AmEx's Aldo Papone on How 'Thinking Real' Can Make Ads That Last

Advertising Hall of Fame Inductee Opens Up About His Career

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"There is a predilection in corporate America for making simple issues complicated."

Making things simple again, in business and in advertising -- that's the philosophy that guided Aldo Papone as he moved up the ranks at American Express.

"Going back and looking at some of the solutions that are often just in front of your eyes, you realize that you should have been able to resolve the issue in an easier way. So often the answers are obvious and you're looking for them when they're right in front of you," Aldo explained to me during a video interview on the occasion of his induction into the Advertising Hall of Fame.

We set up our cameras on the 50th floor of the American Express building in lower Manhattan overlooking the Hudson River and the Statue of Liberty. Aldo, now a senior adviser at the company, appeared in a crisp charcoal suit and burgundy polka-dot tie. He was formal, in keeping with his University of Genoa education and European upbringing, but at the same time warm and cautiously ready for my hard-hitting questions.

Aldo learned the obvious when he worked at Macy's department store. In his first 18 months as an assistant buyer, he worked for a "wonderful woman" who taught him to walk the selling floor after lunch. "You'd be surprised how much you would learn," he said. Shoppers' buying patterns were "very, very visible every day if you just took the time to touch and participate … and to really see what was going on."

A lot of what he learned at Macy's formed the basis of Aldo's first book, "The Power of the Obvious."

By 1974 he had risen to senior VP of merchandising, but he left to join AmEx as president of the company's travel division. "I had a unique asset," he quipped. "I knew nothing about travel."

Fresh perspective
But he saw that as an advantage. "The company needed a fresh perspective, and I certainly was offering that. In many, many ways my retail background -- which is obviously conducive to understanding trends, to understanding how a consumer behaves -- was very helpful to running and increasing the footprint of the travel division."

Aldo has a sign on his desk that reads, "Think real," and that's his criterion for producing memorable ads that work. "We need to have an understanding firsthand of how the consumer behaves. ...

"It's important to validate, with reality and with experiences, things that you are going to talk about or you're going to put into an advertising slogan. And if you think about 'Do you know me?' 'Don't leave home without it' and 'Membership has its privileges' ... they're still resonating, in spite of the fact that the campaigns are in some cases 20, 30 years old."

The American Express ads, Aldo said, "try not only to stay true to the brand" but "to be consistent with the image of the company." And, he added, "a lot of good marketers … forget that when we as marketers are starting to get bored or tired of a campaign, it's just then that the consumer is reacting to it."

Aldo is the author of a second book, "The Power of Reinvention," about how companies can create growth and renewal, but he says he's not writing another book.

But if he were to write one, he'd deal with the issue of technology. "Technology is such a powerful force today, and marketers have an opportunity to harness it in a way that I think is broader. … The only other thing I might write about is integrity. I think the legacy of integrity, of walking the walk, of being real, of serving as an example to the people you work with and who work for you -- that's a subject that I would very much like to talk about. But I'm not writing another book."

Aldo is a very forward-thinking guy at the age of 81, and predicts that there's going to be "a new and easier and more wholesome way to communicate" than the internet. "I don't know what that is, but I know there are going to be capabilities that we don't have today … and it won't be 50 years from now."

In his first book, "The Power of the Obvious," Aldo advises marketers to "stop selling and start a conversation." What he means by that, he told me, is to first create a rapport. "We have to establish trust, familiarity. Then I think you can start selling."

The last line in "The Power of Reinvention" is: "The key is to just keep going."

How do you know if you're going in the right direction? "The experiences will give you guardrails so that you feel you are in the right direction, that you're just not moving aimlessly in areas or directions that don't have any relevance or opportunity either for you or your company.

"So keep going. I think that every one of us knows what is the right thing to do. And that's how you keep going -- if you feel that that's the right thing to do."

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