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July 30, 2003
Marketing Communications without Borders

I still hear advertising people use the term "below-the-line" marketing and not always in a flattering way. This well-worn phrase evokes a marketing communications caste system that, I believe, is counterproductive to executing the marketing most companies need today.

As corporate marketers clamor for results that will better link them to revenue, the solution to these woes is often sitting nearby. There are powerful and unique capabilities residing elsewhere in the communications mix that can be called upon to deliver on today's business expectations. Yet the call seems slow in coming. Why is that?

I think that when we prioritize the marketing communications program around the advertising agenda it creates a dangerous blind spot. Likewise, advertising developed within its own vacuum becomes myopic.

The so-called "below-the-line" disciplines have much to offer and are up to the challenge.

For most of my career, I've worked as a corporate executive responsible for public relations, events and sponsorships. I've had the good fortune to sit at the big table as my employers prepared to launch major new campaigns or ready themselves for a big announcement.

My colleagues and I would listen closely while our ad agency brilliantly waxed on about the marketplace, the opportunity and the attractive positioning we could snatch from our competitors. We talked about how great advertising would bring about great brand leadership.

Brands improved, awareness for my employers and their offerings increased and market positions were strengthened. For some of us in information technology, a splashy and expensive television campaign became the automatic default setting whenever we wanted to achieve something important.

Those sitting outside of advertising wanted in on the action. Trade show exhibits starting looking like massive billboards. Naively, we believed at the time we were achieving meaningful integration by throwing advertising artwork on exhibit walls. Without a doubt, we were seduced by the glitz and along the way forgot about the customer and their information needs.

The emperor has no clothes

Most ad people enjoy being the expert before clients, having clients fawn over creative, and later seeing their own work on television and in important publications. Frankly, what's not to like when you are in the catbird seat?

Clients like this arrangement too. "Make me look good with beautiful story boards and clever presentations so we can all keep our jobs." In a nutshell, it appeared everyone was getting what they wanted -- with one big exception.

Corporate marketers (in the B-to-B settings where I worked) discovered that increases in awareness did not equate to more sales. The best advertising campaigns were not winning new customers though they did pile up lots of awards. CEOs were not impressed.

Why was anyone surprised by this outcome?

Great advertising can accomplish many things but not everything. When a customer is buying something complicated like a computer network, the marketing communications is inherently more demanding.

Further, marketing communications needs to convince customers that the network costing millions of dollars, taking months to deploy and potentially putting them out of business if done badly, is still a really good idea. It isn't as simple as offering someone a Coke and a smile. Real risks loom for the customer.

Customers expect more from marketers today. They have information needs well beyond a 30-second spot or a page of copy. As marketers, are we listening to these needs and acting accordingly? Even if it means doing fewer ads and more of something else?

Vanity advertising can be dangerous stuff.

"Talk with me, not at me."

Customers want a conversation. Lots of give and take. The opportunity to collaborate. I've seen ad executives listen politely, say thanks for the feedback and then decide that more advertising is needed.

As the saying goes, if all you hold is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail.

If customers want conversations, the web and events offer ample opportunities to make it happen. The home run comes when all of the communications, including the advertising, is pulled together into a single, comprehensive strategy with the customer as the centerpiece.

I continue to encounter ad people who shun all that is not advertising. That's a shame and a missed opportunity. I know their experience and strategic skills applied beyond their own backyard and in cooperation with the leaders of events, public relations and other areas would improve the overall marketing effort.

Customers will thank you for it, too.

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Jim Hasl is a communications consultant based in New York. He has 25 years of experience including executive positions at IBM and Hewlett Packard in marketing communications and corporate communications. If you think clever ads are all you need to capture a consumer's attention, think again. Jim's column may change your mind.

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