Tuesday, 16 October 2012

John Hegarty on advertising (and what Nelson Mandela might say)

John Hegarty has been behind some of the most memorable adverts of the past 20 years. Such as this. He’s the author of the memoir “Hegarty on Advertising”, widely regarded as one of the finest books on the subject. In a series of posts, I will reflect on some of his ideas and use them as a backbone for some personal thoughts on advertising.

The first quote that sticks out from the book is this:

“Creativity in advertising is all about the power of reduction. Write less, say more.”

Most people would agree that this seems a core principle of the craft. Brevity is not just the soul of wit, but also of good copy. Consoling poetry, stirring song lyrics, funny jokes, and great copy are similar in one key respect: the biggest amount of impact is crammed into the smallest number of words. Examples of this abound in culture, for example:

In the sentence “1984 is not going to be like 1984”, from their 1984 Superbowl advert, Apple said everything they needed to say about why Macintosh computers were better than IBM (their main rival at the time). These were computers for the people, the future is in our hands. Individual expression will be victorious over autocratic uniformity.

When, in Kerouac’s classic novel “On The Road”, the narrator, Sal, remarks: “The road is life”, in four short words he offers an answer to universal existential angst. Meaning is found in the journey, not at some destination at the end of the road. The journey is the destination. Life is the little moments that we thrive or despair in, amidst a sea of nothingness and contingency. Life is a frothing, violent sea that you must dive into: we should leap naively into the moment for that is all there is, but that is enough. This was a rebellion against the creeping conformity of 1950s America: where happiness or meaning was to be up found at the top of a hill somewhere, whether that hill be made of money or God. “The road is life”: a world of subtext lives in those 4 words.

We all have our favourite song lyrics, lyrics that sum up a kaleidoscope of emotion in an abrupt flourish. “Slow Show” by The National for me sums up what it is like to be in love “You know I dreamed about you for 29 years before I saw, I missed you for 29 years”. And “Sorrow” sums up what it’s like to be dumped: “Sorrows my body on the waves, sorrows a girl inside my cage, I live in a city sorrow built, it’s in my honey it’s in my milk”.

But back to Hegarty. He writes: “The function of an object is now taken for granted, so our concern shifts from function to form”. Here he is referring to design and usability. As consumers we want something that looks fantastic and something that is easy to use. These are the extra gifts in the box that make Apple products, for example, stand-out above all their rivals. What does “the extra gifts in the box” mean? Well, it’s a phrase coined by marketer Seth Godin and is best illustrated with an example: the iPhone isn’t just a good phone (there are lots of good phones around), but it also looks great, is very light, is intuitively simple to use, and is packed full of great apps. It is full of little gifts to the consumer beyond being a phone, and those extras are what make it stand-out. The phone bit is almost irrelevant. Apple obsesses over usability and design, and their advertising demonstrates and celebrates their comparative advantage brilliantly. Here's an example

Apple’s products are so exceptional, so innovative, so stand-out, that the marketing is built in. Hence the simplicity of their advertising: make the product the star, and just demonstrate how easy it is to use, and how the technology is relevant to people’s lives. Like this advert for the iPad: essentially just a series of simple vignettes about how it helps someone live a full, and exciting life.

One of the biggest themes of Hegarty’s book is the importance of RELEVANCE. Advertising should reflect how people actually think, talk and live. Intrinsic to an advert must be a sense of humanity: it must be personal, it must reflect human values, worries, fears, needs, aspirations.

As advertisers we seek to tell stories as efficiently and compellingly as possible as to how the product is relevant to the consumer. Here is a wonderfully simply advert for the iPhone 5.  The take-out: there is a brilliant camera on the iPhone, and it has a great feature that helps you with your family life. The technology is not redundant, it is essential and useful.

This focus on relevance reminds me of a quote from Bill Bernbach in “Ogilvy On Advertising”:

“Shortly before he died, Bill was asked what changes he expected in advertising in the 80s. He replied, “Human nature hasn’t changed for a billion years. It won’t even vary in the next billion years. Only the superficial things have changed. It is fashionable to talk about the changing man. A communicator must be concerned with the unchanging man-what compulsions drive him, what instincts dominate his every action, even though his language too often camouflages what really motivates him. For if you know all these things about a man, you can touch him at the core of his being. One thing is unchangingly sure. The creative man with an insight into human nature, with an artistry to touch and move people will succeed. Without them he will fail.”

While I’m throwing quotes around like an inebriated Stephen Fry, here’s another corker from everyone’s go to good egg Nelson Mandella: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” The take-away: make sure your advertising sings the same tune the consumer is singing in their head. 

Great advertisers have an inspiring vision for the brand, and for the future in general, they have a point of view, something to say, an angle on what’s important in life. They want to create a zeitgeist, a movement, they want to change something. But part of being a visionary is being an expert in reality. All comedy, all art, all good advertising, is essentially observational. Communicating some human truth that we have noticed through observation or personal experience. If you abstract what we do enough it comes down to making a human truth tangible.

It seems to me that a good question to ask yourself when trying to promote a brand is to ask “What human good does the product help the customer achieve?” When you have identified this universal human good, find a way of personifying and exaggerating that in a campaign.

Here’s a brilliant example of this from Wieden and Kennedy, specifically their Nike account: the “Find your Greatness” campaign. It reflects the deep longing we all have to be great. Most of us will never be heroes or legends. But greatness is democratic and relative, we can all get glimpses at the exceptional in our everyday lives and that is an inspiring idea. W&K capture this wonderfully here and here.

People are always thinking about themselves. They are asking one question: what’s in it for me? You better have a good answer otherwise no one is going to listen, they are just going to say: “SO WHAT?”

As Hegarty says with characteristic clarity “The key to great marketing is never to forget about your audience”, he continues “What makes someone who markets a brand so effective is their bringing the outside world in”. Let life shine through your copy.

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