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Business Insights from Andrea Hill

Stop Distracting Yourself with Ineffective Advertising

01 October 2022

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One of my earliest jobs was at advertising agency Foote, Cone & Belding back in the late 70s. I wasn't a management trainee or even an intern. I was a Kelly Girl, a temporary secretarial services worker, brought in to cover a maternity leave. I took minutes in meetings, typed volumes of communications, ran art boards and interoffice envelopes between departments, fetched supplies and prepared coffee. When the person I was covering for returned, they made room for me at the next desk and kept me on, making it possible for me to learn one of the more important business lessons of my career.

It was my first exposure to advertising and to the individual specialties required to create it: Writing, graphic design, photography, film, layout (this was the era of x-acto knives, rubber cement and adhesive wax) and account planning. As I silently transcribed often heated discussions among creative teams and account executives, I discovered the world of designers who reverentially referred to the works of Saul Bass and Massimo Vignelli, copy writers who studied David Ogilvy, Eugene Schwartz and Claude Hopkins, and a building full of people who had read (and re-read) Marshall McLuhan the same way medical students study the Atlas of Human Anatomy and law students study the U.S. constitution.

I arrived at this job already knowing about music and music theory, art history and art theory, and the different styles of writing. I knew that great success in artistic pursuits was almost always preceded by studying masters, learning the rules before one broke them, and practice, practice, practice. What I learned during what turned into working on and off at the agency over the next three years was that advertising is equally a profession, and that you can't fake or luck your way into effective promotions.

Since that time I have enthusiastically embraced each of the advances that make it easier to execute advertising, from the advent of digital design to the ability to communicate directly with audiences online. And as McLuhan pointed out in 1964 when Arthur C. Clarke was first predicting the internet, the digital age has not only changed how we create advertising, it has also changed what we can create.

But there is another, insidious aspect to this evolution: Digital tools and publishing have also changed who can create.

At this point you may be thinking I’m a bit of a snob, and I’ll own some of that. I appreciate good advertising. I want to see graphics that are not just visually appealing, but which are also clearly designed to achieve a purpose. Grammatically correct isn’t sufficient to be considered good copy. Good copy is compelling and works within the larger design and media to be greater than the sum of its words. A bad photo crop can ruin composition and distract the eye. Professionally produced advertising should make you think. It should stick with you.

This doesn’t mean that one can’t create great advertising without study or experience. Every medium has its savants and prodigies and all of us land on an amazing idea now and then. But savants, prodigies and luck are exceptions, not the norm.

However, the predictable outcome of lots of bad advertising isn't my reason for calling the democratization of design insidious. Bad advertising has always existed. I don’t even say it because bad design leads to waste of advertising dollars (though it does). I say it because producing mediocre advertising has become a distraction for businesses everywhere.

I Can Do it Myself

Most people couldn’t afford a printing press, so developing the knowledge to set up, maintain, and use one didn’t occur to the average person. But Microsoft Word and — worse (much worse) — PowerPoint have made it easy for anyone to assemble pages that look like graphic design. Comfort with those tools led to the confidence to try a variety of digital design tools, including complicated software like Photoshop and Illustrator. Into this opportunity stepped Canva and dozens of software look-alikes; design programs that make it possible for anyone to create advertising.

All these developments are good. Even Canva (and its ilk) have a role to play within professional marketing departments. What’s not good? Business owners spending their precious and limited time creating advertising instead of spending that time doing the strategic and technical work of their businesses: Producing and delivering the products and services they sell.

Before easy-for-anyone-to-use digital design tools, a business owner had no choice but to hire a professional to create their advertising. In most cases the result was a professional advertising message. But even if they lobbed the advertising creation off on the local newspaper or a less-than-effective advertising resource, the resulting advertising still didn’t take up the business owner’s time and distract them from the business at hand.

The “I can do it myself” movement in business advertising isn’t reducing the cost of advertising. It’s reducing the effectiveness of management.

I Can Direct a Team

What about the business owner who has a large enough organization to afford hiring a marketing person? Is that better? Not necessarily.

The person hired is almost always expected to write copy and blog posts, create graphics, manage social media, take photographs, and manage the website. These are all distinctly different skills. Again — not being a snob here. I know many people who do an admirable job of managing all these tasks. But who is developing them? Who is helping them hone their skills as an advertiser and marketer? Because invariably the do-it-all person who assumes this role is not the more senior advertising professional who has been developed over many years by many mentors to understand the theory and practice of each of these specialties. No, it’s the entry level or lower management person who appreciates the flexibility and creativity of the job and is happily making it up as they go.

This scenario is still better than the business owner themself producing the marketing. In this content-driven marketing moment when volumes of creative and writing must be produced just to try to penetrate the noise (even while contributing to it), a do-it-all marketing team member can play an important role.

If the work they produce delivers a measurable positive outcome.

If the do-it-all marketing person is successfully (and measurably) producing new leads and helping to deliver those leads into the hands of salespeople, or guiding those leads down the sales funnel to close sales, or inspiring repurchase behavior and loyalty, then having an in-house advertising department makes sense. But if this person, which often becomes a team, is costing one, two, or more salaries to produce lots of satisfying visuals without leading to increased sales sufficient to pay for their salaries and deliver profit, then the business is simply wasting money.

The problem with the average in-house marketing/advertising/creative effort is that most business owners are not trained marketing or advertising professionals, nor do they hire seasoned marketing or advertising professionals to run the department. The result is too often a cost center that produces volumes of low-yield work.

I Don’t Like It: The Misplaced Insertion of Personal Taste in Advertising

“It’s hideous.” I remember the first time I heard an art director proclaim this, curling his lip at a presentation while simultaneously crushing the soul of the graphic designer presenting it. I didn’t see the problem with the graphic; in fact, it looked pretty good to me. But instead of sending the graphic designer out of his office to wallow in her shame, the art director proceeded to dissect the presentation, explaining why it was off message and how the elements of the presentation failed to deliver the intended result. He made suggestions about elements that would work better. It reminded me of one of my professors dissecting my poetry, explaining why the word choices and cadence might work for other forms of writing, but not for the work at hand.

When an untrained business owner directs, criticizes, corrects, or rejects the advertising efforts of an untrained employee, the only basis they have for argument is personal taste and opinion.

Without technical knowledge about why the color orange might be the correct color for a certain psychological response, why a line wrap might matter (and conversely, when it shouldn’t), when illustration might be a better convention than photography, how an eye moves across a printed page compared to a digital device … without technical knowledge, the decisions will be based on what colors each individual prefers, how certain shapes or graphics affect them personally, and whether or not that person would use a certain word choice in their own speech.

As Christine Catarino, marketing director at E.A. Dion recently said to me in a conversation about this topic, “When people who are not in that world (advertising) put all of their subjective feelings into that world, it becomes really difficult to achieve a great result.”

There should be discussion between the person commissioning the advertising and the professional creating it – lots of it. But the conversation should be anchored by reasons and intention, not taste and opinion.

The past decade has seen a significant in-housing of marketing creative across corporate America. Much of this is driven by the sheer volume of online marketing that must be produced and the commensurate need for speed and flexibility. In 2021, at a time when marketing budgets had plummeted to 6.4% of overall company revenue (down from 11% before the pandemic), a Gartner survey of 400 marketers revealed that 29% of the work that had been previously managed by agencies had been moved in-house since 2020.

But that trend appears to have slowed significantly as corporate managers discover the risks associated with in-housing creative. Chief among those risks is recruiting the right people. Even when a company manages to recruit strong creatives, retention can be difficult given that this workforce typically thrives on new challenges and creative diversity. And there is a bigger, more difficult issue as well: No matter how abrasive the feedback might be, talented creatives would rather take knowledgeable criticism from a skilled art or creative director than from a boss suggesting arbitrary changes based on personal taste and opinion.

So what is the average business-owner to do?

Start by recognizing that the creation of effective advertising requires professional knowledge and experience. A massage therapist can help you address back pain, but if your disc needs repair, you don’t ask the massage therapist to cut you – you go to an orthopedic surgeon. If the orthopedic surgeon recommends something you’re uncomfortable with, you’d be wise to check with a different orthopedic surgeon, rather than arguing for a treatment plan based on your opinion and research you did on Google (though medical specialists will tell you that even this is changing. Apparently now everyone has the same knowledge as their doctors).

You may need an in-house person or team to crank out constant content, but give them access to professional guidance and support. This will make their work product more effective, and it will also help them develop as marketing professionals. Most agencies are accustomed to collaborating with in-house teams, which can keep your agency-associated costs down and can significantly improve marketing employee retention.

Finally, make sure you have access to professional marketing and advertising guidance as well. A true professional will share the reasons and experience behind their suggestions, allowing you to rent years of professional knowledge on very favorable terms rather than having to purchase it … or do without. 

If you have ever looked at a couple and wondered what one saw in the other … if you have ever looked at a famous painting and realized that it does nothing for you … if you have ever discussed the likability of cilantro … you know that taste is not universal. Stop basing your advertising creative on taste. Stop thinking the customer sees things the way you see them. Stop believing that opinion is the same as experience. Instead, look for an adviser, agency, or resource that can guide you — or better, your team — to create the kind of advertising that cuts through noise, grabs attention, and inspires response.

Don’t worry. You can still apply your preference for blue to your home décor and you get to choose what to hang on the walls of your office. But when your focus is appropriately placed on how much return your advertising dollars deliver — and not simply on how much you spend or if you personally like it — your bottom line will thank you.