What the ad biz needs is to exorcize direct marketing

In What the ad biz needs is writers, Michael Wolff bemoans the absence of good writers in advertising:

…even creatives want to avoid writing — because they can’t…

While technological disruption is most often blamed for the existential predicament of the media business, the more precise problem is that advertising doesn’t work as well as it used to work. This presents a crisis not only for newspapers, magazines and television — but also, according to the stock market, for Facebook. We just don’t look at advertising, respond to it, or believe it, as much as we once did, wherever it appears.

Maybe this is the reason: There are no writers in advertising anymore. Johnny who can’t write has gone into advertising.

In fact, “copywriter” is a job that now hardly exists. The historical partnership between graphic designer and copywriter has, more and more, become a partnership between project manager and programmer, or videographer and editor, or media buyer and researcher.

If you are the person who actually has to write an ad — rather than conceptualize, or produce, or program, or pitch, or research — your career in advertising is not going very well.

He is right. That he’s one of the best writers in journalism adds weight to his judgement. So does this, which closes his piece:

My suggestion to USA TODAY editors was to let the opportunity of the page encourage an agency and client to brilliantly use it. A contest — always beloved in the ad business — was suddenly born.

USA TODAY is offering a million dollars in free advertising pages if you can fill them smartly — with cleverness, wit, style, economy of words. Again, free. Now, that will make your client happy.

Just spell out your big idea and tell your arresting story.

It may be that all we have to do to reinvent traditional media, save Facebook, even make digital media a decent business, as well as move more merchandise, is bring back the copywriter.

I’m for that — and I’m eager to see how the ad business responds to the contest.

But I also think the problem is bigger than writing itself, or technological disruption.

The problem is that direct marketing has body-snatched advertising.

In the old days direct marketing was distinct from adverting. In even older days, direct marketing was called direct mail. Or, in the vernacular of its recipients, junk mail. Some key differences, from back in the pre-snatched era of advertising’s history:

  • While advertising was impersonal, direct marketing was personal. It called you by name. Or wanted to.
  • While advertising was about raising general awareness of a company, product or service, direct marketing was about selling you stuff. Hence the term direct response, which is what most of direct marketing on the Net is looking for today.
  • While advertising was creative-driven, direct marketing was data-driven.
  • While advertising favored qualitative results, direct marketing favored quantitative results.
  • While advertising respected personal privacy by default (it didn’t get personal), direct marketing never cared much about it — despite assurances to the contrary.

In the old analog world, advertising and direct marketing remained blessedly separate. No first-rank copywriter, art director or creative director wanted to tar his or her hands (or resumé) with direct marketing work. In fact, most of that work didn’t happen on Madison Avenue at all, but in specialty shops somewhere out in Florida or Indiana.

But once the analog and the digital world merged, direct marketing’s obsession with data gathering and analysis had nearly infinite room to grow. Like cancer, or worse.

It seemed innocent enough when it was just text ads off to the side of Google search results, or on the margins of blogs and other Web pubs. That stuff was called advertising because, well, it was. And that’s when the body-snatch began. Because that stuff was called advertising, so was everything that followed when direct marketing imperatives and methods moved to the fore.

In the online world, advertising messages are not much about increasing brand awareness, or other old-fashioned advertising purposes. (Though today’s ad folk love to throw the word “brand” around.) Instead the main purpose is getting direct responses: clicks and sales, aimed by personal data, gathered and analyzed every possible way. The idea is to  make the advertising as personal as possible, as far as possible, regardless of how creepy it gets. It’s all fully rationalized. (Hey, you can opt out if you don’t like it.)

In the analog world of old-fashioned Madison Avenue advertising, there were physical limits to saturation. Not so online. Today advertising comprises 99.x% of all email traffic. (Most of it is spam, but it’s hard to tell the difference.) It has also turned ad-supported Web pages into syringes for injecting countless unseen files into users’ browsers. Those files then follow users everywhere to collect data for the new ad industry’s analytic mills, so the body-snatched business can then deliver “a better advertising experience,” as if anybody actually wants it.

And now the snatched ad business want to dominate our mobile lives as well. For a taste of how this looks on the ad-mill side, check out MediaPost‘s MobileMarketing Daily. Lots of rah-rah for what most phone users can only dread. Examples:

They do, however, report on some push-back:

Yet there is one thing both traditional advertising folk and direct marketers have in common, and that’s blinders toward reality.  Terry Heaton puts it well:

Operating within the soul of every marketer is the ridiculous assumption that people want or need to be bombarded by advertising, and that any invasion of their time or experience to “pass along” an attempt to influence is justified. If this were true, there would be no looming fight over DVRs, which allow viewers to skip ads. You have no inherent right to my eyeballs, and it is precisely this axiom that makes today’s instruments and gadgets so powerfully disruptive to the culture.

How so? We’re weary of running a relentless gauntlet of jumping, screaming, frantic warnings, hands grabbing, voices shouting, noise-making, disjointed movements, and the almost demonic reaching for our wallets coming from advertising. This is Madison Avenue’s idea of perfection, and the only way you can get there is to completely ignore the effect of advertising on the very people you’re trying to influence. The Web is, at core, a pull mechanism, not one that pushes. It’s why all those big projections of advertising “potential” have turned into a commodified “pennies for dollars” reality.

In reality, advertising has become ineffective because it is no longer advertising, at least in the digital world. It is direct marketing, calling itself advertising.

To live again as a stand-alone discipline, advertising needs to exorcize the devil that direct marketing has made of advertising online. Simple as that.

For more on how real advertising actually works better than the direct marketing kind, read Don Marti‘s Targeted Marketing Considered Harmful. Then move on to the rest of Don’s growing medicine cabinet of direct marketing disinfectant for adverting.

Bonus link.



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21 Responses to What the ad biz needs is to exorcize direct marketing

  1. Neil Cowan says:

    Wow! Er…how can this have no comments? Was it posted just milliseconds ago?

    (Milliseconds, btw, US people, is not the leader of the Labour party whose pop hated Britain according to one of our finest newspapers, The Daily Mail. I’m assunming the ‘US’ bit cos anyone called ‘Doc’ must be.)

    So anyway…this is great. A really incisive account of how indirect has become direct, how impersonal has become personal and how data drives everything.

    I’m not sure ‘writing’, as Doc puts it has become poorer; rather, I think, it’s simply adapted itself to ‘we’re all in a stupid hurry all the time and can’t read much anymore cos we’re all bombarded with stuff on every device’. So bite-sized, street cred, 140 characters mentality has become the norm.

    And the only long copy readers are the ones whose demographic doesn’t matter to advertisers anymore…So why bother writing anything for oldies!?

  2. Doc,

    OK, I’ll take the bait. Not because I care about what you think or that what I say will change your mind or change the mind of those pre-disposed to hate direct response marketing.

    I beg to differ with your claims above that direct response marketing is not “real advertising.” As a practitioner myself, I’ve always thought of the science of DR as the scholarly side of the advertising family.

    Unlike the loudmouth Aunt bragging about her kids incessantly at the Thanksgiving table (brand advertising) or the glad-handing Uncle (PR) trying to cozy up to Grandpa to secure a better place in the will, we were always relegated to the kids table and played with our abacus while the popular kids threw sweet potatoes at us.

    But that was OK. We were followers of Lester Wunderman, David Ogilvy, Gordon Grossman, Walter Weintz, George Cullinan and the others founding fathers of direct marketing who were interested in building long-term, profitable businesses. We knew exactly how our advertising performed and our performance could be measured precisely in dollars and cents.

    Further, we actually did care about customer privacy. On any given day in the 1980’s and 1990’s, mag tapes bearing just about every American’s address, buying behavior and yes, even Social Security number, were being couriered about for the purposes of merge/purge. Yet you never heard about data breaches. Why? Because of the way the old guard set things up. If you used names wrongly or had a breach, you’d be blackballed.

    You see, in those days, there was no option of selling out to Google for $30 or $100 million and letting them worry about the data problems. You had to build and run a sustainable business and not a quick-buck shop. (See Path’s multiple problems with accessing customer data incorrectly.)

    I think what you’re seeing here is the hijacking of traditional brand advertising by untrained dilettantes. Direct response isn’t about irritating more people with intrusive ads, more dancing skeletons and incessant email come-ons.

    For those of us who learned when WE (the advertiser) were footing the bill to the tune of $500 or $1500 CPM for direct mail solicitations, it was about mastering the merge/purge, building intelligent predictive models and segmenting our audience precisely. Importantly, it also was extremely important to know when to say when. At those kind of CPMs, you couldn’t just continue to blast out irrelevant messages.

    Sadly, it’s easier to spray and pray these days than it is to learn how to build and test logistic regression models. It’s the *wanna-be* direct response marketers you’re ranting against here.

    So, please, don’t paint real direct response marketing as “non-real advertising.” It is legitimate, having been practiced in the US since the time of Benjamin Franklin (likely the first cataloger in the colonies)

    Mark Pilipczuk

  3. Pingback: Yes, Doc Searls, Direct Marketing *IS* Advertising | PilipBlog

  4. Really interesting premise and I really appreciate Mark’s thoughtful response. I’ve worked on both direct (managed Verizon’s email marketing campaigns) and brand advertising (sponsored Facebook app development at an agency and now managing digital ad experiences across multiple Turner broadcasting properties) and the HUGE gulf between what is possible in online advertising what most web advertising actually DOES.

    As Mark says, the biggest problem is the ridiculously low cost of advertising. Who is going to spend money for copyrighting or creativity when somebody somewhere is making money with all that bottom-feeding, automated bid “one weird trick” spamvertising that you see everywhere?

  5. Phil says:

    My main question is this (certainly not to defend direct marketers): why is traditional advertising still trying to differentiate between “marketing a brand” and “selling a product”? As a certified Guerrilla Marketing trainer, I ask each and every client to hold themselves accountable to every penny they spend, especially if you are NOT a business big enough to be on Wall St or Madison Ave. Who has excess cash these days to waste on “branding”? Shouldn’t we be able to think smart and measure each strategy we use so that we can be certain that more is coming in than going out?

    This is what today’s direct marketing has going for it above traditional. If I spend $1000 on smart, direct advertising, whether it be through CPCs or ads with specific phone numbers attached, I should be able to measure the success of that effort and adjust it accordingly. I would never just put money into an ad or a piece if I couldn’t figure out how to tie that to my sales revenue.

    Mark, your comment is impressive, and I think you make a great point. “Yet you never heard about data breaches. Why? Because of the way the old guard set things up. If you used names wrongly or had a breach, you’d be blackballed.” One of the biggest issues here is the availability for one-night popsicle stands to grab some data and some money, jump in and out of business and not have to face real accountability. That needs to be stopped as fast as possible.

  6. Doc Searls says:

    Thanks, Neil.

    Not sure why there are so few responses, so far. Probably for exactly the reasons you give. 🙂

    And thanks, Mark, for an informative and useful response. Well-done and much appreciated.

    I thought about David Ogilvy when I wrote this — especially about his salutes to John Caples, whose Tested Advertising Methods came straight down from Ben Franklin and improved advertising in all its forms. It helped me back in my copywriting days, and lives with me still.

    Here’s another angle on the problem: advertising today has literally gone insane. Disconnected from reality. It has become a glutton for data, from anywhere, anything and anybody — worst of all from individuals without their express consent or permission. It is obese with over-investment and mindless of the consequences of its indulgences. Something must be done.

    So I thought it best — for this post at least — to pull apart the two main branches of advertising, as they stand today and to locate the soul we need to save on the side that doesn’t get personal.

    The idea for that came to me from Comscore CEO Magid M. Abraham, Ph.D., in The Economics of Online Advertising. There he says, "while the Internet may have been a boon for direct response advertisers, it has been a mixed blessing for brand advertisers."

    I wrote about that first in the bonus link above. It was a two-question Q&A in Wharton’s Future of Advertising series.

    I’ve also been led by Don Marti’s excellent series of pieces on advertising vs. adtech, also cited above.

    You say “I think what you’re seeing here is the hijacking of traditional brand advertising by untrained dilettantes.” So I think we both might agree that there are babies in the ocean-sized bathwaters of both brand and direct response advertising. For brand advertising, the baby is great creative. For direct response, it’s good manners. How would you save both?

  7. Perry Gaskill says:

    It seems like a real stretch to call Michael Wolff “one of the best writers in journalism.” His current gig at USA Today follows a period when he was pretty much a disaster as editor of Ad Week. What Wolff also fails to mention, something pointed out by, among others, George Tannenbaum in his Ad Aged blog, is that one of the reasons copywriting has gotten worse is because better money made the best writers migrate to television.

    The difference between DR and brand building is nothing new. Newspaper publishers going back more than 100 years have always been aware of the difference, and what gets used often depends on the client. A two-fer coupon for a pizza parlor is DR; a local bank, since it hardly ever hands out cash, is usually brand building. That the concepts were called something different back in the day is beside the point.

    Wolff writing for USA Today also means that his work gives him the comfort zone of a general audience that mostly knows little about how the sausage gets made in the advertising business. Having such a luxury means that he doesn’t have to confront some of the stickier issues in the advertising business conversation, which has moved on to more interesting dilemma. Here’s an example:

    Last year, the New York Times won a Pulitizer Prize for a long-form multimedia effort called “Snow Fall.” At the time it was published online, there was valid criticism raised that the quality of advertising didn’t match the quality of the content. In a later similar-style piece, it was called “The Jockey,” the NYT worked with BMW as a client to produce a respectable effort for the ads.

    But in a long-form story last month called “Tomato Can Blues” the NYT found itself back to the original Snow Fall problem of bad ads because, evidently unlike the effort with The Jockey and BMW, Tomato Can Blues had been in the editorial pipeline for some time, but the advertising side needed to support it had been given very little lead time to produce ad quality equal to the quality of the content.

    Such an issue, at least it seems to me, is much more relevant than a Wolffian hand-wringing about how ad copywriters might or might not have suddenly become a bunch of illiterates.

  8. Don Marti says:

    How to save the babies? Step one, babyproof the infrastructure. Right now, on the web, we’re still working with a lot of the same hastily constructed privacy settings from the dot-com boom. Browsers, by default, are willing to do unexpected trackable things behind the user’s back.

    Browser developers are going back and fixing some of the browser privacy problems. Cookie Clearinghouse is a good example. What we’ll get from that is a web that works more like users expect it to, privacy-wise, and is friendlier to legit advertisers.

    Some adtech proponents will tell you that the thing to do about the creeped-out user problem is to change the users — try to get them to read the Terms of Service and learn all about the counterintuitive tracking that’s now possible, in the hope that they’ll like it. ( http://zgp.org/~dmarti/business/annoyances/ ) IHMO this is the wrong direction. Instead, make the medium work in a way that people are comfortable with, and the advertising that appears there will be more valuable for everyone.

  9. Doc Searls says:

    Thanks, Don.

    Question for all: Can we can make a distinction between adtech and direct response advertising?

  10. Doc Searls says:

    Perry, Michael Wolff’s time at AdWeek may have been a bust (I dunno, because I missed it), but his career is a long and accomplished one. Sure, he’s pissed a lot of people off along the way, but hey, I’ve always enjoyed his writing.

  11. Don Marti says:

    “Can we can make a distinction between adtech and direct response advertising?”

    Maybe. We could say that they’re at different layers of the stack. What about this: Adtech is a set of IT practices. Direct response advertising is a set of business methods.

    Adtech is usually used to implement direct response advertising, but not always. And there are many other media besides adtech over which direct response advertising can travel

    Just because I don’t think that Project Wonderful is getting enough credit for its implementation of a post-creepy web advertising model, here’s a bonus link: https://www.projectwonderful.com/advertisewithus.php

  12. Craig Cooper says:

    Excellent article(s).

    “Operating within the soul of every marketer is the ridiculous assumption that people want or need to be bombarded by advertising…”

    Too, too true.

  13. gregorylent says:

    the ad biz needs to reverse its psychology 180 degrees …

    give to, not get from, the target…

    miracles will happen

  14. Doc Searls says:

    Check out I am Not a Lead at SD Times. It makes exactly the distinction that Don, I (in this post) and others are talking about — between advertising to populations on one hand and direct response (in this case the lead generation corner of it) on the other.

  15. Scott Spinola says:

    Going a step further, it seems to me that this “body snatching” (as you call it) has lead to the reality that we digitally sign a contract every time we visit a web site, agreeing to let the web site owner use my personal information for their commercial purposes. Furthermore, they can change the terms whenever they want, and my visiting the site implies consent, despite the fact that I cannot see the terms without visiting the site so I have no way of giving my informed consent. This is patently absurd. Last I checked, I don’t sign any contracts just to shop at the grocery store.

    And this is brilliant: “Operating within the soul of every marketer is the ridiculous assumption that people want or need to be bombarded by advertising…”
    – First, I will quibble with the use of “marketer” here and not “advertiser.” They are distinctly different disciplines and industries, and content marketers actually attempt to provide useful information, completely apart from any promotional value it may have. That said, the point is still brilliant. I laugh every time Hulu (for example) asks me to choose the ad I want to see or asks me if it’s relevant. Just play the dang ad and get back to the show. Nobody cares what ad you display, stop insulting us by presuming we should care about it simply because you do.

    To those above defending direct marketing as honorable, I’m sure they are personally very honorable, but perhaps they should show that honor by demanding that their industry respect the privacy of web site visitors. It’s not enough that you say you care about customer privacy because you didn’t let anybody steal our personal information. Seriously? The fact that you had it at all and mostly took it without our permission is the violation. The fact that you don’t understand that is the entire problem. You don’t have the right to my personal information simply because you want it. as long as you assume that you do, the industry will be justifiably maligned.

    I block all cookies from all sites unless I need to log in and install ad blocking plug-ins. And I not have Facebook or Google accounts since their entire business models are selling its users as products. When I need to use Google for work I use a browser dedicated to Google sites and nothing else. No thank you. You may not sell me.

    I long for the day when direct marketing disappears completely. It will mean less landfill clogging garbage for me to throw away when I get the mail I actually want, and less creepy display ads on web sites.

  16. Don Marti says:

    Just thinking about the pre-Web days. How much time did I spend with direct response marketing, and how much with regular non-targeted advertising. Probably a few minutes of dealing with direct response per day, sorting my postal mail and handling cold calls. And then however many hours total I spent with the newspaper, magazines, and TV. Somehow the balance of how much targeted and non-targeted material I have to deal with has changed a lot.

    Also, Slashdot has interviewed me about this topic: http://news.slashdot.org/comments.pl?sid=4319565

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  21. Joe McFadden says:

    Mark made a great point, “Sadly, it’s easier to spray and pray these days than it is to learn how to build and test logistic regression models.”

    Too often brands are trying to cast as wide a net as possible and get their piece of the pie from every single pie out there, however big or small that may be when they actually sit down at the table. We are throwing too much out there and hoping something will stick when in reality less can be so much more provided its the right message at the right time to the right person. But the only way to figure that out is to test and analyze and that takes time, which no one is willing to invest.

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