Where is the good advertising?

I was perusing print advertisements the other day, looking for good examples to illustrate key marketing principles in our Pragmatic Institute course. I skimmed a year’s worth of PC and industry magazines. And found? not one good ad.

Surely, someone in high-tech has a clue! Good ads? I found none. What I found were ads filled with technical jargon (somewhat expected for the PC mags) but completely ineffective in communicating a unique value proposition.

Many of the ads were ‘like reading plumbers’ manuals,’ to quote Joe Costello, former CEO of Cadence Systems. Supplement the techno-babble with a little cheesecake/beefcake, and the ad becomes both offensive and ineffective at the same time. Most of the ads made empty claims like ‘Quality and Service: when it really matters.’  When doesn’t it matter? And what makes your claim of quality and service any better than the other company’s claims? Where’s your proof other than this statement? When two vendors claim the same promise they cancel each other out. Empty claims are just empty.

I’m reminded of Steven Wright who said, ‘Remember, you’re unique, just like everyone else.’

I did find a good print ad in a consumer magazine–from Apple, of course. Say what you will about their business, Apple is fabulous at advertising.

I know IBM has some good ads but I didn’t find any in my magazines. Remember their old TV spots for e-business? My favorite was the web designer describing all the cool things he can do, but when the business owner asks about e-business, he replies, ‘Uh, I don’t know how to do that.’ Cue IBM Logo. Well done. IBM = we know business. And have been running production applications for decades.

Then (for some reason) I headed over to the Southwest airlines site and I was tickled to find a ‘History of Ads’ section with some of their best work over the years. Check out my favorite: ‘Liar Liar Pants on Fire‘ denounced another airline’s claim to be #1. Southwest Airlines is #1 and can prove it… with a decade of on-time performance (and profitability).

Where are the effective advertisements for high-tech?

Most high-tech advertising is atrocious. Why? I have two theories: 1) most businesses don’t have a distinctive competence, and 2) any effective advertising is ruined by internal committees. Do these explain the dearth of good advertising?

What’s your unique selling proposition? ‘Our product is better than the competitor in ways that only we understand.’ Not very unique, is it? It seems many executives (and most sales people) encourage us to build look-alike products that work exactly the same as every other product in the category. They want to see a product-by-product comparison and don’t like any checks in the competitors’ column that are not also in their products. And so they allow the competition and the analysts to define their products.

Creating unique, remarkable products is Seth Godin’s message in Purple Cows and Free Prize Inside.

Why do people buy your products? If you don’t know, how can the agency figure it out for the ad? If you don’t know, how can you expect the sales channel to?

Since so many companies don’t know their distinctive competence, the agencies try to discover it with executive interviews. Many agencies have a ‘discovery’ charge as part of a new relationship as they try to discern your value proposition, since no one in your company knows it. The agency will interview all the key execs to try to discern the product and/or company message. They’ve ceased to be amazed that the senior execs cannot agree on a message or even a buyer profile. When the interviews are done, they take an ‘average’ of all they’ve learned to create your message. And it’s weak. So without a strong positioning message, agencies are forced to create ‘image’ ads that convey that your company is cool even if your product isn’t. And as clever as these are, they are carefully destroyed by the same senior executives. Since they couldn’t agree on their distinctive competence and the target buyer, they certainly cannot agree on the ads that resulted.

Agencies tell me that 30 to 50% of their fees are from re-work, requests from the executives to ‘try again.’ Or they hear, ‘I’ll know it when I see it.’

It’s all rather Dilbert-esque, isn’t it?

With or without an agency, taking a concept to committee always turns out badly. Each person has their own interpretation of the idea and wants to put their own stamp on it.  A developer wants to emphasize the cool thing that was most challenging to build, someone else wants to use ‘scalable and flexible? because it’s a key selling element, and someone else adds ‘and lower TCO is really hot right now.’

Next time a committee wants to work on marketing, suggest that we first have a contest on employee compensation, or sales methodology, or the programming language that we’ll use. Good advertising is like good programming and good selling. It’s a lot of science with a little spark of creativity that rarely comes from a committee.

Make a promise in your messaging. One promise. And make it a promise that no one else can make.

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