The inconvenient truth about online advertising and social media.
Are brands really created by "branding campaigns"? Is there a single banner ad that was so brilliant or so effective that we all remember it? What has "display advertising" on the web become, if not the reign of large-scale, low-quality direct response?
What about our obsession with social media? Do consumers really want to have "conversations" with brands? What is the real value of a Facebook Fan? What are social networks if not private enclosures of the web and advertising platforms?
Lastly, who was Howard Luck Gossage, and why should we study his work? Why was he more successful with things "interactive" and "social" 50 years ago than anybody has been in our "digital" era? Were he around today, what would Gossage do?
Table of Contents
Dear Miss Afflerbach
Social Media Marketing?
Butter... You Talking to Me?
Lies, Damned Lies, and ROI
The Real Value of a Facebook Fan
Quod Erat Demonstrandum
What Would Gossage Do?
A long, long time ago, I worked for the only dot.com in the world without a dot. Munich-based ciao|com did not have a dot because in German you say "ciao de" - and "ciao com", without pronouncing the dot. Hence, let's put in a "pipe" instead of a dot in the logo. Brilliant idea.
On my second day on the job, the ad agency showed up to present the results from ciao|com's first extensive banner ad campaign. We were unhappy with the results. The creativity was asking people to sign up, and yet very few people were doing so. I was curious and a bit worried: Would I be smart enough to understand what had gone wrong and why?
Only a few minutes into the presentation, I found out that I needed not worry too much: They were trying to bullshit us. All I had to do was refuse to buy it. "Your campaign was a hit on this website: The click-rate was 0.6%". "On this website it was lower, but your message was shown to the right audience". And when they had nothing good to show us at all, they told us it was: "Good for your branding". That's when I learned that stuff that doesn't work... that's code-named "branding".
Wait a second. Who told them that "clicks" were our goal? And how could they be so sure about which was the right audience for us exactly when the very first sign of interest, the click rate, had been even lower than in the other cases? Never allow other people to tell you which metrics you should be looking at. It's your budget and it's your responsibility. It's your job to figure out the infamous KPIs, or key performance indicators, you want to keep an eye on. Don't be distracted by the bullshit coming from people who are just after your marketing money. Lastly, why was this guy pretending to be an expert on "branding"? Who did he think he was, David Ogilvy?
I decided we would never again buy banner ads at CPM prices, or cost per thousand impressions. Cost per kilogram, as I loved to say, because the logic seemed to me to be as refined as the one by which you buy fruit and veggies at the market stall. We moved all our budget to any form of pay-per-click promotion we could find (this was a few years before Google AdWords), made sure it was as simple as possible to sign up to our website, gave visitors a good reason to do so and decided that people had to experience the bloody website for themselves. That's where we would make it or break it. That's where we were going to create a brand. Or not. Not with our ads.
Next startup, French online dating company Meetic. While most of our business came from co-brands, i.e. from buying lots of "traffic" directly on web portals, we also tried banner ads with just one goal in mind: get clicks. Get people to check out our website and hopefully sign up. Then prove to them that we were a better service than the other online dating websites that looked like places where you'd look not for romance but for a used car, and hopefully get them to pay. When I had to choose a PR agency for Italy, one of the people I was speaking with told me that our ads were "kind of low-quality" and that they were "ruining our image". "Oh, really?", I snapped back. I chose a different agency.
Let's leave my dot.com years aside. Was it any different in the offline world, when we were dealing with cars and airlines, or toothpaste and shampoo? Not at all. Why should it have been any different? When and why did the absurd idea that you can create a brand just with ads - worse, with vague and empty "branding campaigns" - come to pass?
In the good ol' days, ads worked. Ads worked so well that everybody wanted to do ads. As things got crowded, both in terms of more ads everywhere all the time and in terms of an ever-higher number of different products and services sold on the market, ads started to work less well. It was not "magic" anymore. It was harder. Who was winning? Perhaps those who had the best products and who did the best ads? No, that would make it sound too simple. And so, probably true.
The answer many started giving was: "Those who have the best brand". But how did they get to the point that they had the best brand? They created the best ads, got the largest number of people to try their product or service, and as it was a great product... No, no, too simple once again. Those who had the best brand were those who did "branding campaigns"!
Who made up this bullshit, and why? Mediocre agencies found it simpler to babble about values, positioning, branding etc than to do the hard creative work necessary to say something interesting enough about a product to help move it off the shelves. On the company side, it was a lot easier to think that the problem lied "with the brand", whatever that meant, than to work to improve the product, find the right price etc. Take care of the brand and "Everything's gonna be alright". Just like in that nice Bob Marley song.
Agencies and their clients decided to settle for this fantasy world in which they had problems speaking with their kids, but somehow perfectly understood the finer details of the psychological profile of their "ideal target consumer" (instead of their real customers), and then went on to produce "branding campaigns" that would align them with these ideal consumers and bring them to totally and unconditionally love their brand. Or something along those lines.
But weren't some ads very important in the creation of a brand? Of course! But only precious few, which is exactly why we study those campaigns, be they the obnoxious repetition of the same message over and over again, as favoured by Rosser Reeves of Ted Bates (Anacin), the classy and sophisticated copy of David Ogilvy (Hathaway Shirts, Schweppes, Rolls-Royce) , the self-effacing wit of Bill Bernbach (Levy's Bread, Think Small, We Try Harder) or the off-the-wall ideas of Howard Luck Gossage (Qantas, Pink Air, Eagle Shirtmakers).
But no empty and vague feel-good, happy-shiny-people-holding-hands "branding campaign" has ever created a brand. Nor has any banner ad campaign, to my knowledge.