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May 15, 2008
"Put it in writing."The power of print & outdoor

In 1998, Altoids won the prestigious Kelly award for best print campaign in North America. The campaign has since won numerous prizes and all of them, save last year’s Gold at Cannes, have come from print or outdoor executions. In the nearly 10 years I worked on the brand we never made a TV commercial. At my current agency, we promise our clients maximum impact for minimum dollars. Focusing on print and OOH is a key to achieving that goal.

I love print. To this day I ask everyone who works for me to show off ideas primarily in print. When I review portfolios I usually just look at the print. Let me see a poster. Show me the Mother-of-all-Spreads. Print is my wife. Outdoor is my mistress. I can’t imagine doing what I do without either.

Yet, with the indefatigable rush of technology, I am often asked if print is on its deathbed. Is it still a viable means of reaching people? If so, where is it headed? What will be its role in the new millennium? Will the myriad new technologies and media undo print advertising?

In a word: No.

Print is here to stay. Even with email and digital office applications, folks are printing more pages of text than ever. We receive the email. Then we print it. People are comfortable with the written word, both in advertising and editorial. Consider your wristwatch. When I was a kid, science came up with digital watches. They were cool. They beeped. Everyone had to have one. And then of all of a sudden they didn’t. Why? People like a face on their watch. The leather strap. Roman numerals. People like to tell the time more than have it told to them.

Reading is active. Watching is passive. While it’s undoubtedly easier to stare at a screen it’s more rewarding to read a page. Consumers like rewards. And therefore so will advertisers. An engaged consumer is better than a passive one.

Print has fought Goliath before. With its advent, the behemoth of TV did not destroy the written word. And neither will tomorrow’s gizmos. You can’t take your lap-top into the bathroom; it will kill you in the tub and make you look and feel ridiculous on the toilet. (I know; I’ve tried.)

But obviously, change is inevitable. Evolution of the media is continuous. Among other things, print will become more personalized and targeted. But it will live on.

Let me also add that the lion’s share of print advertising will be mediocre. Why? I honestly don’t believe it’s because most of us, and our clients, are lousy marketing practitioners. Though we all know one or a dozen. But hey, mistakes get made. Seemingly intuitive business decisions can screw up a billboard as well as research-laden ones.

I’ve learned a few things in 20 years.

Good print is not a storage space for logos and products and phone numbers and URL’s. I see this all the time with print. The ads end up looking like my 8-year-old’s closet! The problem only intensifies in outdoor. Less is always more, especially at 65 miles per hour. The more stuff you put into an ad the less good it is apt to be.

Another detriment to making good print is treating it like the dim stepchild of Big Daddy Television. How many pick-up trucks do you see rumbling through magazines carrying around their TV theme lines as if it were manure? Too many. Stop it! Print is not static television. It seems some agencies literally pull frames from their TV commercials and call it a print ad. I call it a travesty. Make print a priority. Print is its own thing because it endures. It does not go away like television, like a thief in the night.

Print is not a political tool meant to appease some brand manager and his boss and his boss’s boss. Print is a sales tool that needs to invite or seduce a person into buying or doing something. That tool needs to be sharp and simple, not fettered. If it’s long copy start with a good headline and tell your story. If it’s a visual piece, don’t distract the eye from where it needs to go. And so on. After the big idea, craftsmanship is everything.

Print is not a good liar. At Leo Burnett, they had a saying that appeared on all company memorandums. It read: Do not give or receive oral instruction. Bill Clinton jokes aside, I think that’s a powerful statement. I wholeheartedly agree with it. Unlike television, print is a written contract with the consumer. As such, I believe it has an inherent integrity. As a maker of print I therefore feel it is incumbent upon me to do a good job. After all, print is a product too. It is what I make. My product. My thing. If all of us took print and outdoor advertising this seriously then you would see an immediate improvement in the quality of print work overall.

And while we’re talking seriously, print should be great for societal reasons. Advertising may be part of popular culture but it is still culture. If I’m putting a billboard up in front of a stand of trees or an architectural landmark it better be great because what it’s obscuring is. Print is inherently guilty of loitering and interference. Overcome that. Prove otherwise.

The digital age has actually increased the use of outdoor advertising. In many cities in the United States you can’t buy the side of a bus anymore. They’re all taken. And by who? Tech clients. Dot coms. The new, new things. We use offline media to drive people online. A microsite can be dynamite for a new brand or a brand trying to reinvent itself. We created several for Altoids. And how did we get people to visit them? Wild posters. The only copy was a URL. Hey, if you want street cred you gotta hit the streets! Indeed, we’re seeing an explosion in this so-called outdoor furniture. We put messages on the sidewalk. On every conceivable wall space. Even human media.

The characters of human language began appearing soon after we stopped picking bugs out of our hair. It’s doubtful they will go away any time soon.

In the end good print is the result of an art director and copywriter working together and apart, filtering criricism, filtering their own ideas, and not settling for merely acceptable. With TV you have a producer on your end, a director and his producers and about 75 other people to help make or break your commercial. And that’s not including the clients. For better or worse, you are not alone.

By comparison, crafting a print ad is far more personal. Let it be an expression of your craft. Write the body copy 50 times. Look at 100 type faces. Be your own worst critic. Give a shit. And remember if you make a bad print ad you can’t fix it in post.

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Chairman of Euro RSCG Worldwide Chicago, Steffan Postaer is responsible for its overall creative leadership and quality of the creative product. He’s received several prestigious awards, including a Kelly Award, Best of Show, Gold and Silver awards at the One Show, the Addys and a Cannes Gold Lion. Steffan has a novel about god and advertising and posts regularly on his blog, Gods of Advertising. Follow him on Twitter.

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