The secret of “where great advertsing comes from?” revealed at last.

May 26, 2009

Often, I am asked “where does great advertising come from?”  The answer may surprise you.  It comes from great clients.  Whenever I see an obviously ineffective television commercial, or hear a really lame radio announcement, I don’t blame the creative minds; I give the credit to where it is due –the client.  Every client always receives exactly what they deserve.  Sound harsh?  Well, the truth always hurts.

Fortunately, I have through the years enjoyed working for some truly outstanding clients.  Yes, there have been a few that weren’t so hot.  As is my nature, I will name names within this look back at thirty-five years of conceiving and producing over twenty-thousand radio, television and print ads for hundreds of different clients in a mind-boggling array of retail venues.  From car dealers to pro sports, from restaurants to hospitals,

I have learned volumes about what works and just as important, what doesn’t.  I have been a part of many highly successful campaigns, and a couple of clunkers.  The pivot point every time without exception was the expectations and willingness of the client to trust my judgment.

The best clients are the ones that understand that my job isn’t to create ads that they necessarily like. Instead, my job is to help them succeed in business, which is to say — to help them make money.  All too often, the client is hung up on thinking that if they don’t personally like the campaign, then it is not going to be successful.  Of course, that is naive and remarkably short-sighted.  The point of advertising is to convince a predetermined target audience to part with their hard-earned money on a specific client’s product or service. If the ad’s only accomplishment is to make the client “like it” then it has missed to the point and is doomed to failure.

This seems so simple. And yet, time after time I have had to present and idea for a client, who then decides whether to air the ad or not based on to a large degree on their personal taste.  Just as bad, often the support staff is invited by the client to “sit in” on the meeting and despite the fact that they have no formal training in advertising or marketing, their opinion is solicited.  These “dabblers in the arts” can kill a great idea with a raised eye brow or a rolling of their eyes.  Generally, if they have seen or heard an ad somewhere that is similar to what they are being presented, then they will dutifully report in the affirmative.

Of course, “me too” or “look-alike” advertising is one sure way to kill any new advertising campaign, so their advice based on the security of familiarity is actually toxic Ads that boldly go where no one has gone before generally grab attention and help to sell products.  These ads also generally scare the pants off of the uneducated or those whose “expertise” is gained by the passive nature of only being on the receiving end and never having the opportunity to be on the giving end of advertising.

I have suffered on more than one occasion when a clients, insecure in their own abilities, suggests that “their spouse’s opinion” should be considered?  It is sort of like having a patient look at a doctor and say, “I know that you’ve been to med school, but I would like to have my spouse review your diagnosis before I go ahead and have the brain surgery that you think will save my life.”

Naturally, advertising isn’t brain surgery.  Still, if the doctor misses the call in brain surgery, the patient dies. If my ad campaign fails to make the cash register ring, then a company, with dozens of employees may die. 

The list of best clients that I have ever worked for would start with a man named Tom Price. Tom is one of the top minds at Chesapeake Energy.  He is brilliant, tireless, committed and passionate.  Words like visionary and an amazing tactician also come to mind.   Part of his job description is knowing all of the top legislative movers and shakers in about twenty states where Chesapeake has drilling concerns.  This means developing a personal relationship with everyone from the governor of each state to key lobbyist.  His  job has required that he meet with individuals from Nancy Pelosi to T. Boone Pickens.  In order to accomplish all that is on his plate, his work day usually starts around 4:30 am.

Tom is also a man who strives to make the world a better place for those less fortunate.  An advocate of education, he also has orchestrated countless meetings.   Often, he invites people from all over the political spectrum in order to build non partisan support in order to battle social injustice, hatred and bigotry.  As one might expect, he has caught some heat from both the right and the left for his efforts.  But, he has never shied away from doing what his heart tells him is the right thing to do.  Can there be a better epitaph for a man than that?

I had the pleasure of working with Tom when Chesapeake was not a household name.  His challenge to me was to create ways to position the company as a reliable good neighbor and a corporate partner that could be counted on to help small rural areas of Oklahoma deal with many of the issues that are unique to them. `And to do this on what would be considered by any measure, a shoe string budget.

Much of what we created was “guerilla advertising” which is to say non traditional.  We created opportunities for Chesapeake to support high school sports which are important in small towns.  We developed programs to spotlight local 4H and FFA high school kids who were doing exceptional things in school and their communities.

As part of the high school sports, we created a series of motivational posters that coaches could use to motivate their players.  One such poster showed the state championship trophy with a dotted line around it.  It reminded players that only one team at the end of the season would have the “real thing” while everyone else would have to settle for cutting out the photo and taping it to their trophy cases.  Prior to one championship game, a coach held up a pair of scissors and asked the players “what is it going to be? Cut down the nets, or cut out the photo of the trophy?  They won the game and sent Tom a piece of the “net”.

These were engaging ideas.  This was not some “we’ve seen it a million-times-before pretty television commercial with pretty aerial shots of pretty rigs while some pretty voice drones on about how wonderful some rich energy company is and we’re all lucky to have them on our side.” People don’t care about fluff.  They just want to know what have you doing to make their lives better, specific ways your efforts will improve their community and how are you going to do it some more in the future.

Tom understood the value of having the company be different.  Chesapeake was not Devon, Kerr McGee or some other big impersonal energy company.  Chesapeake could be counted on to donate computers to schools.  They donated used vehicles to local fire departments that were in desperate need of additional transportation. Scholarship programs were designed in concert with colleges so that talented kids’ in rural areas could get an education.  These were heady ideas and the point man was always Tom Price.

One day I walked in with a crude, hand drawn picture of a football player.  It was sort of a Frankenstein monster with attached body parts.  I explained that we could create a poster will all of the exceptional players that have earned fame and glory for their respective colleges.  The resulting creature would be the “Ultimate Player” for that school. My plan was to give this out free at games.  Then I posed a simple question to Tom, “what is it worth to have your logo in 24/7 in 30, 50 or maybe 100,000 homes or offices?’

Tom thought about it for a moment, and then without hesitation said “let’s do it.”  Not only that, but he became excited and enthusiastically showed the concept to everyone in his office.  Long ago, Tom had mastered a lesson that few clients are able to figure out, and that is that “enthusiasm rules the world.”  His zeal inspires all of those around him.  It is one more reason why he is so special.

Eventually, college sports posters for both football and basketball were produced for the University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Arkansas, West Virginia and Marshall.  Tens of thousands of fans received a free collector poster — they could debate about the player selections, marvel at the statistical accomplishments which were included or simple point to it with pride.  And there for all to see at the bottom was the Chesapeake logo.

As Chesapeake has enjoyed remarkable growth and success, Tom’s responsibilities have also proliferated.  Today, he is no longer directly involved in branding.  This responsibility has been delegated to others who are very professional and talented, but there is only one Tom Price.

My other favorite all-time client is a man named Kent Whitnah. His company is at the other end of the spectrum from Chesapeake Energy. He operates a flower shop called Capitol Hill Florist.  We have served as their agency for many years.  What is interesting is that this once unknown floral shop is now Oklahoma City’s number one flower retailer based on charge accounts according to the Journal Record newspaper.  Along the way, the advertising created for the shop has won Best Local Radio campaign half a dozen or more times at the local Oklahoma City Ad Club’s annual awards show.

What is notable about the account is that it is 100% trade with the media and with our agency.  No production money is available for talent. No money is spent on air time. It is all trade.  What also makes this account so remarkable is that Kent has never even seen a script before airing.  He once told me that all that mattered to him were results.  Smart man.

Several of Capitol Hill Florists radio commercials have found there way to the 10 o’clock news on one or more of the local television stations.  This is often due to the comedic approach or political humor employed.  One commercial parodying President Clinton generated a couple of hundred phone calls. About half of the callers were unhappy about poking fun at the president. The other half said it was the funniest commercial that they had ever heard.  The air time for the 4 minutes news story on television in which the reporter played the entire commercial has a value of about $5,000 and reached over 100,000 homes for free.

During an interview with a news reporter, Kent put it succinctly, “Look, I hired the best ad guy in town and told him that he would be my ad guy as long as the work he created made the cash register ring.  Bob does a fantastic job and my sales are at an all-time high.”  I could not have written a script as good as my friend and client Kent the florist came up with under the glare of the TV lights. He understood the goal of his advertising wasn’t about making him happy; instead, it was all about making him rich.

Once a car dealer told me that his advertising “was either an investment or an expense, depending solely on results.”  This is as good a definition of the purpose of advertising that I have ever heard.  Both Tom Price and Kent Whitnah understand this at the molecular level and that is what makes them and their approach to advertising special.

At the other end of the spectrum would be the several former clients lead by a local convenient store company in Oklahoma City.  While New West served as their agency, the family-owned company went through a long-line of “advertising managers.” Most of these good folks were hired primarily to teach classes at 6 am on “how to stock shelves.”   After the class ended about 2 hours later, they needed something for this person to do for the rest of the day.  Somebody had the bright idea to let them co-ordinate the convenience store’s advertising.  It was a bad idea.

The worst of the lot was one utterly untalented young lady named “Christie.”  She was a meddler, a nit picker and possessed absolutely no education regarding advertising.  Worst yet, she thought that my job was to create advertising that she “liked.” Regretfully, she didn’t fit the demo of males age 8 to 34 (although her mustache was a nice touch).  Nor did she fit the demo of 6 to 14 year old kid for their annual summer “Icy drink” campaign.  Still, no idea, no matter how good, would be passed on to her boss that didn’t hit her fancy.

Eventually, this led to the agency asking up front, what idea did she have in her not-so-pretty empty head that we should know about in advance?”

Once summer, I asked the above question and she replied that she didn’t listen to “youth radio,” but didn’t hesitate to regurgitate what she thought might work musically.  It was boring and dated.  This was a description that also applied to her, without the dating part.  Let’s think about her logic for a moment. You’re totally blind, but your favorite color is . . .”

Now, here is where the story gets fun.  For a number of years, I used Gary Branscum to do the jingles.  Gary was an absolute creative genius especially when it involved music.  He had already created several outstanding pieces of music for previous Icy Drink campaigns.   His “Think Think Icy Drink” line is still a classic.  I would always video kids in front of a convenience store  dancing wildly to his latest catchy ditty.  The commercials were high energy and by featuring dozens of kids having fun, real winners.   The message: Buy an Icy Drink and you’ll be cool came shining though.

Gary’s only drawback, and albeit it was a big one, was that he was a card-carrying bi-polar, eccentric, slightly schizophrenic, neurotic, oddball, who once shaved off all of his body hair below his neck because of suspected germs.  He often felt compelled to vacuum his house three or four times a day “just to be safe.”  Other than that those minor peccadilloes, he was very normal.

He also had a huge ego.  After chatting with Christie about her big creative ideas, I warily called Gary.  Of course, he disregarded her stillborn concept. Instead, he came back with an absolute grand slam homerun.  The theme was centered about “I see why you’re thinking what you’re thinking; I see why you’re drinking what you’re drinking.  The kicker was that he also had this hand sign where he would hold up one finger for the “I”  in “I see ” and then form the letter “C” with his thumb and first finger for the “see” part.  The final “why” was created by the second and third fingers to form the “Y.”  It was brilliant.  Kids would have loved it.  Sales would have gone through the roof.

Naturally, Christie hated it and killed the idea out of hand, so to speak.

So, I had to go back to Gary and explain that we were back at square one.  He advised that he had given me his best shot and was done with the project.  I cajoled, pleaded and begged.  Finally, he reluctantly agreed and began work on a second jingle which while not as neat as his first effort, still sparkled.

It too was rejected by Christie the self-appointed, I can’t sing or write music, but I’m the client and that is all that matters.

Gary was in utter disbelief and in a threatening voice, firmly told me to never call his phone number again.  Instead, I drove over to his house and played to his ego.  I told him “Forget Christie, think of the kids who deserve to hear yet another wonderful summer Icy Drink jingle.”  “Okay” he said, “I’ll do it for the kids.”

This effort as well as a fourth jingle was also rejected.

Finally, the fifth version was created that was totally uninspired, lame, boring and just plain “say nothing”.  Christie loved it.

Relived that at least we could go on to the next phase of the campaign, I took off work and went to play golf.  It was while I was out that Christie called the office.  It seems that she wanted to change “one word” in the lyrics.  Can you say “Micro-manage?”

The receptionist advised that I was gone for the day.  Because she was a bull in china closet, Christie then demanded “Gary’s number” so that she could explain why it was so important for him to change one word in a sixty second commercial. And of course, she was the client.

I wasn’t there, but I surmise that Gary turned the vacuum cleaner off and answered the phone within a ring or two.  He would have been surprised and immediately alarmed that the devil incarnate, Christie was on the phone with yet another “change.”  This was also a day that Gary was “off” of his various medicines.

Now the remainder of the story is pretty much urban legend.  But I like to lie in bed and fantasize that it is 100% true.

The scene plays out like this:  Before Christie could explain that she was calling about “one word,” Gary interrupted and suggested that they play a game.  “A game?” Christie replied with confusion in her voice.  Then Gary replied, “I am going to count to 5 and just for fun, let’s see who hangs up  first?”  Christie now even more baffled stammered “What?” Then, Gary said, “Okay, are you listening, here goes . . . one, and he SLAMMED the phone down” in the ear of Christie, the Barry Manilow of her company.

The remainder of the story is 100% accurate.  As I was trying to find my ball somewhere in the rough near the 7th green, I heard the course PA blare out, “will Bob Hammack please report to the club house!” I thought to myself “who died?  No death, just an enraged Christie on the horn.  She was in total disbelief that anyone could have the audacity to hang up the phone on her, the client, adding tersely “that that that man will never work for this company again.

And a week later, I wouldn’t either as after 13 years, I resigned the account.

I had had enough of untalented, incompetent dilettante pretending to know something about a subject that the had no clue about whatsoever.    She may have been “the client,” but she was also an idiot. And as we all eventually learn, fools are hard to suffer.

Here is the undeniable truth – the good client’s set goals, let the professionals do their job, and because of their good judgment, usually receive work that sells the product.  The bad clients, the one with pre-conceived ideas, and never ending tendency to micromanage, invariably get what they deserve as well.  Mercifully, these commercials are generally easy ignored (invisible) or entirely forgotten milliseconds after they’re over. And when the big campaign fails, it is the fault of the short-sighted client. They should have demanded more, expected more and probably gotten out of the process.

Entry Filed under: Editorial, humor. .

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