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January 10, 2018
How to Understand the Ad Industry in 6 Quotes
Summing up the nature of an idiosyncratic business
I have very little patience for people who merely post famous quotes on Twitter or LinkedIn without context. Pithy inspiration from Helen Keller, Gandhi or Teddy Roosevelt can only take you so far when you’re concepting a banner ad campaign.
But every now and then, I stumble onto a few that are very applicable and help explain to the world we live in and the industry we’ve known. So when someone asks me for a pithy phrase to sum things up, I likely trot out one (or more) of these:
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it” —Upton Sinclair
Ever see a post titled, “________ is Dead” that turns out to be written by someone with a vested interest in the burial? Ever have an innovative idea turned down because the client (or agency) can’t see how they’ll profit from it? Despite the trend of award-winning ideas with issues or causes tacked onto them, the marketing world remains the domain of folks who wish to gain market share, protect their marketplace position, and increase profits, all other motivations be damned. That’s what progress often means to our clients, not disruption, innovation, or feel-good mission statements. If you’re wondering why something doesn’t get done or changed in this business, follow the money.
“A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” —Mark Twain
Actually, this quote can explain much of the world right now. Because we’re inclined to believe the worst about our leaders, our celebrities, and yes, our brands. Any negative sentiment, even if it’s untrue, gains traction. Think about it the next time you see a brand get excoriated on Twitter, a bad customer service experience spreads through Facebook, or a small retail business gets scathing reviews on Yelp. It’s fast and often unstoppable. Brands have trouble keeping up with the outrage machine, which leads me to:
“When something has an edge, somebody gets cut.”
Many people have said something like this, Dan Wieden among them. But these days, it’s really difficult to be edgy because everyone’s, well, on edge. Ads — even inane tweets — that are provocative, controversial, or vague get misconstrued and as a result, face blowback. So many people lament the lack of risk-taking in the advertising business, but we forget how perilous it’s become. Once upon a time, marketers feared complaint letters or phone calls. But they were slow in coming. Now it’s an instant torrent of tweets and complaint posts. Remember that the next time you present an “edgy” idea or ask your ad agency for one. And bring a tourniquet.
“A great advertising campaign has 100 parents. A terrible one is an orphan.”
This is a paraphrase of a quote about victory and defeat, made famous by JFK. But such is also the nature of the work we create. The credits are deep and thick for a lauded ad campaign like REI’s “Opt Outside” but if you noticed, not one Pepsi creative came out to talk about how the Kendall Jenner video got concepted, made, and approved. Such a case study would’ve given credence to all the LinkedIn gurus who talk about the upside of “failing.” It would’ve been honest, educational, and cathartic — so of course, it didn’t happen.
"People don't read ads. They read what interests them and sometimes that's an ad." —Howard Gossage
Often quoted, this is perfectly applicable to the media world in 2018. Gossage’s wisdom applies for emails, four-minute videos, Instagram posts, and even direct mail. It’s completely wrongheaded to assume no one pays attention to advertising anymore. Some people watch unboxing videos for the air fryer. Some people read the copy on the weekly drugstore circular. Some people call the 800 number to get the free brochure about the insurance plan. It’s up to us to make the time spent with all of it worthwhile. We owe it to consumers — and ourselves — to make the work interesting.
“The truth isn’t the truth until people believe you, and they can’t believe you if they don’t know what you’re saying, and they can’t know what you’re saying if they don’t listen to you, and they won’t listen to you if you’re not interesting, and you won’t be interesting unless you say things imaginatively, originally, freshly.” —Bill Bernbach
A long quote, but a good one and worth re-examining. Because in our truthiness/fake news era, people have become quite distrustful of what they see, hear, and read. Which is why advertising has an odd opportunity to gain the higher ground by simply being upfront about what it is and what we’re trying to sell. Disguising our work as sponsored content or making it an annoyance on a web page doesn’t help our efforts to convey the truth about a product or service.
Now, I didn’t cover all my favorite quotes, and I’m sure you have some of your own that might explain this idiosyncratic industry. But always check your sources and give proper credit where it’s due. As Abe Lincoln said, “The problem with quotes on the Internet is that it is hard to verify their authenticity." (He’d qualify as a “thought leader” today, right?)

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Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small. 

Visit his copywriting websitesee his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.

And please, buy his book for 99 cents.


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