Advertising Tips

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The story I am about to tell you is thought to be apocryphal, which is why I shall refrain from naming names. Nonetheless, it is a classic example of what advertising is – or, rather, should be – all about. It demonstrates that good promotional concepts, the ideas that sell product, are based wholly and solely upon (a) the product story, (b) the benefits of owning said product and (c) the image of the product in the eyes of its potential customers.

Step back with me, then, about 40 years, when advertising agencies were less dependent than they are now upon market research, consumer panels, think tanks, marketing strategies, consumer profiles, computer-based market analyses and all the pseudo-scientific claptrap with which agencies are these days lumbered. We are returning to a time, the late 60s, when creative people (writers and designers) ruled the ad agency roost. Indeed, many of the better UK agencies were then run by creative people and not by accountants as so many of them today are. And because of this there was a kind of freedom in the air. Writers and designers were given their head; they were allowed to do whatever their guts told them was right; and the resultant advertising was, without a doubt, the best that has ever been produced before or since.

So it was in my story that a large London agency, headed up by a brilliant writer, was invited to pitch for the British Rail account. As I’ve said, the MD of the agency was brilliant with words. He was also flamboyant in dress and in manner; and his reputed attitude towards clients was one of take it or leave it. As the rumours go, he would back his creative team to the hilt, and he would actually fire clients who did not express a generous enough attitude towards his agency’s work.

Anyway, accepting the offer to pitch, the agency invited the Advertising Manager of British Rail, along with his entourage, to its offices in salubrious Mayfair. On the appointed day, as the visitors filed in, a catalogue of events unfolded.

They were greeted, first, by an indifferent receptionist who had a cigarette poised between her lips. She barely acknowledged them, but pulled herself away from a magazine long enough to direct them towards an ante-room, telling them that the agency MD would be along in a moment.

Inside this ante-room, the décor was somewhat grubby and there were not enough chairs to go round, so several of the visitors had to stand. Also in the waiting-room was a coffee table littered with used coffee cups, torn magazines and ashtrays piled high with cigarette ends. There was also litter on the floor.

And the visitors waited…and waited…and waited. After fifteen minutes or so, they had understandably had enough of the awful waiting room and decided to leave. Just as they were exiting, the agency MD arrived. “Good afternoon, gentlemen,” he greeted. Pointing back to the room from whence they had come, he said: “This is the image that most people have of British Rail. This, by and large, is how passengers are treated when they use your services.” Then he smiled. “But I intend to change all that.”

Apocryphal or not, this story clearly shows that advertising is not just about presenting a product with nicely framed words and pictures, it is really all about knowing the essence of the product. It’s about understanding how to make the most of its attributes. But, above all, it’s about realising where its faults lie and how those faults may be corrected.

I can’t count the number of times, when working on a creative team, that we have spotted the downside to a product or service – something about which the manufacturer was blissfully unaware. It is, of course, very difficult to convince a client that there is something not quite right about his product, but a good writer or designer will do so as a matter of course…and to hell with the consequences.

Like our agency MD above, I reckon it’s all part of the job.


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Patrick Quinn is a copywriter, with 40 years' experience of the advertising business in London, Miami, Dublin and Edinburgh. Over the years, he has helped win for his clients just about every advertising award worth winning. His published books, include:

The Secrets of Successful Copywriting.

The Secrets of Successful Low Budget Advertising.

Word Power 1, 2 & 3.

© Markethill Publishing 2005.

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