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I hear a lot of talk about "advertising strategy" in my work as an advertising copywriter and freelance creative director. Unfortunately, thats all most of it is: talk.
Theres an old military maxim: "amateurs discuss strategy; experts discuss logistics." In other words, the best strategy in the world wont bring victory if you cant get your forces into place at the right time and sustain them once there.
Thats the challenge of strategic planning, be it military or marketing. The most-effective advertising strategy is that which is practical and sustainable, in order to be implemented and sustained in the marketplace. Otherwise, its not a strategy; its a fantasy.
Strategy = concept. Tactics = action. Logistics = everything in between.
In an academic sense, advertising strategy encompasses the target audience and the key message, but does not dictate the tactics used to deliver that key message to the target audience. Here in the real world, however, what is practical and sustainable must affect strategic planning.
The need for a strategy to be sustained in order to be successful puts the lie to such things as an "annual advertising strategy." Although effective tactical implementation demands flexibility, odds are the best advertising strategy this year (barring massive changes in the competitive marketplace) is to continue last years strategy. The break in continuity with the market, customers, and employees that accompanies a change in strategy is often the most-influential factor in the failure of new ad campaigns and re-branding initiatives.
Whats wrong with advertising strategy today
The art of advertising strategy suffers today from having learned the wrong lessons during the go-go 1990s, when even silly copywriting based on stupid marketing made tons of money. Almost any advertising strategy worked, mostly because Other Peoples Money (remember "OPM?") was thrown freely and relentlessly behind it, not a half-bad strategy in itself, if you can afford it. The same advertising and marketing people responsible for that recklessness are now older, more-senior, but in many cases no wiser and theyre sitting in their corner offices wondering why the same trick doesnt work any more. They forget (or, worse, never knew) that its working once was a fluke, a convergence of consumer confidence and corporate con games.
On strategy, logistics, budgets, and advertising copywriters
The result of all that corporate tomfoolery, is that few people can recognize when an ad strategy is untenable. For example, theres a growing tendency among copywriters to create clever little slogans as substitutes for branding. This simplistic approach could be characterized as battle cries without a battle line, smoke without fire. Such an approach can actually work if executed in the face of strategically weak competition and backed with a big enough ad budget. (Contrary to popular belief, the simpler the message, the more frequency it requires to be effective.)
Theres also a tendency among advertising people (including many creative directors and copywriters) to gravitate toward strategies that demand a big-budget multi-media approach. Not because its the right recommendation, mind you, but because it appeals to their own vanity (to say nothing of their media commission).
Clients, too, are seduced by the Big Splash approach. A multi-million-dollar advertising strategy based on a spiffy new slogan sounds great in the boardroom and plays well in the trade press ("were re-branding with television commercials arent we wonderful!"). But, if the reality is a quarter-million-dollar ad budget, then that ad strategy will fail. Key parts of the ad campaign will be eliminated or compromised, reducing reach, frequency, and effectiveness. The level of advertising will be unsustainable through the year. Silently, without fanfare or press releases, the brand momentum will vanish.
Everyone associated with the advertising and marketing will cite "reduction in ad spending" or "the economy" as reasons for the failure. In fact, the failure occurred long before the ads ran, because it was a failure on a strategic level: the failure to develop an ad campaign that was (here are those words again) practical and sustainable.
The irony is that a quarter-million-dollar advertising budget could, with the right ad strategy, pose an effective challenge to a competitive multi-million-dollar ad budget.
Among big budget advertisers, theres a lot of mediocre ad strategy that is
effective in spite of itself due to sheer reach and frequency, a case of tactical volume
overcoming strategic deficiency. Modeling your own advertising strategy on such examples
is unwise. It is smarter, and more-economical, and, in the long run more-successful, to
think about your operational limits before you start thinking about advertising
strategy. Your time, your budget, your resources, your available media. Then, knowing
those logistical considerations, you can develop an advertising strategy you can afford to
implement and sustain; an advertising strategy that doesnt just look good on paper,
but also works well in real life. After all, real life is the only test of advertising
strategy, advertising logistics, and advertising copywriting.
For help with all three, call me: (619) 465-6100.
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Phone and fax: (619) 465-6100
John Kuraoka, freelance advertising copywriter
6877 Barker Way
San Diego, California
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