Thursday, August 30, 2007

A BoSacks Reader Speaks Out: Ads, Landfills, and Publishing Relevancy

A BoSacks Reader Speaks Out: Ads, Landfills, and Publishing Relevancy

Yesterday morning I received three terrific response emails from the very first BoSacks Cub Reporter, Ed Cobb. Ed, my college roommate, is a lifelong friend, co-worker and all around great guy. Ed is a printing expert and one of the best in the trade. There is so much I could say, but for today I will just tell the story of firsts.

Yes, Ed was the first BoSacks cub reporter, but even more important, Ed was the very first subscriber to this newsletter. I actually have Ed to thank for there being any newsletter at all. How is that you say? I will tell you the genesis of this newsletter as briefly as possible. The longer tale will be in my autobiography with the working title of, "You Can't Get Here From There."

In the last century, on or about 1989, I worked with (not for, but with) AOL. They needed manufacturing help in the insertion of plastic diskettes onto and into millions of magazines. After we succeeded in this first-time-ever production feat, I was given an AOL account.

What is an AOL account in 1989 you may ask? My memory is that they had 25,000 or so subscribers. Having an email address back then was like yelling in the forest. If there is nobody to hear you, did you yell at all? Not only that, the dial-up modems were capable of reaching the blazing speeds of something like 9,000 baud. In those days it could take a ½ hour to download a simple little picture.

This is years before the World Wide Web, but there were FTP sites that had information relating to printing. Ed was the first guy I knew who had an email address other than me. We would write each other about things we found at FTP sites which related to our industry and we would agree or disagree about what we found. The cross dialog was terrific. It occurred to me that this new form of communication was something I should know about if I wished to stay employed in the publishing field.

OK, I'll wind this tale up fast. First there were just the two of us, then three, then four and before you knew it, this became a global newsletter, which is now required reading in several universities. Thanks Ed.

So, after telling you that, BoSacks Cub Reporter Ed has submitted the following responses from last night's emails. They are great reading even without knowing the history, but better if you do.

"There is a history in all men's lives."
William Shakespeare quotes (English Dramatist, Playwright and Poet, 1564-1616)

Re: Which Ads Don't Get Skipped?
Submitted by Ed Cobb

To my mind, the key insight in the article describing this study is this: "relevancy outweighs creativity." This is true not only for TV commercials but for all advertisements. Is there a print magazine parallel? Yes, a very significant one: Relevancy comes naturally in magazine advertising. Print magazines, when they are good, are more than the parallel of this phenomenon; they are its embodiment.

Really good magazines, as we have discussed elsewhere, have passion and a point of view. They are the original targeted marketing because good magazines share a set of interests and attitudes, a world view with the readers. Good magazines are informed by the concerns and agenda of their readers, while at the same time helping to create those concerns and shape that agenda. This symbiotic relationship is the reason good Editors are worth ten times their weight in Bean Counters. If no one cultivates the fields, there are no beans to count. At least, not enough to bother counting.

A good magazine produced by an effective editor creates a context to which its community of readers relates. That context provides an advertiser with an opportunity to establish his own relevance to that interest community. When that happens, when the advertiser makes that connection, the advertisement becomes part of the context. The advertiser participates in the symbiosis that occurs between editor and reader, and becomes as much part of the interest community as they are. The opportunity for this to happen in a good magazine is part and parcel of the medium. It never happens on TV or the Internet, where ads are always an intrusion.

Responsibility for the failure to recognize and capitalize on these truths must fall to ad agency management. The agency media buyers should be directed by their management to place ads where they do the most good for their clients. This is not necessarily the same thing as placing them in the environment with the most cachet, sex appeal, and buzz. The agency creative types have to be focused and directed by their management. Creative does not mean "original" (nothing is new under the sun), or "avant garde" (nothing is more cliched than the avant garde), or "edgy" (yawn.). In advertising, creative means forging an emotional and intellectual connection with the interest community whose members might actually buy the product because it fits the context of their lives. Anything else is mere self gratification with the client's money; advertiser abuse.

As the great ad man David Ogilvy said, "If it doesn't sell, it isn't creative." Placing relevant ads in a context where they will create a connection to an interested community, like in a good magazine, is creative. That kind of common sense has become so rare it's almost countercultural.

Re: Filling Landfills with New Books
Submitted by Ed Cobb

This printed matter disposal themed piece of your rant today puts me in mind of an assignment you once delegated to me back when you were the Production Manager at High Times and I was your Production Assistant. It should be noted that the late-80's wave of title inflation had not yet hit. A circa 1978 Production Manager is equivalent to today's Production Director in inflation adjusted masthead-speak. I don't know for certain what a Production Assistant would be today, except that he'd still be underpaid.

Anyway, Circ had moved our fulfillment and back issue business to Larry Flint's organization (more stories!). As a result, we had to dispose of a quantity of old magazines from the original fulfillment operation in the West Village. I dutifully reported for work supervising a gang of teamsters as they passed cartons of High Times out the cellar window, into the alley way, finally tossing them into the waiting dump truck.

The work crew piled into their truck and I and my Polaroid camera into my red VW, and off we went through the tunnel, across the river, to the wilds of New Jersey. In those pre-Giants Stadium days, the Meadowlands was a whimsical name for a swamp/landfill harboring dreams of glory. The industrial strength magazine hearse travelled into that great and desolate space inhabited by tall weeds and large rats, crisscrossed by hard packed convex makeshift dirt roads, occupied here and there by concentrated clusters of man and machine activity, and watched over by more seagulls than I have ever seen anywhere else, including the sea. How the driver navigated the wasteland and chose one faux roadway over another remains a mystery to this day. Finally, we found ourselves perched atop a plateau composed of Lord knows what, surrounded by thousands of acres of refuse built hills and fast vanishing reed covered dales. The only thing more memorable than the sight of the site, and the Manhattan views beyond was the smell of it all. Ah, show business!

The dump truck swung around, backed itself to the edge of our mystery mesa, tilted its immense bed, and poured thousands of copies from the first five years of publication of High Times toward their final destiny. The work of all who contributed from paper mill, ad agencies, and editorial offices through the printing plant was completed here as our magazines tumbled down the hillside, making the valley just a little less deep than it had been moments before. Such is the way of all flesh and its creations.

If they ever dig up Giants Stadium they are unlikely to find Jimmy Hoffa. But I know what they will find because I saw it with my own eyes. The Meadowlands, like our careers, is built on years of production of High Times magazines. I have Polaroids to prove it.

Re: BoSacks Speaks Out: Your Ad Here
Submitted by Ed Cobb

The impact of this kind of advertising cuts both ways, which people tend to forget. If a McDonald's logo stares you in the face from the seat back in front of you as you employ the barf bag in response to turbulence, do you grab a Big Mac as soon as you land? Doubtful. If the stay at home mom whose Plymouth Voyager is wrapped in P&G's Tide graphics flirts with another stay at home mom's husband at the PTO meeting, does mom #2 switch to All? Maybe. If an Expedition sporting Verizon Wireless decorations misbehaves on the highway and cuts off you and your Silverado, do you pursue and run him off the road ("Can you hear me now, you sonofa....?") and change your service back to Sprint? Could happen.

There is no denying that some truth resides in the "no such thing as bad publicity" school of thought. Mr. Whipple was annoying but people bought Charmin. But this strikes me as an application that carries the concept too far for its own good. Or, more accurately, too far for the advertiser's good. Just because you can do it doesn't mean you should do it. It might be hot. It might be edgy, and ground breaking, and all the rest. It might get media buzz. But is it smart? Is it efficient? Or is it just a high visibility roll of the dice destined for YouTube infamy? ("Ask yourself one question. Do you feel lucky? Well, do ya?")

It might be noticeable. It might even be memorable. But does the technique of "wrapping" place the advertiser's product message in a flattering, complimentary context? Would Sirius Satellite Radio be better advised to take a full national page in Jazz Times or wrap 100 VW's tooling around the country? Or 1000? The only sure winner with the wrapping approach to advertising is 3M, who makes and sells the wraps. Plus maybe the guy who pockets the $750 in return for driving a hideous car (unless he gets run off the road). For the other potential players, is this the best way for an agency to spend a client's money? Or is it just more ego boosting self gratification for buyers and creatives?

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