Why many bus shelter ads are a waste of money

One of the greatest lessons of my time in TV came one day sitting in a large editing suite used to make commercials.

I’d been in and out of the place for years but one day noticed something that struck me as incredibly odd.

Despite the millions of dollars worth of hi-tech gear, in the preview room, where the editor and clients sat around to view the finished product, was a small television screen – pretty much the standard size you’d find in most lounge rooms.

I remember turning to ask the Director: "Why do we have such a crappy TV in this room – it is the size of a postage stamp compared to everything else – why don't we have a giant screen?  Even as the words were leaving my mouth, my brain caught up: Yes, the TV commercials were made in a high tech studio but where they had to do their work was on the standard suburban telly sitting in any of a million lounge rooms.  In those days, we used to joke about the number of mums and dads whose television sets produced dodgy colours, buzzing sound and flickering interference.  In other words, a piece of artistic and technical wizardry would ultimately have to prove its worth on a Rank Arena that was a televisual disaster zone.

Now, of course, in these days of plasma and super-dooper HDTV – the quality of TV reception is much higher.  But in those days, it was estimated that a high percentage of the viewing population did not know how to properly set the colour and contrast controls on their TV.  So, as much as you might be sweating over the quality of colour tones, your Mum sitting at home couldn’t tell the difference anyway!

So what does all this have to do with those bus shelter ad shells?  Quite simply the same principle applies.  I find up to 50% of them are unreadable as I drive past in my car.  So what’s the point?  Yes, there are the few dozen people who catch the bus – but surely we are not going to appeal to them only and ignore the 10,000 cars driving past every day?

So why do ad agencies insist on creating bus shelter ad shells with tiny words and complex images that simply cannot be read unless you are standing 1 metre away with 30 seconds to stare?

In my book, that’s the heart of the problem.  These ad shells are being designed by a designer sitting in an air-conditioned studio on a giant screen in front of their face.  That’s not the way to determine if the sign will work.  Here’s a tip for anyone about to rollout a campaign including ad shells.  Minimise the words, make the images bold and clear … and when you view the creative, imagine yourself in a car doing 80kms down the freeway and do the readability test.  Without that, you’re probably just wasting your money.

The 10 reasons client-agency relationships end in divorce

Relationships between clients and advertising agencies are a lot like marriages.  They often start full of love and goodwill but as the years roll on they become fraught, difficult and often end in divorce.

I’ve watched many client-agency relationships fall apart over the years and I’ve been involved in a few client-agency divorce settlements.  It is painful for both parties and, in my experience rarely ends well.

Of course, you can push the marriage metaphor too far.  Clients engage agencies often based on a competitive pitch process at times akin to speed dating.  Those engagement processes are often flawed – relying too heavily on factors like cost.  (I understand money is important but agency appointments based solely on remuneration levels are risky in my opinion).

So what are most common factors that lead to client-agency divorce?  Here’s my Top Ten. Please ignore the order – and be aware the marriage breakdown is rarely the result of one single factor:

1.     Mismatched expectations of outcomes.  The client tells the pitching agency that they’re committed to a long-term process to build their brand.  The first brand campaign goes well, the marketing manager feels good – everyone loves the creative approach.  But then there is pressure on sales and the client is pushing for harder edged campaigns to drive inquiries or hits to the website.  Often this issue begins inside the company engaging the agency.  The marketing manager discovers that while his or her boss kind of liked the idea of building a brand, they never really understood the timescale and when the pressure built for sales, sales, sales – the love affair with brand building quickly evaporated. 

2.     Account directors who are out of their depth.  The role of the account director in managing the relationship between a client and the agency is absolutely crucial.  Great account directors are far more than just smoozers in a suit – most of them don’t wear suits these days anyway. In my view the most critical role of the account director is to intimately understand the client’s business, to feel the pressures the client feels, to sense when things are getting tough and to be able to walk in the shoes of the client.  

3.     Personality differences.  Porsche-driving, aggressive, loud agencies don’t necessarily suit quietly spoken, socially conservative clients who drive a land-drover and hate going to the footy.  This is all about relationship folks, which are often a reflection of a shared worldview and similar values.  By nature human beings tend to form longer-term bonds with people with whom they relate well.  This is one reason why I am not a huge believer in the standard pitch process representing the only way to appoint an agency.

4.     Agencies taking on too much.  A new agency starts up and becomes the darling of the marketing world.  Everyone wants to hire them.  Their client list grows rapidly and pretty soon you can see the account directors have become nothing more than glorified scheduling clerks: Making promises they can’t keep, deftly side-stepping the fact that the campaign concept they promised a week ago hasn’t even hit the desk of the creative team. 

5.     A change of personnel.  This happens a lot.  The advertising agency has built a great relationship with an individual marketing manager but when that individual leaves, or is removed, the relationship with the company is exposed as limited at best.   In particular, the agency has no relationship whatsoever with the people who really matter inside the company – especially the CEO and, just as important, the CFO.  A new marketing manager is appointed and immediately moves to make changes.  The critical insight here is that client-agency relationships need to be deeper than just the account director and the marketing manager.  The same applies on the agency side. Any agency is only as good as the talent it employs. 

6.     The marketing team loses favour or fails to engage the rest of the business.  I think this happens a lot.  In my observation, marketing teams often struggle to win the respect of the rest of the business.  They are, too often, seen by the rest of the management team as a cost centre rather than a profit centre.  Often that is because they are.  In some cases the marketing manager or head of function is simply out of their depth.  They simply don’t have the intellectual horsepower or experience to do the job.

7.     Agency cost and time over-runs.  Marketing teams are often under immense pressure to maintain budget discipline.  Agencies who ignore their pleas to keep a tight watch on costs do so at their peril.  If the client says the budget is 50K, then repeatedly responding with campaigns that cost 10-15% more will grind down trust and eventually kill the relationship.  Likewise timelines.  Agencies who continuously fail to deliver in the time frames promised are the equivalent of the unfaithful partner who is always late home from work.  It kills trust.  Agencies: Don’t promise what you cannot deliver.  Period.

8.     Poor briefing processes or even no brief at all.  There is a reason we write briefs to inform a creative process.  Committing things to paper helps the client to clarify what they want.  I am a big fan of the reverse brief – as long as it is not used by agencies to manipulate the client into what the agency wants to do – as opposed to the client’s actual intention.  The extra week spent refining the brief and making sure there is absolute clarity is time well spent.

9.     Lack of clarity about key performance indicators within the company hiring the agency.  I see this again and again.  Multiple KPIs that are in conflict with each other.  Expecting an agency to create a campaign that will drive the volume of sales, highlight product quality and retain the loyalty of existing customers is an example.  Think about it.  A single campaign is going to do all that?  Often this comes down to the marketing department pushing back on the sales teams and management line and agreeing on a single, achievable KPI.

10.  Expecting advertising to solve every business problem.  In a former life I remember an agency head pulling me aside and making the observation: “Your senior management colleagues have an amazing belief in advertising don’t they?”  What they were really saying was: “Don’t they get that no amount of advertising is going to make up for the fact that the product is 20% more expensive and of inferior quality to the opposition?”  Too often clients expect agency-created campaigns to make up for defective product and service offerings.  You can wrap up a pig and advertise it as prime beef…but it is still pork.  This leads companies to unfairly conclude that the reason they are not making more sales is because the advertising is defective.  They hire another agency.  Another set of campaigns.  More pork.  Same result.  Funny that…

Grandmothers wearing mini-skirts

There are things in this world that just aren’t right.  Who told politicians it was a good idea to go around kissing babies?  Why do some companies insist on calling me at home in the middle of dinner and then expect me to buy something off them?

Then there is the phenomenon in advertising and marketing that is akin to a grandmother wearing a mini skirt.  I’m talking about those companies who, in an effort to reach out to the younger demographics, decide its time to get down and get trendy.

There are some brands that are just naturally young.  Coca Cola, Virgin and Rip Curl are just a few that come to mind.  But if your company decides you desperately need to connect with Gen Y’s or whoever, avoid at all costs the temptation to go “mini skirt hunting”. 

There are some companies that my kids just want to stay middle aged or even a bit older.  They like it that way. 

A few years ago I was trying to help a respected older company lift its sales to younger people.  We naturally assumed that being part of the “Internet generation” we had to focus our attention online and perhaps show a bit of leg. True, online was a good channel for starting the conversation but a surprisingly large number of the younger folk we surveyed actually wanted to have a face-to-face conversation with someone like…their mum.  If you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. We are talking here about insurance designed to cover you for things you haven’t experienced yet…like perhaps having kids of your own one day.  You’d actually feel much better talking to someone who looks like they might know a bit about it.

If you’re selling surf products, I’m happy to accept the 18 year old in board shorts with tatts.  But many products and services need to remember that credibility doesn’t come from how hip you are but- far more importantly regardless of the generation- how trustworthy you are.  

Harvey Norman discovers branding

I couldn’t believe my eyes – in fact, I nearly fell off the couch.

Watching the footy on the weekend, there it was: A Harvey Norman “brand” commercial.

Big deal?  Well, actually yes.  It signifies a HUGE change in the national retailer’s marketing approach, which in the past has been grounded in graphic-heavy ads flogging TVs and fridges at unbelievably low prices!

Oh yes, and 500 year interest free terms.  Okay, not quite that long – but what started out as a 12 month deal has spun out so quickly that Mum and Dad will buy the TV and the kids won’t start paying interest until they reach middle age.

Wow, and it took the internet to do all this?  Yep, up until now Harvey Norman has relied on attracting buyers purely on price.  The rise of internet retail sites means that ain’t so special any more.

And guess what, now we have to find another reason to visit Harvey Norman.  The answer? Service.  So the brand ads show sales folk talking about their passion for selling TVs and computers any just about anything else that plugs into a power outlet.  Sooner or later everyone in a crowded market has to think about their brand difference. Even if you’re Harvey Norman, price only gets you so far.  But don’t wait – offer ends soon!

Why timing is everything in communications

More powerful than armies, an idea whose time has come.  I think it was Victor Hugo who said that – although Margaret Thatcher famously used it in the last campaign speech before her rise to power in 1979. 

The thing is – it is so true – and it is a critical learning for anyone wanting to deliver effective communications.  Advertisers have known it for years – getting to the target audience at the right time in the right place. 

Talk to me about food when I’m hungry and I’m far more likely to eat what you have on the plate.

Unfortunately the same rules aren’t always applied to corporate communication within companies and organisations.  I understand the need for corporate plans and strategic timetables but just dumping a bunch of information doesn’t amount to a pile of beans if the receivers of that information aren’t ready to listen and, even more importantly, absorb.

It all comes down to that golden rule of communication: Putting yourself in the mindset of the people to whom you are trying to communicate. You might need to prepare the audience for what is coming – explaining the context of what you are doing and why before you hit them with your key message.

This is especially important where your communication is meant to drive a particular action or response from the audience and even more so in a world where we suffer message pollution on a grand scale. 

You think global warming is a problem, try global message overload!  In fact, I would wager that is one of the reasons why the whole story around climate change has failed to hit the mark.  In a world where people are worried about finding a job or paying off debt, it’s hard to think about what might happen in fifty or a hundred years time.

So next time you hear someone say: We have to communicate, consider the mental state of the audience and whether the time is right.  It’s a little like the farmer who plants his seed before it rains.  A little patience can yield a much more effective result.