Scott G lays bare the reasons behind every bad ad you’ve endured and suggests that a possible cure lies in the usage of a procedure called “The Architecture of Advertising.”

The G-Man ClassicIf you watch a TV commercial, hear a radio spot, drive past a billboard, or glance at an ad and don’t like what you see, what happens? Possibly, you think to yourself, “What idiot came up with that?”

On the other hand, if you enjoyed the ad or found it informative, you may think, “Wow, advertising must be a fun job.”

At least, that’s what people tell me takes place out in the “real world” (read: among people not in the communication industry). These folks don’t put much thought into the role of marketing, nor do they have much respect for it as a profession.

I once proudly told someone about radio commercials for which I wrote the scripts, composed and performed the music, voiced some of the dialogue, and produced the sessions. They weren’t impressed. “So,” they said, “you just write down a weird idea with some silly dialogue and then add quirky music to it.”

Well, on a good day, sure.

If only it were that simple. While making ads might seem to be an easy gig when viewed from the outside, those of us in the industry know what we have to go through to deliver effective marketing messages.


Here are a few of the obstacles faced by those who create advertising:

    The hell of bad input.
    The terror of tight deadlines.
    The struggle of slashed budgets.
    The mindwarp of needless meddling in your work.
    And, most soul-crushing of all:
    The horror of committee decision-making.

“Awwww, the poor widdle ad makers,” I can hear some say. True, we have it better than many people in the world. We work in air conditioned buildings, have coffee machines nearby, and can cruise the far reaches of the Internet in the name of research.

But the fact remains that it’s only a satisfying job when we can create something that actually affects people in a positive way. If you must get your work past a creative group head who has the artistic sensibility of a three-hole punch, you can forget about producing something valuable. As more committees get involved, you gradually lower your wish list even further. “I just want to make ads that don’t suck,” is how one art director put it.


What is most disturbing about the dreck that currently passes for marketing communication is the sheer volume of it. Not only are clever ads getting rarer, so are decently crafted straightforward ads.

As a creator of ads (and as a consumer), I would rather see an all-type ad that says something clearly than the convoluted “cleverness” that is rampant in our business. Too often, the “idea people” apparently believe that the best way to say something is to beat around the bush. Way, way around it.

There is a technique in marketing called “borrowed interest” and it seems to rule a great many ads these days. It works like this:

“What are we advertising?” “A Saab that’s built on a hulking old General Motors platform.” “Okay, but wasn’t Saab originally begun by jet aircraft engineers?” “Oh, right, so we’ll show a supersonic jet fighter morphing into the clunky truck, I mean S.U.V. That’ll fool the public!” “Plus, we can charge the client for a super expensive computer generated commercial.” “Brilliant!” “Way to go!” etc.


Lots of ads probably began as good ideas but had too many changes forced onto them by drones in high places. Here’s an example of the genesis and transmogrification of one advertisement:

Print ad with a headline reading “Code inna doze?” A nice picture of a smiling man holding a cold remedy package is at the bottom of the ad.

Simple, fun, and assumes a modicum of intelligence among the audience.

Well, we can’t have that. The ad goes through “the committee dance” and the headline becomes something like “Say goodbye to cold symptoms” and the image of the box gets a lot bigger.

Okay, not fun anymore, but at least it still works in terms of communicating its message (something you’d think would be of paramount importance to both client and ad agency).

But the committee decides to play it safer. The ad emerges with a huge photo of the box, a cents-off coupon, a burst that talks about their sponsorship of some sort of HealthWalkathon charity event, and a headline reading “BEST COLD SYMPTOM REMEDY NOW COMES WITH BIG SAVINGS.”

You could argue that the “selling proposition” is still being delivered in that ad. You could argue that “consumer communication” is still taking place. You could argue that there is a “value added message” inherent in the coupon. You could be wrong. The fact is that the ad is now just more clutter in an already overcrowded marketplace. Same thing happens to TV and radio commercials.

It would have been better to follow this methodology: fresh, factual, frugal – pick one to stick out.

You can have a clever ad with a fresh approach, and you can back up your bold statement with a cents-off offer or some facts, as long as they are subordinate messages. Or you could make the cents-off offer your big statement, and use facts to help close the deal. And so on. The minute you attempt to make everything equal, your ad becomes mush. What some of us call a committee casualty.


I was asked to write an ad that communicated directly to emergency medical transport professionals. I began the ad with a headline and subhead that said: “EMT: three letters that spell the difference between life and death.”

Great work? No, not really. But I had been given about two hours to do it, and even if I’d worked longer, I feel it’s a good approach to reach the designated audience.

A committee got hold of the concept and several days later (so much for the “rush” nature of the job) the art director showed me the finished work. “They hardly changed anything except the subhead,” he said. Yeah, that was true. They just cut all ten words of the subhead. The ad actually ran with EMT as the headline.

This is the kind of thinking that results from people who took college marketing classes taught by professors who never worked a day in the industry.


A friend of mine was given an assignment by the pet foods division of a global company. They wanted a logo for a new brand of critter cuisine. “It’s a pirate theme,” he was told, and they wanted him to work in the traditional cliche image of pirates. “Let me get this straight,” my friend said. “You want the skull and crossbones on a can of pet food.” That’s what they wanted. Well, that may suggest a jaunty pirate theme to somebody, but on a canned food product, even one for pets, it would represent the international symbol for danger. Needless to say, the project didn’t move forward.

A graphic designer was hired by a national department store chain to develop the label image for the firm’s own brand of jeans, primarily for women. “Those black-and-white cows are a really hip kind of look,” the marketing geniuses said, “so we’d like the label to have that look.” And we all know how happy women would be to have a visual suggesting a heifer riding on their belt line right above their, well, how can this be put? Right above the southern end of a north-bound gal.


Everyone in the business can tell you dozens of stories like these. (In fact, I invite you to post them or send them to me and we’ll continue our crusade to crush committee crimes.)

The main point here is that there is an art and a craft to advertising and marketing communications. It all proceeds according to something I call the Architecture of Advertising.

According to the Architecture of Advertising, nothing great is likely to happen in terms of influencing people unless the creative department is given the facts about five things:

    What are you actually selling?
    To whom are you selling it?
    What are their hot buttons?
    Where are they when we can reach them?
    What do you want them to do?

Easy, right?

Wrong. Even pros in this business are not always capable of following through on all the ramifications of these five questions. To help, I’m going to lay them out in some detail.


1. What you are actually selling.
Example: Let’s say you’re a healthcare center. Are you selling diagnosis, pain relief, preventive medicine, surgery, the beginning of life, treatment, recovery, lifestyle choices, etc.? How are you perceived in the industry? How are you perceived by the community? What’s your real history (as opposed to that committee-approved collection of half-truths on your Web site)? How are you positioned in your field compared to other facilities? How are you attempting to position yourself? What would be an accurate competitive analysis? What’s good (and bad) about you guys?

2. To whom you are selling it.
Are you attempting to reach families, individuals, businesses, the wealthy, the indigent, those in sports, seniors, those with babies, those with children? (Sometimes “all” is the reply, in which case you are a candidate for one overall campaign with several highly-targeted sub-campaigns.)

3. Their hot buttons.
Look at your target audience. Are they satisfied, in need, hopeful, fearful, searching, faithful? Are they from around here or from out of the area? Well-schooled or drop-outs? Literate or only watch reality TV? Do they collect stamps or blondes or bottles or pills or bruises from rockclimbing expeditions? Are they Prius people or Ford F-150 pickup people (or one during the week and the other on the weekend)? What would galvanize them into action? What do they take for granted? What do they know about you? What do they “know” about you that’s incorrect? What do they need? What do they want?

4. Where they are when we can reach them.
If we put our ad message in the newspaper, will we hit or miss 90% of our audience? What about all the media choices out there – what do they consume: TV, radio, billboards, fliers, newspapers, magazines, Internet, videos, cable/satellite, games, sporting events, nightclubs, swapmeets, trade shows, etc.

5. What you’d like them to do.
This is the simplest part of the whole thing, but it’s sometimes forgotten. What’s the purpose of the communication campaign? Get someone to remember your name, ask for your product in a store, pick up the phone, cut-out a coupon, vote, or what? Sometimes the action is direct and you can ask for the order: “Vote yes on Proposition X.” “Call now, operators are standing by.” “Look for us in your grocer’s frozen section.” But sometimes it gets a bit tricky. I worked on a two-year-long campaign where the point, according to the director of corporate communications, was to “Raise the company’s P/E ratio from seven to ten.”


You can ignore this advice. A great many companies obviously do. But if you follow this approach, I guarantee that you will reach and influence a greater number of customers.

There will always be someone who laughs at your ads and wonders what idiot came up with that stuff. And there will always be people who think advertising is easy.

But if you build your brand and construct your ad campaigns using the Architecture of Advertising, you will boost your bottom line. And when you hear people carping at your ads, you’ll be able to laugh about it. All the way to the bank.

* * *