Mad ad world needs clean-up

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I hate the world of advertising, the sticky toxic coating of endless communication goo our industry has slathered over all of God's earthly creation. Nobody asked for it. And now, in an exquisite example of rough justice, we in advertising have to slog through it with the same hold-your-nose displeasure as everyone else we've victimized.

There's simply no escaping it. Billboards on trucks cruising the streets. Ads bound into my books. A TV in the elevator. Another atop the gas pump.

The comparison to the world of nature is all too fitting. The momentum of our destruction through carbon dioxide emission is dire. Likewise, the ad world is already well nigh covered in messages from this and that friendly sponsor. The poisoned air of mass communications has left us all numb.

Now, I know what you're saying. "Sure, now that you've made your living off this business, you can strike the pose that you're too good for it." Not my goal at all. Admit it, don't you cringe under the assault just like I do? Do you enjoy it when your spam defense fails like a cheap deodorant? When you're watching your favorite show, how many sandwich breaks do you really need?

A more legitimate question, I'll admit, is this: What do I propose to do about it? Since I intend to stay in this business until they drag me out feet first, how do I expect to keep making money for my clients and myself without being part of the problem? Even more important to you, how do I propose you keep making money? Fair enough. I'll answer that question.

I've said it before, but I'll say it again: Targeted media like e-mail and direct mailings were never intended for mass, indiscriminate use. Using them as such is even worse than a blight on everyone who doesn't want to see them - like the million sludge trucks, it's also a dumb business model.

These days, it's not just the "targeted" media that allow us to target. There's a cable outlet and a Web site for people of virtually any persuasion imaginable. And we're drowning in data, as never before, about what virtually every individual American likes and loathes.

In fact, our customers are dying to tell us what they think about us. It's just that we don't listen. So they go to Epinions, to Amazon, to their own blogs born of desperation, and find countless ears more open than ours. One blogger crashed Dell's stock price, just by articulating what others were thinking. A complaining customer is a customer who cares.

We need to act on it. Soliciting knowledge from your consumer, then failing to follow through, insults the person you've asked.

Today's most successful agencies are listening and responding. They hear their clients' daily struggles in a merciless marketplace. Yet they succeed in persuading them to step back and take a broader perspective on their market. How? By sharing that pressure themselves.

The best agencies and clients ask, "Where does my brand provide value? How can it provide more?" Those who find the answers can gather a loyal group of consumers who will value them and willingly pay more. Those who don't are sentenced to discount hell until they're deservedly fired.

I'm under no illusions about this. It takes serious courage to make it through the transition months, from dependence on lead-generation tonnage to a more directed effort with a longer-term payoff.

American carmakers have a three-month planning horizon. Asian carmakers have a five-year one. The Asian carmakers listen. Not to what the consumer wants in a car; the consumer isn't attuned enough to articulate that. Instead, they open their ears to the consumer's life, then attune their products and messages.

This is the secret of marketing success today. Provide something of value, let people know you've striven to do so, then under-promise and over-deliver. It's the exact opposite of churning out generic fodder, then shoving it into everybody's faces.

Importantly for the industry and the world at large, this approach doesn't clog the airwaves, pipelines and sightlines with yet more sludge. It's the philosophy that's generating the best work, the best results and the highest recognition in our industry today.

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