The key to advertising that works is asking the right commercial question

I’m wrestling with a new assignment at the moment and I’m struggling with this basic issue: what’s the problem we are actually trying to solve?

Over the years I’ve been in the same spot quite a few times and the time taken to figure out the real issue really is worth the effort and time as it avoids going down the wrong path, wasting precious time and resource.

Some years ago in Simons Palmer days we were asked to pitch for a coffee called Red Mountain (haven’t seen it around for some time) and the client briefing focused on the humour in the original campaign which was based on a good insight. The problem was the humour was a one off, quite hard to tell the joke differently.

Despite attempting to dig deeper the client team were pretty well convinced it was all about the humour. We stumbled around for a few weeks getting nowhere so I picked up the phone and called the marketing director for a chat. I asked him what was keeping him awake at night with this brand and he said the threat of being de-listed by one or more of the big grocery chains.

So the commercial problem was very real and rather obvious yet the marketing team were fiddling whilst Rome was burning quietly in the corner. The challenge for the brand owner was retaining the confidence of the trade primarily and this had little to do with humour in the television advertising.

Going further back at GGT we picked up Ariston without a pitch. The UK MD was Italian and like all Italians he believed the appeal of Ariston products lay in their design rather than their function. So again we were focused on the output and not the issue.

Fortunately we did some focus groups with women and the conclusion was blindingly clear – women wanted reliability, forget the knobs and bells. Their nightmare was the prospect of the washing machine flooding the kitchen floor with the family’s weekly dirty clothes waiting to be cleaned. This gave us a route based on knowing what the basic issue was with the end customer.

The resulting work was ‘Ariston and on and on and on’, very GGT and very successful. Distribution increased, sales rocketed and the icing on the cake was a famous brand campaign that ran on and on and on!

The point of course is being very clear about what the job is. Far too often clients provide reams of paper with lots of information but rarely define what the core commercial issue might be with their product/brand/service. Often the basics are not discussed or the information that’s available simply isn’t considered.

The very first advertising we did at Simons Palmer was for Greenpeace. They were attempting to change the government policy on cleaner emissions from cars and were getting nowhere fast. An emerging fact was that manufacturers made cars in other markets with cleaner exhaust systems but not in the UK. This gave us the grit to make a difference so rather than have a direct protest we leveraged the facts.

A poster campaign was created which picked on Ford. The visual was a US numberplate – FUGB – with a line underneath “A Ford in Britain pumps out ten times more fumes than a Ford back home in America”.

Within days of the posters going up all hell broke loose; we were indirectly threatened, some sites were posted over with other brands and then the press began to pick up the story. Next came a 30 minute TV programme about the issue together with shots of our posters.

Job done on a budget of around £10,000. The reason was we recognised the the power of the fact and the importance of being single minded.

Within weeks several car manufacturers went public on their intended plans for better emission control in the UK.

I have to admit that working with Dave Trott at GGT (pictured) honed my approach to marketing and advertising because Dave always wanted to know the basic issues. He was not very sympathetic to planners with several pages of explanation if they didn’t get to the nub of the problem.

I would much prefer sitting down with a client for ten minutes so they could explain their concerns/challenges/aspirations. I need to know fundamental facts such as: are sales going up or down, what is happening to distribution, what are the barriers to increased sales, how does the product perform versus the competition, etc., etc? Without the basics the rest is dangerous and potentially misleading.

I think search engine optimisation has a lot to answer for as it massively influences the way people in marketing think about communication. Take a look at airlines. SEO wisdom says that ‘Cheap’ is a key word for people searching for flights. Pick any destination, put ‘Flights to Milan’ in to Google and the screen will fill with ‘Cheap flights to Milan’. Almost every airline and every consolidator will lead with ‘Cheap’. How has that arisen and does it assume the public are not aware of low cost carriers as an option?

Within the UK both BA and Virgin avoid the ‘Cheap’ tag but most don’t. Personally I want good value, not cheap in particular because my guess is cheap will mean a poor experience. Because the metrics of search engines quantify the key words it results in everybody doing exactly the same thing.

Research can have the same effect. I think all of the mobile networks read the same research. They all talk about ‘connecting’ in some way or another because in research it’s what people talk about – “my mobile keeps me connected” – no shit Sherlock.

But I can’t recall any advertising that would persuade me to switch airtime providers, I never see a benefit that would make me think ‘that’s worth checking out’. I do it in other sectors but not in the mobile world. All the brands in the category seem the same and I suspect it is because research says the same to everyone.

The point of course is finding the right start point and then getting down to the dirty detail of commercial reality before considering anything else. Often it is like looking for a needle in a haystack but it is still worth the effort as the answer might actually be staring everyone in the face.

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About Paul Simons

Paul joined Cadbury-Schweppes in brand management and then moved to United Biscuits. He switched to advertising in his late 20s, at Cogent Elliott and then Gold Greenlees Trott. He founded Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow & Johnson in the late 80s, one of the leading creative agencies of the 90s. Simons Palmer then merged with TBWA to create a top ten agency. Paul then joined O&M as chairman & CEO of the UK group. After three years he left to create a new AIM-quoted advertising group Cagney Plc. He is now a consultant to a number of client companies. Paul also shares his thoughts on his blog. Visit Paul Simons Blog.