"Ken," I asked the former chairman-CEO of Ogilvy & Mather, "how can you tell people how to advertise in a day and age when the very meaning of 'advertising' is open to debate?"
'Will there still be advertising?'
He smiled gently, and confidently slid the elegant little volume from my grip, cracked it and said, "Let me quote from the first sentence: 'Will there still be "advertising" in the new world of multimedia, multichannel, multi-option communications?'
"The answer is, of course there will!" he said. "The formats change and people change. But advertising will always exist because it works."
Fair enough, I responded. We live in a consumer culture; people enjoy buying and owning stuff, and they really do want to know what's new. But can you actually have a rulebook for a game that's now so fragmented that rules no longer apply?
Not a recipe book
"I would hate for this to be looked on as a cookbook for advertising," Ken said. "Recipes don't work for a very simple reason: This is a business of ideas. Ideas don't derive from rules; they derive from principles."
And there, in New York's Patroon, over a chopped Cobb salad, I had what I can only describe as a revelatory flash. Of course -- that's why certain truisms about advertising (Bernbach: "Persuasion is not a science but an art"; Ogilvy: "The consumer is not a moron; she is your wife") become legendary. They define the underlying principles of consumer marketing, which, while mutable, change far more slowly than the communications technologies that exploit them.
That's why I'd kept an earlier edition of How to Advertise (co-authored with Ken's former colleague Jane Maas, and, in the newest edition, by Ken, Jane and former Olgivy-ite and current New York Times Digital CEO Martin Nisenholtz) on my bookshelf for almost two decades. It's one of the best articulations of advertising's principles ever committed to print: "Creativity doesn't create something out of nothing," they write. "It uncovers, selects, reshuffles, combines, synthesizes already existing facts." "Better to seek headlines rather than taglines." "Brands began as guarantors of reliability and quality in consumer products, and have evolved into representations of a way of life or a set of ideas."
Turning principles into tactics
The book also has the courage to translate those principles into tactics. "After all, you don't start out with an ad, you start out with an idea," Ken said. "Mechanically, you then have to put it into a form: a bus-shelter ad, a billboard, a TV spot, a radio commercial." Hence, the multiple reasons it's worth acquiring the new edition of this venerable classic, even if, like me, you own an older rendition: four new chapters, 200 new case histories, and a radically expanded glossary that make How to Advertise germane in this interactively fragmented age.
But I still had one last, troubling question -- about a word that is tossed around with abandon in advertising but never, ever defined.
"Ken," I asked, "what is an idea?"
"An idea," said the author, "is the organizing principle for everything you do."
~ ~ ~
Randall Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is chief marketing officer at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton.