Ad greats still speak to us if we will only listen

I was recently cleaning out some old files over a rainy weekend when I discovered a mishmash of articles and book excerpts containing wisdom from many of the founding giants of our industry. Even though these people have long since passed away, they still have much to say to us if we will only slow down enough to pay attention.

For example, consider famed ad man David Ogilvy’s famous quote, “What you say is much more important than how you say it.” It’s not that Ogilvy felt style was unimportant–he had much to say about that topic, too. It just seems that too many ad makers today latch onto a creative concept and then try to force-fit their message into that approach.

When I was starting in this business 30 years ago, we had a discipline that required us to work on the basic message statement before we ever began working on creative ideas. Often there are several competing messages and your first assignment is prioritization. You have to rank the messages in order of importance and get everyone to agree. As Ogilvy said many years ago, getting the what right is a lot more important than the how.

On the other hand, Bill Bernbach of DDB fame was quoted as saying, “We’re too concerned about the facts we get and not enough about how provocative we make those facts to the consumer.” Creative people, at least the good ones I have known, are always frustrated that you’re only giving them part of the story. They know the more facts you give them, the more likely an “a-ha” revelation is apt to appear.

Bernbach admonished his creatives to not worry about that. His assumption was the facts you are given are the facts the client wants to have emphasized. Your job is to deliver those facts in a memorable, provocative manner. And you can’t argue with the success his agency has had all these many years.

One of the first advertising giants, Albert Lasker of the famous Lord & Thomas agency, told the story about the day he was sitting in A.L. Thomas’ office when a message was delivered from the downstairs saloon. The note was from aspiring copywriter John E. Kennedy, whom neither Lasker nor Thomas had ever met. Kennedy promised to tell them what advertising is.

Lasker took the bait, invited Kennedy up for a visit and was told that “Advertising is salesmanship in print.” Today, we have many more media options than just print, but this still sums up the essence of advertising. It is all about salesmanship. Kennedy’s definition nicely combines the two quotes from Ogilvy and Bernbach: Make sure you know what the key message is, and deliver it persuasively.

Many people regard P.T. Barnum as the father of modern advertising, and I can certainly see reasons why that title fits. So many tactics employed by Barnum to generate interest in his traveling shows were ahead of their time. Barnum would intentionally create controversy regarding the legitimacy of his featured acts by writing letters to newspaper editors in towns where the circus was soon to appear. I guess that’s a different form of “provocative” than Bernbach had in mind.

But Barnum was also ahead of his time on the subject of media exposure. His famous quote was, “Advertising is like learning–a little is a dangerous thing.” He told the story of the scrounger who asked a gentleman for 10 cents, saying that he wanted to save himself a dollar. When the man asked for an explanation, he said, “I started out to get drunk, but I have not quite succeeded even though I have spent a dollar. Another 10 cents should do the trick.”

Probably the most famous copywriter of all time was Claude C. Hopkins. In his classic book, My Life In Advertising & Scientific Advertising, he said, “Argue anything for your own advantage, and people will resist to the limit. But seem unselfishly to consider your customers’ desires, and they will naturally flock to you.”

Hopkins said the two greatest faults in advertising were boasts and selfishness. The key to persuasiveness, he said, was telling customers what your product will do for them. It seems terribly obvious, but how many ads do you see every day that fail to do this?

For 22 years (from 1948 to 1970), Fairfax Cone, co-founder of Chicago’s Foote Cone & Belding, issued regular memos to his staff on special stationery with a blue line across the top. They became known as “blue streaks.” (By the way, FC&B is the same agency as Lord & Thomas, but Albert Lasker decided to retire the name when he left the business.)

Anyway, in 1948 Cone wrote, “An advertising agency cannot be better than its clients. It may be weaker, or it may be equal, but it can’t be stronger.” Those of us who have spent time on the agency side know how true this is. Some clients allow the agency to do great work–some even insist on it. But most lay down obstacles and barriers in the form of impossible deadlines, inadequate budgets, insufficient direction–or even worse, they tell you exactly what they want you to create.

Fifteen years later, Cone added this: “An advertising agency that refuses to sit in everlasting judgment on its clients is headed inevitably toward failure. When one bad client kicks up, the result is like a toothache–only one tooth may have anything wrong with it, but the pain rages all through the mouth.”

How many agencies have ever fired a bad client? Not many, I’m sure. But every agency practitioner can name at least a half dozen or so clients that should have been fired.

The wacky, unpredictable advertising business attracts all kinds of people, to be sure. But most of them have one thing in common: They are bright and very insightful. If we take the time to listen to their observations, we can all learn a lot.