Advertising — the good, the bad, and the ugly

Seth Godin says there are two kinds of advertising, a point which raised my eyebrows high enough to raise my fingers to the keyboard to counter it. That’s a lot of raising. There are some good points in his post, but there are also some points that seem to miss.

The two types of advertising he sites is the thing really got my hackles up. One point, in particular, implies that since advertising takes skill to turn a profit, companies shouldn’t be advertising with anything other than Google AdWords. Since when is utilizing skill a bad thing? AdWords is a good medium for a lot of companies, but it is by no means a replacement for traditional media buying and high-coverage advertising. [Seth calls this "glamour advertising". I call it effective advertising when it is done right.] Armed with a little knowledge and some good decision-making, companies large and small can use advertising to great benefit, promoting their brands and products, and ushering people in to their websites, stores, and to the phone.

I’d like to set the record straight about advertising.

There are three kinds of advertising: good advertising, bad advertising and ugly or detrimental advertising. One is a good investment, the other is a total waste of marketing dollars, and the third can actually cause harm. Most companies invest in the bad type because they don’t understand the difference between the good and the bad. Many companies invest in the ugly because they do not understand the importance of truly connecting with their target market, they do not know how to connect with them, and they do not know how to protect the integrity of their brand.

The lack of understanding about how advertising works has led to a market that is visually flooded with poor advertising, which, in turn, misleads companies into believing that advertising does not work. It also leads non-designer marketing consultants to believe that advertising such as Yellow Pages and Google AdWords are the only types of safe, reasonable advertising. This could not be further from the truth.

[Yellow Page ads are no longer rational advertising. They may have been a few years back, but for most companies today, Yellow Page ads are next to useless in major metropolitan areas, where nearly everyone sources their goods, services and contact information online.]

The Good – Advertising that Works
Good advertising is well-planned months in advance. We generally plan our clients’ advertising for one full year in advance. This prevents budget overruns and gives the company a clear idea of what their advertising will be doing for them. It also tells the company what their customers are doing when they come into contact with the ads. Good advertising has a solid foundation in strategy, with specific goals for each facet of a campaign and creative that truly supports the communication and marketing goals. Precise production execution ensures message clarity, and careful media placement ensures proper exposure. Lastly, the sales force needs to be trained on how to respond to the ad inquiries.

The Bad – A Waste of Marketing Dollars
Bad advertising happens, most often in fact. The typical result of bad advertising is a mediocre return on investment. The key to avoiding bad advertising is entering into your advertising with realistic, focused goals. From there, you simply make sure that there are no weak links in the process.

Many companies start out with a weak link. As design software has become increasingly affordable, small businesses have frequently taken on the tasks associated with creating advertising. [Software does not make you knowledgeable or creative, making the logic in that transition fundamentally flawed, but that is a whole different topic.] They often figure that they know more about their business than anyone, so who better to handle the creative side of advertising? It’s true, they do know more about their business, and that is exactly why they should leave their advertising — their life line, really — to ad agencies. Knowing too much about your product or your company is often detrimental to the process of creating effective advertising.

This is how bad advertising gets that way: If the company has not already dropped the ball at strategy (and most companies do), they typically drop it at one of the other critical points, such as creative, production, media placement or sales force follow-up coordination.

Companies who do their own advertising often have the office manager work with the president to create their advertising messages. In the case of small businesses with only a handful of employees or with sole-proprietors, the owner often does their own creative which generally results in weak concepts and messaging.

Art directors, copywriters and creative directors hold their positions in ad agencies for good reason. Their thought processes are often totally different from those of people in other types of jobs. Creatives are uniquely adept at communicating complex messages in simple ways that get right down into the emotional core of people in target markets. The messages that creative pros design, write, and implement work much faster and far more effectively than those devised by non-creatives. If you take these same creative people and place them in-house at one company, they can still produce decent results, but their concepts usually become watered down as they become closer to the inner workings of the company.

Media buying requires special skills. Ten years ago, all media placements were handled by skilled media buyers. Most small to medium sized corporations now choose, at the own peril, to do their own media buys. One the front end, this saves the company 15% off the cost of the buy, but what they are really doing there is shooting themselves in the foot, repeatedly. Most media sources could care less about proper placement (their job is much easier if they don’t have to pay attention to this), and they know that the clients know nothing about the practices that maximize the buys. This results in ineffective media placements, poor buys, and competitive placement conflicts. Most small businesses know nothing about these things, and they know very little about what constitutes a good media buy. For example, a $500 ad in a low-circulation magazine is generally a waste of $500, but most small businesses go for the $500 ad because it is affordable, rather than budgeting, say $2500, for an ad that will actually work in a magazine with a high circulation. They figure they have to start small. It’s a good thought, but a poor strategy that never pays off. I’m not saying that every mom and pop shop ought to be budgeting $2500 for every ad they run, but they need to set reachable goals, select media that can bring those goals within reach, and do what it takes to generate the money to have a realistic ad budget.

Sales people need to be kept informed. If your sales force knows nothing about the ads that are stimulating people to call, how will they respond to inquiries? In all likelihood, not very well. Pre-launch campaign training is not that hard. It generally takes about half a day and is worth its weight in gold. When you have an educated sales team, they are much more likely to close sales. Small businesses almost always rationalize the skipping of this step by telling themselves that they are too small. That’s a good strategy for staying that way.

The Ugly – Advertising That is Detrimental to Business
Ugly advertising, the detrimental type, usually commits some sort of brand suicide. Sometimes it is unrealistic, making empty promises or outrageous claims, sometimes it just out and out lies. Most often, it simply fails to communicate and connect, leaving gaping holes for competitors to fill with their own marketing. I have seen companies fail to include their logo, phone number, or web address in nationally run ads. Those are often among the most important things you want people to remember in an ad. Sometimes the messaging is so poorly conceived and executed that it damages the corporate brand. Microsoft famously ran an ad featuring a letter claiming to be from a real Mac to Windows "switcher," only to be caught using a stock photo and a ridiculously long "testimonial" written by one of their hired PR guns. Apple, on the other hand, has run ads that were so smug and left such a disconnect that people simply failed to care about the product. (They have since done a much better job of fostering applelust.)

Keeping Your Goals Straight Will Bring Success
The number one mistake that companies make is going into advertising with unrealistic goals. The goal of advertising is not sales. Advertising is one effective method of marketing. The goal of marketing is creating community. If you go into advertising with the right goals, planning, strategy, creative, production, media buying smarts and pre-launch training, your campaign will succeed. The best way to ensure that success is to hire a professional ad agency.

Kelly Hobkirk - teaching marketers how to harness strategy, goals, reality, and purpose to connect and do better work.


Kelly Hobkirk has been helping companies succeed in creative ways for nearly 25 years. His work has been featured in Time Magazine, and books by Rockport and Rotovision. Get exclusive articles when you sign up for his monthly newsletter.

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