August 29, 2011

Advertising And The Future Of Apple

After Steve Jobs stepped down as CEO of Apple last week, speculation about the company's future began immediately.

The consensus seemed to be that Jobs built a strong culture, hired smart people, and taught a way of thinking that will serve Apple well in the future. The story line went like this-- while Jobs will be missed, he is no longer essential to the future of the company and it will go on brilliantly without him.
I don't buy this for a second. Genius is non-transferable.

Jobs hasn't just created better computers, he has created a world that nobody else could envision. He brought an artist's sensibility to a field previously populated by capable but tone-deaf engineers. He didn't just make beautiful looking hardware, he took what was a dead screen full of little green letters on a blue background and turned it into an astounding, enchanting world of graphics, music, and video that has become a central feature of contemporary life.

He has made work more fun, knowledge more available, and entertainment more rewarding.

Anyone who has had the pleasure of buying an Apple product knows the great aesthetic delight of turning it on for the first time and seeing the beauty that ensues. Even going to an Apple store is a completely unique and strangely arresting experience.

On Friday, Apple became the world's largest company, surpassing ExxonMobil in market value. It will not simply evaporate. The most likely scenario is that Apple will continue to shine for a few years while the initiatives that Jobs started are still in the pipeline, and then slowly the company's radiance will start to dim. They will be successful and will continue to produce excellent products for a long time -- but the startling brilliance will slowly fade.

Many successful creative enterprises turn out to be the extended shadow of one individual. My best guess is that Apple is such an enterprise.

Interestingly, one of the first indications of whether Apple is capable of continuing its explosion of creative energy without Jobs at the helm may be found in its advertising. The product pipeline will take years to screw up. But the ad pipeline can be screwed up in no time.

About a year from now, with Jobs in the background, the knuckleheads at Apple (there are knuckleheads everywhere) will have a chance to get their sweaty hands on the advertising.

Jobs is a brilliant technology visionary. But let's not forget that he is also the best ad man of his generation. He is what you might call a "classicist." Apple advertising is simple. It is almost always product-focused (the product usually sits smack dab in the middle of a white page.) The TV spots for the iPad and iPhone are usually nothing more than simple but compelling product demonstrations.

Here are some clues to look for in Apple's advertising that will indicate that dull hands are grabbing at the wheel:
1. Creeping Brandism: The Apple brand was built bottom-up. That is, the products defined the brand. Virtually every Apple ad was about a product, not  the brand (okay, there was "Think Different" but that didn't last.) Keep an eye out for the erosion of this discipline.
2. Agency change: Vapid marketing people relegated to the background all these years by Jobs' dominance may suddenly start flexing. They wouldn't dare contradict Jobs' legacy, but they could accomplish the same thing by undermining the agency.
3. The Tortured Logic of Account Planning: Look for ads about you the consumer instead of Apple products. Look for moronic online "engagement" gimmicks. Or look for social media pandering.
4. Complications: Part of the brilliance of Apple advertising has been its simplicity.  Keep an eye out for complicated ideas or ads with more than one product.
5. Media: Apple has used online media sparingly. The preponderance of its advertising has been conducted in traditional media -- TV, print, and outdoor. Watch to see if Apple suddenly starts going all trendy and new age in its media choices.
If you start seeing any of these signs coming out of Cupertino, sell your shares.

Advertising will be an early indicator of whether people without vision and taste are moving in at Apple. It will be interesting to watch. 

More on this topic here.

August 22, 2011

Can't A Guy Get Some Rest?

I've been getting emails from regular readers asking why I've been such a lazy bastard. The answer, I'm a lazy bastard.

See you after Labor Day.

August 04, 2011

When Advertising Was About Selling

I am on vacation, but I came across this story in Ad Age today thanks to George Parker. It is so revealing about the power of advertising, and is so contrary to the foolishness that dominates the ad business today, that I just had to reprint it. Hope you enjoy.

Mitzi Perdue on Frank: It Took a Tough Man to Choose the Right Ad Agency

Following End of Company's Relationship With Deutsch, Poultry Pitchman's Widow Shares Story of How He Found First Shop

By: Mitzi Perdue

It was 40 years ago that my late husband, Frank Perdue, became one of the first CEOs to appear in his own commercial, with the tag line, "It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken."

But before there was a chicken, there was an egg -- the advertising agency that created it all. And this is the story of how a small-town chicken farmer from Maryland found that shop, which helped him turn a father-and-son egg business into a multibillion-dollar international poultry company with more than 20,000 associates and sales in 114 different countries.

In the late 1960s, when chicken was viewed as a commodity, Frank decided to do what no chicken farmer had done before. He took a 10-week absence from running his company, went to New York and began a full-time study of the theory and practice of advertising.

There were people in New York, like Allen Kosovsky, one of Frank's early distributors, who remembered him back then as being so "countrified" that it was "as if he were wearing high-button shoes and a straw hat."

One of his first steps was joining the Association of National Advertisers, so he could access their library. In addition to reading books and papers on advertising, he talked with the sales managers of every newspaper, radio and TV station in the New York area. He also created a grid of food stores that might purchase Perdue chicken, and talked with hundreds of these potential buyers about what they wanted to hear about chicken.

When it came to selecting an ad agency, he interviewed 66 of them, and from those, narrowed the selection to six. "The finalists had billings of $19 million, $15 million and $12 million," Frank told me later. "I didn't go to any of the big ones because I figured I wouldn't be important to them."

Then he began systematically calling the clients of the six finalists to find out what kind of experiences the clients had had with these agencies. In the middle of this process, he got an angry phone call. "Why are you calling my clients?" demanded the president of one of the agencies, his voice bristling with irritation.

"Because," Frank answered coolly, "I can't tell by looking in your eyes whether you are a priest or a crook." With a certain relish, Frank continued his phone calls to the rest of the man's clients.

Even today, Ed McCabe, the copywriter who eventually made Frank famous, still remembers exactly how many agencies Frank interviewed and how many finalists there were. "I know this for certain," McCabe said in a recent email to me, "because we all spoke to and commiserated with one another on a regular basis about the hoops Frank was putting us through."

As told in Esquire Magazine, McCabe said, "You know, Frank, I'm not even sure I want your account any more because you're such a pain in the ass." Unperturbed, Frank agreed with McCabe's judgment and went right on asking more questions.

Barbara Hunter, a friend from PR firm Hunter, MacKenzie, Cooper, was one of Frank's sounding boards at the time. She remembers the progress of the search, and looking back on it, she told me, "I've never ever seen anyone so thorough. The amazing thing is he did all the research himself, rather than delegating it to someone."

On April 2, 1971, Frank made up his mind: It would be Scali, McCabe, Sloves, an agency that had been in business five years and had total billings of $12 million. Marvin Sloves, the agency's president, wrote to Frank, "If you spend as much time inspecting your chickens as you have our agency, you've got to have the best chickens in the world."

The initial problem copywriter McCabe faced was that with chickens, whatever selling point the copywriters came up with, a competitor could quickly copy it in their advertisements.

McCabe remembered, "Nobody had ever advertised a brand-name chicken before, and just looking at Perdue and listening to him was a new experience too: He looked a little like a chicken himself, and he sounded a little like one, and he squawked a lot. And about four or five weeks into the assignment it just clicked: 'Here's the answer.'" McCabe concluded that Frank Perdue himself should be the spokesman. Frank, he rightly decided, could give the campaign a unique identity that couldn't be copied by a competitor.

Initially Frank resisted the idea. It may be surprising to learn, given how famous Frank later became, that he was a shy man who hadn't even appeared in a school play.

Nevertheless, McCabe was able to convince Frank that having Frank Perdue himself was the best way to solve the imitator problem. The campaign based on "It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken" was born. Or hatched.

The ads paid off. In 1967, yearly sales had been $35 million. By 1972, after a year of "It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken," sales had leapfrogged to $80 million. The advertising budget for the first year was $200,000.

According to a July 13, 1971, column on advertising that appeared in The New York Times, the campaign was off to a flying start soon after Scali, McCabe and Sloves got the account. "In some New York area shops, at least, quotations from Mr. Perdue will become far better known than those of Chairman Mao. Examples: 'Freeze my chickens? I'd sooner eat beef!' 'My fresh young chicken is cheaper than hamburger. Good for you, bad for me.' 'Everybody's chickens are approved by the government, but only my chickens are approved by me.'"

The real story here is that a man who grew up on a chicken farm in a small town in Maryland figured out the importance of advertising; believed in it enough to act on it; had the mental courage to plunge into a field -- and a way of life -- that was entirely foreign to him; was willing to do the research himself as opposed to delegating it to others; and once he had made his decision, was willing to put himself in the hands of the professionals.

For the record, Frank admired the power of advertising, but he was always acutely aware that advertising by itself was not enough for success. He loved to quote Bill Bernbach, saying that "Nothing will destroy a poor product as quickly as good advertising."

Mitzi Perdue is Frank Perdue's widow. She recently authored "I Didn't Bargain for This!" which includes stories about how her late father co-founded the Sheraton Hotel chain, and how her late husband created the Perdue chicken company.