Digging for Buried Ad Treasure

If I told you the following quotation, which marketer would you guess coined it?

“Never stop testing, and your advertising will never stop improving.”

Since A/B testing is one of the foundational principles of digital advertising, you might guess it’d be an authority like Jon Loomer.

The correct answer is David Ogilvy. In 1963.

Here’s another:

“Advertising is legalized lying.”

It’s brief, pithy and contrarian. Maybe someone like Seth Godin, known for getting quickly to his point?

The answer: H. G. Wells, in 1908

The most fascinating elements of marketing are those that have NOT changed with the digital age. For all the new advertising platforms, ad types, mechanisms, and targeting we have available to us, certain classic texts still hold up. I challenge you to pick up Scientific Advertising, written in 1923. Once you get past the slightly antiquated prose, you’ll be astonished (as I was) how many principles from the early 20th century (and in some cases, the late 19th!) can be transplanted straight to the 21st.

The Wonderful Wizard of Ads

Roy H. Williams: The Wizard

In chapter 2 of The Wizard of Ads: Turning Words Into Magic And Dreamers Into Millionaires (1998), author Roy H. Williams reminds us of the timeless principles–the “buried treasure”–available to us in classic texts that tend to be too quickly forgotten.

When I say “chapter 2,” I should really say “epistle 2.” Williams’s frames his wisdom as a collection of letters on such timeless principles that he has rediscovered during his life as an advertiser. And Williams is a man of deep faith, which comes through in both the text and the tone of the prose, so a biblical framing seems doubly appropriate.

It’s fitting that The Wizard of Ads has now become one of those same timeless texts on marketing, the reading of which it so eloquently encourages. When I first picked it up, Google advertising had only just been invented, and social media had not yet brought about the destruction of western civilization. I recently picked up the text again, just to reacquaint myself with its core principles, and should not have been surprised that much if not most of Williams’s wisdom is a treasure to any modern digital advertiser.

Of Williams’s 100 (plus one) short chapters, the first 35 deal directly with advertising principles. I’ve reorganized and commented upon those principles below.

The Perils of Scared-Little-Bunny Marketing

Marketing dooms itself to failure when it is scared to be clear and direct for fear of offending people, or that is scared of bad reactions from non-customers (e.g. “I hear your ads too many times.”).

Ads fail because of predictability and cliche. No one trusts slick, over-polished advertising language. But customers will react to frank, direct and agreeable communication.

Powerful advertising–advertising that is frank and direct–generates negative feedback. Do not get scared off and soften your approach. Your most successful campaigns will be the ones whose stakeholders complain that your language is either too bold or not polished enough. It’s not the job of the professional advertiser to be mealy-mouthed. If you’re offending no one, chances are, you’re doing something wrong.

You will also hear complaints about too much repetition. Inevitably, your most successful clients will complain about hearing ads too much. That’s the point. Memorable ads are echoic because you can close your eyes but not your ears. Great echoic ads will drill their way into one’s auditory memory. But in order to do that, those ads require intense repetition of a sound. Repetition is the hammer stroke on the nail of your message.

If your ads aren’t intrusive, direct, bold, and memorable, then they aren’t going to gain customers.

Drilling Into the Customer’s Mind, And Leading Them

“If you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door.”

Williams has a lot of fun pointing out that this quote, originally attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, is not actually his quote. Here’s what Emerson actually wrote in his journal in 1855:

“I trust a good deal to common fame, as we all must. If a man has good corn, or wood, or boards, or pigs to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs than anybody else, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods.”

It’s a very good thing that Emerson did not mean this quotation for public consumption because, as Williams goes on to point out, it’s a terrible quote. It’s clunky, wordy, passive, and does not make use of vivid verbs or imagery.

The quote we remember was written later by a professional advertiser who was paraphrasing Emerson. The ad writer improved it by making it active, vivid, memorable, and containing a strong benefit. And the ad man’s words are, of course, the ones that stuck.

There IS a Better Mousetrap. It Failed.

What’s even more remarkable is that these words have stuck with our culture despite repeatedly being proven false. The world will not beat a path to your door if you build a better mousetrap.

As a matter of fact, someone did build a better mousetrap. In 1928, Chester M. Woolworth literally developed a mousetrap that worked more reliably than the classic spring-trap that we all know. It cost twice as much (12 cents, compared to the standard six-cent trap).

The product failed. Whether it costs six cents or 12 cents, the customer will end up throwing away the mousetrap after it’s used. And no one wanted to throw away something for which they had to pay 12 cents! Woolworth built the better mousetrap, and the world…did nothing.

Memorable words stick with us long after the premise is proven false (see also: “Mexico will pay for the wall.”).

An effective advertiser has to get past the barriers in the mind of the public–barriers like distraction and cynicism–and place a message in the mind that both sticks there, and also makes the customer envision themselves taking a specific action.

Williams’s Principles of Effective Advertising

Here are some of Williams’s specific principles and actions, directly from The Wizard of Ads:

  1. Your customers are seldom paying attention. Most advertisers use cheap attention-getters, but these rarely involve customers in the message. The real trick is to offer the customer a thought more interesting than what they’re currently thinking.
  2. Good advertising never points the camera at itself (e.g. “OUR PRODUCT is…”, WE have been trusted by…”). Point it at where you want the customer to go, and make them a participant. Let them see themselves enjoying the benefits you provide. Make liberal use of the word “you”, the most powerful word in advertising.
  3. A related point: good advertising never asks the customer to “walk into darkness.” It never leaves a mystery about what to do next or hat kind of experience to expect. It will set up a clear expectation of exactly what awaits the customer. It will cause the customer to see himself or herself doing what you want them to do.
  4. In addition to the obvious emotional components, good ads will often include an intellectual component. After all, each customer comes with doubts and objections that must be addressed. Close loopholes one-by-one: deliver a powerful statement of benefit, then address every objection in the order they would likely come up.
  5. The art of good advertising writing lies in getting the customer to “realize” the truth on their own, as though it were their idea. Consider the choice between saying: “You need collision insurance,” and “Americans files a collision claim every 18 years…is your insurance ready to come through?”
  6. Sounds of words, as opposed to written words, tend to stick in the mind. This is why ads containing audio tend to be more memorable than print ads.
  7. Just like Velcro, you want to cover your ads with lots of tiny loops for the brain to hook onto. Unpredictable ads tend to hook better than predictable, overly-polished ads.
  8. A Reticular Activator is a word or sound that triggers a mental connection to a concept. If I say, “One hundred and one,” people of a certain generation will immediately think, “Dalmatians!” This is the principle that makes ad jingles effective. Good ads stay memorable by implanting an association with a word, phrase or sound.
  9. The ad that associates itself with a familiar touchstone is more likely to be accepted by a subconscious mind looking to reject unwanted interruptions.
  10. The ad must relate. It must answer, “Why should I care?” And it must relate to the needs of the customer as she sees herself. William’s talks about “selling to Walter Mitty,” the Thurber character who lived in a mental fantasy world where he was a pilot and a daring adventurer.
  11. Ads must address our innate need to belong and to define ourselves in relation to the world. How many car ads, for example, play to the identity of the driver? This is the most compelling individual need.
  12. Are you persuasive, memorable, and offering new information, or is your writing just showy…all sizzle and no steak?
  13. The best ads are “non-ads”: clearly communicating the benefit of a product in a way that doesn’t seem like an ad. They get through the force field we’ve all developed to block out the inundation of ad-sounding ads.
Are your ads memorable? Do they speak to a trait we’d like to see in ourselves?

Common Traps to Avoid

  • First and foremost: No amount of advertising will make up for a lack of unique proposition! The most common dysfunctional scenario in advertising is an ad client who expects his marketing to drive customers who have no underlying reason to favor his product.
  • People will be listening to you with suspicious ears. They will be reading maximum cynicism into your claims. Therefore, trying to simply out-claim your competitor is not useful.
  • Businesses have a tendency to grow impatient with campaigns and become discouraged if they don’t see immediate results. Advertising has its own inertia, like a lag effect. It takes time to see an effect because it takes repetition to stick in the mind of the customer. But good advertising will also stay effective after the campaign is over because you’ve created a lasting association in the customer’s mind.
  • Modern advertising has brought about a fetish with precise targeting. The truth is over-targeting leads to mistakes and failure. Reaching the right people does matter, but targeting precision will not make up for an ineffective message. Most advertisers just can’t say the right thing.
Precision targeting can be helpful, but all the targeting in the world won’t make up for an ineffective message.
  • Modern advertising falls victim to the need for instant gratification. There is a self-destructive tendency to over-rely on limited-time sales and discounting, which trains customers to withhold their purchase until a sale is going on.
  • Often, effective ads don’t necessarily drive a lot of traffic. Sometimes meaningful ads don’t pay off until the customer needs you. A lot of car dealership ads, for example, are trying to stick in your memory until the point when you need a new car. Simply diving traffic that for the sake of driving traffic alone is useless.

Advertising In the Worst Way

Williams summarizes the advertising portion of his book with a set of instructions you should follow if you need advertising in “the worst way.” “The worst way,” in this case, being the literal worst way you could advertise; a list of items that will instantly tank your ads.

Predictable, polished ads that fixate on targeting, using ample jargon, and assuming all the time people are paying full attention will bring about abject failure. So will any of the following attributes:

Advertising in “The Worst Way”
  • Campaigns created with the expectation of instant gratification
  • Overly broad distribution, with not enough repetition
  • Featuring unsubstantiated claims
  • Over-reliance on passive media like billboards; not intrusive enough
  • Overconfidence in qualitative targeting
  • Great production values, with no persuasion
  • Written for dramatic reactions, rather than results
  • Overly-polished, obeying every “unwritten rule” on what ads are supposed to sound like

Re-releasing The Wizard of Ads for 2019

Digital ads don’t just represent a different choice of media, but a fundamentally different purpose and function for the ads themselves. Digital advertising is not expected to drive awareness and memorability so much as they are to drive traffic and conversions.

The digital advertising industry is far more oriented around instant gratification than its analog predecessor, and therefore many of the principles discussed above require some comment before being applied to a digital space.

Let’s end with a few observations on how we might adapt the Wizard’s wisdom in a time more dominated by digital, CLICK NOW ads.

Compensating for Lack of Audio in Digital Advertising

Reticular activators, discussed earlier, are more powerful as audio than visually. Part of this has to do with how the brain functions, and part of it has to do with the idea that it’s harder to tune out our ears than our eyes.

Despite the fact that newer forms of digital marketing like video-based advertising offer visual and audio interaction, most people still do not consume the audio portion of digital video. Generally, they tend to consume on subways and in meetings, and otherwise around people, where playing audio is inconvenient.

So how do we continue to reap the benefits only available by communicating to the customer through audio?

First, there are some video ads that are more likely than others to be played with the audio. When people consume YouTube ads (as opposed to social media ads), they are more likely to have their audio turned on because they are expecting to watch a video after your ad ends. YouTube ads have other challenges, like short time windows and the ability for the customer to skip ads, but they may be the best bet right now for engaging customers with audio.

More broadly, conversion-focused digital advertising platforms (e.g. search, social) might be less appropriate for driving retained awareness than other forms of advertising like podcast sponsorships or traditional media. Digital ads may be more valuable for playing clean-up, driving action among those audiences who are already aware of your product.

Up to this point, digital ads have largely been managed in a silo apart from traditional advertising. Very little attention has been paid to integrating digital with traditional marketing so that digital ads might drive action based on preexisting awareness. This brings me to my next point:

Over-reliance on “Instant”

As mentioned above, most digital advertising is instant-action oriented. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; generally, it’s more efficient to remove unnecessary steps from one’s buying process. So if you can move from seeing an ad, to landing on a site, to making a purchase within the same session, that’s ideal.

Except when it isn’t.

Several big-picture problems come up when you talk about a hyper-efficient digital sales funnel:

  1. Most people do not buy this way. Unless your value proposition is insane, most consumers require some kind of trust-building process before they reach for their credit cards. In fact, in my experience as an advertiser, the only companies that have had consistent success advertising for purchase to completely new audiences are those companies who already had a substantial brand reputation.
  2. This is doubly-true for high-consideration sales (most all B2B sales, and big-ticket B2C). Customers usually have to interact with your brand a great many times before they’d be comfortable purchasing.
  3. Obsession with purchase conversion metrics hyper-intensifies the need to run constant sales and promotions, which as Williams points out, will eventually develop tolerance within your core audience and make you invade your margins further and further.
  4. In addition to becoming over-reliant on sales and promotions, digital-dependent brands can also become overly-reliant on cheap attention-getters that have nothing to do with the core messaging. They become, in a sense, bad billboard advertisers. They got the eyeballs, and as far as they’re concerned that’s the ballgame. This is the equivalent to web traffic advertisers who have outstanding click-through rates, but a 90%+ Bounce Rate once people get to the site. The visitors weren’t engaged for the sake of the value proposition.
  5. Probably most importantly, ads that are obsessed with instant action stop paying off as soon as you switch off the funding. There’s no care to build any kind of permanent brand association. Here’s a thought experiment: recite the copy of the most recent Facebook Ad you saw. No luck? Okay, now sing a jingle that you haven’t heard since childhood. No problem, right? It’s dumb to completely abandon the latter.

Conclusion: The Art of Digital (That Never Really Was)

In a way, the constraints of modern digital advertising will separate out the true artisans from the hacks. It’s very difficult to do what a truly powerful ad needs to do using a couple of lines of copy and an image (or even video).

Williams says that to get the customer’s attention in a meaningful way, “you have to offer the customers a thought that’s more interesting than what they were already thinking.”

Then, to amplify their interest, you have to point the camera at the customer and get him or her to see themselves as better, or better off, due to the benefits you provide. You have to speak to their aspirations and get them to see themselves taking the leap with you.

Not only is this difficult using the small real estate provided, but actually most digital advertisers are doing the opposite: they are obsessed with turning the cameras on themselves. How many Facebook product carousel ads have you browsed through recently? How many of those have truly engaged you?

I can make a few predictions about the future role and form of effective digital ads:

  1. Obviously, they will leverage video, but not for the higher-engagement reasons everyone thinks. Video is a key way to deliver a longer-form, audio-driven message (provided the customer is listening with their ears).
  2. For the same reason, podcast ads–wherein the advertiser speaks the ad text–will also grow in popularity.
  3. Advertisers will eventually figure out how to integrate search and social (conversion-oriented) ads with media-purchase (impression-oriented) ads. I mentioned podcast ads above, and podcast audiences are often target-able through social advertising. So I can see a powerful one-two punch using podcast advertising to lay the groundwork with a certain audience, and then concurrently using social advertising to grab all the conversions.

Fundamentally, though, the most effective digital ads will be the ones that can foster an emotional experience similar to well-executed traditional advertising. Customers are very quickly growing immune to the louder, more gimmicky, more promotion-oriented digital ads, and just like they did with banner ads, are developing the ability to look right past them.

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