Can lots of little ideas add up to a big idea?
I recently read a profile of a new agency CEO who used to be the head of marketing at a big-box retail chain. Speaking about the “material” he wanted to communicate with customers in his previous job, he said, "I always needed it, and I never had enough."
That might be the voice of a sophisticated marketer. But to me, it sounds like the voice of an addict. And many of us in advertising and marketing are addicted to the need for more ads, or more content, or just more stuff to put out there.
So is quantity of material the new metric in advertising? When will it ever be enough? Can 100 little ideas take the place of a big idea?
It’s a byproduct of that insidious “c” word again — “content.” The desire for “content” in all its forms has given free reign to anyone who believes that any brand-related message can be dumped into a large, seemingly bottomless marketing bin. No one’s asking whether consumers want this type of advertising (and technically, it’s all called advertising) everywhere they travel in life or on the web. We simply assume they will want it and appreciate it.
Now, we’re never going back to an era where a few ads a year will do the trick for a large marketer. But increasingly, marketers have decided that they need to chase down their customers everywhere — from the radio, to their phones, to Vine. There are budget and time limitations, of course, so the marketing spending pie gets chopped ever so finely.
So what’s the result of all this? As a freelancer, I often get called upon to do many of these assignments — blog posts, emails, “gentle reminder” postcards, web videos, customer testimonials, you name it. It’s the kind of work that makes an understated but noticeable impact for many clients. Yet I’ve noticed some interesting side effects when we spread little messages far and wide.
Primarily, few agencies are set up to deal with the sheer volume of work that’s called for by clients these days — and even relatively smaller clients are looking for lots of volume. The assignments tend to be more labor-intensive and less profitable. It’s why many marketers are increasingly looking to in-house departments to carry the load of content marketing, or dumping the assignments off to a low bidder that’s not particularly interested in a long-term brand strategy.
There’s an even larger conundrum, and it also affects the future of advertising.
Is the endless production of little projects enough to keep people interested in advertising as a career? As someone who teaches copywriting students, I meet many aspiring ad professionals who come into my class with little prior industry knowledge. But while I know that doing the small assignments is all part of being a professional, it’s not the type of work that’ll keep very talented people engaged in an advertising career. Without teaching students to look for and champion the big ideas, all the little ideas won’t add up to a well-rounded or professionally satisfied creative.
Still, we might have to face the reality that most of us in marketing are playing small ball. That the majority of our work isn’t going to be seen, appreciated, or acted upon by even our client’s most loyal customers. We’re sending content and messages down increasingly narrow rabbit holes. And despite the explosion in new awards categories for some of these tactics, much of this work won’t get creative people lauded, doesn’t look great in their portfolios, and certainly doesn’t get people promoted into new or better-paying positions.
But I suspect that “I need it and I can’t get enough” is a mindset of marketers that’s here to stay. In the absence of a long-term brand strategy or a truly unique product, more will always be the answer, and we’ll be asked to throw it all against the wall and see what sticks.
So for marketing and advertising pros, too much may never be enough. Still, I wonder if consumers will finally say, “It’s too much. We’ve had enough.”
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.
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