Don’t buy this product

Today I’m going to have another minor rant, and probably on a topic you don’t care about.  I’m going to talk about advertising. But before I continue I should probably put that warning in multiple languages:

For my Mercedes fans:  Achtung! Dieses Weblog ist nicht etwa Mercedes!

For my Twitter followers: #notaboutAirstream #boringtopic #rantalert

For people on smart phones:  Hard 4 U 2 read. Tiny txt. Catch U later k?  BRB

For the Facebook crowd:  This blog contains no cute pictures of animals with inspirational phrases, so why would you read it?

For my daughter and her pre-teen friends:    Biggest.  Epic.  Fail.  Ever.

OK, now that we’ve covered all the bases, let me tell you something that should be self-evident.  Taking a “Wal-Mart shopper” approach to advertising your business is not a good idea.  You can’t buy creative work, good marketing, or good design by the pound, and it’s not a good idea to outsource it to China.

As the publisher of Airstream Life it’s my job (in concert with my Marketing Director, Brett) to sell advertising and help small businesses grow.  I’ve been in this business, in one form or another, for a long time. My first job after college was as a copywriter in a small ad agency, and so early on I was involved in rescuing small business owners who tried to sell their products or services without spending any money, and who were suffering as a result.

For over 25 years I’ve seen that mistake repeated.  My job, whether as an in-house or external consultant, has been to steer people gently back to the right side, so that they can present their ideas, businesses, or messages so that other people will actually pay attention to them, and then act on them.  It doesn’t matter if your message is “Buy my Airstream” or “Don’t use Vulkem as toothpaste,” it’s always more effective when the ad looks good.

We recently had a client come through with an ad that was made in-house.  This client used to pay an ad agency to develop their marketing materials, and the results were superb but perhaps a little expensive.  Somewhere along the line the client decided to just make their advertising themselves, and so somebody in the company got the job—but didn’t know what they were doing.

The difference was astonishing.  I wish I could show you the ad, but I don’t want to embarrass the advertiser.  Let’s just say that just because you own Photoshop doesn’t mean you know how to use it.  Just like owning a copy of Microsoft Word doesn’t mean you know how to write.  Imagine a photo of an Airstream with the bottoms of the tires cropped off, and the reflection of a fat man on the aluminum.  Monolithic blocks of text, no “call to action,” wrong ad size proportions, and grainy low-res images with poor lighting.   That’s what we received to run in the magazine.

I can tell you what will happen with an ad like that.  People don’t just read ads.  In fact, many of them never read ads at all.  They glean an impression from ads.  Rightly or wrongly, people use that impression to determine if the company is trustworthy, quality-focused, and friendly.  A badly designed ad tells a story that goes beyond the words: it says, “We’re cheap and amateurish about this, so guess what our product is like?”

As I said, it’s our job to make sure our clients succeed.  Certainly we’ll kick an ad like that back to the client rather than run it and do damage to their reputation. But merely rejecting an ad isn’t enough.  Many of our advertisers are small businesses, and they don’t have the budget to hire a good designer.  Even if they have the budget they often don’t know where to start.  It’s also commonplace that many people are unaware of bad design when they see it, much like someone can be tone-deaf about music.  They might think they have a great designer producing solid work, but are in fact shooting themselves in the foot.

So we step in.  For long-term advertisers, I have no problem putting our team on the job at no cost to the client.  That means three people working for the client: our in-house Art Director, me (as copywriter), and Brett (as Marketing Director, advising on client-specific issues).  In this case we were working against the deadline for the Summer magazine to go to the printer, and so I had to rush to re-write the text and find some photos, Brett had to locate the client after working hours and tell them we were taking over to revise the ad (we didn’t ask permission), and Lisa the Art Director ended up working on the weekend to get it done.  She put in a total of nine hours between Friday afternoon and Sunday morning, and delivered the finished ad at 4:51 a.m. Sunday.

The final product is, if I may say so, a very solid ad.  It’s visually attractive, easy to understand, and should “pull” well for the client.  It’s also an ad that I will be happy to run in Airstream Life.  If we were an agency we’d probably charge about $1500 for this work, but in this case it’s all free because … well, it’s a small community and we need to support our advertisers.  If they do well, we will do well too.

About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine