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Scott McKay is a Toronto strategist, writer, creative director, patient manager, half-baked photographer and forcibly retired playwright.

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    "They had their cynical code worked out. The public are swine; advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill-bucket."

          – George Orwell






    "Advertising – a judicious mix of flattery and threats."

          – Northrop Frye






    "Chess is as an elaborate a waste of time as has ever been devised outside an advertising agency."

          – Raymond Chandler


    Entries in consumer (5)


    another reminder that David Ogilvy knew what he was doing

    Mark Phillips, of London's Bluefrog Agency, recently posted this item on SOFII about David Ogilvy's 1968 letter for the United Negro College Fund. Take a look and grab the pdf. It's a great and really instructive look at how to connect with a specific target audience, based on thinking about who they are, what they do and where they are – and actually doing something with all that.

    And it's the opposite of what far too many advertisers are doing today. Because too many people on both the client side and agency side continue to harbour the frankly goofy impression that humans as a species no longer read.

    Sure, some people don't read much. Some people never have. Thinking that social media has replaced all other forms of social interaction so that all your advertising has to be under 140 characters is a recipe for failure.

    For instance, working on DMs aimed at C-level executives over the past decade, I've had suits and clients insist that senior execs don't read – "they're far too busy" apparently – as a way of bludgeoning me into keeping the copy brief. But that meant there was nothing in what we ended up sending out that could get their interest; beyond a slick headline and picture, there was no reason for them to engage in our communication, and no way for them to be moved.

    Think about subway advertising, and how few ads there take advantage of the fact that their target audience is sitting there doing not much. Perfect opportunity to hold their attention with long copy. By, say, telling a story. But I digress.

    What Ogilvy did was simple – exploit everything he knew about the audience (even, it has to be said, fears and racial unrest that don't read so well today) in order to make a connection with them and move them to action.

    Keep that in mind next time you write a brief. Or approve a brief. Or work with one.


    knowing me, knowing you

    I once heard about a toy manufacturer who asked someone what they thought about that season's line-up of his toys. The unexpected response he got was a shrug – too many of them were designed to be "enjoyed" as a series of single events, required ongoing set-up, instead of offering what's known as "continuous play." And if you've got a kid, you know that children don't deal well with needing to set up their toys again and again and again...

    The next season, all his company's toys were designed for continuous play.

    How could a toy manufacturer be so disconnected from his customers? How do you get to a senior place in an industry and not live and breathe that basic level of knowledge? Happily for him he was disabused of his ignorance.

    Unfortunately, it's struck me over the last few days how disconnected we all are – agencies, clients, business generally – from our customers.

    I mean it's astonishing how little I actually know about the people whom I'm selling my services to, i.e., my clients. What do they actually go through every day? What do they get beaten up over by their CEO or board? What are their unspoken dreams for where they'll be five or ten years from now? I have a decent sense of some of these things; I do talk with them, after all, with a view to finding these things out. But you're always chatting in the rushed minutes between meetings, or over a lunch where you're also dealing with other seemingly more pressing issues. And a lot of clients don't want to admit that kind of stuff – hell, most people in business don't want to admit that stuff, don't want to appear weak, or visionary, or simply human.

    It's also astonishing how little a lot of clients and agencies seem to know about the people who buy their products. It's true on a macro level but more worryingly it's true on a personal level – perhaps oversimplifying, I don't think any of us spends enough physical time with the people we're selling to. Sure, we all get research done; we know what those folks look like as generalizations, as demographic waves or as psychographic snapshots. But you can't really sell to a generalization. You have to know them, see what their lives are like and gain insight into them, in order to sell something that matters to them.

    Perhaps it's an idealistic sense of what business can be, but I picture someone owning a bricks-and-mortar store as really knowing her customers. She talks with them every day. She sees what they like, and what they turn up their noses at. She has grounded insight into how her business must react as her customers and her competition change on a daily basis.

    That's the kind of knowledge that is deep, informed, and actionable. That's what we all need and what we're all after.

    The lesson of course is that I (and all us marketers) should spend a lot more time with my clients.

    And my clients, all clients, should spend a lot more time with their customers.

    But there are these things called jobs that seem to get in the way.

    It's an odd place for us all to be in.


    just for a minute, let's confuse the words "consumer" and "citizen"

    We forget that the vast majority of consumers don't know much about the products we're selling. They haven't read the brief, haven't done the competitive research, and often haven't even done our work the courtesy of paying attention to it. Unless they're in the market for what we're peddling, it's really hard to get their attention, let alone communicate any kind of message.

    If any of you ad weasels reading this would like to get a sense of what this is like for consumers, ask yourself this: which Toronto mayoralty candidate's policies do you most support?


    [SFX: wind rustling leaves.]

    [A TUMBLEWEED enters STAGE LEFT, rolls across stage slowly and exits STAGE RIGHT.]

    None of the candidates' campaign promises or thoughts have penetrated the fog of media that surrounds us all. There have been loads of articles and interviews, but none of the candidates has differentiated themselves. None of them seems to stand for anything other than rooting out waste at City Hall, and they all go on about that. (Really, is anyone stupid enough to think that there's a billion dollars in waste in this city, other than the editors at the Sun?)

    This is exactly the situation that most consumers find themselves in when it comes to all the stuff we throw at them. Apathy, uninformed opinions and suspicion greet us as marketers whenever we try to start a conversation. "Throw the bums out" is becoming a kneejerk response to a lot of things, like the financial crisis, the health care crisis, the Gulf oil spill, let alone the chronically sick, wilfully misdiagnosed and negligently tended political life of Toronto.

    Personally, all the candidates elicit a collective "meh" from me, including the presumptive messiah of the Centre-Right, John Tory. I know some very smart people who are working for Rocco Rossi, but I'm unable to distinguish much what he says from the uninformed belligerence of talk radio. And I'm not an apolitical person; I vote, I read a lot, and I care about this city. If none of the candidates can connect with me, our political culture has a serious category problem.

    I think we marketers all face a hell of a challenge in the years to come, too.

    Now, let's go back to being crystal clear that "consumer" and "citizen" are not synonyms.


    just slightly behind the curve

    Today's Globe contained a feature by their marketing reporter, Simon Houpt, about how there's no longer a difference between traditional awareness advertising and digital. He uses as proof the recently wrapped up Cannes show and the fact that the Old Spice spot won the film category, but in fact gained real traction through Youtube. The world is digital, and digital is the world.

    And I suppose that's true, but it's been such an obvious conclusion for so long that we didn't really need to hear it again.

    The interesting stuff is what he lightly skips over at the end. Unlike the amusing but very traditional Old Spice spot, the Nike Chalkbot and Twelpforce campaigns were all about brands engaging with consumers. Instead of passive viewing, they provide meaningful experiences. The Chalkbot allowed people to tweet in messages of support to Lance Armstrong during his comeback and have those messages painted onto the route of the Tour de France; Twelpforce had Best Buy employees competing against each other to answer more consumer questions on Twitter. Both great ideas, but they're more than that.

    They're the new paradigm of all advertising – not just digital. Supplying passive spots or ads that merely push messages at people allows them to turn off (think of the last ten years of hand-wringing about the declining efficacy of TV spots) and five seconds later they may remember the creative if it's "great" but have no idea what company the ad's for.

    So, sorry Simon, it's not that digital media has trumped traditional media, or it's on par with it, or whatever. The news is that the challenge of marketing is now about creating experiences and persuading people to enter in to those experiences. Giving people something of value, something helpful like Twelpforce, or something meaningful like the Chalkbot, is a far more powerful way of communicating with consumers, especially in a world where people are overloaded with messages. Sure, digital is the main vehicle for delivering those engaging experiences, but it's not the only one.

    And it's a far bigger, more complicated and more rewarding task than creating a minute or two of funny video.

    Not that the Old Spice spot isn't funny; it's just that, despite all the CGI, it's old.


    when the great terror lizards ruled the marketplace

    Although this post will feel more like archaeology than up-to-the-minute marketing insight, there is in fact a valuable lesson to be learned from it...

    Sometime in The Dark Ages, i.e., the early '90s, the (once) great department store known as Eaton's decided that it knew better than consumers.

    Now, Eaton's had been around since 1869. In many ways it had invented the Canadian retail experience, what with its ground-breaking money back guarantee, its one price for everyone (no haggling, something of an innovation in 1870s Toronto), its catalogue ("right, Monsieur Eaton?"), and the Santa Claus parade. In fact, I remember a stat (which I could very well be remembering wrong) saying that, as late as 1950, Eaton's sold 50% of all retail goods in this country. That's pretty astounding. It was the Microsoft or eBay of its time.

    By the time I worked there, however, it was like being a deckhand on the Titanic. Every January, like clockwork, there were layoffs. Sales numbers were never good, and neither was the attitude of management. (Or, um, employees.) Not only were we losing share against the Bay and Sears, not only was WalMart coming to Canada, but the consumer share of department stores as a whole was evaporating month by month, year after year.

    Eaton's senior management (including various inheritors of Timothy Eaton's by now watered-down genes) decided that the real problem was Canadian consumers. Because consumers loved sales, and that was bad. Every other retailer seemed to have better sales. So Eaton's did away with sales.

    Instead, Eaton's offered Everyday Value Pricing, or EVP. Why wait for sales? (Replacing the question mark with a company-directed exclamation mark, this is a line I typed hundreds of times.) You could come to Eaton's any old time to get a price that was only marginally higher than the sale price you could get somewhere else. The only problem with this pricing strategy is that there was always a sale somewhere else. Consumers loved (and still love) sales. Having a sale means you have low prices. Eaton's wasn't alone – every retailer hates their dependence on sales. 

    So you might say that Eaton's took a bold step to educate consumers. Only they didn't actually educate consumers. They just thought they could pump out ads and flyers with "Why Wait for Sales!" at the top and rely on their logo at the bottom of the ads to change consumer's habits.

    The result? Do I have to spell it out? Have you shopped at an Eaton's lately?

    After two years of EVP, they quickly relented to reality and had sales all the time. But their market share had dropped even faster than before. By the time they changed tack, WalMart had landed in Canada and was stripping away shoppers. Eaton's was stuck with stores in malls that no one shopped in, stores they couldn't close fast enough, workers they couldn't lay off fast enough.

    The dinosaurs were the first large animals to roam the earth, and they did so for a very long time. But when they couldn't adapt, they went away.

    You can't change consumers because you want them to change. You can help their experience, add value to it, make it faster, and benefit as a company. But without a real sense of who the consumer is and what they want, you are doomed.