The biggest thing on the horizon, at least for those of us in the U.S., is the Presidential election in November. Of course, we've already been watching debates and hearing candidates tout why they are right for America and why their opponents are so obviously wrong. Toss in the punditry from both the right and the left — is there any middle any longer, by the way? — and the three-ring circus is fully underway.
Residents of caucus and early primary states are already getting their fill. The rest of us who watch the news unfortunately have to listen to reports of those poor souls in the other states. Some love it and live for it. Others…not so much.
It's the American way. Some say it's a broken process, exacerbated by a Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United. Others say it's just free speech and anyone should be able to spend whatever they want to help get someone elected. Whatever one's view on this hot button issue, one thing is certain: the flood of money into political coffers will make this the most expensive Presidential campaign ever. Oh, and all of us will at some point be inundated by political ads, especially after the two parties' national conventions nominate their official candidates this summer. If there was integrity to the messages, statesmanship, a lifting up of the nation instead of the putting down of the opponent and those with differing views…boy, wouldn't that be different?
Unfortunately, as long as people respond to the tactics of fear and division in campaign messages political consultants and the candidates they are working for will continue to employ those tactics. Every marketer and communications professional will tell you that these ploys work at an emotional level rather than a cognitive level. When push comes to shove, emotion generally wins.
It doesn't always result in the best outcomes, however, as history has shown time and time again. But that's a rational statement., which is easy to set aside as long as the candidates and their messages are able to keep fear and division first and foremost in the public's mind.
Making an individual, a group, a gender, a race, a nation…whatever…making anything else "The Other" has been a winning formula for bigots, despots and politicians of the blowhard variety for ages. Until we are able to lift ourselves individually and collectively above that level of discourse, we'll just get more of the same. Brings to mind that old adage about the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting to get different results.
It's sad, really, if you think about it. Which is the exact opposite of what most candidates and their communications campaigns want us to do.
So, as we kick off this election year of 2016, perhaps IBM's famous slogan, "Think," should be a mantra for voters. Not thinking can have serious consequences for the nation and the world.
We've seen that storyline play out far too often…that is, if you think about it.
As those of you familiar with the show are aware, "Mad Men" refers to the self-description Madison Avenue advertising agencies gave to themselves back in the late 1950s - early 1960s (and, yes, it was primarily a male-dominated industry, as the show reflects in not-so-subtle ways). While the label obviously referred to the location of most of the big agencies in New York City, it also certainly applied as a descriptor to the behaviors of some of those engaged in this craft, at least as portrayed in the show.
While I wasn't part of that ad scene in terms of either time or place, my career began later in another "Mad" place: Madison, Wisconsin…also sometimes referred to by its fans as MadTown. So, in at least one respect, I guess I was a Mad Man, too.
As a novice copywriter at a small agency in a small market such as Madison, I was getting paid to do something that was my natural gift… write…imagine that! And to ultimately see one's concepts and words executed in print, on radio and TV, outdoor, direct mail and so on…that was icing on the cake. Still is, to be frank. I can so very much relate to Peggy and the other young copywriters on Mad Men in that regard. There was — and still is — a passion for "the big idea." (One of the agencies I worked with in Chicago had a neon sign in its reception area that read "Hot Ideas Served Daily." I wanted to work there as soon as I saw that.)
Over time, one generally has other opportunities presented to them, both within one's initial place of employment and beyond. In my case, it was client contact and account management. Watching the account execs on Mad Men brings back memories of lunches, meetings and travel that sometimes worked out well, and sometimes didn't. I added market research skills to the mix, including both quantitative and qualitative research including focus group moderation. Mad Men shows agencies in the early stages of using such techniques to refine their message; I enjoyed seeing that in the show as it brought some additional realism to the series for me.
Changes of cities also brought new challenges and opportunities including, eventually, lecturing about marketing and sales at the college level. A few students told me at the time that they became marketing majors because of my classes. That was one of the things of which I was most proud during my time in academe.
One of the most challenging — and fun! — projects over the years involved facilitating nine focus groups in four days — including travel time and a middle-of-the-night fire alarm hotel evacuation — working eastward from Los Angeles to Iowa to New York. Whew! We also had participants complete surveys and brain dominance profiles which, along with the focus group findings, were used to develop highly targeted — and ultimately, highly effective — marketing communications for the client. This "do whatever it takes for the client and the business" working mantra from Mad Men was also one which I learned early on from my mentors. Actually, I probably learned it from my parents and teachers, in different forms, long before I sat behind the office typewriter (yep, had one of those) for the first time trying to come up with creative ad copy.
That's another thing Mad Men reminded me of: "It's not creative unless it sells." That's not the axiom used in the show, just that there is a real concern and recognition expressed that there's some bottom-line implications to advertising strategy and creative work. Writers, illustrators and graphic artists can occasionally get wrapped up in their own creative brilliance if not given proper direction and a sense of accountability for moving the target audience to action.
I also had the opportunity to experience the frustration that lead character Don Draper of Mad Men and his associates had on occasion: being part of a small agency competing with a large one for a client's business. Despite having, at least in our view, superior creative and strategic capabilities in some regards, it was and still is often the case that many clients seem to like the supposed safety of body count, i.e., the more people available to them at an agency the better the service. Well, not necessarily. I was part of a team on more than one occasion where Fortune 500 companies brought us in to do things their "big" agency couldn't do…despite the fact that the big agency had much larger staffs than did we. We had no delusions about getting their entire account. But we were able to carve out a niche that was mutually beneficial to the client and our agency.
Along these same lines, I've had the great opportunity to work with some insightful clients who actually preferred dealing with a smaller firm because they knew they weren't paying for staff or big offices that have nothing to do with their account. Performance, of course, is still the key to making that trust work for both parties.
Does Mad Men accurately show what things were like in New York City during that period of time covered by the show? In some respects, without actually being there, I'd say probably so, at least in part. Is there also a great deal of creative license within the show itself? Of course. The actual inner workings of the ad business would generally be far too mundane to engage viewers for long. Was there or is there personal drama? Of course. Was or is there bad or questionable behavior and choices? Naturally. We're talking human beings in a highly competitive and highly accountable work environment; things can happen.
My career now covers more than 40 years in advertising and marketing, As someone who has seen the good and the bad parts of many aspects of this industry, albeit from a Midwestern perspective, for a long, long time, I'm thankful that the producers and writers of Mad Men have created such a show. It reminds me of things I still enjoy…as well as reminds me of those aspects of the business I thankfully haven't had to deal with in a long time. As the captain of my own ship for more than 25 years, I've generally been able to work with clients who share my sense of business ethics and avoid those that don't.
Best of all, I've met and worked with some incredible people during my career. Above and beyond anything, that's been the best part of it all. If that makes me a Mad Man, I couldn't be more pleased.
It's a given that the subject of "What's Hot?" comes up in advertising and marketing. A lot. This is an industry that is very much focused on the flavor of the day. One of the agencies I worked for long ago and not-so-far away had its slogan, "Hot Ideas Served Daily," made into a neon sign which was displayed in the reception area of the office. It was a classic example of selling the sizzle and not the steak. Our sales pitch to a prospective client began the moment they walked in the door. I learned a great deal at that agency.
That's what we do in the marketing communications business: sell the sizzle.
Someone will buy a steak, but not because it's a steak. That''s not what they want. Not really. Think about it: do they really want a raw piece of meat? Rather, they're buying a taste, a smell, a feeling, a memory, an experience. That's what people buy. And that's what good marketing and advertising helps the customer to recall or imagine and act upon. If you are a B2B company, that prospect you are trying to sell to still works out of the same psychological set, despite being wrapped in the guise of budgets, units, SKUs, etc. You are still helping them meet a want or need. If they feel better about your sizzle, you'll likely get the sale.
As marketers, we seek to learn as much as we can about your end user, your target audience, your customer. Then we attempt to communicate with them about your product or service using those communications cues that they will mostly likely relate to and respond to. In other words, selling the sizzle not the steak.
I hate to tell you this but it doesn't matter how much a wife, mother, brother-in-law, husband, son, daughter, father or even the CEO him/herself likes a particular ad concept; it only matters if your customer likes it and responds to it. That's what matters.
That's when we've got a "hot idea" on our hands! That's the kind of heat wave we really want.