Category Archives: Advertising

Toronto’s Election: The View from an Ad Man

If you live in Toronto, you’re no doubt aware that our city is in the midst of a heated and hotly contested election for mayor.

With just a couple weeks until election day, the campaign is now entering high gear: the candidates are working day and night, the media coverage is getting saturated and the campaign advertising is getting more intense.

As someone passionate about both politics and advertising, I’m always  excited to see new campaign ads roll out and thought that I’d share my take on the candidates’ respective ad campaigns… wearing my “advertising” hat and not my “political junkie” one. (Note that our agency is not working for any candidate).

As someone who makes ads for a living and is passionate about the craft, I tend to view the category of political advertising as a pretty desolate wasteland. Lets face it: with a few notable exceptions (I’ll get to those), election ads are terrible. Poor production values. Boring, cliched, predictable messaging. A level of dishonesty that would make most client-side brand managers cringe.

This particular election, unfortunately, is worse than almost any I’ve seen.

Let’s start our review by looking at the candidate who entered the race as the early frontrunner and who was predicted to easily win in a landslide: George Smitherman.

Here is the latest offering from the Smitherman campaign, a TV spot.

If there’s something positive to say, it’s that the production values were high and it worked from a branding perspective.

But when you’re trailing by double-digits with two weeks to go, I’m afraid that this just doesn’t cut it. Not only is there nothing particularly compelling, it suffers from the mistake that far too many marketers make: inconsistency of messaging. This 30-second spot tries to cram in about five different messages. At the end of seeing the spot, you don’t retain anything and have little sense of what the candidate actually stands for. It’s like I frequently tell clients: if you have five messages, you really have NO message.

Political candidates, like any brand, need to own an idea in the mind of their consumer (in this case, the voters). In the automotive category, Volvo stands for safety. Lexus stands for luxury. Prius is about helping the planet.

The best candidates understand this principle. The two most effective campaigners in my lifetime were Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. Think back to two years ago. Anyone could tell you that Obama stood for hope and change. Reagan stood for strength and resolve.

Running for re-election in 1984, Reagan did so with a clear, consistent and compelling message: we’ve come so far, things are better and we can’t go back.

Take a look at what I regard as the greatest election ad ever produced; a spot that was both written and voiced by one of my advertising idols, the late Hal Riney.

It’s proud, patriotic and emotional. It delivers a powerful message while simultaneously pulling on your heart strings. And it helped propel Reagan to one of the greatest landslide victories in presidential history.

The one candidate in this race who seems to grasp this principle is current frontrunner Rob Ford. When the campaign began, Ford was written off and given absolutely no chance. To be sure, he’s a deeply flawed candidate with a controversial past and a tendency to put his foot in his mouth. But he has a discipline of message that no candidate can match.  From the beginning, he’s steadfastly stuck to his message of “respect for taxpayers”: lower taxes, eliminating wasteful spending and ending lavish perks for politicians. It was the right message at the right time and if he can keep it up for a couple weeks, he’s poised to be the next mayor. He’s done next to nothing in terms of advertising.

Here’s all I was able to find.

It’s a simple poster, costs next to nothing to produce and the design and production qualities are on par with what you’d see in a race for student council president at a local high school. But the polls have Ford leading by a wide margin, despite very little in the way of traditional advertising.

Then again, how much “traditional” advertising does Google do? They’re arguably the most successful company in the world and they’ve built their brand online, through experience and through word of mouth instead of relying on TV-heavy media buys.

Next up, we have current deputy mayor and torchbearer of the political left, Joe Pantalone. Despite some recent gains, he’s done little to define himself in the race and hasn’t exactly caught on with voters.

He and Ford are a study in contrast when it comes to personal branding. Despite 30 years in elected office, the last seven as deputy mayor, voters know next to nothing about who he is and what he stands for. Ford, on the other hand, with only 10 years on Council representing a distant suburban ward has long been a household name because of his consistent message.

Here’s an example of Pantalone’s latest print  campaign.

Really, what can one say about this? It’s egregiously bad. If you’re curious, the message is a play on the fact that Pantalone is only five feet tall. Ok. We get it, Joe. You’re short. It’s cute. But when you’re running for mayor and have yet to successfully define yourself to the electorate, maybe you should be using this opportunity to actually tell us who you are and what you stand for.

Finally, we look at Rocco Rossi, the one candidate whose ads actually got some attention. Though, not necessarily of a positive nature.

Here’s one from a series print ads.

While these ads were widely attacked, including by those who claimed that they played into negative Italian stereotypes, I consider them successful if only because, unlike what’s been offered by the rest of the field, they actually got attention and got people talking.

They’re certainly memorable. They’re funny enough as far as election advertising goes. And they’re definitely distinct with clear branding for the candidate.

While there was some backlash, which was to be expected, I actually applaud Rossi for having the courage to do something different and a willingness to not take himself so seriously.

Were they a gamble? Absolutely. But Rossi, the candidate in this race with the most actual business experience, was smart enough to recognize that when you’re far behind and have limited time to gain a lot of ground, sometimes a big gamble is necessary. It took guts. Or as Rossi might say, “bocce balls”.

So there you have it. An advertising guy’s view on the campaign. Enjoy the final stretch of the campaign. I know that I will.


Advertising’s New Model: Hollywood?

If you work in advertising, you’ve no doubt heard the familiar lament: “We need a new model.”

As to where to find this elusive new model, this is usually followed by “We need to look beyond Madison Avenue.”
And, yeah, we do. But to where?

The initial reflex of most is to point to Silicon Valley. After all, that’s where most of the cool, innovative ideas are coming from right now.

I’d actually suggest looking a little south of the Valley to a model that’s actually pretty old but can be perfectly applied to our industry: Hollywood.

One of the big mistakes that the advertising industry made was to build agencies as permanent structures with the same team and resources designed to serve every client on every project.

Think about how a typical agency engagement works.

A client comes to an agency with a job and we see what resources we have under the agency roof and we throw those at the project. Maybe we don’t really have the right teams or skill-sets within the agency but we’ll be damned if we’re gonna walk away from that potential revenue so we force-fit the challenge into our offering. After all, the agency’s already on the hook for the overhead, so we have to keep those people busy.

Now think about how movies get made.

Teams are built from scratch for each project and then torn down and rebuilt for the next one – all based on what’s needed. A studio has a movie they want to produce so they go out and hire the best people to get it done. They recruit a screenwriter, a director, they cast the actors, they bring in the right special effects people, etc. And they hire them for that job only. When the movie’s done, they all shake hands and go their separate ways. On to the next job. They don’t become part of the permanent studio overhead, waiting to be foisted on to the next project – for which they may not be the right fit.

Modern, responsive agencies need to be flexible enough to be built around client challenges. And that means agencies that are expandable and collapse-able based on need.

We have a client right now whose project requires building a tool in Flash. Most of our clients don’t need this. So rather than have an in-house Flash designers with built-in overhead (passed on to clients who don’t need his services), we brought in a world-class Flash person just for this project. If other clients need an SEO expert or an experiential marketing expert, we’ll bring them in as well.

The talk in the industry over the past couple of weeks has been about how the co-presidents of venerable agency JWT recently left to start up a new agency with a small, core team that brings in specialists on an as-needed basis.

They’re talented people and they’ll no doubt be successful but when I read the reports over how “innovative” and “groundbreaking” this new model was, my first reaction was “We’ve been doing that for a while now.” And Hollywood’s been doing it for decades.

The New Relationship Between Consumers and Brands, Part 2

Okay, so we’ve established that the old way of doing things – putting ads on TV and being confident that they’ll be able to reach consumers – is no longer a viable model on which we can count. We need to develop new ways of connecting with consumers.

But how do we do that?

Well, the big thing is: we need to create value for our consumers.

And by that, I don’t mean “talk about value” or “explain the value of whatever it is we’re trying to sell.” That’s what we’ve been doing up until now. Talking about all of the wonderful attributes our product or service has and how buying it will bring value to the consumer’s life. What I’m saying is that the marketing, itself, needs to be of value.

In fact, if I could make one prediction as to the big shift in direction that marketing will take over the next several years, it would be this:

Marketing will shift from a communications-oriented role to being a value-creation tool.

Because in this incredibly ad-cluttered world, it is only useful, real value that will stand out in the midst of a sea of junk.

Marketing can go from being something annoying that consumers actively try to avoid and can become something that consumers actually genuinely want, value and enjoy. Even something they actually seek out. Even something they are actually willing to pay for.

When I look back at the great marketing from the past few years, the stuff that really blows me away haven’t been traditional ads at all but, rather, what I like to call “branded utilities”.

What that is is basically where a brand goes out and actually creates something useful – something that will provide real utility in the consumer’s life.

Ask any marketer and they’ll tell you that brand messages need to be delivered in a manner that’s relevant. And they’re right. But I think that’s just become the price of entry; that’s the bare minimum your brand needs to do to even get noticed a little bit.

But I think we need to go beyond relevance to usefulness; to actually deliver a brand message in a useful way.

This way, your message becomes less about “information as pollution” and more about information that helps people get through life.

Here’s an old example:

The Michelin Guide


You’ve probably seen this before. It’s a guide to restaurants and it’s sponsored by Michelin, the tire manufacturer.

Michelin needs to get their name out there, to remind consumers about their tires. But most people aren’t all that interested in reading about tires. So rather than put out a brochure about tires, Michelin went and created a restaurant guide, branded with their name.

The edition above is a recent one but this initiative goes back decades. What’s the relevance between a restaurant guide and a tire company? Well,  the guide first began when cost and manufacturing efficiencies made automobiles accessible to the average person. Suddenly, average folks could afford a car and were no longer bound by the schedules and locations provided by mass transit. So Michelin tapped into this newfound freedom and the mindset that went along with it and said, basically “Now that you’ve got a car and can go wherever you want, whenever you want, you can now go out and explore all of the great restaurants in different cities. And, hey, here’s a guide to let you know about all of the different restaurants out there.”

So, rather than just do a clever ad, they gave consumers something of value and associated their brand with pleasant experiences of freedom and exploring.

Recently, more marketers started to recognize the value inherent in creating a utility versus a traditional ad.

Nike Ballers Network


Here’s a really cool little app that Nike created for people who like to play pickup basketball. You can download it to your BlackBerry or iPhone. You put in your location, pick a time and day and it will give you a list of pickup games that you can join. And once you’re in, you can manage teams, keep track of stats, and all the rest.

Now, Nike is a brand that has consistently done great advertising, some really legendary work. But, at the end of the day, what did it really provide to people beyond 30 seconds of entertainment? This app, on the other hand, provides real value, something that Nike’s consumers can really use. And every time they use it, they’ll feel better about Nike.

Another example:

Fiat Eco:Drive


This is an app from Italian automaker Fiat called Eco:Drive. Here’s how it works: you get a little USB key that you can plug into the dashboard of your car. After driving, you can remove the USB, plug it into your computer and it will analyze your driving style and give you tips to be a more eco-friendly driver, reduce your emmissions, lower gas mileage, etc. Here’s an example of a brand seeing a consumer desire – to be a more green-friendly driver – and going out and actually building a unique app that lets them do jsut that. The consumer gets something of value, the brand gets to position themselves as green and get big points for innovation.