I got into advertising smack bang in the middle of the 90s.
It was a glorious time. It was a simple time.
Back then, the internet was something people had to fire up using a device called a dial-up modem and was really only used to send and receive email and search a handful of pages.
Back at the agency, we still made print layout in something called Freehand and it was owned by a company called Aldus.
We were on version 3 of Photoshop and layers had become all the rage.
As marketers, we only had a handful of channels available to us through which we could broadcast our clients’ advertising on: Television, printed media, outdoor, radio. Big, mass media that would spray a campaign over a large area—all in one direction.
In that respect, things were simple. All advertising was equal in terms of distribution. The only way to differentiate yourself was in how you put out your message, not where.
I found myself working for an agency called Hunt Lascaris—a creative shop that despite its homebase in a smallish city in Africa, was producing world-famous work that was winning global accolades.
Hunt Lascaris had set out to be the first world-class agency out of Africa and was getting there quickly because of one simple guiding philosophy:
“Let’s make advertising that is better than the programming it interrupts”
Anyone who was watching TV or listening to the radio in the 90s know that this was a time when formula and cliche was rife in advertising.
Nobody really had a way of avoiding ads except for literally getting up off the couch to go make a cup of tea.
Ads didn’t have to be good. They just had to say their message over and over again to hammer home the point. Nobody could turn them off.
But agencies like ours believed that really great advertising should be memorable for positive reasons.
So we made our work funny. We made our work sad. But above all, we made it true.
We knew something that should have been obvious, but that others easily forgot: Good work becomes great when it retells a human truth.
How to advertise to human beings
People are first and foremost human beings before they are consumers.
And human beings relate to stories, not slogans. They thrive off of having their imaginations engaged.
Cliche and formula was anathema to us. In fact, the kind of advertising we made was so good that people would pay to see it. Every year, after the Cannes Lions Festival, the winners reel would be shown in cinemas around the world to ticket-paying cinema goers.
One philosophy of advertising created a resentment towards itself, the other created a faithful following. The former treated the audience as consumers, the latter respected them as people.
This kind of work was fodder for dinner party conversations and water cooler chats. It was the kind of work that would become part of culture.
Then everything changed…
The advent of high-speed, cheap broadband hit Madison Avenue like an earthquake.
We’d gone from a handful of broadcast mediums to hundreds of channels—some which enabled customers to talk back and some which enabled them to co-create content.
Importantly, content became shareable. First, funny videos were forwarded mostly by email, but as social media developed, the sharing of content became commonplace.
“The great potential of this connected age is that if you create something that contains a great human truth—funny or sad—people will be compelled to share it.”
As advertising dollars started shifting with the audiences to the digital channels some in the industry again started relying on crutches to communicate their clients’ messages. Those who thought of their audiences as consumers began to develop ugly, weighty banners, unwieldy click-carousels and other click-baiting tricks.
Cliche and formula once again ran rife.
Remembering who is on the other side of the screen
The truth most of these marketers forgot (or never learned), is that the person on the other side of the screen is the same person who still likes to be enthralled by a story.
It’s a human being who still has the DNA of those first humans who sat around the fire, listening wide-eyed to the stories of great hunts, hard-wired into their hearts.
So dow do we adapt to this new paradigm? By saying:
“Let’s make content for the Web that people find irresistible to share.”
The creatives who make that kind of work today are the ones who understand that same truth that we at the agency picked up on decades ago.
That the great potential of this connected age is that if you create something that contains a great human truth—funny or sad—people will be compelled to share it.
This idea of ‘going viral’ has become the holy grail of today’s advertising industry—having millions of people looking at and sharing your content without you having to pay more media dollars.
‘Let’s make it go viral’ has become things that clients write on briefs without understanding the fundamental component of what makes content go viral: that it has to be awesome. So awesome, that it is better than the next lolcat or video of a baby laughing uncontrollably.
So awesome that it becomes water cooler chat, even if that water cooler takes the shape of Facebook or Twitter.
It has to be better than what it’s interrupting, which in this day and age, is a tall order.
How to make powerful advertising in a connected age
1. Remember that your target audience is made up of humans, not consumers
Respect them accordingly and give your brand a human voice. As David Ogilvy once said in his endearing but admonishing way:
“The consumer is not a moron, she is your wife.”
Once you think like this you would never create something that tries to get the message across in a condescending and formulaic fashion. Because nobody speaks to their wife like that. Not even the most dapper of Don Drapers.
2. Make work that is truthful
Be authentic and true to your brand’s nature. In this age anything that is remotely fake develops a stench, quickly.
Make your brand vulnerable.
Give it emotional intelligence.
Say things like I’m sorry.
But above all, be true to your DNA. When Wieden & Kennedy set out to create a commercial for Japanese brand Honda a few years ago, they spent a lot of time researching the origins of the founder of the company. They discovered that the driving force behind the establishment of the company was that when Soichiro Honda was a small boy he saw aeroplanes flying over his father’s bicycle repair shop. That planted his dream to fly and set in motion the creation of Honda’s motorcycles.
They made the following commercial that paid tribute to that dream:
3. Don’t set out to ‘go viral’
Don’t make sharing your goal, make awesome your goal.
Always ask yourself: “If I had nothing to do with making this, would I still want to share this with everyone I know?”
When you do feel like sharing something, think about what is it about that piece of content that makes you want to show your friends and family. Is it particularly funny, true, or mind-expanding? Whatever it is, chances are it is simply something awesome.
Lastly, don’t forget about traditional media. Don’t rely solely on social media or digital bought media. Traditional channels like TV and radio are still very powerful and used in conjunction with mobile can be very strong combinations. Always think about who your audience is and how they consume media.
The world may be changing faster and faster but as it does, it is important to remember that some things stay constant. Like human nature.
We will always be those upright walking, hairless primates with the groovy opposable thumbs, who love nothing more than a good story to make our large brains dream.
As technology hands us more opportunities to create algorithms and crutches to do our advertising jobs, we must remember that in the end, we are still talking to people, just like you and me.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Image credit: Christopher Campbell