Six Lessons from my life in Advertising

6 lessonsDuring the last decade, if there has been any industry which has completely metamorphosed into a new avatar, it’s advertising! The first wave of change saw the 80′s agencies breaking away into specialist agencies – media, creative, design, direct marketing, events, etc. The second wave saw the agencies transforming themselves to adapt for the new media / digital marketing environments. As a result the whole focus, of how an agency operates, how creativity is encouraged, how clients are serviced and how the campaigns are planned, has moved towards a new domain.

However, there has been some agency truths, which still apply in the current state of things. These truths, or personal lessons, are not just silent suggestions, but seem to be as much true and effective today, as it was, during the early 90′s.

Lesson 1 – Hire Skills and Talent; Not People!

Unlike now, advertising profession used to be more mysterious back in the days when I started. Not many people really knew much about the profession, and the people who really understood it well, could be counted throughout the country. So the people who joined advertising, did not do it as their first choice – unless they failed in one or the other profession or vocation, or were perhaps unable to pursue further higher studies, due to multitude of reasons. These people didn’t have a clue on how to make advertising, or the way it was supposed to be made. Hence they self-learned or improvised ways – to communicate, seduce, persuade, engage, to make a stunning piece of film or a compelling copy. The results often didn’t look much like advertising; but they really broke grounds of communication, stretched imaginations and possibilities. Advertising still needs such sets of talents – not some “advertising people” who have loads of case studies to generate off-the-shelf solutions.

Lesson 2 – Great Crops yield by Leveling the Field

It’s very easy and common for any agency, any day, to give more importance to clients who are ready to spend more. Or to teams which draw in more awards. Or to allocate the best teams to work only on a particular type of account. However, experience teaches us that this is just not a good idea most of the time! It creates polarities and unhealthy competition. It encourages people to leave the company early, either because of more opportunities and monies, or because of fear of stagnation. Instead of this rather, rotating teams on accounts increases capabilities, expands horizons, and gives out-of-the-box results to clients. Rotation also levels the playing field for all, including clients – who start respecting agency for quality of the final product, not just for the quality of the teams producing it.

Lesson 3 – Dedication and Diligence defines a Genius

Time and again we have come across so many campaigns which we label as just Great! These campaigns usually are based on such simple insights and ideas that it looks impossible to label them as “Big Ideas”. But I have come to repeatedly see that the real people behind these campaigns are often the most hard-working lot than anyone else! They put in extra hours, go that extra depth, pay more attention and care more than others. They also often work more effectively, in such a way that people around them are unable to see their hard work – till the fruits of their labor are ready to be savored!

Lesson 4 – Medium and Message are like Siamese twins!

Before the arrival of “specialized” agencies, advertising planning had always been “wholistic”. Media and Creative teams worked together in tandem. And often the media insight changed the creative thought processes – leading to innovations of not only what and how to say, but also where to say the message. Arguably, media were one of the smartest of all people around! As a result, ideas were not restricted to a 30 second ad or a full-page print or a giant billboard. And when the medium itself became the message, the results were just disruptive! Therefore, one needs to have the media team closer to create great communication; a comeback we’re experiencing these days, as more digital marketing takes place!

Lesson 5 – Money and Good Work are not complementary

One of the oft-repeated advice from established admen used to be “Do good work; money will follow”. It’s more an attitude! Yet so many promising talents, instead of being impatient to learn or produce good work, are more impatient to bloat their price tags early. Result? Shorter shelf life and their affinity to switch towards client’s side early, adding to the mediocrity of communication. On the other hand, more of client’s money doesn’t necessarily mean great creative delivery! Neither does it mean that a “more than average” paid talent would deliver likewise! When monies decide value of either people or agency, quality of work and innovation suffers. Therefore, first ensure a commitment toward good work; then money will certainly follow in abundance for everyone.

Lesson 6 – Great Work gets recognized by the Spirit it carries

When the work place is bubbling with energy, people are always absorbing it, and as such enjoy their journeys of that extra mile, delivering great work in the process! Advertising is a creative profession, and the last place the client gets value for his bucks is from a place which looks lacklustre, miserable and drowsy. Depressing people and work processes create flat work, while an exuberant team and work area creates work that not only looks good, but connects too! Some young technology companies are perhaps the best examples of this.

The profession of advertising is heavily dependent upon deep introspection, creativity and relationships. Innovation is an area which never was, and never can’t be overlooked by any agency. In retrospect, these 6 lessons seem to have been the philosophy of so many agencies of yesteryear – the agencies which survived the digital wave, are known for their out-of-the-box approach and their ability to gain respect from client as well as their own teams.


The Simple Art of Solving Problems

The famed inventor and the head of research for GM, Charles Kettering, once said “a problem well-stated is half-solved.” How many of us in the marketing / media / communications industry really care to heed this simple observation?Question words

We often come across many professionals, who are quite kind and quick enough to suggest solutions first. These could be as simple as from generating awareness, to as complex as kick-starting a growth for the brand through revenue generation. Most probably, the simple logic is that unless you’re able to offer solutions, nobody listens or respects you. Or sometimes, it could even be motivated by a wish to explore free-of-cost ideas from media / advertising / creative professionals.

The solutions in most of these cases, arguably, are driven by new business development objectives of the idea proposer, which justifies his time costs. While all this may continue, the whole process itself is a bit flawed! It fails to heed the rigour and vigour that characterize the Art of Defining the Problem.

A typical Case…

One of my prospective clients – then the national marketing head of a famous insurance brand – once called in the senior team members for a briefing. The one line brief was to launch an image campaign on TV within 3 months.

Naturally, asked about the need for such a campaign, and why TV only! What was the business / marketing problem he was facing? It turned out that his half-yearly accounts closing was round the corner, yet he was still far off from the target, in generating new buyers.

So far so good! But why did he think an image campaign on TV would accelerate sales? Because, he felt that a top of mind recall on a mass media like satellite TV will help in driving sales.

Now, insurance is a high involvement category. It’s usually is a matter of solicitation, and for this to happen, one really needs to work deeper, develop “assurance” values of the brand. It cannot (and should not) be treated like a toothpaste or a snacks brand, where top-of-mind recall at the shop level gains high priority.

Therefore we tried probing further, asking questions about its hero products, competitive advantages / disadvantages, the process of selling / mobilizing them through various channels, the core values of the brand and and above all its differentiator in the market. As expected, the director did not have the time (or most probably the necessary patience) for delving deeper into this.

Back in our office, on careful in-depth analysis, we discovered that in the past, the brand had experimented with every type of approach, to develop assurances of dependability. However, one or the other competitor was able to neutralize each of these approaches! As a result there was no specific differentiator available for the brand!

So the communication problem was clearly defined as a case of gradual loss of Identity within insurance category!

Once defined, the solution approach was very easy – i.e. developing a strong differentiator founded upon the core values of the brand, which would transcend competition, time, market forces, and would be very unique for the brand. Needless to add, when we presented our strategy, our esteemed client could not find any way to challenge our direction.

The Take Out

It’s a fact that while every advertising problem starts as a business problem, not every business problem ends up with an advertising solution. Therefore for any marketing or advertising to be truly doing its job, it’s very important to dedicate some time and energies into the first step of Strategy Development – i.e. Defining the Business Problem.

This problem is not just restricted to an “attitudinal” or an “image” issue – but there’s a commercial reason associated with it. While working on it, one needs to be a detective – i.e. sequentially following the analytical rigour – as well as be a doctor – i.e. utilizing the value of experience while marrying the analytical with the imaginative skills.

One needs to be assertive, asking probing questions on all fronts, to cross analyse, extrapolate and then synthesize data. Only then one would be able to truly identify the problem. Needless to say solutions follow fast! This is what I call “Art of defining a Solution”

Finding the effective tools to communicate with customers

What do you think is the most effective way to communicate with your consumers? LinkedIn question by: Fang Lu

This is a very broad question, for which there’s no one-line answer! In marketing communications planning, the tools to communicate are often the last things to decide. I’d try to give a perspective which might empower you to decide for yourself, the most effective ways to communicate.

Here’s a step-by-step methodology you MUST consider, before deciding upon your various options:

1) Gain a perspective of your battlefield – What’s the business environment you’re in? what’s the product category? Who are your competitors? How are they communicating? Is there anything eye-catching about their tools? Is there anything that you think is not right about them? Is there any rule or law that encourages or discourages certain type of communication? etc. More the knowledge you gain about your marketing battlefield, more empowered will you be in making your decision.

2) Gain differential knowledge of your product – By this I mean the strengths and opportunities your product have / offer, vis-a-vis competitors. Does your product really enjoy an exclusivity? Or is it s me-too? Does it really force customers to think different, or is it just a “better” product? Is it a category killer? Is it a price killer? Is it a market innovator? etc. etc. More the knowledge you have on your own product within the given market perspective, more empowered will you be in deciding on the effective message, which incidentally is as important as the tools to communicate.

3) Gain insights about your customers – This is the most crucial of all steps. In social media, it’s a part of the LISTENING process. Who’s your ideal customer (not “consumers”)? What’s his / her demographic and psychographic profile? How does he / she consume your proposed product? Is there any gap area, which still exists in his / consumption pattern? What are his/her hidden motivations, desires, ambitions? if you do not have a ready knowledge about him/her, you may need to have a Qualitative Research to find these out. Once done, you’d have more clearer indications about ways to communicate with your customer.

4) Develop key messages – All the above 3 steps would give you enough perspective to draw the unique product message that would make sense to your customer(s) within the battlefield of your product category and competition. Every type of message has its own best / optimal ways of communicating, for effective comprehension by the customers. For example, some messages are better delivered by means of an Audio Visual (TVC) while some by means of a web banner ad.

5) Identify the effective tools to communicate – Once you’re done with developing key messages and insights about customers, you may need to re-explore the current means by which the customers gain their product / market knowledge. You may realize from step (3) that though a net-gen individual falls within your customer profile, is actually not interested in using the websites reviews for product knowledge. Rather he/she is getting this info. through his closely held cafe-club network. So your most ideal tool could be perhaps a cafe-club event that engages these captive customers for about an hour and a half!

Therefore, to reiterate, effective communication tools / ways cannot be decided unless you explore steps (1) to (4) above. Not to forget that you can also consider any kind of “co-creation” tool before-hand (during steps 1-3), to let your customers decide the ways and means they would like themselves to be addressed by your company / brand.

Given the complex and ever-changing nature of the customers today, it’s natural and more effective to design a communications plan, which makes use of a combination of tools and media consumed by your customers.

Also look for Other Answers in LinkedIn. and Strategies for Effective Business Communication

How to Brief a marcom consultant

Often, when it comes to advertising / marcom briefing, the attitude and approach displayed by a few senior managers / leaders, is amazing!

A couple of years ago, I came across a very senior person from a leading Co from the services sector, who wished to promote one of the services offered by the company thru social media. The service itself, I was told, has been running for quite some time, but has not been adopted by customers to the Co’s expected levels till then.

In absence of a clear and concise brief, I asked a few historical questions related to the project, e.g. its current usage, awareness, adoption, etc., core problems being faced with the service, the company’s past efforts to increase adoption rates, PLUS why did the company feel social media was the right way to solve the problem.

The response I got, just amazed me! He expected these answers to be coming from me!

Now, in a normal set-up, every marcom consultant usually comes up with insights gained through some sort of research, based on a hypothesis floated by the client. However in this case, the response made me feel strongly that the client didn’t have any support feedback mechanism in place while launching the service! Isn’t it largely a waste of his marketing budgets?

While briefing for any marcom campaign, follow the FIVE basic requirements: 

1)      What’s the marketing PROBLEM you’re facing? – In fact, without a proper understanding of your marketing problem, you’ll be directionless about the need-gap areas of your marketing program. Identifying need gap areas will lead you to the next question.

2)      What’s the OBJECTIVE of your marcom campaign? – Without a clear-cut objective, you should not approach any consultant / agency. Otherwise, there’ll be a general tendency for them to respond with an objective definition that suits their understanding of the project, and not necessarily yours.

3)      Who’s your core TARGET for the campaign? Who are the influencers? – Often many marketers fail to define this, or consider that “all” groups within their product usage segments are their core targets. This is a flawed way of marketing communication. Your core target actually drives your brand’s personality to some extent. The influencers feed in to the ecosystem in which your brand’s personality survives. Hence you need to be extra careful!

4)      What’s the proposed DOMAIN of your marcom campaign? – The geographic / psychographic / usage / or any other segment domains defines the playing field for your marcom campaign. The clearer the domain is, the more effective is your investment.

5)      What’s the RESULT you’re expecting after the campaign is over? – Try to clearly specify the result you wish to achieve, if possible in numbers. When not possible in numbers, try to establish a qualitative factor that would decide the campaign effectiveness.

If you’re planning to invest in a campaign, without having a clear knowledge of the above factors, your investments stand to be ineffectively utilized or lost! And yes, DO NOT propose a solution to your problem while briefing, even if you know that’s the correct one! If you do wish to still, give enough details on THE REASONS behind your assumed solution(s).

Art of Copywriting in 6 steps

  • What topics would you want to have covered in a copy writing course, if you were a copy writer (most likely a corporate employee type)? LinkedIn question by: Kimberley Deas

Copywriting is as much a science as an art. While there’s a vast content available offline and online on “what’s a good copy” or “how to write a great copy” or “How to write for grabbing customers”, etc., rarely we see any guidance on developing original skills that made many copywriters jump out the threshold of “GOOD” copywriting and reach the level of “GREAT” copywriting.

If I were to start a new course on copywriting, I’d like to develop it into 6 modules, which are based on my experiences with the good, bad, ugly and “great” copywriters. Each of these modules actually teaches a skill, and leaves the learner on his own to develop, polish and sharpen these skills to such a level that it becomes an art. Here are the 6 modules:

  1. The Art of writing Simple English – Copywriting is for communication of a thought or info. distribution. The more jargonised, sophisticated the language becomes, the less comprehension occurs at the receiver level. Nick Curtis has a wonderful book dedicated to this aspect (available from Oxford Univ Press)
  2. The Art of Saying MORE with less – When a copy communicates more with lesser number of words, it expresses a thought and not just delver symantics. This is not choosing complex words, but more about choosing the right thought and delivering in a few words. This also helps in headline / slogan development.
  3. The Art of the Logical Thought – Structured thinking has a unique place in copywriting, since it helps organise knowledge and plan out the optimal ways of sharing the knowledge. This is also known as “Analytical Thinking”
  4. The Art of AIDA – Whether one writes for advertising or any other content, the basic rules of communication are same and need to be learned carefully. A=Awareness grabbing I=Interest generation D=Desire development and A=Action stimulation. The process starts from Awareness, which includes impactful attention grabbing, and leads thru Action generation – i.e. doing something after one reads the copy.
  5. The Art of the Illogical Thought – Once the above 4 processes are mastered, only then one should concentrate on this, since depending on the individual, this skill needs more time to adopt. This helps in idea generation and thinking out of the box / creatively.
  6. The Art of Synthesizing – This practice helps one to synthesize information and ideas into creating a new idea. Although this is not how many creative professionals choose to think, but it serves as an important secondary process to generate new creatives
  7. Homework: Last but not the least, one should also learn basic English grammar, which is an important skill to write any language.

I’m sure to raise some eyebrows from some sections of the profession. I’d like to have all your opinions below, so that this could be improved further. For others, including students of copywriting, even though you might not be following this type of course, make this your life-long learning goal for delivering (and teaching) great copywriting.

Also look for Other Answers in LinkedIn.

Creative Commons Licence
Art of Copywriting in 6 Steps is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Is there a general return ratio in radio advertising?

  • How many calls should you expect from a radio campaign (let’s say out of 100,000 or 1,000,000). I know “it depends” … but I am sure there is an average? LinkedIn Question by: Oren Yehezkely

Normally there are several factors that would restrict you to put a ratio expectation to your Radio advertising. Some of these factors are: campaign period, frequency of appearance, number of channels, reach of channels, competitive clutter, creative standard, mode of delivery, whether spots or sponsorships, whether call in programs or just spots, etc. etc. – the list is really huge!

In the simplest sense, let’s say you want to spend on only one channel, for a 4 week period within a prime time program. Without going into the costs, I’d say that your best chance of getting maximum effectiveness would perhaps be to concentrate on a call-in program that involves the listener to take part in the program while being told that the caller might win prizes courtesy your brand, or caller may answer questions about your products – which were perhaps talked about within the program itself! Therefore it becomes a “give and take and recall” kind of relationship.

In this type of scenario, the responses could be quite high. But again, without any numbers background (eg. target numbers, reach numbers, etc.) it would really be difficult to quantify the ratio.

In general, there’s no hard and fast “rule of average returns” in any kind of advertising – leave alone radio! The reason: an ad’s response rate, returns and overall success depends of multiple factors, all of which are not controllable majority of the time – esp. in case of mass offline media. Having said that, one can design a small-target focussed campaign using various response-based ad formats, where some minimum amount of responses are considered as “decent” or “threshold”; e.g in Direct Mailer advertising, Online advertising, Direct Response Coupon Based Ad, etc.

Concluding, therefore, a fixed ROI is not available for radio advertising – even though there are plenty of ways to have a meaningful return from Radio as well as other media.

Also look for Other Answers in LinkedIn

How important is humour in brand-positioning?

  • In most parts of the world, luxury or premium goods stay away from embracing humour into the communication mix. Does incorporating humour give the firm an impression of being flippant and ‘not serious enough’ to be premium? LinkedIn question by: Sameer Vyas

Humour used in the context of explaining the differentiating benefits of the product or service definitely contributes to sales and long term brand recall. However humour should not be used as a part of the positioning for the brand – it should rather be used as a means to achieve / contribute to that positioning. e.g. if a brand’s benefit positioning is “Brand X makes me enjoy my home life in a lively manner” – Then humour could be used to drive suggestions towards “lively manner’, and could be retained for a long time as a differentiator among competitors’ benefits .

In case of luxury or premium goods, humour has not been used frequently, perhaps because the form of humour fitting these categories is not very easy to make a direct association to the benefits / positioning of the brand among premium customers. Long ago, a small premium Ericsson phone ad showed a sophisticated lady in a premium restaurant talking to her fiance on the phone, while fixing her gaze at a person sitting on a different table. However the phone was too small; hence this person thought she was proposing a dinner with him – till the moment she finished the call, and said: “One black coffee please”. The ad (see below) had excellent recall and contributed to the premium positioning of the product.

(The ad went on to win the Lion at Cannes Advertising Festival. Read about this ad. Also see Heinz example)

Therefore, it’s all a matter of finding how the benefits of a premium product could be associated to the sophisticated humour levels enjoyed by the prospective customers of the product, and translating this association into communication – thru ad or otherwise. Humour is a means to an end – not an end by itself, while positioning a brand.

Also look for Other Answers in LinkedIn.

%d bloggers like this: