Auto-Insurance Ads Rule, Consistency at Top Is Why

Formerly Staid Sector Flourishes as Once-Creative Brands Languish

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Remember that old slogan for Virginia Slims cigarettes: "You've come a long way, baby, to get where you've got to today"?

That pretty much summarizes advertising in the auto-insurance business. Who would have predicted back when Virginia Slims was in its heyday that auto insurance would emerge as the most creative category in advertising?

And also the downward spiral of so many former bastions of creativity, such as beer, soft drinks, fast foods, cigarettes, rent-a-cars, headache remedies, razor blades and so many others.

Isn't it ironic that insurance ads have caught the attention of the green-eyeshade guys who control the purse strings -- the ones you would think would be pretty tightfisted when it comes to bankrolling something as frivolous as advertising? But none other than Warren Buffett has said he never minds signing the checks for Geico advertising.

Too bad advertising doesn't have the same attention at other businesses. Most advertising today seems unfocused and pedestrian, and I think in many cases that reflects the CEO's approach to running his or her company in general.

Back in 1999, we published our issue on "The Advertising Century," in which we chose examples of the best advertising of the 20th century. The top ad was Volkswagen's "Think small" by Doyle Dane Bernbach in 1959. The others in the top 10 were: Coca-Cola's "The pause that refreshes" in 1929 by D'Arcy Advertising Co.; Marlboro Man ads by Leo Burnett in 1955; Nike's "Just do it" by Wieden & Kennedy in 1988; McDonald's "You deserve a break today" by Needham, Harper & Steers in 1971; "A diamond is forever" for DeBeers by N.W. Ayer & Son; Absolut Vodka and the iconic Absolut bottle by TBWA in 1981; Miller Lite beer's "Tastes great, less filling" by McCann-Erickson in 1974; Clairol's "Does she … or doesn't she?" by Foote, Cone & Belding in 1957; and "We try harder" for Avis rent-a-car by DDB in 1963.

Most of the agencies on the top 10 list don't even exist as stand-alone entities anymore, and all but one are owned by gigantic holding companies. Can you imagine the top guy at the client and the top guy at the agency checking in with each other every week as Young & Rubicam's Ed Ney and the CEO of General Foods used to do?

Even as early as that issue of Ad Age, I was concerned. "CEO interest and involvement is crucial to effective advertising," I wrote, "and because of waning interest at the top -- and a deteriorating agency-client relationship up and down the line -- advertising effectiveness hasn't made much progress -- and maybe has even regressed."

I have always equated effectiveness to creativity. I call your attention to ad agency Benton & Bowles' old slogan, "It isn't creative unless it sells." Alas, the agency merged into D'Arcy-MacManus Masius to create DMB&B and then the merged agency disappeared.

In the same article, I quoted Jim Spaeth, then the president of the Advertising Research Foundation, as saying, "We still can't measure advertising on the long-term growth of profitable brands," and more important, "we haven't yet migrated this technology much beyond the consumer packaged-goods world."

That was said before the rise of digital, of course, but digital isn't at all concerned about building brands over the long term, only tracking consumers when they're about to buy.

I've had the great pleasure over the years of interviewing Advertising Hall of Fame inductees, and I must say many of them weren't very sanguine about the current state of advertising.

British agency founder Sir John Hegarty contended that the basic principles of advertising weren't being followed anymore.

"We've listened to the so-called experts for too long," Sir John told me, "and they've misunderstood what advertising is about and what the job is. I think it's an example of why there has been a dearth of great work, because the basic principles have been lost. We've got to get back to them."

Part of the problem is that CMOs aren't being taken seriously, Sir John asserted. "They've failed to gain traction on the boards. They've failed to get companies to understand what they're doing. The accountants set up the figures, they don't understand all the soft stuff, which of course is where all of the value is, and so the chief marketing officers are not being taken seriously."

Keith Reinhard said that one of the big obstacles to effective marketing is "the obsession with quick results." But when a CEO is truly involved with the brand, "the brand endures. The brand has integrity, and it can sustain the revolving door -- if there is one -- of marketing directors."Keith pointed out that the main problem is that people don't understand that "a brand is who you are, what you do, why you do it and how you do it. So it's style as well as content and message."

It's Keith's view that "We need more CEOs involved with and understanding the power of brands and what they stand for. … The CEO has to be the ultimate brand manager."Keith was the guy who penned the great slogan "Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there," so he is probably the only ad guy around who isn't surprised that insurance emerged as king of the ad hill.

After all, insurance executives tend to stay put. And that's the secret to advertising consistency and success.

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