Free Agent: All Talk and No Action
It seems fashionble lately for people in our business to eschew the word "advertising." Somewhere along the line the term became distasteful, linked to earlier times when one-way, one-message communication was enough to do the job of selling goods to the public. Heard of any new ad agencies launching lately? Probably not. Instead, we hear terms like "brand studio," "brand-messaging lab" and myriad other newfangled labels that make what we do for a living sound far more complex and sophisticated.
The same goes for some age-old media terms. "Target audience" is apparently too adversarial a concept now, replaced in many circles with the term "consumers" or even, in one case I know of, a conscientiously consistent use of the even more benign term "people" to describe those being targe- ... er, I mean, engaged with the advertis- ... oops, marketing communication. (See, a girl can't even write a simple column anymore, what with the political correctness that's invaded adspeak.)
As awkward as some of these latest entries in our industry lexicon can be, I do applaud the intention behind them. They were coined out of respect for the need for new solutions in a new media world. And if using this terminology helps people remember that yesterday's advertising approaches won't yield the results we need today, then I hope they catch on.
But there's the rub: Using new language doesn't seem to be leading advertising practitioners to invent new solutions. The latest violation is the seemingly incessant use of the term "brand actions." Don't get me wrong; I don't dislike this phrase. In fact, I love it and all it stands for - the notion of brands not talking at consumers but behaving in a way that makes their identities and missions clear. Love that. Yet it's the very height of this brand-action bar that sets so many up for failure. Because when you talk a game this big, it's just really, really obvious when you come up short.
Let me give an example. Some time ago, I worked on a pitch with a client brief that explicitly stated a desire for brand actions. "Do, don't say" language permeated the pitch assignment, making it about as ripe an opportunity for new-solutions thinking as you could ask for. The connection strategy took full advantage of this, setting up a series of brand actions that would create a cumulative effect of, "Wow, this is a brand I want to be part of." We briefed the creatives and media planners on this strategy and expected them to dance off into a brand-action mind-meld together, returning with brilliant ideas that would change the client's world. Instead we got ... ads. Print ads, TV ads, online ads - the works - along with flowcharts of where said ads should run.
Some of them were cool, as ads go, but none was an action. It was shocking to experience such opportunity so completely missed. I had to accept that the people creating the solutions simply could not get their heads around this new way of communicating, no matter how much we briefed in that direction. They were stuck so firmly in "saying" that they couldn't conceive of this brand "doing" to get its messages across. All the while, this same agency was talking the brand-action talk with the best of them.
More recently, I've worked with several shops who claim a strong desire to bring forward "do, don't say" solutions. Yet when I bring them connection strategies calling for behaviors, not messages, I am met with blank stares. I know the creative guys want to say, "Just tell us what the hell the ads should say." But it's just not fashionable.
Thankfully, today we are starting to see more examples of great, effective brand actions. Marketers like Dove put their behavior where their mouth is, and Google has done, not talked, its way to almost unprecedented brand vitality. We see lame attempts, too (I'd put the LG Electronics "Scarlet" campaign and P&G's "Where should we advertise?" effort in this category). But hey, at least they're out there doing things.
Tell you what: Since changing the terminology of our industry hasn't led to widespread creation of new campaign approaches, how about we go back to calling what we do "advertising"? Then we can let go of the lofty language and put all our energy into changing the most important thing: what we create.
Lisa Seward is the founder of Mod Communications, a strategic media consultancy. (firstname.lastname@example.org)