Last week, USA TODAY announced the results of its first print advertising contest -- $1 million in advertising space going to the winner of the best print ad -- and the winner turns out to be not an advertising agency, but, instead, Google Creative Labs.
Before complimenting the Google ad, I should say that, as one of the judges, I found the overwhelming number of submissions to be not just wretched, but deserving of some grand public humiliation for the ad business.
This is it? This is what you can do? Hundreds of confusing, puerile, ugly, slap-dash, semi-literate ads?
I suppose a reasonable defense for America's print-challenged ad agencies might be that print doesn't work anymore, it's so yesterday and, therefore, progressive agencies put their talents into television and digital.
But the fallacy is obvious: Clients grow ever-more unhappy with how their video- and digital-based advertising performs and, hence, insist on paying less for it.
Accordingly, the agency business has become one of the most unhappy, maligned and low-margin outposts of the media world (itself in crisis because advertising, media's primary revenue stream, works less and less well and is, therefore, less and less profitable for all concerned).
And yet there are iconic brands -- Apple, Google, IKEA, Lego, Ray-Ban, Old Spice, Harley-Davidson, among them -- that continue to spend heavily on print.
In other words, a handful of vaunted brands clearly benefit from print, but most ad agencies eschew it. If you're a print copy writer in most big ad agencies, you're the bottom of the barrel. How come?
My father, at the dawn of Mad Men time, ran an agency. Other children would announce their dad's occupation -- lawyer, doctor, engineer, house builder. It was, to say the least, perplexing to have to say mine was in advertising. But when I pressed my dad on exactly what an advertising man did, his response, always gleeful in its way, was "follow opportunities," which was not much help to me.
But that's the agency game: no fixed function, no precise goal, no clear success measures, just being ever-prepared to jump through the next hoop.
Think of it like the health care business. Doctors want to believe that what they do is first and foremost about the health of their patients, as ad agencies will try to tell you that their main focus is the "work." But, in fact, for doctors as well as for ad men, what they do and how they do it and when they do it is almost wholly related to their industry's awkward, bureaucratic, and often perverse, system of financial rewards.
Ad agencies not only exist on the whim and personality of clients, but have had to adapt to the exigencies of consolidated, multinational financial structures of which they are almost all now a part.
It is foolhardy to even debate the effectiveness and economies of communicating a client's message through print because, in almost every instance, an ad agency is incentivized to use other, more expensive, media.
A television ad is vastly more profitable to an ad agency than a print ad. And now a digital ad campaign can be even more profitable than television.
A corollary effect is that ad agencies hire people whose skills are quite the opposite of producing print. Vast numbers of "creative" people -- "creative young people," is the term of art -- are drawn to video and now to digital expression not just for its opportunities but because they have trouble mastering language skills.
They live in an unwritten world and cannot, practically speaking, actually produce a written ad.
Now, I am trying not to make an old-fogy argument about higher cultural virtue here. If the world and the media business move forward with fewer words and greater success, I'd say so be it. But that isn't what's happened. An unwritten world turns out to be a significantly less successful and less communicative place, where it is harder to make a message lasting and meaningful and, on top of that, harder to move the merchandise.
Here's my pitch for print:
Someone who reads what you have to say is vastly more engaged with your message than someone who passively watches it (and video becomes ever-less watched, a background stimulus, elevator music).
One image is going to be more memorable than many.
Good print ads are salutary partners to the newspapers and magazines where they appear -- not "interrupters."
Stimulation (video) is not as effective a sales technique as explanation (words).
It is obviously notable that the winning ad in the USA TODAY competition was written not by an agency but in house -- and in the house of what is arguably among the world's forward companies, which started Google Labs in part to experiment with how best to communicate its message.
The ad, written by Natalie Hammel, 27, celebrates Google+ Hangout service by referencing a news brief about how the Dalai Lama couldn't attend his fellow Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu's 80th birthday because his visa request was turned down -- and then amending the news brief to have the meeting take place via a Google+ Hangout.
Anyway, if I were a big brand, I'd certainly say, let me see a print ad campaign -- I'd want something to hang on my wall.
And if I were a big brand, before I'd hire an ad agency, I'd put all the so-called creatives in a room and give them a writing test.
Next time, I'm hoping for better submissions.
(c) Copyright 2013 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.
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