I’ve been listening to the audio book of From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor: Front-line Dispatches from the Advertising War, by Jerry Della Femina, and it is well worth doing.
It’s a story of how the advertising world worked in the 1970s – full of gossip and insider history – and later inspired the series Mad Men.
And strewn among the anecdotes and stories and personalities are nuggets of advice and wisdom worth picking up.
I wrote a few days ago about Felix Dennis – and his approach to talent. Hire it early, nurture it, guard it and when it is time, get rid of it.
Femina talks about the life of an advertising copywriter earning £30k a year, who is fired for being too much of a smartass – or so he thinks. The real reason is probably because his boss had his eye on a writer who could come in for $8k a year.
The more you earn – the more likely it is there is an eager young thing behind you – eager to take your place.
We don’t see this because we tend to fall in love with our own ideas, our own sense of value.
We sometimes believe that we’re irreplaceable. That we do something that no one else can do and so we’re protected from failure in some way.
In groups, that way of thinking can become magnified – until the group is so sure of an idea that it just cannot see how it can fail.
Until it does.
Femina gives an example of a beer ad. This company had come up with a new line of beer, one much lower in calories than the others on the market.
The job of marketing the beer was given to an agency. After much brainstorming and thinking, the creative geniuses decided that they would market the beer to healthy people – people who exercised – and push the health benefits of a low calorie beer.
Sounds good in theory, but the ad failed.
Why was that?
Femina argued that it’s because the creatives in charge didn’t really get why people drink beer.
They drink beer at leisure – it’s when they sit down with friends and have a drink – or sit on their couch at 9am in the morning open a can.
People drink sitting down, in the main. Perhaps they stand at the bar when there isn’t a seat. But really, how many times have you seen beer drinkers drinking as they walk, jog or press weights?
You serve beer to people having a break, having a good time. Perhaps they’re bowling, where every once in a while they get up, roll a ball, and then sit back down again.
Golfers don’t drink beer. Not while they’re playing, anyway. Have you seen a group pulling their clubs and also dragging along a cask?
The ad was going to fail, Femina says, because the premise it was based on was wrong. Beer drinkers drink for leisure, not for exercise.
But the advertisers spent $5 million. Surely they’d make a good ad for that kind of money?
It doesn’t matter what you do and how much money you throw at the problem. If the initial premise is flawed, the rest of the campaign is doomed.
If the initial premise isn’t right, everything from that point on will fail, because the whole foundation of your campaign is weak and unable to hold up.
When you think about this – it makes a lot of sense.
It takes a lifetime to build a reputation and only one indiscretion to ruin it.
You may have the most comprehensive case in the world, but if you’ve made one small mistake, everything you’ve ever done is in doubt. That’s what happens with prosecutors that do something wrong – all their previous cases have to be looked at again.
Napoleon thought he’d be able to invade Russia quickly and decisively- but was wrong about how his troops would fare in the Russian Winter. A couple of centuries later, the Germans learned that lesson again.
Campaign failures, whether in marketing or elsewhere, are often a result of lots of little things going wrong everywhere.
When you trace it back, however, there is usually a root cause – an initial premise – that is at the heart of it all.
And in marketing, you get the initial premise wrong by not understanding or discovering the real reason why people buy what you’re offering – the real benefit that they want from you in exchange for their money.
Beer drinkers don’t want you to give them a six pack. They want you to help them have a good time with friends.