The ‘Good Old Days’ of Advertising

The ad that changed advertising

Are the ads that fill our screens today worse than the ads of the 60s and 80s? That was supposedly the ‘Golden Era’ or the martini-infused, creative phase of product peddling. Depending on whom you ask, ads have either deteriorated or become more predictable. The ‘good old days’ argument never ends.

Here’s a sample. Today’s generation of creative people has no idea of what it means to create ads that become the lodestar for future generations. 

An ad from the Rolling Stone campaign -
An ad from the Rolling Stone campaign –

The mandate for advertising is never to create concepts for posterity. They have a primary objective. Get you to believe in the powers and benefits of a product – and move you one step closer to purchasing it. That’s it. It’s art for commerce’s sake. So, any grandstanding that advertising should appeal to our inner ‘Buddha’ is nonsense. If it happens along with the sales pitch, fine. The fact that some of them have stayed relevant after decades and can still make people buy is incidental.

The process of creating an outstanding ad or a mediocre one has only one major difference. The involvement and passion of the client. Great briefs have, more often than not, been the foundation for inspired work. It’s not what agencies create, it’s what clients buy. The client is your first customer. She interacts with her customers and knows them far better than any creative person ever will. It’s her neck on the line if massive spends don’t fetch the anticipated returns.

Two sides of a coin

The dynamics of the client-agency relationship

What follows is a recent exchange between Prathap Suthan of Bang In the Middle and Ranendra Ojha on the Agency-Client Relationship on LinkedIn

Prathap Suthan: There’s nothing like a grateful client. In all my 32 years, most clients have been just clients. People who worked with me to further their careers. Nothing else. I have no issues with that brutal truth. The sooner you accept this, the easier life will be. You’d break your heart if you expect clients to acknowledge the hard work you put in, the targets you help them achieve, and the promotions they get. As far as they are concerned, you will continue to do exactly what you were hired to do. You are supposed to have worked late, given up your weekends, braved all odds, fought among yourselves, sacrificed family life, and make them look good. That’s what you signed up for. So if you’re hoping to get a pat on your back, an appreciative email, a thank you note, or even a kind word, I’d ask you to get your head out of that fairytale. Be stoic. Nothing is going to come your way. Zero smiles. Zilch gratitude. No team dinner. However, if any of that happens, consider yourself fortunate. Enjoy it. Just be ready to get keel hauled the next morning. To paraphrase Tennyson – ours is not to reason why, ours is just to do and die.

Ranendra Ojha: This is obviously one side of the coin. Ask any brand manager and I am sure he/she will have a completely different take on the same. A brand manager is 100% invested in his/her brand and his/her future is linked to the success/failure of the brand. For the agency, it is just another client – the bigger the fees, the bigger the client.  How much is the agency invested in the success of the brand, apart from showcasing the agency’s work done to win awards? Does the agency know the hard work the brand manager puts in to make the brand work? Advertising is just 10% of a brand manager’s work. So tell the young executive who was heartbroken to invest in the brand completely, before complaining.
Personally, I have had one experience where the agency to 100% invested in the brand, even though we were just a small one. Today that brand is among leading brands in India, and thanks to the work everyone put in, advertising agency definitely included.

One person’s 100% is the other’s 10%!

Billboards and ads in Times Square
 Photo by Aditya Vyas on Unsplash
A customer sees 1000s of ads every day
Photo by Aditya Vyas on Unsplash

The agency believes it puts in 100% effort and creative labour (extremely flexible description) to create campaigns. To the client, that is 10% of the total activity required for the brand’s success. To the customer, it’s 0.0001% of his or her life. And they don’t care. There’s no way the equation will change, even a century from now.

40 years ago, we probably saw tens of ads every day. Once TV became a permanent fixture in homes, that escalated to hundreds. The jury is out now on the number of ads people are exposed to every single day. They just know it is in multiples of thousands. The only way to respond to this onslaught is to ignore it. Erect a wall of indifference unless the message is compelling enough to one’s own life. 

A compilation of popular Indian ads from the 80s

It is the way nature copes. Our brains keep and process what is necessary for us to function. We don’t see details or absorb them if they aren’t important to us. Imagine the daily commute. Aren’t we lost in our own thoughts, conversations or music, even though ads are trying to sneak in through billboards, mobile screens or shopping offers and signs? Even as they pass right before our eyes, they are completely ignored. The number of notifications that ping your phone plead for engagement. What they get is a passing glance before sinking into permanent obscurity. Strident calls are rendered silent. 

Advertising is getting to be a lot like pollination.

Pollen around a set of white flowers Photo by Alex Jones on Unsplash
Advertising will deploy sharper attention-getting tactics in future
Photo by Alex Jones on Unsplash

Produce hundreds of thousands of communication seeds in the hope they will take root in the customer’s mind. And pop up just when a purchase is imminent. Our ties to brands are not nearly as magnetic as they were even a decade ago. Where does a brand bond feature in relation to family and friends? Nowhere. They don’t matter. They are consumed, their value extracted and then forgotten. That is the context of the relationship.

It’s time we stopped looking at products and ads as playing a role in the customer’s lives. There is no comparison and as the number of brands increase, we’ll just see more indifference. What needs to be done is to define the brand core. And what it satisfies. Test out whether people are willing to pay for the experience. And how they view a product promise in the context of their life. The smaller and more focused your target market it, the greater your chances of success.  

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