Throwing away money on “cool”

Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail. — Ralph Waldo Emerson

My goal in my early years in advertising was to build a portfolio, win creative awards, and make more money. Today, my goal is to do work that helps my clients, and thereby, to make a good, honest living. I would call that going where there is no path, and I hope, leaving a trail for younger creatives to follow.

I always felt there was something narcissistic about winning creative awards, but it seemed the best way to get ahead. At least, that’s what the CDs told us. After awhile, I began to question the whole value system around creative award shows.

In a sense, creative awards shows are a scam. Agencies think awards enhance their reputation, and thus, their chances of winning new clients (And in the past, surveys of clients bore this out; they would hire agencies based on creative. But how many listened to creative advice thereafter? Not many.)

So agencies or individuals pay major fees to enter their work in local, national or international creative shows. Then, a judge (or, if you’re lucky, at least one art director and one writer), suffering jet lag and recovering from a late night being entertained by the show personnel, scans hundreds of entries in dozens of categories. Anything that leaps out because of color, outrageousness or size catches the judge’s or judges’ eye. And it generally wins.

I’m not saying good creative work doesn’t win awards. Often, it does. But other than the Effies, which are awarded for creating positive results for clients, measured by actual numbers, I don’t know what those awards mean.

I do not speak these words as an embittered creative who has been spurned by awards shows. About 15 years ago, I stopped listing my awards on a sheet of paper when the type size had to be shrunk to 7-point to fit. Later, I realized that good work means work that brings the client business. Revelation!

At some stage in a creative career, you feel secure enough to stop building a “killer book” and start doing what’s right for the client. Younger creatives can’t be blamed for doing outrageous creative, any more than puppies can be blamed for teething on bedroom slippers. It’s what they’re bound to do. I only wish these creative puppies paid attention to who they’re talking to, what that audience really needs to hear, and in what voice.

Does he really know what your company needs to say?

Does he really know what your company needs to say?

Once I saw a magazine ad produced by a famed, “cool” Kansas City agency in Ingram’s Magazine. The product or service (can’t remember what) was obviously meant to appeal to upper-level corporate executives. The style of the full-page ad was arresting: the copy was done in red 9-point type on a black background. And the visual was unclear, since for some reason, it was obscured by thin red scribbles over it.

Now, think of the age of most upper-level CEOs. Not Silicon Valley types, but Kansas City types. Most are over the age of 40 or even 50. They’re presbyopic; they can’t easily read 9-point red type on a black background. And they don’t have time to decipher an obscure message conveyed in a graphic style more suited to a punk band flyer than to Ingram’s.

I wonder, how did this ad do with its target audience? I’m willing to bet it failed miserably. How the heck could the target audience read it? But because many clients and agencies don’t bother to build in a response mechanism or any way to track results from their advertising, do they even know? Did the agency just take the money, do whatever they wanted to do, and let it fly?

This ad was published a number of years ago. Maybe back then, companies had money to burn and didn’t give a rat’s posterior about results. “Image advertising” was hot. Or sometimes, even these days, company advertising managers want to work with a “cool” agency so the stardust will rub off on them. They like telling friends at the Club that they’re doing an ad with such-and-such “cool” agency. It’s a sign of your coolness, like letting it drop that you and Brad and Angelina lounged around your backyard pool last weekend sipping Mojitos.

Now, every company is cutting expenses to the bone, and generally, advertising is the first “frill” that gets cut. Wrong move. If you quit competing for “room in the box,” the customer’s memory banks, the other guy wins. No one should quit advertising unless they are in danger of having their lights and phone cut off. I hope, though, that this new frugality may prevent companies from throwing away money they can’t afford on ads that don’t pay them back.

“Cool” advertising, whose style and language are aimed at the wrong audience, isn’t cool at all. ‘Cause it just won’t pay the bills.