For about five years, early in my career, I worked day-in and day-out for the fourth-largest bank in New York City.
This was no easy job.
The bank itself was divided into two parts. The retail part--their 400 or so branches in New York and New Jersey. And their corporate part, which 35 years ago, mostly involved taking a vig on large-scale wire-transfers from money centers in Europe to New York.
The banking business at its most elemental isn't that much different than building a castle in the sand at the beach. You have to balance how much to take out and how much to put in to keep the edifice you're building from collapsing. Take out too much--sand or money, collapse. Put in too much--sand or money, collapse.
The bank used its retail business like a savvy kid might use a plastic shovel. When they needed funds, they offered high rates on CDs and savings accounts. That would attract money.
When they had a surfeit of funds, they'd offer lower rates on mortgages and other sorts of home loans.
I wrote about two ads a week for five years helping the guys in a $3000 suits keep the bank's ledger-based balance. If an ad didn't pull in money or push out money, you'd be on the hook to come up with one that did the job.
During my five years in that job, I rose from copywriter to Sr. Vice President Group Creative Director, because I worked hard to understand the why-fors and where-fors of what I was doing. I didn't just have an assignment to do another ad. I felt the pressure of helping the bank stay in balance. During those same five years, I learned more about the bank and its products than the bankers themselves.
When I left for what I had hoped would be greener pastures, Frank S., the marketing SVP of the bank wrote me a note.
"I don't know what we're going to do without you. You're the only one here who knows the difference between a home loan and a home-equity-line-of-credit."
In the grand advertising scheme of things, that ain't much. It certainly wasn't the kind of thing that would get me into Wieden or Chiat.
But I wonder.
I wonder if that's why advertising has become so unimportant to so many people--and worse to so many business leaders. Because no one in advertising has the wherewithal or the incentive to live and breathe a brand, and therefore find out what makes it different.
How can you show something off to its advantage if you don't understand what that something is?
Very few ads today--in any category from automobiles, to telcos, to airlines, to hotel chains, to QSRs, to FMCGs, to beer/seltzers, to agencies themselves, could pass the thumb test. If you covered their logo with your thumb, could the ad be for anyone?
Are all products really all that similar that every car commercial has virtually the same casting spec, on the same road, in the same weather, with the same voiceover saying the same words.
I just took ten minutes and went through some 60-year-old Volkswagen ads.
I highlighted facts.
I do believe that agencies and clients, in an effort to squeeze every productive hour out of every productive worker, have created a system that practically assures that the advertising we commission, create, pay for and run will be wholly unproductive.
Instead of "optimizing" how much clients and ad people know about their customers and the products we sell, we've decided to optimize their hours and eliminate their downtime. Time I always used to learn stuff the people I was trying to get ahead of were not willing or able to learn.
The clients GeorgeCo., LLC, a Delaware Company has today--everything from complicated technologies, to safer, more profitable chickens, to a healthier frozen pizza, to more thoughtful financial management--know that through the years I have earned a PhD. in their products. And every day I am taking self-taught continuing ed classes.
Advertising exists to differentiate.
To make Four Brothers Deli's turkey sandwich sound better than Five Brothers Deli's turkey sandwich. To do that job you actually have to sample the sandwiches. You might have to learn about them.
You can't differentiate only through cinematic technique, music and 26-letters rearranged.
It takes much less than that.