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February 10, 2011
The Rope and the Tug of Advertising. Which Do You Prefer?
Squabbles and struggles are nothing new in a subjective business like advertising.
I was once playing with a friend’s dog, doing what all dogs love to do: playing tug of war with a rope. And this dog did what they all seem to do: She tugged and tugged maniacally until I let go. Then she just brought the rope right back, not content with her victory.
I asked my friend why dogs do this. He summed it up perfectly: “She doesn’t want the rope. She wants the tug.”
And it occurred to me that in life, and particularly in the collaborative nature of advertising, it’s always a battle: Some people want the rope. Others want the tug.
So what’s the end result? Does anyone win? In advertising, does someone need to give up first?
During the course of any day in the ad business, from concepting sessions to strategy meetings and client presentations, you’ll inevitably see what I’m talking about: The people who always want to shoot down an idea or concept, find something wrong with it, or play devil’s advocate.
You can’t tell if they’re doing it to make the work better of if they simply love the tug. And let’s face it: Some people are just trying to justify their salaries or their jobs—they have to be seen and heard having an opinion.
Then there are the people you engage with that simply let you have the rope. Yes, those people exist in advertising. For lack of will, or fear, they don’t put up a fight. I’ll admit there have been times that I’ve let other people have the rope. Just like with the dog scenario, you can’t keep tugging forever: There’s work to be done, a deadline to meet, stuff to get out the door. You have to pivot and start chewing on the next thing.
Of course, the notion of “giving up the rope” can indicate weakness in anyone, particularly a client, account person, or creative director: If all they ever do is look at an idea or concept and say “I love it,” they’re letting you have the rope. There’s no tug. And slowly, we accept that they don’t wanna play that much—or that they’re simply content with what they’re getting.
There has to be a middle ground somewhere—the constant tug gets tiring. Some people are never satisfied. But then think back to the dog, who just wants the attention. A rope by itself isn’t much fun.

In our subjective business, a good tug can be invigorating. Because our work is never done with mathematical certainly. Any change to the creative, media or analytics might make a huge difference. A healthy debate, a desire to improve the work, can make both sides stronger. After all, advertising is a business of persuasions and arguments: We have a point of view, a case to make to consumers on behalf of a brand. It helps to practice internally.
So what about our audience? Do consumers want the rope or the tug?
I’ve often heard it said that “consumers want to complete the circle for themselves.” To me, that suggests a tug—a little effort for understanding, a small feeling of accomplishment for figuring out the ad’s idea, or the joke. And yet, time after time we see silly concepts and easy slapstick humor win in consumers’ minds. Or in other cases, simple offers—a “buy one, get one free” or other promotion that works like gangbusters. There may be times when consumers just want the rope, not the tug.
As an industry, we’re slowly losing our grip on the ability to make consumers think exactly what we want them to think. They’re still persuadable, but they’re in charge of the rope now. And they’re determining when they’re ready to play along with us. Can we cope with the way the game is changing? Some agencies and marketing firms are changing they way they operate. But for others, it’s still a struggle.
I think the best people in advertising know when to tug, and know when to let someone else have the rope. Because it demonstrates an understanding that we all have greater goals: Better work. Satisfied clients. Consumers that might slightly enjoy what we do. And a work environment that’s actually fun to work in.
Those are worthy pursuits. And if we can’t do those things, we’ll all be at the end of our ropes.

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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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