Mary Wells' big day reminds us advertising's changed for worse

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Mary wells lawrence, in her remarks after being inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame last week (with Stanley Marcus and Bernie Flanagan), said the advertising business was "about learning and about loving." Her notion was that ad people need to open themselves to ideas from everywhere, and to love clients, their products and fellow workers. It didn't sound corny when she expressed those sentiments.

It's hard to believe the founder of Wells, Rich, Greene has only been out of the ad business since 1990, when she sold WRG to a French agency network. When we watched her work for Alka-Seltzer and Braniff and Benson & Hedges in those days, we thought it was great -- but had no way of knowing it would be light years ahead of anything today and that we would miss her ads as much as we do.

Advertising has sure gone downhill in a big hurry. It's pretty sad when companies keep dredging up ads that were successful decades ago or make their ads look as if they were produced decades ago. Retro is the creative style of the day because there is no other dominant creative style of the day, except maybe the dumb and non-informational school of advertising. You can count the great campaigns on one hand -- Mastercard's "Priceless" ads and Ameritrade and E*Trade. I forget the other two.

My theory is advertisers are expending their creative energy naming things. A new stadium built for the New England Patriots will be Monster.com Stadium. What a waste! Why doesn't the online job-search company rename Soldier Field in Chicago so the Bears could become the Monsters.com of the Midway?

And whaddaya think of the name for the new agency trio of the Leo Group (sounds like a circus road show), the MacManus Group and Denstu? They're calling it B Com3 Group, probably so investors will think it's a souped-up dot-com offering when it goes public. (It's understandable. We're thinking of changing the name of our company to Craincom.com.)

But am I despairing about the current state of advertising? No, I'm not. The reason is technology will take us back to a golden age of advertising -- better than when Mary Wells was in her heyday.

One of the authors of the hot new book "The Cluetrain Manifesto" says the Internet is going to drastically change the world of advertising. "With the Internet, you run into things like mailing lists and Web conferencing and bulletin boards, where there's active interchange among regular people," author Christopher Locke told myBusiness magazine. "And that's the premise of the book, that markets are conversations.

"Think of a bazaar 5,000 years ago, where people went not just to buy figs and spices, but to find out what was happening. Talk was the main attraction. The Internet brings the marketplace back to the 21st century."

The premise also is that big marketers just don't get it. "The question is whether, as a company, you can afford to have more than an advertising jingle persona. Can you put yourself out there: Say what you think in your own voice, present who you really are, show what you really care about? Do you have any genuine passion to share? . . . Human beings are often magnificent in this regard, while companies, frankly, tend to suck."

So I gather that companies that indulge in straight-talking, one-on-one salesmanship are the ones that will be able to communicate with consumers. That doesn't leave any room for stupidity or lack of information because consumers will extract from advertising what they want, and they'll move on if you don't provide it.

Indulge me: Let's assume interactive advertising will some day soon actually work, that banner ads will not be the future of advertising on the Internet. If you want interested consumers to interact with your advertising, and ask for more information about your product, you've got to provide at the minimum some basic product benefit information. And then, maybe, you've got to "say what you think in your own voice," instead of the wise guy stuff that passes for advertising these days.

What I really miss about Mary Wells Lawrence, even beyond her wonderful advertising, is the compassion she still shows for her beloved advertising business.

Have its present-day practitioners gotten too cynical ("What can we talk the client into running today?") to still believe in that precious commodity?

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