The Sell: The Miracle Max Code
This year for Halloween, i am going to dress up as one of the great advertising icons. No, I am not going as Tony the Tiger or Mayor McCheese. Instead, I will dress up as Miracle Max from The Princess Bride. Released 21 years ago last month, The Princess Bride remains a terrific movie about media buying.
At the beginning of the movie, Westley, a farm boy, responds to every one of Buttercup's commands by saying, "As you wish." She soon realizes that this is actually his way of saying, "I love you." Advertising is similarly filled with entendres; often what we say is not what we mean. We speak in code and hidden meaning. The old media joke is that everybody is No. 1 in something. Buyers and sellers alike spin numbers to their own benefit. During the spring upfront presentations, every network is No. 1 in something. Finding the hidden meaning in the numbers is what separates the good negotiators from the truly great ones. In fact, the best negotiators listen more than they speak. Forget the surface-level excuses; instead, address the heart of the other side's argument. If a seller won't reduce his cpm, perhaps it is more about his share of budget rather than the out-of-pocket dollars.
When Westley is captured, the Dread Pirate Roberts tells him over and over again, "Good night, Westley. Good work. Sleep well. I'll most likely kill you in the morning." Westley is terrified, of course, but he eventually realizes that in fact the pirate never intends to kill him. The threat is no longer credible. An implicit part of negotiating is threatening. The seller threatens to sell to someone else; the buyer threatens to spend their money elsewhere. Threats are an important part of any media buyer's arsenal. The threat of walking away from a deal can convince a reluctant seller to lower the price. However, for the threat to work, it must be credible. That is one of the biggest mistakes in negotiating. A major beer company can't threaten to walk away from espn in the upfront. Realistically, brewers need espn's sports dominance to reach men. But the story may be much different with a small, lower-rated sports provider. Threaten to walk away only sparingly, as a last resort.
Westley soon encounters Vizzini, a brilliant strategist who believes that it is "inconceivable" anyone could outsmart him. Not surprisingly, Westley does just that. Vizzini's biggest error was believing his own hype. The advertising industry is bursting with smart, creative, ambitious people. Try not to believe your own hype, because there is always someone smarter and more hard-working just around the corner, waiting to take up your challenge. Sometimes success is due to luck rather than brilliance. Viral campaigns are like lottery tickets. One breaks through the clutter and gets noticed, while the rest crash and burn. However, the illusion of strategic thinking and creative brilliance makes for great press. Remember, no one is infallible, and no single account stays at the same agency forever. The only hedge against this that I know is continued hard work. Certainly Vizzini was right about one thing: Never get involved in a land war in Asia.
Toward the end of the movie, Westley is killed. Fezzik, played brilliantly by André the Giant, brings the limp and lifeless body to Miracle Max. Max tells him, "It just so happens that your friend here is only mostly dead. There's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive." He prepares a magic pill, and Westley returns to help save the day. How often do deals fall apart, only to be revived later? Always be prepared to jump back into negotiations. When rejecting an offer, leave the door open to return to the negotiating table. When your offer is the one rejected, keep the same principle in mind. Remember, the marketplace is fluid and situations change. Therefore, position yourself in such a way that you can breathe life into a mostly dead proposal.
The Princess Bride provides a humorous, albeit extended, analogy of our business. More important, it teaches us to have fun. Media may be the number-oriented side of advertising, but we still need to be creative. Looking at the world around us, we can find many analogies to the business. Processing those external, creative ideas in our daily lives brings new energy, new life to our work. We must enjoy the day-to-day, because after all, this is where we spend most of our waking lives. As Miracle Max says, "Have fun storming the castle!"
Andrew Ettinger is the director of interactive media at RJ Palmer Media Services. (email@example.com)