How To Cut Through The Crap

We published the following piece seven years ago this week, way back in January 2011, just as things were starting to get very weird and confusing in the world of advertising and marketing, with all kinds of charlatans and bullshit artists spewing nonsense about what advertising was about or was going to be about. It's interesting to see how many of these things still hold true today (click to make it bigger, or the copy is reproduced below)...
Marketing and communication in 2011.

How to cut through the crap.

SO HERE WE ARE IN 2011. Never has there been a more competitive time to be in the business of marketing. There have never been more ways of spending budgets. There has never been more pressure on budgets. Or, come to that, more theories about what you should and shouldn’t be doing. What is clear is that whilst many are waffling on about this trend and that development, some are simply getting on with doing things that get results. We are some of those people. And this is some of how we do it.

Creativity and craft are more important than ever. Marketing has never been more sophisticated than it is today. As marketers, we have the ability to instantly track results and gauge responses. Marketing is no longer a dark art practised by individuals, going on instinct alone. Today’s marketers are smarter, have more tools at their disposal, and more effort goes into finding the right strategy and
approach than ever before.

So why, when almost all marketing is produced in this professional and exacting way, does so much fall flat, or not meet expectations, or fail to inspire?

Well, people have never been bombarded with more messages, communication and conversations than they are today.

Today’s consumers are so attuned to it that they are far more adept at filtering information, communication and messages, regardless of channel or platform, than any generation before them. And it’s as true for newer conversational or interactive media as it is in conventional broadcast media.

The answer to this problem is as old as the hills, but more relevant and crucial than ever before. Simply, creativity and the craft skills of writing, art direction, design, typography and direction, are the vital ingredients that make the difference between the easily missable and the compelling. Between the whatever and the astounding. The unsuccessful and the successful. Between a campaign that doesn’t meet its targets and one that massively exceeds them.

Creativity and craft are the key things that can make two campaigns that have very similar, very robust strategies perform very differently. Why one captures the imagination, communicates, involves, stimulates, entertains, excites, whilst the other fails to do so. The difference is how that robust, well thought-through strategy is brought to life.

That’s why, even in an era when marketing is so thoroughly planned and interrogated, creativity and craft is more important than ever to business. 

Make sure that you are working with people who have the ability to bring your strategies to life more interestingly, more compellingly, and more entertainingly than your competitors.

Because even if what you are doing
is spot-on, it will live or die, fail or
succeed, by the way you do it.

The best communication is still about people. How times have changed in the last fifty years. Technology, the speed of living, hairstyles. New media and technology, and the possibilities they offer, are very exciting. But it’s easy to be seduced by
the technology and forget the fundamental truth about marketing.
After all, although a lot of things have changed drastically, one thing hasn’t. Human nature. We are all still driven
by the same basic needs and desires as our parents, grandparents, and their great-grandparents.

The truth is, the very best, most powerful marketing is still about understanding and connecting with people. Finding out genuinely how your brand or product fits into peoples’ lives (or doesn’t), and why. Knowing how and why they choose what they choose. And working out how to influence that decision.

Focus your communication on changing behaviour, not just changing attitude. A lot of communication today has as its goal small shifts in perception or attitude. Ultimately, the hope is that this will influence people’s decision-making when it comes to selecting a brand or choosing a product. But attitude change is a relatively small ambition when it comes to communication.

Incremental shifts in perception that may or may not pay off in the long run might be fine if you are a market leader, established for generations, or willing to wait ten years for payback. But for most companies, to copy this behaviour is to drastically under exploit the potential of communication. Communication which has the aim of actually getting people to do something, or change
the way they do something, is a
more robust way to build a brand.

And there’s no reason why this kind of communication can’t also leave people with the same positive feelings towards a brand as communication that only attempts to generate positive feelings. (For how to do this, see Creativity and Craft above.)

Be different in the category.
This sounds like a huge generalisation. It is. But, it’s a generalisation that is generally very true. Isn’t it odd, given that marketing and advertising is such a dynamic branch of business, that in almost every category, brands act and communicate very similarly to each other? It’s not surprising really. People see the most successful brand in the category and think “let’s do that”. And over time it just becomes the standard way of communicating. 

But the power of simply acting differently in your category is immense.
Suddenly, everything you do stands
out. Suddenly, everyone else in your category looks like ‘everyone else’.
You become the interesting one.
The one people want to be with.

Think of some of the brands who have dared to be different in their category, (Apple, Virgin, Cadbury, Innocent or Fentimans, for example) it reads like
a who’s who of successful brands.
This is not simply coincidence.

And the best thing about being different in the category is that it’s FREE. It doesn’t cost any more than not being different in the category (and in fact it can make it seem like your budget is
going a lot further).

Don’t spend all your time and money talking to fans of your brand. It’s very tempting in this ‘conversation age’ to spend valuable energy and marketing budget talking to fans or advocates of your brand. After all, who doesn’t like to have a chat with people who already like you?
However, the single best way to turn users of your brand into advocates and fans is to always provide them with a product and service that continues to meet and exceed their expectations (also, include a little added value fun into the experience for them now
and again). 

It is important for brands to have fans and advocates. But the best way of creating them is to get more people using your product or service.

Marketing budget is very precious, and the focus of it should be on adding value to the business. The fact is, your biggest fans will choose you anyway.

This means that to make the most of your budget, your activity should be communicating with occasional users, lapsed users, or potential new customers.

Oh, and by the way, all of your communication should also make your current users or fans feel good about choosing your brand. Which means making communication that’s always charming and interesting (for how to do this, see Creativity and Craft above).

Be impatient and ambitious with your targets. No one ever blew the world away by aiming low. Ambition is infectious. If you’re in
a hurry to achieve things quickly,
and ambitious with your targets,
your agencies will be too.

Nothing gets talented people excited like a real need to accomplish something through their work. You’ll find that agencies and creative people tend to do their best work on the most
ambitious accounts.

If you want to get the best out of the people you work with, make sure to
let them know that you’re in a hurry
to achieve something.

Repetition. Repetition.
Repetition. Come back, we’re not advocating some 1950’s style bludgeoning of the public with banal messages. However, have you noticed how few brands stick with an idea or theme for very long these days? 

Marketing departments, boardrooms and advertising agencies tend to get bored with things long before people
in the real world ever do.

Strong brands find a strong, long-term communication idea and stick with it. 

note. You do need to keep things interesting. It’s no good just repeating exactly the same thing over and over and expecting great things, you have to keep people surprised and interested (for how to do this, see Creativity and Craft above).

Be wary of those professing about ‘the future of
advertising, marketing
AND communication.’ You could probably power a small republic with the valuable energy that is wasted every week in the industry by people theorising about what may or may
not happen next year, in five years,
or in ten years time.

Whole conferences pontificate about it. Whole forests of trees are felled to provide for people writing about it.

But, without wanting to go all Yoda-like, you will never be marketing in
the future, you will always be marketing right now. The things that you are doing right now are the things that are most important to your business.

Focus your energy on doing the most valuable things that you can be doing for your brand right now. The best ways of reaching your prospects right now. The best ways of interesting them, exciting and converting them right now. 

In ten years time, focus on the most valuable things to be doing then.
Value is created by doing things,
not theorising. 

Done well, TV is still the short-cut to success. Even after all that has been said over the last few years about emerging media channels, conversation versus interruption, and other such buzzword-ridden tomfoolery, facts show that the power of television advertising is still the best short-cut to success for most consumer brands.

That’s not to say that other media can’t work really hard for you (they work very hard for some of our clients), it’s just that TV still has the power to change fortunes more quickly than
any other media or channel.

And these days, TV is no longer the
preserve of the big consumer brand. 

With digital and online channels, and the ability to target and buy audiences very tightly, the barriers to entry have come down considerably. Bringing the most powerful communication medium of the age within the grasp of almost anybody with a marketing budget.

We have worked with clients of varying sizes who have put their faith into TV, and they have all been very happy with the results of their marketing efforts.

And yes, we did say ‘done well’ - a lot of TV advertising just doesn’t make the most of the medium. It’s this lack of skill in execution that makes a lot of TV advertising underperform, and feel underwhelming.

You need to make sure that you’re working with people who have the skill and talent to make the best use of the most powerful medium (and again,
this comes back to the subject of
Creativity and Craft above).

Don’t scrimp on your
production budgets. Yes, we just said that. We know, everyone is telling you that everything can be done cheaper. But that’s because they care mainly about just getting your business. Rather than making your business as successful as possible. 

It’s true that as technology develops,
it’s becoming possible to make things much more quickly and more cheaply than ever before. This is great because that means the barriers to creating
great stuff are lower.

One side effect is that it encourages some people to look for big savings in all aspects of production. Which is okay, everyone wants to feel like they are getting a good deal. But we are going to stick our necks out here and say this: not all savings are positive savings.

The difference between successful and unsuccessful work often hinges on how well it is executed. This is the inconvenient truth of marketing. You can have exactly the right message, in exactly
the right channel, but if no one noticed, you might as well have said nothing.

Think about all the campaigns, ads and communication over the last couple of years that you’ve been most impressed with. Most probably, they were all executed very well. They stood out above their competitors, not only because they were right, but because of how they were put together, finished and crafted.

You can’t achieve that if you price good people or processes out of your productions. Savings in the wrong places can seem like good value in the short term, but are poor value in the long-term. 

Look for savings in the right places,
but encourage the best possible outcomes by being prepared to pay for
the things that make the big difference.
It will help you to stand out in the marketplace more than almost anything else.

Halve your production
budget. That’s almost the opposite
of what we just said above. You see what we did there? But bear with us
for a moment. 

Sometimes, the best way to inspire a new way of thinking about a problem is to break people out of their conventional paths.

Drastically cutting a production budget is one way to do this. Suddenly people can’t rely on clever effects, or famous faces. The problem has to be solved with guile and wit. 

Action. Not Words. There are 2,462 words on this page, but in themselves they are useless. We wrote them only in an attempt to be helpful.

Time spent talking about stuff rather than doing stuff is time wasted.
Time you could have been out there connecting with your audience,
making a difference.

Understandably, especially in these
pressurised times, everyone wants to
be properly prepared, and that’s
important. But month after endless month are often spent in rounds of meetings, gathered around charts
and descriptions, tinkering away.

Why do small brands often run rings around the big guys? Because they get to the doing quicker. Big companies are often hamstrung by process and over-examination. Don’t fall into the trap
of thinking that to be right, something has to take a long time to get to.

No matter how many meetings you have, you can never be certain that what you are proposing is perfect.
Better to be out there competing,
and fine-tuning as you go along.

Act like a challenger. Take action.

Sell! Sell! is an independent company based in London. 
If we existed fifty years ago we might have been called an ad agency, or ten years ago maybe a creative agency. Today those titles don’t seem broad enough somehow.

Suffice to say, our clients come to us
for big ideas that help to make their businesses more successful, and for
excellence in creativity and craft that helps their organisations meet and
exceed their goals. 

Copyright 2011. Sell! Sell! Ltd. London.


Weekly Round-Up

What has been floating around the world of Sell! Towers this week? Well, dear reader, this stuff...

An ad we like. Two weeks into the year and something we actually like – believe that if you will. Well it's true, have a look for yourself...

It's simple, made us laugh, made us think about pancakes. Those damn Yankees eh? Always with the ads that make you laugh and think about the product. Proof that advertising can still be a simple business when it's done right. I'd take this over your overwrought, big budget award entry fodder any day of the week.

On this side of the Atlantic, this new ad for Cadbury has been getting some interest (from people in the business at least), I'd love to find out how this goes down in the real world...

Obviously this is a completely new direction for Cadbury, given its kooky and comedy approach in recent years, and I think it's the first work for them from VCCP. According to the PR blurb that goes with the ad, Cadbury (I still want to call them Cadbury's, sorry) have moved away from moments of joy to moments of kindness. If you're into reading that kind of thing there's an article on Marketing Week. It's noticeably more kitchen sink and down-to-earth in execution than Cadbury work of recent years - a bit like Black Mirror does a John Lewis ad - and nicely done. The unglossy and gritty realism in execution is in contrast to a high-falutin' and, dare we say fashionable, strategy.

It got us thinking about these Alan Parker-directed ads for Birds Eye from the early 70s which, at the time, were ground-breaking – a real departure for the normally glossy world of advertising, even featuring *gasp* regional accents...

Next up, the best thing we read this week is this superb piece, from the always excellent Martin Weigel. If you haven't already, do yourself a favour and read it...

A thought relating to Martin's piece: recently an ad industry publication ran a special issue about 'Mavericks' in advertising (I put the word in quotes because their definition of maverick seems very different to the accepted meaning of the word). Most who were featured were simply big agency lifers who had climbed their way to the top of the big, corporate ad agency ladder, who in turn, name-checked their big agency cronies. Hardly any real mavericks, by the real definition of the word, to be found amongst them. Hmmm. Are there any real mavericks in advertising anymore? (Possibly not, given the responses of twitter when I asked the question.) And what version of hell is this business in when these no doubt absolutely lovely but unremarkable people are considered mavericks? I do worry.

There are more great things going on in the world of the Ad Contrarian too. These two posts, Technology and Wisdom, and Sweethearts or Customers are both worth reading - the first in particular is very powerful...
In the world of marketing, the conflict between technology and wisdom has been no contest. All it takes is a quick stroll through the halls of any marketing or advertising enterprise and it becomes immediately apparent which side has won. In the US today, 42% of the adult population is over 50. But in the advertising industry only 6% of employees are over 50. 
The result is that the marketing industry is drowning in technology and starving for wisdom. Technology, left unbalanced by wisdom, is currently responsible for some of the most wasteful, idiotic, and ineffectual follies in the history of commerce. Or does $16 billion in ad fraud not shock us anymore? Does relentless surveillance not concern us? Does public disgust not bother us?
These last two points make me realise – I don't think the best writing and opinion on advertising is going on anywhere near the trade publications these days. They seem to be more and more just a PR vehicle for the top 30 agencies and their staff. It increasingly seems there are a lot more interesting and relevant things to be found on the personal blogs of talented and smart people.

One thing about the trade publications is that they have helped to spawn a kind of class of industry commentators - people in positions of influence in big agencies who are always tapped-up for their latest take or thoughts to fill space, and in return those people get their PR strokes and build their profiles. Unfortunately it seems, very rarely have these people actually been involved in any great work.

There is no shortage of industry commentators. But precious few people making work worth talking about. Has the ad industry become all mouth and no trousers?

What do you think?

Anyway, here are two good things to finish on...

The amazing Lumiere Festival is taking place in London this weekend - it's a wonderful way to light up what can be a gloomy month. Some of the installations look amazing...

Lastly, but very much not leastly, we're shortly going to release our book How To Make Better Advertising and Advertising Better as an eBook...

We're still planning to re-print a new run of the original, printed version, but its labour-intensive production means that will take time. But we still get quite a lot of people asking how they can get hold of it, and frankly, we'd like to get it into the hands of as many people as possible.

So watch this space...

Have great weekends everyone...

Happy New Year - Happy New Advertising

Hello there, I hope your Christmas break was everything you hoped it would be and that you got to spend lots of time with the people who matter to you (even if that's just yourself).

As I make the first office cuppa of the year thoughts inevitably turn to our hopes, dreams and ambitions for this brand new year that is laid-out untouched in front of us.

No don't worry, I'm not going to launch into some LinkedIn style 'you can do anything you want' self-help nonsense. There are plenty of people doing that, and I'd rather not be one of them.

Something that has caught my eye over the last few days is much talk of whether this will be the year we see change in ad agencies to adapt to the world and changing business around them.

As someone at a company set-up a good time ago to change the way creative agencies work and get the best out of their people, this frustrates me no end.

So I suppose that is one of my hopes for 2018.

Not that the ad industry or ad agencies will change or evolve.

But that more people will realise change had happened already and is happening currently in this industry.

It's just not in the places that industry commentators are looking.

You wont find it in the 'top 50 agencies' (ranked by size obviously), no matter how long you stare.

Smart clients have realised this already, maybe it's time for the trades and intermediaries to catch up?

Have a great year!

Pipe Down - Advertising Needs to Embrace its Talented Introverts

Loudmouths. You know the type. People who can't stop themselves piping up, most often about themselves and their ideas.

They seem to have taken over the advertising business, don't they?

The people at the top of companies seem to be those most willing to pipe-up on anything and everything. The most well-known creatives in the business at the moment seem to be those who are in the trade press most often, mouthing-off about the latest fad or this week's opinion.

We've even heard some that prominent creative directors are paying PR people to do their personal PR. What a crazy business this is.

Time was, a creative, or anyone in the business, would be known for their work. Not their mug or opinion splashed across industry papers or websites day-in, day-out.

I don't remember the great ad people I looked up to when I came into this business spouting on, week-in, week-out in the trade mags. They let their work do the talking.

If your work doesn't speak for you, maybe you need to look at your work, not hire a PR?

I've met plenty of extremely talented and clever people in this business who are also quiet in character, who don't chase publicity for themselves. But too often these people are overlooked in favour of the loudmouths, even if their work is far stronger.

One argument is that these talented people should become better at promoting themselves.

But I don't see why self-promotion should beat talent and hard work in a creative business. Not if you care about quality, at least.

If we want advertising to be a business full of loudmouth self-promotionalists, we can let things carry on as they are.

Maybe it's just a coincidence that the PR-hungry loudmouths have risen to the top of advertising at the same time that there's a dearth of great work coming out of the business?

But then again, maybe it's time we realised that the loudest people don't always have the best ideas, or are the best people to run a department, or a company. Or indeed, not the best spokespeople and figureheads for our business.

Just a thought.

Advertising Needs More People Who Give a Shit

Advertising needs more art directors who will fight for the great layout, the killer image, for the best photographer or artist, or to keep something simple.

Advertising needs more copywriters who will write the 800 headlines needed to get the four great ones. And then fight for the great ones.

Advertising needs more creative directors who will sweat every detail, fight for the time their people need to do a great job, support their people when it gets tough, and not let any crap out of the door.

Advertising needs more planners who will fight to simplify the brief, who will resist multiple propositions, who will support great work.

Advertising needs more typographers and designers who live and breathe the detail of type and design, who give a shit whether every word is kerned properly.

Advertising needs more account people who know that the best work comes out of a strong, honest relationship with the client, who will say no when the time is right, and fight for the best work.

Advertising needs more agency execs who give a shit about the work they're doing for their clients, who will stand up to the holding company or the financial guys to make sure things are done properly, people are paid properly and have the time to do a good job.

Advertising needs more media people who wont just rehash last year's plan on autopilot, or recommend something just because the agency makes the biggest cut off it, or stands by while dodgy media is being sold-in.

Basically, advertising needs more people who really give a shit.

If you're involved in mediocre or crap work, and you're blaming someone else, maybe take a minute to take a hard look at yourself and ask if you really fight for great work.

Do you give a shit?

Ice Cream and the Infinite Mystery of Advertising

I've always thought it must be a nightmare for people trying to get into the ad industry, and for people who buy ads, that ad agency people themselves can't even agree on what makes for a good ad.

An ad currently dividing opinion is this US commercial for ice cream...

Have a watch and see what you think before you read any further.

I've seen people praise this as brilliant, in fact someone called it 'the best ad they've seen this year'.

And I've seen people criticise it, Suzanne Pope of adteachings went as far as to say "Rest assured, even if you crash and burn in advertising, you will never make anything as terrible as this."

It's one of the interesting and infuriating things about this business that we can't seem to agree on what makes for good advertising.

Can we expect clients, especially the non-marketing execs, to take us seriously when this is the case?

Someone pointed out that if the ad above wins a creative award, everyone will retrospectively agree it's good. There's some truth in that isn't there? That's part of the reason I don't rate creative awards. Even though they're judged by panels of supposed experts in the field of advertising, often they don't even agree on whether an ad is worthy of an award or not. And I see way too many things that I don't think are good pieces of advertising win awards.

Then again - we have the very robust school of thought that if an ad is successful (ie. it 'works') then it's a good ad. Hard to argue with that isn't it? We have effectiveness awards in advertising, so do we need any other kind of awards at all, ones judged on opinion?

Then again, there are sometimes other factors that mean an ad doesn't meet the targets set, aren't there? And if an ad works, is it really automatically good? What about the notion that advertising shouldn't vulgarise our world? Is a well-made, enjoyable ad that works superior to one that works equally well but is awful to see or hear?

Byron Sharp's simple recipe for effective advertising includes using clear brand links by including the brand's distinctive assets, mentioning the brand verbally and/or visually, showing the product, showing the product in use, and refreshing and building memory structures to make a brand more likely to come to mind and be easier to notice. That still leaves quite a lot of wiggle room for interpretation doesn't it?

Byron points out that although it's commonly assumed that persuasion-oriented advertising must be more sales effective, this is not true, citing decades of research that show that most sales come from people who had no intention of buying.

Then again maybe you don't agree with Professor Sharp? I know a lot of people don't. This is difficult territory because Prof Sharp always points out, his points are based on scientific research. Personally I have a lot of time for the scientific method, as I'm sure do most people.

It's sometimes difficult to reconcile when you have giants of the industry like Bill Bernbach saying things like “The purpose of advertising is to sell. That is what the client is paying for and if that goal does not permeate every idea you get, every word you write, every picture you take, you are a phony and you ought to get out of the business.” or “However much we would like advertising to be a science - because life would be simpler that way - the fact is that it is not. It is a subtle, ever-changing art, defying formularization, flowering on freshness and withering on imitation; where what was effective one day, for that very reason, will not be effective the next, because it has lost the maximum impact of originality.”

As discoveries are made in the field of neuroscience and behavioural science about how we make decisions, some in advertising advocate that advertising needs to be emotional or evoke an emotional response to be successful. Then again, it's not completely clear that emotional stimulus equals emotional decision. Nevertheless, quite a lot of ad people now argue that ads only need to be entertaining or moving in some way.

Then again Amil Gargano, one of the great admen, says "All other explanations aside, the simple, obvious, and mostly ignored purpose of advertising is to get people to buy what your clients sell. To develop advertising that does that is not an embarrassment. But to develop advertising that solely amuses or entertains, is."

Of course these days some people counter the advice of people like Bernbach and Gargano by saying that they did great work, but it didn't work the way they thought it worked.

And on top of all this, you have what I call the Talkability Jonnies. These are the people who say on twitter, or on the blog, or at a pub "Well you're talking about it, so it must be working". They don't seem to realise that it's our job to be constantly looking at, interrogating and trying to understand the work that's out there and why it does or doesn't work. Whether good or bad. Getting a bunch of ad people talking about your ad is no measure of success.

So where does this all leave us? Back at the beginning I suppose. Looking at a commercial and trying to work out whether you think it's a good piece of advertising?

What do you think?

Eight Things That Help Us...

If you're visiting the blog and wondering why the lack of updates, it's because we're guest editing the APG website this month, so our posts are going up there. This week's piece is about eight things that help us develop ideas. Have a look here...

And thanks for stopping by, normal service will be resumed next week.