. They never heard of Ally & Gargano or Scali, McCabe, Sloves. They have no idea what these people and organizations did, or stood for, or taught us about advertising.

It's our own fault. No one is willing to take the time to learn the history so he can teach it. Our own industry organizations - particularly the 4A's - are prime culprits. By desperately trying to remain "relevant" they have sounded a constant drumbeat about "digital changing everything" that is not only false, it undermines the importance of young peoples' need to learn the history and principles of our trade.

October 27, 2011

Sometimes This Feels Almost Useful

Every now and then I receive an email from someone, particularly a young person, that makes me feel like this blog actually has some value. Here's one from a young man working in Silicon Valley. Name withheld to protect the innocent.

Hi Bob,

I wanted to drop you a quick line to say a sincere thank you for your writing. I came across your blog a couple of months ago and have since been reading every article. I'm now nearly at the very beginning.

I find your blog very important for the very reasons you mention - cutting through the crap. Getting past the stupid babbling and actually selling stuff which is what ad people are supposed to do. I'm in marketing, but am a young one - only graduated about two years ago and I only came into marketing by circumstance, actually. Anyway, I do love it quite a bit, but having been thrown into the field of web marketing, where not only is performance such an issue as you've been reporting in TAC, but where everything is so new (relatively) it's all being made up on the spot, I quickly became very frustrated. The problem I faced was with the CEOs I worked with. They were smart guys, but oh-so-badly wanted the latest and greatest new thing to come out of Silicon Valley that apparently would revolutionize everything. I always saw the problems with the web marketing industry, but being inexperienced and without mentors (I ended up being the one who taught VPs of marketing and CEOs of venture-backed companies what *I* knew about marketing at various points in my career) I always thought the problem was with me.

Only recently have I started to understand that a ton of people around me are just completely full of shit, and that management often has no idea what the hell they actually want even though they're so sure that this latest geolocation-based-silo-busting-mobile-payment-enabled-crowdsourcing-community-building phone app is the way to catapult us into success.

Your writing has helped me get a grasp on these facts, and despite that the industry I've come into seems to be in complete shambles, I think I understand what I have to do to succeed without becoming a platitude-spewing sycophant.

Thank you,

I'll be speaking tonight in Kansas City. If you're in the neighborhood, here are the details.

October 24, 2011

On The Verge of Convergence?

It's been about 15 years now that we've been waiting for "convergence" -- when the TV and the computer would join hands and walk blissfully down the aisle.

Out chattering digerati keep telling us it's right around the corner, and like much of what they've told us, it's nowhere in sight. Chalk up another loser to knucklehead futurology.

Not only has convergence not occurred, we have experienced enormous divergence.

Whereas we used to have one or two media gadgets, we now have handfuls. Our power strips are so loaded down with plugs I don't know how they don't explode.

It is not unusual these days for someone to have a TV, a desk-top computer, a laptop computer, an iPod, a smart-phone, and a tablet.

Where the convergence prophets have been wrong is in assuming that because companies could make computational devices with multiple uses, we would want to use them that way. In fact, for the most part what has happened is that we have favorite uses for different devices.

We define how we use these gadgets not by what they can do, but by how it's most convenient and how we're most comfortable using them.

According to advanced reports on Walter Isaacson's book about Steve Jobs (Steve Jobs: A Biography) Jobs told him that he had broken the code on convergence and that Apple was working on a new idea for TV.
“It would be seamlessly synced with all of your devices and with iCloud. It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it.”
I guess we'll see. One report said this device would be ready by the end of 2012.

Thus far convergence has been nothing but chit chat. But if there's any company that can make it happen, my money's on Apple.

I will be speaking on Thursday night in Kansas City. If you're in the area here's some info on the event.

October 20, 2011

You Should Read This

I don't often do this, but today I am forgoing the business of shooting my mouth off in favor of directing you to another blog post that will provide you with a great deal more value.

The post is called 'Engagement': Fashionable Yet Bankrupt on a blog called Canalside View. It is written by Martin Weigel who is Head of Planning at Wieden + Kennedy, Amsterdam.

It is outstanding and I urge you to read it.

Big thanks to Sticko for pointing the piece out in a comment here earlier this week.

October 18, 2011


There are so many maddening aspects of contemporary life that it's difficult to single out any one in particular. However, one that is exceptionally exasperating to me is the notion that entertainers have something important to tell us and are entitled to air time to promote their views.

Let's start with actors. Actors are good at pretending. That's their talent, pretending. They can pretend they are Jesus, or cowboys, or superheroes, or Winston Churchill. But here's the thing. They are not Jesus, or cowboys, or superheroes, or Winston Churchill. They are mostly just ninnies who think that a good way to spend a life is to devote it to pretending.

Then there are singers. The ability to sing nicely is a lovely and pleasing talent to have. However, this is a talent that has absolutely no correlation to virtue, intelligence, or spirituality. The ability to sing nicely makes the owner of this talent no more virtuous, intelligent, or spiritual than your average dry cleaner.

In a more astute and discerning age, entertainers were called fools.

Somehow, in our day and age, entertainers have become gods. Qualities totally unrelated to acting and singing have been attributed to these mostly unremarkable people. As our pandering media pay more and more attention to the torrent of idiotic shenanigans and pronouncements by these individuals, they continue to gain status in the injudicious eyes of our fellow citizens.

Enter Will.I.Am. Will.I.Am is a second rate entertainer who fronts the Black Eyed Peas. They are a band that is one level above a Las Vegas lounge act. Their 15 minutes were up a few years ago. If you're not a fan of pop music, you may remember them from the second worst half-time show in Super Bowl history (I doubt anything will ever top The Who for shear horribleness.) He also apparently was responsible for some Super Bowl spots for SalesForce.com which were even worse than his half-time show.

Having conquered the world of really awful pop, Will is now making a second career as a marketing expert.

In a lovely example of entertainers making fools of themselves by shooting their mouths off, Will has a blog piece in this week's Ad Age called What Does Communiting Mean?

It is so stupefyingly dumb that I don't even know how to begin to describe it. It is written in a kind of postliterate, faux-poetic style that might impress the dimmest of his 12-year-old fans. Might.

He seems to think that the search for the New World began in the 1600's.

The whole piece has the infantile tone of those pathetic YouTube videos from a couple of years ago about social media. The ones that breathlessly explained how there are more people on Facebook than there are in the entire world.

Then we are treated to a painful stream of juvenile philosophizing... 
"...today is all about accessing the physical representation of collective consciousness"
"...you need to create conversations with your customers...so I say, MAKE CONVERSATIONS NOT ADS..."
How's that for some radical thinking? Can you believe someone is still spouting this bullshit three years after its sell-by date, and Ad Age is still printing it?

But the real piece de resistance is a word he made up -- "communiting." It's the kind of cringe-inducing neologism a half-wit 8th-grader would invent.
"...COMMUNITING is about COMMUNICATION between people and companies that enables or sustains a COMMUNITY..."
Let's give Will the benefit of the doubt here and pretend for a moment that there is some alternate universe in which the above nonsense makes sense. Here's what I want to know. Where did this idea that buying and selling stuff was all about communities come from? When did marketing move from the economics department to the sociology department?

And, someone help me, where are these communities? I buy stuff every day of my life and I can assure you there is no one on my block, in my office, among my Facebook friends, in my therapy group, or on my parole board who gives a shit if I buy Jif or Skippy, Tide or Cheer, Wish-Bone or Hidden Valley Ranch.

The sickening thing is that there are apparently companies -- big ones -- who are paying this dullard for marketing advice. 

We've got to get these fools back into their silly hats and pointy shoes before they start doing real damage.

October 17, 2011

Bottom-Up Branding

If you need some motivation to stick a knife in your head, ask your average advertising whiz-kid about "brands."

He'll go on for weeks about brand integration and brand expectations and brand experiences and brand advocates and brand relevancy and brand messaging.

He knows everything there is to know about brand babble. And almost nothing about brand building.

Perhaps the most expensive and wasteful form of brand illiteracy is the "top-down" view of branding. This is typified by the style of advertising practiced by banks, life insurance companies, oil companies, investment houses and airlines who have no clue about differentiating themselves.

"Top-down" advertising is easy to identify. It usually has happy, generic people doing happy generic things while music plays and voices either sing or speak. There is little to nothing said about the specifics of what they do or make. It is full of promises and hopefulness. It tries to convince you that, heck, they're people, too, and you really ought to like them.

The "top-down" view is that if you just get the "branding" right everything else will fall into place. In most categories, this way of thinking results in a very costly public dialogue between an advertiser and himself.

Top-down branding works in a few categories -- fashion, booze, cigarets and some luxury goods. Account planners, marketing coordinators and others with limited vision think that  because these are heavily advertised categories this is how advertising works in general.

In fact, about 95% of the stuff we buy is not fashion, booze, cigarets or luxury goods. It's mayonnaise and toothbrushes and shower curtains and socks.

If you are not in the business of selling fashion, booze, cigarets or luxury goods, you would be wise to forget about "brand" advertising and focus your ad dollars on differentiating your products.

The strongest brands are built "bottom-up" -- by outstanding product advertising.

As we always say around Ad Contrarian headquarters, we don't get them to try our product by convincing them to love our brand. We get them to love our brand by convincing them to try our product.

October 14, 2011

Origins Of Postcoherent Advertising

A few days ago we discussed the idea of "postcoherent" advertising, i.e., advertising that has evolved to the point that it is baffling to viewers.

I commented that I thought "postcoherence" was a trend in advertising, and several readers seemed to agree.

It seems remarkable that an industry that is supposed to be all about communication could  grow to be so effete that people can't even understand what we're trying to say. I was trying to think how we got to this point.

I can think of a few major influences.

1. The dotcom bubble: In the late 90's, there appeared an era of unrestrained creative self-indulgence. The advertising of the time seemed to follow a pattern -- 27 seconds of something bizarre (e.g., shooting gerbils out of a cannon) followed by 3 seconds of logo. The philosophy behind this type of advertising was "quick branding" -- it really didn't matter what people thought of you just so long as they recognized your brand. When the bubble burst and 98% of the brilliant dotcom ideas exploded, not all lessons were learned.

2. The talent drain: New media are draining off some of the talented people who used to go into advertising. Advertising used to be 2nd or 3rd choice for talented created people, now it is 3rd or 4th choice. We still have some wonderfully talented creative people. But the average level of talent has fallen off.

3. Form fatigue: After a while, all forms of communication lose steam and get worn out. You can see it with music. In my lifetime I've seen a half dozen or more forms of pop music peak and then run out of steam. When a style has been exhausted, new forms need to be tried. Sometimes these new forms break through. Most often they don't. Advertising has a tendency to be self-referential and follow certain tried-and-true forms. In order to break out of these traditional patterns, sometimes some milk gets spilled.

4. Sometimes it works: The strange thing is that once in a while one of these bewildering, incoherent advertising efforts works. I can remember seeing "Go Daddy" advertising the first few times and having absolutely no idea what they did or what they were talking about. And yet they seem to have put together the right combination of prurience, bad taste and plain ol' stupidity to create success. Sometimes crazy things happen.

October 13, 2011

Testing Social Media Theory

The research department here at Ad Contrarian World Headquarters has asked me to help them conduct a little project.

You see, we've been ragging on social media maniacs for quite some time.

We've gone on record saying that we believe social media is a good vehicle for some tactical things -- short-term retail promotions and customer relations, for example. But we've also said that social media is not a very good tool for big picture strategic stuff like sales and brand building.

So we would like you to help us determine the truth.

According to our Global Director of Worldwide Research, the essence of social media theory is the "conversation." The conversational theory of marketing goes something like this: Because of the social web, sharing of information about brands is much more prevalent among consumers and has given consumers unprecedented power in their purchasing behaviors.

Now our Worldwide Director of Global Strategic Insight says that it certainly makes sense that "information is power." And if it's true that consumers are having these conversations there ought to be some significant manifestation in product sales. But the key question is, are people really having conversations about brands in social media? Or are they posting pictures of their cats farting?

So here's what we did. The people in our research lab have some fairly active Facebook, Twitter, and Linked-In accounts. These are, by far, the most popular social media sites. We're guessing here (that's right, researchers sometimes guess) that between these three sites, they probably comprise about 75% of the "social web."

We've studied these accounts for a week. In that week, we haven't found one conversation about a brand. Not one.

So help us out here. Go right now to whatever Facebook, Twitter or Linked-In accounts you may have. Look to see if there's a "conversation about brands" happening anywhere on your page. Then report back via our comments section.

Do a good enough job and we'll make you an Official Junior Associate Worldwide Global Research Director.

October 12, 2011

Why The Web Has Been A Crappy Ad Medium

Digiday is running a 12-part series called Why Hasn't The Web Lived Up To Its Brand Promise? This is just an awkward, mealy-mouth way of asking "why has the web been such a crappy ad medium."

In the first installment, Digiday talked to some CEOs and presidents of companies who have been instrumental in either creating or selling web advertising.

The real news is that for the first time we're starting to hear a whole bunch of web professionals saying something that The Ad Contrarian has been blogging about for years -- the enormous gulf between what web advertising has promised and what it has delivered.

Unfortunately, Digiday has started this honorable project by talking to some of the wrong people. While a few of the respondents had cogent things to say, other responses were exactly what you'd expect -- excuses, blame, denial and self-delusion.

Here is a sample of some of the responses they got to the question, "Why has the Web fallen short as a brand-advertising medium?"
"...we never settled on brand metrics on how to appropriately measure brand impact..."
Bullshit. They sold us clicks, but when it turned out no one was clicking they decided they needed new metrics.
"...clutter. It's killing digital media."
Wrong. It was a bad ad medium before it was cluttered.
"Brand stewardship remains in the hands of traditional agencies and creatives who come up too seldom with brand ideas that lend themselves to great digital brand experiences."
Yeah, yeah, it's our fault. Creative people can do great things for every medium ever invented except the web. Gimme a f----ing break.
"Who says that it hasn't? The vast majority of brand studies that I have seen have shown lift. Clearly the Web is a great place for branding."
This guy needs some immediate professional help.

I'm going to save Digiday 11 more parts to its series and tell them why the web has been a lousy ad medium.

1. Interactivity is bullshit. No one wants to interact with ads. Banner advertising was sold on the idea that it would be much more effective than traditional print advertising because people would interact with it. They don't and it isn't.

2. Small space advertising has never been very effective. Online display ads are no more impactful than any other small space ad. The fact that they happen to appear on a screen instead of a page changes nothing.

3. Nobody in his right mind volunteers for advertising. Every kind of online advertising that is not display advertising requires volunteers. You have to seek it out. You have to seek a website or a Facebook page. You have to seek a YouTube video or a Twitter feed. There are only two ways to attract seekers. You either have to give them something for nothing, or provide them with "compelling content." Giving something for nothing is not a brilliant way to build a brand. And if you think that your mattress company is going to attract a significant number of viewers by creating "compelling content" you are seriously delusional.

4. The interruption model rules. Advertising is annoying. The only way to get most people to pay attention to it is to interrupt what they're doing. People are used to being interrupted while watching entertainment. But they hate being interrupted while communicating or seeking information. Most of what they do on line is communicate and seek information.

As I've said many times here, there are only two types of web advertising that have proven themselves consistently effective to me -- search (which is very effective) and email (which is somewhat effective.) So far, the rest has been rumors and anecdotes.

Any way you slice it, the key fact is that 15 years after its inception, I cannot come up with the name of one major consumer-facing non-native web brand that has been built primarily by web advertising.

It is encouraging, however, to see some people within the web advertising community finally coming out and admitting the shortcomings. Maybe if more web advertising people would stand up and acknowledge the issues they could help the web become what we all want it to be -- a more effective advertising medium.

October 10, 2011

Bulletin: Ad Campaigns Now Dead, Too

Okay, so we all know that advertising is dead, and television is dead, and everything related to LBTI (Life Before The Internet) is also dead.

It was just two weeks ago that I reported here that I was dead (here's proof.)

Now it turns out that Ad Campaigns Are Dead, too.

It's all part of the new age of Idiot Journalism being practiced in the advertising and marketing press. Here's how it works. You work for some kind of web marketing outfit. You're looking to drum up business. You write a piece called "________ Is Dead." The only requirement is that whatever it is that is dead had to be slayed by the web, and preferably by social media.

It doesn't matter that you have no facts and no data, you just concoct a bunch of bald assertions add them to some unrelated baloney, and the idiot press, desperate for clicks, prints it.

Last week, Ad Age ran the latest in the ever-expanding library of moronic "________ Is Dead" pieces called "Ad Campaigns Are Dead."

The gist of this piece is the usual "the consumer is in charge" baloney (boy, I sure miss the days when I was in charge and zombie consumers would do whatever I said.) According to this piece everyone needs to stop wasting money on ad campaigns and put it all behind social media because...
"Suddenly, it's no longer about the campaign...
...By examining your business through a social filter, you'll not only cultivate social awareness, you will bring the inherent power of your brand graph into fruition..."
Wow. Apparently, the new purpose of advertising is to bring the inherent power of our brand graphs into fruition. Who knew? All these years I've been wasting my time trying to sell stuff.

So here's a question. I know there are a lot of dopey marketing people out there, but is anyone really dim enough to swallow this bullshit?

You see, in the social media dream world, everyone is on line having conversations about the pickles they buy and the mufflers and the shower curtains and the socks and the toasters.

In this brave new world there is a growing movement to marginalize the very idea of having an idea. A campaign is no longer useful they say. Social media has made campaigns passe, they say.

The shocking thing is that there are marketers so clueless and dazed they actually buy this baloney. And there are marketing "experts" who take this nonsense seriously.

This point of view, of course, is the ultimate refuge for people with more software than talent.

Social media madness has reached the point where the best idea is no idea.

The article "Ad Campaigns Are Dead" reminded me of one of the most hilarious brand babble videos ever done. I thought I'd re-post it. Try not to kill yourself.

October 05, 2011

What Steve Jobs Taught Us About Advertising

I pompously call myself The Ad Contrarian, but Steve Jobs was a true ad contrarian.

He knew what his company stood for and didn't care what you thought. He assiduously avoided every false turn in the "marketing fad of the month" playbook. Reportedly, the only research he ever did was to ask himself whether he liked something or not.

In his own way, he taught us everything we need to know about advertising. The only problem is, most of us are too blind or too stupid to learn. The thing about magicians is, you see it with your own eyes and you still don't know they did it.

Here's what I learned from watching Steve.
  • The best way to build a brand is to sell a product. Apple rarely did "branding" advertising or "line" advertising. An Apple ad is about the features and benefits of one specific product. Not about "you the consumer." Not about how the brand intersects with your life. Not about how the brand saves the world.
  • Creativity is simplicity. Apple ads always look like Apple ads. They are simple. They are direct. A white background, a product right smack in the middle of the page, and a line or two of copy. They rarely changed this formula. Once in a while they'd have a person along with the product, but no idiotic "lifestyle" crap and no art school visual puns.
  • Trend-jumping is no substitute for principles. From what I can tell, Apple still doesn't have an official Twitter feed or Facebook page. They don't jump from one gimmick to another. They are not desperate to hop on every fad that comes along. They are the most successful technology company in the world, yet they understand that communication is best done human-to-human. They do a great job of utilizing the web for all their "below-the-line" materials. But they lean heavily on traditional channels for advertising. They have built the most powerful social network in the world without doing an ounce of social media.
  • Be who you are. Apple's public personality -- its advertising voice -- has never changed from day one. When Microsoft was winning, it never tried to be the second best Microsoft. 
Steve Jobs was the best adman of his generation. Those who want to learn would do well to study what he did.

Here is a linked bibliography of stuff that has appeared on this blog about Jobs and Apple advertising over the past few years.
Seven Lessons From Apple
If Apple Were Microsoft
How Apple Does It
Advertising And The Future Of Apple
Of Men And Magicians
Apple, Pepsi, and Bullshit

Volunteering For Advertising

In the early days of the web, it was thought that the web would hasten the downfall of the "interruption" model of advertising and be the catalyst for the rise of the "permission" model.

In other words, the old paradigm wherein your favorite TV show or radio program would be interrupted by advertising was supposed to die. A new paradigm would arise in which you would grant permission for brands you had deep feelings for to market to you, substantially via the web.

Or, as a cynical old bastard might say, suddenly we'd all be volunteering for advertising.

There has been some marginal success by a few "prom king" brands to take advantage of the "permission" model. However, even these brands have not abandoned the interruption model. They're still making spots. They've mostly used the "permission model" as an add-on, not a replacement.

But far and away, the old interruption model of advertising has prevailed. It is even prevailing on line.

More and more, online advertising techniques look depressingly like the old traditional techniques they were meant to displace.

Display ads, page takeovers, pop-ups, etc, are nothing if not interruptive. In most cases, interruptive yet not very effective.

The only place the permission model seems to be carrying the day is in social media. And outside the ideological bounds of social media zealots, the effectiveness of social media as a sales tool is highly suspect.

The belief in the permission model naively ignores a simple fact about advertising. At best it is a minor annoyance. Whether of the crass "buy this now" variety or the cunning "let's be friends" variety, very few people are foolish enough to volunteer for advertising.

Addendum: Of course, there is one form of online advertising that people do volunteer for in great numbers - search. However, in my mind I always separate search from all other forms of advertising because the purpose of all other advertising is to create demand. The purpose of search is to fulfill demand. In other words, people generally use search once they have already decided to buy. This is what makes search so different, and so effective. I also think search falls outside the boundaries of "permission marketing" as people opt into it on an ad hoc basis.

October 03, 2011

Postcoherent Advertising

Have you been noticing what I've been noticing?

Is the ad business cultivating a movement toward "postcoherence?"

Have you been seeing a type of advertising that is logical to the people who create it, but is bewildering and incoherent to the people who are supposed to respond to it?

This type of advertising seems to be popping up in all media, but most evidently on TV and on line. Watching TV recently, it occurred to me that about 25% of the spots I saw had me confused. I either couldn't figure out what the hell they were trying to sell me or why.

I decided to do a little research. I wanted to understand if I just happened to be watching shows that attracted bad advertisers, or if this was really a trend. So I went on line and reviewed the Super Bowl spots from this past year to see if "postcoherence" was a trend among big-time, presumably sophisticated advertisers.

If anything, it was stronger among these advertisers. There were quite a number of spots that were either fully or partially unintelligible

The primary characteristics of postcoherent advertising is that it assumes...
  • we already know what the product is 
  • or what it's for
  • or how it works 
  • or why it's better
  • or why we need it
It doesn't bother with the basic principles of communication. Instead, it is designed to enhance the status of the creators by associating them with a zeitgeist hipper and more intellectually flattering than mere advertising.

And, in the meantime, it leaves the observer baffled.

In an upcoming post we'll examine the origins of the movement toward "postcoherence." Meantime, here are a few examples I found from the Super Bowl.

If you've come across some good examples of postcoherent ads, please send me links and I'll post them.