Twenty years after the fall of Saigon, Robert McNamara, our chief play caller in Vietnam, has returned from his Martha's Vineyard hideaway, memoir in hand, to confess that the Vietnam War was an immoral mistake and that he feels bad about not having the cojones to tell LBJ that the Godawful war was unwinnable without a lot more non-Ivy League cannon fodder.
Well, as North Vietnam's legendary military strategist Vo Nguyen Giap, who wore khakis, could have told him, "Robert, you didn't suffer 400,000 casualties in vain because you were merely immoral or undermanned. You screwed up because you didn't have a strategy."
Strategy, according to Webster's, is the science of planning and directing large-scale military operations, specifically of maneuvering forces into the most advantageous position prior to engagement with the enemy in war. Bob thought that search-and-destroy Air Mobile operations and B-52 carpet bombing were strategy. Actually, they were just tactics. And most of us are still trying to figure out what game plan Bob meant them to support.
But it's the lessons we learn. Obviously, the military learned how to better handle their strategies and really market a war (witness the packaging of Desert Storm), and we in advertising learned all about strategy, Lord help us.
"Strategy" is now the most hallowed word in the contemporary advertising lexicon. And strategic development is what now separates bigtime advertising from mere flimflam hucksterism. The world's advertising giants use strategies to wage their various cola, pizza and sneaker campaigns. For some inexplicable reason the advertising business has become all about warfare, and real war has become all about marketing.
For all of us in advertising who have had to suffer through countless strategy sessions-replete with reams and reams of research data supplied to discover the arcane tastes and desires of the consumer-the proof of this becomes apparent in the overwhelming belief that strategy is actually victory, and our means of achieving it are simply the exact pinpointing of targets and the proper deployment of resources.
Just listen to ourselves. Marketing warfare, guerrilla marketing, smart mail, target audience, saturation advertising. Whoa, there! Where did we learn all this malevolence? Folks, I've been to war and, trust me, the advertising business ain't nothin' like it. The closest I've ever come in advertising to something like a real firefight is the occasional four martini lunch at the demilitarized zone in the Temple Bar.
But perhaps we've reached a strategic turning point. After having Pepsi slaughter them in awareness and awards shows for some 15 years, Coke decided on a dramatic new strategy to regain its share of the national consciousness. Coke decided to forget all those MBAs and their taste messages; it realized that it didn't need to analyze, target or prove a point to the consumer. Coke decided it just wanted to grab the consumer's attention. So they turned to where they really know how to grab attention-Hollywood, the attention-grabbing kings of the world. So CAA was engaged to create memorable ads for Coke. No USPs or "strategically sound" brand attributes. No, thank you, just entertain us.
And, despite the predictable industry reaction about lack of cohesion and the spots being off strategy (not recognizing that entertainment might just well be strategy), the new campaign definitely created a splash.
Does anybody honestly think the widely popular computer-animated polar bear spot was the work of bean counters or strategic analysts? Does anyone think that the same process that eventually drove Coke to reintroduce Coke Classic could come up with a bunch of polar bears sitting on their butts admiring the Northern Lights while enjoying that fine cola beverage?
No, it's refreshing to note, the biggest advertiser in the world has come to realize that entertainment itself can be the strategy, and creativity, untethered and free to fly, the tactic. Of course Coke wasn't the first. They may never have had the nerve to hire CAA had it not been for those entertain-at-all-costs mavericks from Portland. If ever there was a line that mocked the big-agency strategic work plan, it was "Just do it." Nike has for years used terrifically entertaining commercials as part of its strategy for world athletic shoe domination.
However, when Wieden & Kennedy got a serious car account and tried to tie a ponderous strategic message to the advertising, the result was one of the most arrogant and condescending campaigns ever developed by talented people. "What to drive" is a prime example of right-brained folks mistakenly paying attention to their left lobes. Wieden & Kennedy mysteriously forgot how to entertain the consumer. It was as if Aerosmith suddenly decided to become Laurie Anderson.
Another example of entertainment triumph over strategy is the terrific Bud Light "Yes, I am!" spots, which by now everyone knows were killed in review committees but resurrected by a never-say-die creative team. Now, for $5 million and a month in Bora Bora, tell me the Bud Light "strategy" in those spots. There ain't none, brother. It's pure entertainment. Ditto for those Budweiser talking frog commercials.
Commercials mired in the rational realm, where most strategic copy tends to dwell, don't engage anyone except those who created them. A prime example of stifling, big-agency strategic overkill: Campbell's "Never underestimate the power of soup" campaign. The power of soup? Power to do what? Stop war? Put some clothes on Madonna? Sober up Boris Yeltsin? It's a friggin' can of high-sodium water with the occasional vegetable or noodle floating in it. Only a brand strategy committee in an American advertising agency would make such a big deal out of what is basically C-rations.
Great advertising lives in our gestalt, where laughter, emotion and sexuality rule the brain waves. Who can resist these triggers? And what better defines good entertainment? What commercials on this planet are talked about most? Little Caesars'? Nike's? Bud Light's? Anything by Bartle Bogle Hegarty? These are entertainments. And that's what we remember and respond to, and that's why Hollywood executives are the Medici princes of our modern world.
It's also why the world's biggest advertisers are going to Tinseltown and creative boutiques, and why advertisers are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into cross-promotional tie-ins with blockbuster movies. Advertising is not war. The U.N. is not involved. Peter Arnett is not out in the field whipping together a mobile satellite uplink for Ad Age. Advertising is just another part of the entertainment business, and we can only hope our industry will really begin to believe and understand this. Give Pizza Pizza a chance. And maybe you'll make crazy bread.u
Douglas Hardee is president at WOW Inc., a virtual creative company with offices