How Much Is a Great Idea Worth...

... Everything, or Simply the Going Rate?

By Published on .

Rance Crain
Rance Crain

I'm starting to believe that B.S. stands for Beyond Selling. Marketers now seem to aspire to a higher purpose, or they churn out ads whose selling idea is obfuscated by obtuseness and complexity. What are the UPS and Xerox campaigns all about? Is Delta Airlines' "Still Climbing" any more product-directed that United Airlines' "Rising" of a few years ago? And couldn't Allstate's new "Mayhem" TV spots apply to any other insurance company?

Generic ideas that apply to any product in the category should be worth less than ideas that home in on the very core of what your brand is all about. But I'm afraid both are worth about the same in today's marketplace.

This isn't (just) a rant against big-company procurement practices, which were originally set up to value the worth of such staples as office supplies and bulk chemicals. It's also a rant against ads that don't seem to be trying very hard to move the merchandise.

Maybe marketers and their teams have another priority: execution as opposed to strategy. With so many platforms to deal with, it's not hard to see how marketers could be more involved in the mechanics of the message than the message itself. Or, as one agency exec told me, "Execution is becoming an excuse for ideas."

That's certainly what must have happened with the new Xerox campaign, which the company call its "most ambitious and innovative." The basic idea is that Xerox helps companies with business processes and document management, freeing them up to focus on their real business. The result is a mish-mash of elements -- in one spot that I've seen several times and had no idea what it was about (until I read the Xerox press release), a Marriott bellman processes invoices while trying to provide guest services at the same time.

Maybe Xerox is trying to do too much. "Along with the innovative use of brand characters, we're cutting through the clutter with innovative media, like interactive billboards and attention-grabbing digital units," explained Xerox CMO Christa Carone. Lots of innovation, lots of attention-grabbing. The idea gets trampled in the process.

Or take the new UPS campaign (please). To the tune of "That's Amore," UPS is airing a "We love logistics" ditty in commercials that show how UPS can repair laptops for a computer manufacturer, fill prescriptions for medical devices or provide online printing services. UPS refers to its portfolio of solutions collectively as "logistics," but I didn't know that, so I had no idea what the company was talking about.

The print ads take a more meat-and-potatoes approach with the headline, "Why logistics is the most powerful force in business today," and they provide more information about how UPS can help businesses of all sizes with logistics, according to Crain's BtoB magazine.

So why take such a consumer-oriented direction in the TV ads? "The true audience for logistics services are large, sophisticated companies. It is a trivializing approach," Laura Ries, of Ries & Ries, told BtoB. Another observer told me the UPS ads were "talking down to their customers."

Maybe procurement people and other arbiters of today's advertising weigh ads by the pound and decide that if they are complicated and have a lot of moving parts, they're worth more. A powerful yet simple idea just doesn't seem hefty enough to command respect.

I get the feeling that producing great advertising just isn't worth the effort anymore, especially given the short tenure of most marketing executives. It's easier to engineer elaborate, complicated extravaganzas.

So at a time when advertising is being forced down the food chain in the U.S., China, for one, is publicly endorsing its value. Advertising is "fundamental to economic development and sustaining a harmonious society," a top official declared recently. The Chinese government is incorporating advertising as a "pillar" of the country's economy in its latest five-year plan. As Tim Love, vice chairman Omnicom Group and CEO of Omnicom Group Asia Pacific, India, Middle East and Africa put it: "They sure have a very high regard for the profession of advertising."

Has the U.S. ever given advertising that kind of respect? And why should it be a surprise that businesses here have relegated it to the back burner, in favor of redoubling their efforts to make sure they're not being overcharged for ballpoint pens?

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