Advertising strategy. What is it? And what is it good for?

In my nearly 20 years of working in advertising, i have yet to encounter an advertising problem that couldn’t be cracked in a few days.

Yet to listen to a lot of ad agencies you’d think what we do involves intellectual gymnastics. And it is somehow really very complicated and difficult.

It isn’t. It’s very simple. We tell stories.

But go to any big agency website and you’ll probably see some crap about “proprietary processes” and “tools”. Like they and they alone are the keepers of some sacred knowledge or voodoo.

Horseshit, of course.

Show me any great advertising and i’ll show you a triumph of common sense. What we do is, or should be, rooted in reality and common sense.

When i worked on Budweiser, which at the time produced some of the best advertising in the world, this was our “process”.

We would rack our brains for weeks on end. We would then go to the brewery in St. Louis and show the clients our ideas. They would pick some based on their gut reaction. We would then go and shoot these ideas. And they would air the best ones.

That was it.

No mystery. No planners. No research.

We just did it. And it worked out nicely for all concerned: client, agency and TV viewers.

Increasingly, I am coming to the conclusion that an awful lot of ad people (and some marketing people, let’s face it) don’t really know what it is they’re supposed to be doing. And all the jargon and smoke and mirrors are intended to mask this.

For me, the so-called “strategic” part of advertising is actually the most fun part and the easiest really. What is the problem? What are we trying to accomplish for the brand?

I call this the “what are we going to do?” stage. When everyone is filled with nervous anticipation and excitement.

The creation and execution of the ideas is arguably as important and much more difficult in my opinion than defining the strategy. Because you are literally trying to create magic.

Thankfully this remains a largely bullshit and jargon free zone. There’s nowhere to hide.

“What’s your idea?”

Because ultimately all the consumer reacts to is the execution of your idea.

And everything else is, frankly, bullshit that doesn’t really matter.

8 responses to “Advertising strategy. What is it? And what is it good for?

  1. I have to deal with brandtastic ad jargon every day and it makes me want to taze kittens. All of that jargon – every word of it – is a hiding place for ignorance. It’s an admission of failure: “We don’t know what we’re doing, and since we don’t want anyone to see that, we’re going to make up words and processes that are indeterminable from quantum math.”

    The problem is that, in most agencies, it comes from the top down. There are ten account/strategy/marketing director/brand shepherd positions for every one creative position. By the time the client’s problem is “filtered” through the “process,” it’s completely unrecognizable. I liken it to digestion.

    In advertising as in no other profession on Earth, we should be calling it what it is. Jargon and bullshit do not add value, they detract from it. But to the people looking from the outside in, it makes the business somehow seem more legitimate.

    Which, to me, is the saddest irony of all.

    • i feel for you chris. Process? Come up with the best idea for client. there’s another one? no there isn’t.

  2. my presentations are always structured the same way:
    1. what do we want to say?
    2. how are we gonna say it?
    if I don’t make this clear and logical, it’s not much use of it.
    and you’re right: first part is easy one.

    sadly, too often it seems there’s no value in simplicity and clients value more than 4-and-a-half hour disertation on demographics, their eating habits and monthly seconds bonking their spouse.
    gives clients some weird confidence. or what?

    I think Dave Trott quoted Anomaly’s sign in their agency:
    “Idea first, strategy second.”
    so true.
    irony is, it’s a strategic statement.

  3. i think big agencies “think” this impresses clients. but clients are like you and me. they’re easily bored and able to see through bullshit when they see it. Not all, but a lot.

  4. what you wrote is the gospel! i always wonder why advertising has to be so damn hard. it’s :30 no matter how well you develop it. i’ve witnessed it firsthand — the account guys and planners would sit on a brief for weeks and months, going over research and this and that, and then brief the creatives at the last minute.

    if i ran my own agency, it’d be real simple: 1) is it good? 2) does it fit the brand? 3) does it fit the target? but number 1 is the most important bc if it sucks then who fucking gives a shit about anything else bc it’s going to be thrown into the “god damn fucking commercial” bucket anyway.

  5. that’s how we do it at the escpe pod me! bang, bang, bang. because it’s just not that hard.

    the tricky part is coming up a vision for the brand and then coming up with ideas that max out the media you’re in. and of course there’s execution. but you can crack the “strategic” part in a matter of days usually. it’s about as hard as a not very difficult New York Times crossword puzzle.

    i’ve noticed that a lot of conventional advertising processes are rooted in the old world of TV pre Internet. When WHAT you were going to say was the your biggest worry, not having the attention of your prospective customer. So it’s inherently flawed. Its core assumption is flawed.

    what we in advertising call “insight” is usually nothing more than common sense.

    you sure you’re not Chris Roe? Kidding.

  6. Holy crap, this is awesome. I love how you’ve articulated, in a no bullshit style, a nagging feeling I’ve had for a while now about where our business is headed. I very much agree.

    Now, as an account guy let me present the other side of the coin: We’re dealing with brand managers and clients who have mortgages and insecurities and are made to fear risk by their company cultures. In this environment, a 30 minute strategic deep dive introduction is a sort of general anesthetic, which relaxes them enough to be able to view creative, cozy in the knowledge that this is all “coming from somewhere”, and that if things go south later they can pull a couple of powerpoint slides together to help justifyheir decisions.. This is a fact of life, and this is the beginning of the slippery slope that takes us to where we are today.

    But again, much love for your post! Today on my blog I posted on the 6 questions to evaluate crappy/good/great creative (link below), and strength of strategy wasn’t one of the questions.

    Keep up the good work!

    • glad you enjoyed it martin.

      I think advertising people have a tendency to overestimate how interesting and charming their blather is to clients. and to underestimate clients’ desire for results. clients have careers too.

      everybody has insecurities and mortgages etc. but equally, everybody wants to be successful.

      and success is linked to sales results. so if you make it all about that, all the time, you instantly have your client’s attention. and if you actually deliver on it, you gain their trust.

      too often, like you say, the whole thing becomes an exercise in ass covering that is initiated by the agency who smother the client with jargon and alleged “process” in lieu of actual hard thinking about the client’s problem.

      so nothing useful or good ever gets done and nobody is happy.

      I cringe at the memory of some of the bullshit i used to hear in big agencies confidently spouted by some fresh faced planner who hadn’t the slightest idea they were talking about.

      I guess it’s easier to complicate than to simplify.

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