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April 21, 2016
We’re in the Business of Adversplaining
In today’s world, our work can’t speak for itself

Recently, while working on a new campaign our team was asked to do something I hadn’t seen done in a long time: Take the print and online concepts and create fake placements in the magazines and websites they’d appear. That way, we’d simulate the context in which consumers would see it. And our clients would see how well they’d “stand out” in their media placements. To me, it made for a much better proof of concept than a long explanation in the margins of an 11x17 presentation document.

But in today’s world, does context still matter? We often can’t control who sees our work and where it appears. Does it force us to spend more time explaining than creating?

If he were still alive and running an ad agency, I often wonder if David Ogilvy would send a PDF of ad concepts to a client for approval, then get on a conference call to try to sell them. Because he’d have to master the art of explanation from a detached distance. Presenting work out of context, often without looking a client in the eye, is something we all have to do in advertising and marketing these days.

Consider it a byproduct of a frenetically paced, often-virtual conducting of business: Every meeting I’ve walked into in the last five years starts with someone reminding the group why they’re all attending. A million-dollar decision to approve (not approve) work might be the reason for a meeting, yet the decision makers need to be told why they’re sitting in this room in the first place.

We’re so busy these days, we hardly take the time to fully understand and review the information that’s presented to us.

I even see this with professional contacts. I’ve been a copywriter for a long time. So it startles me to meet people in the ad industry who meet me, look at my work, review my website or LinkedIn profile, and still go on to ask, “So what did you do?” Either I didn’t communicate my role well, or (more likely) they have no idea how the ad business is set up and what roles people perform. In a time when anyone can call themselves a “copywriter,” a “content creator,” or simply claim to work in “marketing,” an explanation is always in order.

We have a generation of creative directors, recruiters, and marketing directors that don’t understand what they’re looking at when they see creative work. They need a setup. They need an explanation. They need it spoon-fed to them to understand its context.

It’s pervasive in our industry. Many awards show submissions now come in the form of a three-minute explanation video. Otherwise, you wouldn’t understand the context of what you were evaluating.

In an era where face-to-face meetings don’t always happen, the rationale becomes ever more important. There’s an old argument among ad people that goes something like, “If you have to explain your work, it can’t be very good. Because consumers don’t watch commercials when you’re sitting next to them explaining your idea.” That might be true. But every time we have to sell a significant marketing campaign, the setup, concept descriptions, sometimes even the title of a commercial goes a long way to convincing a client to buy the work.

The explanations matter because we’re living in a world where context is being lost. Anyone can see any piece of communication at any time, and not fully understand what they’re seeing. Our instant online world has exacerbated the problem. Consider the consequences of an errant tweet, a minor quote that becomes a clickbait headline, or an innocuous joke that’s suddenly deemed offensive to an audience it wasn’t intended for. For brands, today’s social media landscape is a minefield, where screw-ups are seen and spread worldwide in minutes.

Consequently, there’s an explanation alongside everything these days: Work featured on agency websites. Tweets that include a 140-character line as well as a conceptual visual. Commentary under YouTube videos. Instagram descriptions. Merely showing the work isn’t enough for anyone to get it.

We put work out into the world knowing it may not be seen in any sort of context. So if you’re looking to succeed in this business, you’ll need more than the ability to come up with great ideas. You’ll need to explain them to anybody and everybody who touches it. And that often means knowing more about whom you’re talking to than what you’re talking about.

It’s a reason many of the most successful ad people aren’t the best ad makers. They’re the best BSers.

At least, that’s one explanation for the state of the business these days.

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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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