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How reason why came to be

In the beginning was the Word. And it was good. Star copywriters wrote rhapsodies of elegant prose about their clients’ products and services and some people even read that prose. (People had a lot more time in those days.) Early pioneers like Charles Bates and John Powers embraced an advertising approach that focused on giving the reader a reason why they should buy their client’s product rather than somebody else’s product. This approach was fully exploited by John E. Kennedy, who called it “salesmanship in print.” He codified the approach in a book entitled “Reason Why Advertising,” and salesmanship in print has gone by that name ever since.

Advertising no longer consists primarily of words on paper. However, we believe that the underlying concept of basing marketing decisions on a deep understanding of the audience and respect for their decision-making process is even more relevant today than it was when men wearing fat ties and fedoras wrote out long ads on yellow pads with #2 pencils. Today’s marketing world is filled with colorful graphics, clever slogans, and high fashion. However, the simple and expensive reality is that pretty pictures and glib headlines are not functional substitutes for clear thinking and finely tuned strategy. Stunning creative is only brilliant when it serves legitimate marketing objectives.

Reason Why Marketing is the modern progeny of Kennedy’s brainchild. At SNA, we have expanded the scope and doubled-up on the rigor of the original concept. Applied to the entire spectrum of marketing options, it demands clear thinking and finely tuned strategy for every detail of the marketing and communications program. It demands accountability and a reasonable objective for every dollar a client spends on the marketing enterprise.

Applied to advertising and other communications vehicles, Reason Why Marketing is based on proven marketing and psychological principles. The approach focuses on eliciting a specific response—the often-neglected “call to action.” The call to action is not simply “buy the product.” It is a specific action you want the prospective customer to take. Reason Why Marketing is designed to persuade the customer to take a specific action that moves him or her along the path to a sale or reinforces continued use of the product. The specific action may be “Visit our booth at the ACOG Conference.” It may be “Ask your doctor if Viagra is right for you.” For existing customers, it could be “Learn to use your EpiPen self-injector correctly.”

Our strategic recommendations focus on identifying the specific call to action for every marketing vehicle and developing an effective Reason Why the audience should take that action. Our creative executions focus on delivering the Reason Why with power, simplicity, immediacy, and relevance.

Reason Why Marketing is not easy to do. It requires hard work and focused thinking on the part of both the agency and the client. Even agencies that talk about it usually fall back on the “unique selling proposition” and other less-disciplined approaches when it comes time to produce advertising and marketing materials. We try really hard not to let ourselves—or our clients—fall into that trap. We don’t do it to torture our clients. We do it because Reason Why Marketing typically produces results substantially beyond conventional communications strategies—and producing results is why we’re all here in the first place.

Why reason why

Buggy Whips and Other Runaway Success Stories

Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is a sign of insanity. Yet many companies who do not consider themselves insane do exactly that. There are several reasons why they do it:

“We’ve always done it that way.”

“Our competitors are doing it.”

“That’s the way things are done in our industry.”

When the automobile began to disrupt the transportation market, it is almost certain more than one venerable buggy whip manufacturer maintained that, “The world will always need a good buggy whip.” Where are they today?

By now, you are probably saying to yourself, “This doesn’t apply to us. We don’t operate that way.”

Are you sure?

When was the last time you did a market audit to find out how your industry has changed over the past five years and where it is going?

When was the last time you did a thorough analysis of what your competitors are doing to undermine your market share?

When was the last time you checked to find out if you were still relevant to the best emerging customers in your market sector?

When was the last time you revised your branding, your positioning, your business plan, and your marketing plan to make sure you would be relevant in the future?

True, these are hard questions. Probing. Aggressive. And necessary.

We ask our clients questions like these every day. Not because we want them to be uncomfortable, but because we want them to be successful.

We call ourselves “The Reason Why Agency.” There is a reason why we do that.

It’s because of two cliches:

“If you don’t know where you are going, you will probably wind up someplace else.”

“He who fails to plan is planning to fail.”

Buggy whip manufacturers got into trouble because they ignored these cliches. They didn’t know where they were going because the world was changing in ways they failed to recognize. So where they thought they were going simply ceased to exist. They failed to plan for the future because they failed to recognize that it was going to be very different from the past. So they kept doing what they had always done until nobody cared any more.

In other words, they did not have a legitimate Reason Why behind every action they took. As a result, many of their actions were random or based on a false reality—two more faces of insanity.

Fortunately, there is an effective prophylactic. It’s called “Reason Why Marketing.”

Welcome to the dispensary.

Generic branding questionnaire

The basic questions underlying the branding and marketing of any product or service include the following:

  • In what market(s) does your product or service fit (e.g., banking, healthcare, automotive)?
  • What does the product or service do?
  • What needs does it serve?
  • Who are the appropriate audiences?
  • How can the product or service help each of these audiences?
  • What are they currently doing to serve these needs?
  • What products or services currently exist that do the same thing(s) as your brand?
  • What are their brand names?
  • What are their primary claims?
  • How is your product better than competitive products? Worse?
  • How does the market perceive this class of product? (Vital? Necessary? Important? Helpful? Optional? Unimportant? Trivial?)
  • What is the best way to differentiate this product from competitors?
  • What evidence do you have that you can make this claim?

The answers to these questions combined with a modicum of market research leads to the following outcomes:

  • Marketplace overview
  • Target audience profile
  • Competitive environment overview
  • Identification of differentiating factors
  • Development of positioning strategy
  • Development of tagline
  • Development of primary messaging
  • Development of brand design and graphic guidelines

A Note of Caution

Be careful how you position your company/product/service. Companies that positioned themselves as buggy whip manufacturers went out of business. Companies that positioned themselves as manufacturers of transportation accessories thrived.

How to evaluate creative work

(Excerpt from Stanley’s book: The Client’s Bible)
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Giving feedback

Do not rewrite copy or redesign layouts. Do not prescribe solutions. Identify problems or errors and let the agency come back to you with solutions. Do not diagnose your own disease and prescribe a cure. Tell the doctor where it hurts and get a professional recommendation for an appropriate remedy. This approach will not only produce better advertising, it will produce a healthier and more successful relationship with your agency.

How to proceed

Start every discussion explaining what you LIKE about the work. Don’t start off looking for problems.

Now provide the creative team with an objective analysis based on the marketing objectives. Is it on target? Does it communicate the appropriate marketing messages? If so, do not be quick to reject the creative executions just because they are not what you expected. They may be better than you expected. Be open to new ways of communicating—what you have done before or what your competitors are doing may not be the best thing you can do.

If the creative work does NOT communicate the appropriate marketing messages, talk about the marketing situation, the competition, the purpose of the marketing vehicle, the specific strategic objectives of the piece, the competitive advantages of the product or service, the needs and perceptions of the audience, and other relevant issues. Then give the agency enough time to revise the work intelligently—usually one or two weeks.

When they present the revised work, start the discussion by reviewing the previous version and revisiting your comments and concerns. That will establish the target the new work is supposed to be shooting for. Again, describe what’s right with it and then carefully evaluate how well it achieves the marketing objectives. If it’s on target but still makes you a little uncomfortable, that may be a signal that it’s strong enough to be wildly effective in the marketplace.

If the work is still off-target or somehow inappropriate, repeat the discussion of the marketing situation, the competition, the purpose of the marketing vehicle, the specific strategic objectives of the piece, the competitive advantages of the product or service, the needs and perceptions of the audience, and other relevant issues. Give the agency another week or so to revise the work. If it’s still off-target or unacceptable a second time, it may be a signal that it’s time to look for another agency.

The true concept

(Excerpt from Stanley’s book: The Client’s Bible)
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The strongest creative is the True Concept. The True Concept consists of a visual and headline that work together to create meaning in the viewer’s mind. A decorated headline is not a True Concept and is not as powerful.

What is a true concept?

  • Total integration of headline and visual
  • Presents a single, cohesive message
  • Neither headline nor visual tells the whole story—both are needed
  • The meaning is created in the mind of the reader/viewer by combining the headline and visual

Example of a true concept

The creative process

To the outside observer, it may seem at times that an advertising agency is a little like a bunch of folks playing with crayons, whether digital or actual. However, underneath all that free thinking and exploration, there is a very definite discipline. Here is a painfully detailed description of the process that almost every ad agency employs. To provide a thorough overview, the process described here is that of a large agency with large clients. Smaller agencies working with smaller budgets will typically employ an abbreviated version of this process.

The basic unit of production in an advertising agency is the creative team (copywriter and art director) and an account executive. Ideally, all creative work produced by the agency will result from effective collaboration between these individuals and direction from the Creative Director.

In the best of all possible worlds, this is how it works:

The account executive establishes with the client the need and purpose for a marketing communications tool (ad, brochure, video, tv spot, mobile app, blog post, etc.).

The account executive develops with the client complete and definitive input for the creative job, including audience, media, primary message, relevant product/service attributes , call to action, compelling and differentiating benefit, and a clear statement explaining how this project fits into the client’s overall marketing strategy. This step may or may not involve the Creative Director or the creative team. In any case, all pertinent questions must be asked and all necessary information must be acquired before the job is assigned to the creative team.

The account executive meets with the creative team and, if appropriate, the Creative Director to provide input for the job. Creative Input Forms must be provided, including all information indicated above and any other relevant information. The input meeting should provide the opportunity for the creative team and Creative Director to ask questions and ensure that they fully understand the purpose of the job and all the input provided. It is the responsibility of the creative team to make sure they understand the job and the input. If significant, unanswerable questions are raised at this meeting, the account executive will be responsible for following up with the client to provide the missing information. It will be up to the creative team and Creative Director to decide whether work can begin on the project without this additional information. Once the creative team accepts the job and associated input, at this meeting or at a subsequent time, the responsibility shifts to the creative team to execute the job on time and on budget.

The creative team (art director and copywriter) work together to analyze the input and develop potential approaches to the communications challenge. As part of this process, they explore alternative creative concepts involving both verbal and graphic elements. Along the way, they present promising approaches to the Creative Director for feedback and direction. They will also explore the most promising approaches with the account executive on an informal basis to ensure that they present the message accurately and are consistent with the client’s overall marketing strategy. During this process, depending upon the agency’s relationship with the client, the creative team, Creative Director or account executive may contact the client for additional information and/or clarification.

When the creative team is satisfied that they have explored the communications challenge adequately (within the limitations of deadlines and budget), and have developed what they believe are appropriate and powerful creative concepts, they present the most promising of these to the Creative Director for approval. (It should be noted that neither a headline nor a graphic approach is “the concept.” Only a fully integrated combination of verbal and visual content that triggers understanding in the mind of the viewer is truly an advertising concept.)

Concepts at this point are usually a headline and graphic worked out only far enough to communicate the intention of the creative team. Typically, most or all of these concepts will be refinements or derivations of work previously reviewed by the Creative Director during the course of creative development. At this point, the Creative Director will review the creative input and marketing objective with the creative team to ensure that all of the concepts communicate the appropriate message to the appropriate audience(s). The Creative Director will then select from the short list of concepts that are on target the two or three that also meet the highest standards of creative excellence, as clearly defined in the agency’s Creative Philosophy.

If no concepts meet this standard, the Creative Director will explore potential modifications and/or alternative approaches with the creative team and assign a deadline for a follow-up review. This process will be repeated as necessary until excellent, on-target concepts are developed. (The creative team will inform the Project Manager of progress and changes at every stage of the job so that scheduling and potential deadline conflicts can be avoided.)

Once concepts have been approved by the Creative Director, the creative team will clean them up as necessary so that they communicate the idea clearly and quickly and present them to the account executive. The account executive will review the concepts primarily for content and appropriateness for the market. The major question to be answered is: “Does this concept communicate the right message to the right audience(s)”? The account team will often have useful suggestions about the creative execution as well. The creative team should consider these suggestions with an open mind. However, questions of style and creative execution will ultimately be referred to the Creative Director for resolution.

If the account executive identifies legitimate problems with any or all of the concepts presented by the creative team, the account executive will meet with the creative team and the Creative Director to explain the problem(s). If appropriate, the creative team may be directed to develop alternative concepts that avoid the problem(s) identified by the account executive. This may require rescheduling of the entire job. If so, the account executive will be responsible for advising the Project Manager and the client. Usually, however, the account executive will have identified major problems along the way as the creative team informally discusses various approaches with him or her and only minor modifications will be necessary at this point.

Once final concepts are approved internally, they are prepared by the creative team for presentation to the client. If the work is a continuation of an existing campaign, it may be presented to the client by the account team. If the work represents a departure from previous work or is the beginning of a new campaign, one or more members of the creative team and/or the Creative Director may present the work to the client along with one or more members of the account team.

One or more people on the client side will often have comments or suggestions about the creative execution. These are to be aggregated and clarified by the account executive and presented to the creative team as client feedback and not as a client directive. Client comments are not “changes,” they are requests for modification. It is the responsibility of the creative team to determine what specific changes or new concepts best accomplish the objectives identified in the client feedback. The Creative Director will have the final responsibility for determining whether creative changes meet client needs.

After client approval of concepts, the creative team will continue to work together to develop the copy and layout. The art director will take primary responsibility for the layout and the copywriter will take primary responsibility for the copy. However, they should work together as a team to ensure that the final layout, graphic elements, copy, subheads, captions, charts, etc. work together perfectly. Again, the account executive may present copy and layout to the client or some combination of creative and account team members may present.

Various people on the client side may have comments or suggestions about copy and/or layout. Once again, these are to be aggregated and clarified by the account executive and presented to the creative team as client feedback and not as a client directive. Here also, client comments are not “changes,” they are requests for modification. Once again, it is the responsibility of the creative team to determine what specific changes best accomplish the objectives identified in the client feedback. The Creative Director will have the final responsibility for determining whether creative changes meet client needs.

Print Production: Once the copy and layout have been approved by the client, it is the responsibility of the art director to work with Production to produce the piece. It is the responsibility of the copywriter to review the work at appropriate times (as determined by the Project Manager) and to clearly identify any problems with accuracy, legibility, copy fitting, or any other aspect of the work that seems less than the best the agency can produce.

Video, Broadcast, Digital Production: Once the copy and visual approach have been approved by the client, either the copywriter or art director will typically produce the final project. On larger projects, both may co-produce. It is the responsibility of the lead producer to work with internal and external resources to produce the project on time and on budget. It is expected that both members of the original creative team will be involved in providing input and helping to shape the look and feel of the final product. But it is usually the clear and consistent vision of a single producer that inspires the best work.

Great creative defined

Carl Sandburg once read one of his poems for a university literature class. After he had finished, one of the students asked him to explain what the poem meant. Mr. Sandburg looked at the student for a moment, then looked down at his notes and without comment read the poem again.

Creative work is like that.  There is a certain something about great work that defies definition. A certain fire that fills it with meaning and power beyond the simplistic dissection of its discrete elements. Nonetheless, there are certain characteristics that tend to be associated with great creative work in advertising. Here are some of the most important.

  1. Single strong concept
  2. Relevant message related to a compelling benefit
  3. Short headline with a strong hook
  4. Simple, arresting graphic
  5. Complete integration of headline and graphic so that neither is dispensable
  6. Entire piece revolves around the single central idea

There is an old saying that, “He who chases two rabbits catches none.” The same is true of advertising. If you try to make more than one point in an ad, you will fail to make any point at all. The simple rule of thumb is: One ad, one point. If you can stick with this discipline, your CFO will thank you for it.

How advertising works

The reality of advertising was well described by one writer:

  • The first time a man looks at an ad, he doesn’t see it.
  • The second time, he doesn’t notice it.
  • The third time, he is conscious of its existence.
  • The fourth time, he faintly remembers having seen it.
  • The fifth time, he reads the ad.
  • The sixth time, he turns up his nose at it.
  • The seventh time, he reads it through and says, “Oh, brother!” 
  • The eighth time, he says, “Here’s that confounded thing again!”
  • The ninth time, he wonders whether it amounts to anything.
  • The tenth time, he will ask his neighbor if he has tried it.
  • The eleventh time, he wonders how the advertiser makes it pay.
  • The twelfth time, he thinks it must be a good thing.
  • The thirteenth time, he thinks it might be worth something.
  • The fourteenth time, he remembers that he wanted such a thing for a long time.
  • The fifteenth time, he is tantalized because he cannot afford to buy it.
  • The sixteenth time, he thinks he will buy it some day.
  • The seventeenth time, he makes a memorandum of it.
  • The eighteenth time, he swears at his poverty.
  • The nineteenth time, he counts his money carefully.
  • The twentieth time he sees the ad, he buys the article or instructs his wife to do so.

To demonstrate how little advertising realities have changed over the years, it is worth noting that this description was written in London by Thomas Smith in 1885.