The Golden Age of Advertising, that twenty-year spell running through the fifties and sixties, changed how we market everything, pushing beyond merely being clever or descriptive to thinking through how the audience interacts with an ad, and how empirical research can drive its development.
The revolution pioneered by William Bernbach of BBDO and David Ogilvy of Ogilvy-Mather continues to affect how we market, with a much more pervasive presence in our lives than the marketer’s obsession with Mad Men. The lessons learned during that period provided the foundation for everything we do as inbounders.
And, like any good marketer, they enshrined those lessons in quotable, quippy headlines that are easy to remember and fun to say.
"Word of mouth is the best medium of all." – William Bernbach
The genius behind the Volkswagen “Lemon” campaign laid out one of the core principles behind inbound marketing: that nothing sells as well as word of mouth. Most of the heavy lifting is done by getting your name out there, building your brand by having personality, being engaging and entertaining and, yes, delighting your audience.
That’s something inbound is always trying to achieve: becoming the person or business everyone thinks of first, the one that people talk about and default to, whenever a particular product or service is needed. Bernbach knew that emphasizing creativity, intelligence, and wit would build that positive word of mouth, and could even redeem a product that the public might have already written off.
Look at the Volkswagen campaign; by reclaiming an oft-repeated criticism, he found the opportunity to get people to talk about the car’s quality. And suddenly, everyone was talking about Volkwagen’s industrious little car, building mindshare and driving sales. Pun very very much intended.
This is is something inbound marketers always need to keep in mind. Building word of mouth is ultimately the goal of all inbound marketing, because it drives traffic to a client’s website more effectively than any ad campaign ever could. That’s the end of every inbound campaign: not to make the sale, but to create a brand ambassador who will fill the sales funnel for you.
"If it doesn't sell, it isn't creative." – David Ogilvy
At the same time, creativity isn’t the only measure, and word of mouth that doesn’t translate into sales doesn’t do anybody any good.
As marketers, we’re necessarily creatives. We’re writers and designers with a love for the clever turn of phrase or the well-placed pun. But the most creative, clever, insightful ad in the world, if it isn’t talking to the right people or hitting the right pain points, isn’t worth making.
Ogilvy was the master of the end-game, and he always emphasized that advertising and marketing had a job to do, and that job wasn’t to be funny. He’d be funny if, and only if, that was the best way to sell the product. And sometimes it is! But sometimes it isn’t.
It’s a trap we’ve all fallen into, getting too caught up in our own cleverness and losing sight of the goal we were trying to achieve. I’ve certainly championed some less-than-ideal concepts because I hadn’t been able to separate myself from the work, and forgotten what we were trying to accomplish.
So always keep the end goal in mind rather than falling in love with your own ideas or copy. That can mean that your emails may have fewer rhetorical flourishes, and may seem to be more formulaic than you’d like; but for the truly creative person, constraints open up new ways to accomplish the goal. Think of marketing copy as a genre with its own rules – and its own goals beyond being beautiful.
"It's not the ink, it's the think." – David Ogilvy
In very much the same vein, Ogilvy placed a great emphasis on data-driven, research-oriented marketing that knew what it was doing. Everything depended on planning and strategy.
It‘s so easy to think about what we do as delivering a bunch of stuff – emails, content offers, infographics. But we’re not just a machine that makes deliverables – they have to be couched in a coherent, well-thought-out, comprehensive strategy that serves the end goal. Without that planning – without the think – the ink isn’t going to do anyone any good. Instead, it’ll just be a bunch of emails sent out into the void, to nobody in particular, in the hopes of maybe getting some sales (maybe).
That’s no help to anyone.
Take the time to plan ahead. Build a content strategy and editorial calendar that aligns with your client’s seasonal goals, or even anticipates them. Plan through your email campaigns so that they both lead a reader to the sale, but are easy to drop into midway through. What you are trying to accomplish is much more important than the things you’re delivering, and you need to think through every element of your campaigns to make sure they’re working.
"Our job is to bring the dead facts to life." – William Bernbach
But for all Ogilvy’s emphasis on fact-driven, research-oriented marketing, Bernbach knew something just as powerful: nobody wants a list of features. Those have their place, but facts need to be made compelling.
Ogilvy himself put this into practice with a 1963 ad for Rolls-Royce, with a simple headline: “At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock.” A fascinating teaser that communicates much of the car’s value – and it comes straight from a massive technical document he stayed up all night studying. A dead fact – the decibel rating of the engine – brought to life by putting it in the right context.
Fact-driven, research-oriented, technically accurate, and compelling in its own right.
As marketers, this is part of our job. Not to communicate the facts, but to bring them to life, to make them sing – by presenting them just so. Sure, your computer has the fastest processor, but what does that mean to the people you want to use it? This is where the right kind of creativity comes in: in the service of, and in illumination of, those dead facts.
This context informs everything, and can bring the dullest truths to the brightest sheen.
"Properly-practiced creativity can make one ad do the work of ten." – William Bernbach
So, one of the things that I’ve been thinking about a lot is homepage design. My agency recently launched a comprehensive website redesign, and properly designing the homepage was a major concern. We went through several different concepts, all of them beautiful and creative – but none of which were exactly what we needed.
A great website is, in many ways, a great ad; it communicates your value to your audience, showing them that you’re worth their time. But if your priority is having a beautiful website instead of an effective one, it’s only going to get in your way.
An ad or a website isn’t measured by how clever it is, or how beautiful, but by whether it’s shutting the door on your clients or sealing the deal. And the right creative is the creative that makes your project more effective. Not more beautiful. Not funnier. But better at doing the job you’ve intended for it to do.
“Always leave them wanting more.” – P.T. Barnum
While this isn't Bernbach or Ogilvy, this maxim from legendary showman P.T. Barnum sums up how every marketing communication should end: not by closing the door, but opening it wider. The end of an email, blog, content offer, white paper, podcast, or anything else should always leave your audience clamoring for more content, more information, more engagement.
We call it “delight,” and it’s an oft-neglected part of inbound marketing. But it’s the most important part.
Because if you leave them wanting more, they’ll come back.
They’ll always come back.