AD ENVIRONMENT RIPE FOR BIG IDEA AGAIN

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I'm beginning to think that the advertising business can rejuvenate itself by getting back to what it was rather than searching for something it has yet to be.

This slightly metaphysical statement applies to advertisers, agencies and the media. Each, in its own way, has lost its way, and the way back is to look right under their own nose. As the good witch said to Judy Garland in "The Wizard of Oz," she always had the power to get back home if she wished hard enough.

And, you know what, there is no place like home, and I think it starts by all parties reaffirming their bedrock belief in the power of advertising, the power of the big idea.

We've seen what can happen when good advertising is pulled back. General Motors unwittingly gave us a graphic example when it cut off ad support for Saturn in the second half of last year to eke out a profit on the car. Car sales continued strong for a while, but by the end of the year Saturns were beginning to pile up on lots. So GM reinstituted Saturn's ad budget, plus a little more. However, the brand had lost the cumulative effects of its great advertising, which takes time to build. Saturn is still suffering, while the rest of the auto industry is booming.

Saturn is a textbook case history of what happens, when all else stays the same, when advertising is suddenly turned off.

GM and the other auto companies, you can bet, won't let the same thing happen again, but the rest of the ad industry still isn't convinced.

Most advertisers continue to pay ransom to retailers by diverting ad dollars to trade allowances.

Consumers don't know what brands stand for anymore, so is it any wonder they reach for private labels in increasing numbers? (Slickly packaged store brands represent the store's quality to consumers, often enough to make the sale in the absence of countervailing brand advertising.)

Ad agencies have been caught in this crossfire, and they have been floundering. Their clients have been cutting back on compensation, the agencies have been cutting back on manpower and the client-agency relationship has never been lower.

Clients' heads have been turned by the siren song of other ways to move the merchandise, and agency management has failed utterly to figure out what clients want. The big agencies go from embracing sales promotion and integrated marketing to putting out research on the basic function of advertising.

Media, especially print media, have not helped their cause. Faced with a cutback in their ad pages, they responded by cutting rates to the point where they have turned themselves into a commodity to be sold to the lowest bidder. They have allowed powerful brand franchises to erode, and advertisers and agencies can no longer differentiate one from the other.

What can be done to give this sorry picture a happy ending? Start with believing that there is nothing that sells more effectively than a powerful idea, powerfully told. That's basic and that's where we've got to go back to before we can go forward again.

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