By Published on .

Judging from the current round of agency firings and account shifts, it seems to me that advertising shares a relationship to athletic competition that ought to go beyond bloody mouth guards and flying spittle. I'd like to see advertising award shows factor a "degree of difficulty" into their rating systems. After all, it's one thing to do great ads for sexy women's lingerie and adult toy stores. It's quite another to hit one out of the park on a quarter-page bank CD ad.

Page through the '94 and '95 Communication Arts' Advertising Annuals, and you'll see ample evidence of ads that have gotten recognized for "non-client" clients: ultra-small businesses like Tirebiter Dog Day Care (920-WOOF, if you need the number), Southlake Hypnosis, the Jewish Dating Service, the Embers Female Impersonator Club and Tabu Lingerie. They're all fun, some are even hilarious: like the Andromeda Body Piercing entry that features a photo of a women's outstretched tongue, complete with tongue stud and a headline quote from the owner, "I'mb nod jutsh the pwestthidenth, I'mb altho a clienth."

But hilarity aside, these ads are missing something that's pretty important if you want to make a living in advertising: an ongoing, check-writing client. I'm willing to bet that clients like Tabu Lingerie aren't paying a lot into the Richards Group retirement plan.

I've thought the general task of advertising is to tailor communication to fit the client. When an art director and writer sell a non-client on a free ad that runs once, they're essentially tailoring the client to fit the advertising. Because if Madame Lazonga's tattoo parlor won't come up with the cash to run it once, there's always the chance that Madame Labomba down the street will.

Now I don't really expect the degree of difficulty to take root in the world of award shows. But if it did, here are some of the categories I think would apply.

nLow interest products. I'd include almost the entire category of financial services and insurance, with special bonus points for things like IMMAs, checking accounts, certificates of deposit and home equity loans. It's not just that banks have dull products (although that's true enough); it's that banks often have dull products with risk-averse clients. That's what made Fallon McElligott's old campaign for Continental Bank such an achievement. And why Hill, Holliday , Connors, Cosmopulos' John Hancock TV spots dominated the Olympics of advertising the way Michael Johnson dominated both the 400 and the 200.

nAny products or services that require a paragraph or more to describe their purpose or utility. This would naturally rule out things we intrinsically understand, such as toilet paper and toothbrushes. It would, however, include things such as machine tools, oscilloscopes, signal generators, a lot of software and almost anything that starts with the prefix ergo: ergometric, ergonomic, ergocentrifugal and all their ever-so-merry cousins.

I once worked on a terrible client that manufactured PROM programmers. You are probably thinking cake assignment, because a PROM is simply that little piece of circuitry (otherwise known as the chip to the technologically proficient) that contains all the teensy, eensy wires and connectors that drive all things electronic. Good concept, wrong idea.

This wasn't a simple, straight-forward assignment to advertise PROMs, now that we're clear about what they are. This was an assignment to advertise the square boxy-looking thing shaped like a small clothes washer that programmed (to the even more technically savvy, burned) the doohickey-chip-PROM things so they could drive their thing electronically.

This distinction was extremely important (to the client), even though 14 hours of excruciatingly tedious focus groups had told us that the engineers who used the darn things basically sat them in the corner and only thought about them long enough to swear at them when they weren't working. All of that would have been surmountable if the client hadn't had a tragic misconception of the difference between an ad and a brochure.

nBad clients ought to be good for something. There are plenty of clients out there who put up so many obstacles to good work that there ought to be a category of awards for "the best of the worst." Perhaps Ernest and Julio Gallo could get a lifetime achievement citation. But sin-and-death marketers like R.J. Reynolds Tobacco with its Joe Camel would also be good candidates.

Larry Asher, creative director at Worker Bees in Seattle, is a little more optimistic than I am-because he thinks a degree of difficulty distinction is already at work in many awards shows.

"I hope that when judges look at the work, they say, 'This is for a tattoo parlor and it has one location and the guys who did the work probably took it to them to sell it' before they drop their beans into the little cup."

He continues, "It's not that consumer goods are inherently more difficult than tattoo parlors. But let's face it, the process involved at Procter & Gamble is a little more arduous than the one at the Sit & Spin Laundromat."

It all boils down to this: Advertising's job is to move a product or to sell a service. You have to ask yourself whether the spec work/spec client category is designed to sell the product-or to sell the people who did the work.

Don't get me wrong: I don't mind work that sells the people. It's just that I've always thought that's what portfolios were for. So I concur with Larry Asher: "Any ad using the word penis automatically loses 3 points."

Most Popular
In this article: