Plumbing the depth

Though the advances in techniques and tools for the marketing industry have been profound, David Bernstein believes that the fundamentals have remained the same

David Bermstein

Novelist Doris Lessing described a moment of revelation thus: ’You suddenly understand something you’ve understood all your life,but in a new way.’

I had such an epiphany when our boiler packed up and we needed professional help. I trawled the ads in the local newsletter. One stood out. I rang. Bob offered to call early the next morning when he duly fixed the immediate problem and advised on future action. I knew Bob only from his ad, but it was a pre-echo of the face-to-face encounter with the man himself, a sample of the product: direct, matter-of-fact and businesslike.

Later I studied the ad against a set of judging criteria I had devised for an advertising textbook: VIPS visibility, identity, promise and simplicity. Bob’s ad caught the eye, his name was prominent, he promised installation, servicing, maintenance and authorised approval. The ad was simple no wasted words, no gratuitous design flourishes.

My ancient checklist is still relevant, but how do the basics stand up in the new digital media? I endeavoured to find out, signing up for an online ’webinar’ run by a marketing publishing company, BKV, in Atlanta, which I had got to know through its online magazine,

BKV calls itself ’a direct response and digital agency’. Direct response was unfairly regarded by admen, relegated to ’below the line’. Above this imaginary line were the more respectable sort of advertising practitioners, who earned their income from commissionable media. The fee-paid toilers, in direct response, direct mail and promotions, were an inferior breed. Few of us saw the irony in it. If any branch of advertising could justify calling its activity ’scientific’ it lays ’below-the-line’.

Indeed, the breakthrough publication in 1923 by American agency boss Claude Hopkins, called simply and assuredly Scientific Advertising, asserted that ’advertising has in some hands reached the status of a science’. Hopkins’ theories were based on his life’s work, which was largely in mail order. Three decades later, Martin Mayer wrote in Madison Avenue USA that ’mail order demonstrated to sceptical manufacturers that it really paid to advertise; you could see the results… you counted the arriving coupons and dollars, subtracted the costs of manufacturing, shipping and advertising and banked your profits’.

Those prescient folk, whom many of us patronised, remained patient, confident their time would come. Study some promotional literature of today’s digital marketers and you feel it has. How those pioneer ’scientists’ would relish the comprehensive tools and the accelerated time frame which the digital infrastructure provides.

On BKV’s website you’re met not with hype and overclaim, but a respect for the past. You soon comprehend that, though the advances in techniques and tools have been profound, the fundamentals stay the same. ’We unite tried and true Direct Response technologies with the latest interactive and social media innovations.’ Sounds like a marriage made in marketing heaven.

Nor can you question the logic of their sales pitch: ’Some companies want to know what their advertising dollars are doing.’ Hopkins would have nodded to that and approved BKV’s critique of the Fortune 500 companies’ use of social media for branding, e-commerce, customer retention, service and lead generation.

When a company furnishes you, gratis, with insightful analysis, it seems churlish to point out that some of it we knew already or, to put it more tactfully, that the basics haven’t changed, especially when the disciples have practised their discipline for three quarters of a century.

David Bernstein was founder of the Creative Business and is a creative consultant

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