The Pursuit of Brand Truth Is The Real Work of Advertising Professionals

“The most powerful element in advertising is the truth.” -Bill Bernbach

Advertisers want to place their products and services in the best possible light. It’s a natural desire and a legitimate business concept. The problems start when brand managers think that “the best possible light” has anything at all to do with make-believe. It does not.

Unlike our peers in Hollywood, advertising professionals are tasked with finding and then polishing and elevating the truth, because that’s what helps sell soap, cars, vacations, and so on. Again, there’s a flimsy notion to overcome that people buy the promise in the brand, whether or not it’s true. No. People buy the brand promise once and if the product or service fails to live up to its promises, the brand is forever removed from the person’s consideration set.

Don’t lose my files, brah.

It all sounds so simple. Seek the truth in the product and show how it makes the product unique and hopefully better, then weave these insights into the ad campaign. But it’s not simple, because clients are often too close to the problem to solve it on their own. When the client is smart enough or lucky enough to hire a consultant who deals in brand truths, the client must also be open to hearing these truths and acting on them, or it’s all for nothing.

It Takes A Humanist to Connect

Advertising pros who lead their clients in the discovery of brand truth are warriors, poets, and philosophers with a keen sense for what moves people. These practitioners see the business for what it is—an exchange of ideas and goods among people.

There are also plenty of people who work in advertising who don’t know the first thing about what I am talking about here. For the hucksters and charlatans, there’s still plenty of money to be made in “applying lipstick to the pig.” Sad, but perpetually true.

Of course, no clients see themselves as the pig or in need of lipstick. All clients want the ads that they’re paying for to produce positive business results. The question is always how.

  • How do you appeal to people?
  • How and where do you connect with them?
  • And how do you keep them coming back for more?

To answer these elemental questions, it also means you need to know why people care enough to pause and listen?

How Do You Enter the Conversation?

How advertising is made is not well understood. This is why clients sometimes call up and ask for advertising outputs without understanding the need for strategic inputs first. No great advertising is ever made without first walking a mile in the customer’s shoes. It’s the only way to get on the customer’s page.

Take a look at your company’s messaging. The truth has a certain quality to it. It shines and it rings. Truth is like a river. It cuts through mountains of stone. The job for the agency and the client is to jump feet first into this river of brand truths and let the current carry you to the destination. Paddling against what customers truly think is a fast way to die.

If you feel that your brand’s messaging is off balance, and that there are no “ah-ha” moments in your advertising, set up a call with me. I’m happy to spend 45 minutes discussing the problems with you for free on an initial fact-finding call. If you want more help from there, we can cross that bridge, but first thing’s first.

Not ready to call yet? Perhaps you already have legions of fans waiting to buy from you. Take a bow if that’s you. If, on the other hand, you endure long periods of radio silence and erratic revenue cycles, take heart. These are challenges almost all businesses face. Thankfully, the challenges can be solved efficiently and affordably with a smart customer-focused plan.

UPDATE: There’s an earlier version of this article that I published on LinkedIn. @CommArts kindly pointed to it, significantly increasing the number of readers.

Looking Back While Moving Forward: Why an Historical Perspective Matters

Advertising is an industry with a short but significant history. The more we know about what happened before and how we arrived in this state of digital disruption, the more prepared we will be as individuals and as in industry to solve today’s and tomorrow’s communications challenges.

To this end, I am now preparing to deliver live workshops custom made for ad agencies (one in particular, at this time). The workshops are designed to strengthen the creative department’s muscles. During the workshops, we will run through the significant industry epochs, historical figures who worked to shape the industry that we inherited, and the legendary ads that continue to serve as guideposts for today’s ad makers. The business is now ours to mold and to remake, but to properly do this and effectively break the rules, we must first know the rules, and why and how they were put in place.

The workshop will introduce a cast of charters from the past including Mary Wells Lawrence, Howard Luck Gossage, Bill Bernbach, David Ogilvy, Leo Burnett, Helen Lansdowne Resor, Hal Riney and others who have made significant contributions to the craft. For instance, ad geeks know, but not everyone working in advertising today knows who Hal Riney is or the role he played in helping to elect Ronald Reagan as President of the United States.

It’s morning again in America.

“Morning in America” is a legendary TV ad for good reason. It features Riney’s own soothing but powerful voice, so the writer and the reader are one. That doesn’t happen every day. The spot is also one of the more optimistic political ads of all time. In a category dominated by negativity and by policy details, Riney helped Reagan reach people where it matters—in their hearts and minds.

Look Through the Lens of History

I like to explore the places where advertising industry history and American history converge. Advertising is a powerful force in modern society. The makers don’t make in isolation or in an ivory tower.

Last week, I wrote about the Helen Lansdowne Resor Scholarship that the newly named Wunderman Thompson (post-merger) grants to five creative women each year.

The scholarship’s namesake was the first woman to be inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame. Lansdowne Resor began her half-century-long career with J. Walter Thompson in 1908, and quickly became a champion for the advancement of women’s rights both inside and outside the agency.

Try for a minute to imagine what it was like to be the first woman to work as a copywriter. Try to imagine being a groundbreaker, and in possession of more talent than nine out of ten men around you.

Pink Air Is A Concept

One of the goals of the workshops is to create a greater understanding of the fundamentals of advertising. For a creative working in advertising, nothing is more fundamental than the concept.

Howard Luck Gossage, a.k.a. “The Socrates of San Francisco,” ran his agency from a converted firehouse in San Francisco. He was a fan of conceptual thinking.

A strong concept injects life into an advertising idea.

Once upon a time, Gossage asked, “What if?” What if we offer people a reason to stop for gas that’s above and beyond the mundane? What if we make up an imaginary perk for stopping at FINA, but a perk that is so imaginative that it seems real and drives traffic to the filling stations?

Gossage is the ad man who said, “Nobody reads advertising. People read what interests them, and sometimes it’s an ad.” In the case of his agency’s FINA ad, people read about pink air, and if they had a sense of humor and an appetite for the absurd, they breezed through the copy and concluded that FINA would be a fine place for refueling.

Bringing It All Back Home

Legions of intelligent people in the know have commented on the decline of creativity in today’s advertising outputs. When asked what is the biggest challenge for Ogilvy in the next 10 years, Roy Sutherland, Ogilvy UK’s Vice Chair, coolly replied: “Oh. I think that the whole advertising industry has totally lost the plot. It has become obsessed with that part of advertising which is a media targeting and optimization process. The creative agencies are essentially guilty of a kind of ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ to the media agencies where they think it’s all about optimization of something. I would argue something completely contrary, which is that efficiency and effectiveness in much marketing activity may be inversely correlated.”

Sutherland is advocating for the playful sandbox where innovation and new ideas happen because he knows you can’t optimize your way to brand love. You have to charm people, involve people, and move people.

Practical Methods for Dreamers

The workshops will help connect the dots for creative people. We will show how today’s living advertising legends are carrying the torch for the industry’s forebearers. We will also explore big questions, like:

  • What happened to the Creative Revolution? Is it still alive today?
  • Why was the Creative Revolution necessary in the first place?
  • How has digital disruption changed the score, seemingly forever?
  • Now that we’ve been disrupted, what comes next?

During the workshops we will also focus on the practical steps to take and tools of the trade. We won’t just discuss the power of concepts and the need for “concepting,” we will practice doing it. Accordingly, one of the workshop exercises will call for making marker comps and sticking them up on the wall for evaluation by the team.

For someone like me who started my agency career in the mid-1990s, marker comps are a given. For today’s art directors and copywriters, all work (other than meetings) tends to happen at the screen. One of the reasons relying on marker comps today is more important than ever is to provide the creative person the necessary distance from the screen.

There’s a faulty notion afloat that all the answers to all the questions that anyone will ever have are found inside the machine. Google does not know all. To figure things out and to think freely, people must move around the room, go for a walk, and sketch random thoughts on a pad. During the workshops, we will do all this and more.