A recent article in the advertising industry publication Creativity highlights a problem that should worry ad agencies as much as it does their clients. This story reinforces the doubts some marketers must feel about the real priorities of the agencies they hire to create brand-building messages.
The piece describes an advertising campaign created for a political candidate running for attorney general in a recent Illinois state Republican primary. The campaign made political advertising history and attracted national attention, the story reports. According to its creator, the campaign "broke every rule that politicians make about advertising." It broadly lampooned traditional political advertising, which made it stand out from the cluttered world of political ads. The ads championed the "product"--Bob Coleman--as "A great lawyer, not a great politician."
It was, its creator claimed, "great work."
Where's the proof? The client received 34 percent of the vote. That means that two thirds of the voting party electorate was unimpressed by Coleman's message. His party didn't nominate him and, come this month, he won't be on the ticket, running for the office he sought.
What's so great about that?
Confronted by the candidate's dismal showing at the polls, one would assume that the creators of this ad campaign would be both chastened and chagrined at the apparent failure of their efforts. Hardly. In fact, the campaign's chief architect stated that the "spots weren't designed to elect him; they were designed to give him awareness. Now he's a household word."
Coleman may be a household word, but, nevertheless, he won't be on the ticket in November. Enron is also a household word, but Arthur Andersen doesn't seek to take credit for it. There's more to success than achieving household-word status.
If the candidate didn't win, then who did?
Aiming at the wrong target
The article reports that the creator of the campaign, Jan Zechman, "won big time." The campaign was considered a success because it broke new ground and because the candidate "laughed harder at the spots than anybody." Of course, these ads undoubtedly will be featured prominently on the creator's reel, demonstrating his ability to design and execute attention-getting advertising.
But when did getting attention become the key criterion for significant achievement in an ad campaign? Is an advertising agency's success best measured by its ability to attract attention to itself, or to a product name? Shouldn't an ad or a campaign's success be measured by its ability to achieve a far more meaningful result--one that presumably was the reason the ad creator was hired and why the client spent the money?
If the product loses, how can the advertising be said to win?
Ads are not created to forge a bond between a company and its advertising agency. Companies or candidates spend their marketing money to create a bond between the company and its current or potential customers.
Brands obviously need ads that can help them stand out from the increasing clutter of competitive offerings. Brands must vie aggressively for the consumer's attention. Companies hire advertising agencies to create ad campaigns designed to make their brand top-of-mind. They create ads that cajole, or sing, or sometimes even scream. And their client companies invest considerable sums of money to support these ad campaigns.
Why do marketers spend in $2 million or more for a single 30-second TV spot during the Super Bowl? Because they believe that brand awareness counts.
Brand awareness is only the first step, however, and often marketers and their ad agencies forget this simple but essential fact. Too often, "step one" becomes the final destination, rather than the first step on a journey of a thousand miles.
Making it count
Advertising can be an effective means to raise awareness of a brand name or a brand claim, but that is not the marketer's ultimate goal. It's certainly not how the ad's return on investment will be assessed in the company's boardroom.
Gallup Organization research points out that advertising can be a tool to establish customer expectations. But this research also shows that it is not a sufficient tool for actually delivering on those expectations, which is where the actual product and service experience must come powerfully into play.
When it comes to connecting with customers, great advertising cannot overcome poor product performance. In addition, memorable and entertaining advertising cannot compensate for an unconvincing or irrelevant message--even if the client laughs harder than anybody.
A poorly positioned product can be memorably established in what turns out to be an undesirable perceptual space. But this will not attract customers--nor, as the Creativity article reveals, will it attract voters. Companies do not create or sustain enduringly profitable customer relationships just by entertaining their customers.
Entertainment can help an advertising message or a political candidate gain the attention of an audience. And distinctive advertising may be needed for an ad message to break through the morass of media messages.
However, there is absolutely no value in breaking through with a non-performing message. It makes no more sense for companies to spend marketing money on messages that have no appeal to consumers than it does for them to spend money to create messages that no one hears, or to showcase products and services that no one wants. The result is exactly the same: wasted money, and no apparent return on the investment.
The candidate loses. The product fails. And who benefits? Certainly not the company or the candidate that spent the money. They wasted their money.
Winning awards or customers?
In truth, there are few benefits to advertisers who trumpet their performance failures as noteworthy success stories. That sort of celebration simply reinforces marketers' belief that ad agencies care about impressing their peers in the creative community, but really don't care whether the spenders obtain a tangible return on their investment.
The critical marketing challenge for a brand or a candidate remains one of relationship building. As with all other marketing initiatives and expenditures, ad campaigns--and ad agencies--must be held accountable for contributing to building brand relationships, not for achieving trivial and inconsequential results.
In this case the product failed. Bob Coleman, the lawyer, lost the election. But if the advertising industry chooses to proclaim that failure exemplifies creativity, then the product, and the client, is certainly not the only loser.