E-Trade's Utton on Relevance, Ad Intuition and Talking Babies

How the Online Brokerage Strikes a Balance Between Its Iconic Spokesbaby and These Tough Economic Times

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The difference between a good ad and a bad ad, especially in these perilous times, and especially if you're a financial company, is a walk on a tightrope.

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Take E-Trade as a case in point. The discount broker has booked thousands of new accounts since it began running its talking-baby TV commercials, starting with the 2008 Super Bowl. But back then, the baby spots had a whole different tenor than they do now.

The idea was: If I, as a talking baby, can do it, you can do it, Nick Utton, E-Trade's chief marketing officer, told me in a video interview. "But, with the humor, it had the very, very practical message that investing solutions are tough. E-Trade has exceptional value. We have simplified it, and we put you in the driver's seat, where you as a consumer can make the investing decisions that are best for you."

The original idea, from Grey, was to use a webcam approach, where a person would look directly into it and talk to consumers. Grey took that concept and made a baby the hero. Nick said the baby idea was developed in two weeks -- 24 hours a day for two weeks.

The baby commercials still work today but not with the same treatment. Relevancy is the name of the game. "Money is serious stuff. Don't trivialize money. Make sure the message of liberation is there, but be very careful of the balancing act of the humor with the reassurance message, and then what E-Trade has to offer. It is more than a place for a cheap trade," Nick said.

The stock-market freefall was in its own way a help. "Consumers are asking themselves, 'Wow, if I'm paying thousands of dollars [in commissions to the full-service brokerage firms], I could do as well or better without having to pay somebody those huge amounts of money.' Our ads do connect with consumers looking for that choice."

E-Trade has compiled some pretty entertaining outtakes of the baby spots. Grey pulled together 75 seconds of clips that the company put on its website before the Super Bowl. The clips generated more than 3 million views.

National Cinema also ran outtakes as pre-movie entertainment for a couple of weeks before the Bowl. An additional 8 million movie-goers saw the clips in theaters, and then TV programs such as "The Insider" and "Extra" picked them up. E-Trade figures that online and offline, at least 15 million people have seen at least some outtakes.

I asked Nick what happens when the baby grows up. When he spearheaded MasterCard's iconic "Priceless" campaign, he said, he thought it would be great if it lasted for five years, and it looks like "Priceless" has a shelf life of many more years. E-Trade has been running the baby commercials since January 2008. It has five executions, and the marketing team feels it has a couple of years left.

The challenge, Nick said, is to keep the spots "fresh, relevant [and] compelling, taking into consideration the economic times. We are working on where does the baby go next, because the baby is still wise beyond its years. Is it one baby or two babies? Is it multiple babies? Does the baby grow up and put a tie on?"

Nick believes a good ad campaign is like a science project. "There is the math, but there is the art as well. It's a balancing act between the two."

He said intuition is important. "I rely on it a lot, but sometimes I'm 50% wrong. In fact, in September I was wrong with what I thought would be great for advertising in January, but I was using my customer-sentiment estimate and transposing that four months later, not knowing that customers out there were really hurting, and some of the components of the mix were inappropriate. Funny, hysterical, but inappropriate. We are often wrong, and we need to have batting averages that are exceptionally high."

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