Everything My Dad Taught Me About Advertising (But You Weren't Afraid To Ask)
Posted by Charlie Recksieck on 2019-11-07
Grant Recksieck On Advertising
Dad's name was Grant Recksieck and he had a really fun CV/career. He worked a ton of short stints in early local television, the kind of locally-produced shows where he might have simultaneously been cameraman, producer and stage manager - including a low-budget late night celebrity hangout show in nascent Las Vegas. He ended up at NBC in LA as sales/promotion director (and also where he met my mom, and talked her out of an associate producer job on a "show that won't last 4 weeks" that ended up being "The Lawrence Welk Show" which ran for 27 years).
He then transitioned to full-time advertising with major agencies, including the legendary McCann-Erickson. My favorite two accounts of his were for beers: 1) Ads for Falstaff beer which were songs sung by LA Rams legend Rosey Grier that they co-wrote - the chorus being "Oh what a malty flavor, oh what a real boss brew" ... and launched Rosey's music career, and 2) Hamm's Beer with the Hamm's Bear and song "from the land of sky blue water" whose Native American drums and chant have not aged well; it was a different time.
Dad later started his own boutique agency when he moved to San Diego, which in a lot of ways is the model for me starting Plannedscape. By the way, he was the best father, funny and a pretty beloved guy to all.
Though he died a while ago in 1990, the advertising and marketing principles I remember from him are still applicable in 2019. Here they are.
Nothing Is Too Stupid
Even in advertising in the 50s, the primary goal was to stand out from the noise. Sure, sound effects are good. But intentionally stupid and/or annoying content was encouraged. (Here are some of my father’s old radio spots.) The puns that drove us all crazy in our house ("be back in a flush" when he excused himself to the bathroom, "I only have ice for you" if poured a cold soda) is actually what put food on the table.
People shake their heads at Flo from the Progressive insurance ads but they have done wonders for the company. "Head On, apply directly to the forehead" is a blunt instrument of an ad that muscled its way into our consciousness. If an ad is corny enough to get you to roll your eyes, they've got your ear.
At one of the prestige agencies where he once worked, my dad said a coworker was up all night failing to come up with a pitch for a fruit drink client. As his friend was coming up with ideas, each dumber than the next, my dad distanced himself from a surely-losing pitch to the client about a cartoon character that punches somebody in the face and says, "How about a nice Hawaiian Punch?!" Stupid, isn't it. That friend made partner and a corner office entirely off of that seemingly idiotic campaign.
Be Audience Appropriate
Coming up with the cleverest campaign is really not your job in advertising. Sales is your eventual job. Sure, there is a lot to the politics and prestige of a large ad agency to try to win Clio Awards (the advertising Oscars).
The 80s commercials for Isuzu featuring lying spokesman "Joe Isuzu" (ask your grandparents) were famous, and won their creators a ton of Clio Awards. As it turned out, funny ads are great to grab some attention for a detergent or beer, but not quite as great to convince people to make the investment in a new automobile. Wacky candy commercials: good, wacky bank commercials: not so much.
If They Don't Know Your Product's Name, You Failed
Sometimes growing up if I laughed at a commercial or made a comment when the spot ended, there were dozens of times when my father would grill me: "Quick, who was that an ad for?!" If I couldn't answer correctly (which happens more times with ads than you would think), then the ad was trash as far as he was concerned.
A corollary to this is basic branding and name recognition. When Datsun changed its name to Nissan in the U.S. it drove my dad bananas why they would throw a strong brand out the window, largely because of corporate vanity. Nissan obviously eventually stood the test of time, but that doesn't mean it was a good decision.
If you have an existing brand, build on it. Unless people hate you like they hated MCI, Time Warner Cable, Blackwater and Philip Morris.
"Coke Is It"
This overly-definitive slogan drove my dad up the wall. If I ever wanted to get my dad's goat, all I had to do at any time would be to say "Coke Is It" (or remind him that Walter Payton never got to get a goal line carry for a touchdown in his only Super Bowl when the Bears routed the Patriots; a great family tradition).
When you're as big as Coke, it really doesn't matter what slogan you land on. And they trotted out plenty of slogans through the years; their highly paid Madison Avenue admen were practically like monkeys throwing things at the walls.
Yes, it's tempting to wonder why Coca-Cola with their huge brand name recognition and market penetration needs to advertise at all - which is pretty thoughtfully debunked here. But til my dad's dying days he would wonder: What does "’Coke Is It’ even mean?!" Which, in a way, shows how effective it was to infect his psyche like that.
Small Campaigns Take the Same Effort As Huge Campaigns
This one hits close to home for me. I've worked on complex enterprise solutions for some of the largest power companies in the United States. The tools we created for the biggies were essentially the same that we made for tiny rural electric co-ops, not much difference at all. Small customers don't really mean less work than large ones. Do with that what you will.
Zag While Others Are Zigging
Again, your job in advertising is first to be heard - and not tuned out. So while imitation of what's successful is rampant in television programming, it really should be the opposite in advertising. If your competitors have catchy songs, then make your product's ad a joke. If everybody is doing loud puns, maybe have an ad with no sound and a title card. Why be the same as the first guy who got to the party and already made an impression. Stand out from the crowd if you're new to the scene.
In a business context, find an appealing way to answer the question "Why You?"
Nobody Can Track What's Working
It wasn’t until I was about 14 until I asked my dad this question: "How can you tell if an ad works?" This was over 30 years ago but I think his answer is still relevant today, "It's really all a crapshoot, nobody can tell."
On this blog in a few weeks our strategic marketing connoisseur, Craig, will be posting a much deeper look at the efficacy of advertising. One of his points, even off-handedly mentioned, is that it is hard in 2019 to pin down "solid truths" about marketing and advertising success. This and this are two great articles on the subject which represents some deep thinking about ad effectiveness; even a cursory read will reveal how vague and imprecise modern metrics still are when it comes to measuring campaigns.
In some ways, Dad thought it was partly enviable to be working in an industry where your job performance really can't be measured. But more often than not, it ended up being more frustrating having to justify the value of the work you've already done without hard facts.
Appeal to the Customer’s (or SEO’s) Vanity
If your creative team in an agency is not putting anything together that you feel good about and you know it, my dad swore that there was then only one last-ditch route to go. As long as you're pitching your idea to the client company's CEO, tell them how trustworthy he/she is, or how he/she is "a natural". Basically, put them in the ad: Lee Iacocca, Dave Thomas, the Men’s Wearhouse guy, etc. You might as well.
According to my dad this never failed. Never. I mean it never failed to get the account, the ads usually failed, but who cares, right? (As we learned above, nobody can completely tell if an ad worked or not, anyway.)
Bewitched Is THE Definitive Portrayal of Advertising
Full disclosure, my dad died before Mad Men hit the airwaves. (Another ad note, when I once said that Mad Men's drinking and womanizing seemed far fetched, my mom said "it doesn't go far enough" and regaled me with awful stories of office grab-ass after men had their three martini lunches ... it's insane.)
But my father unequivocally said that the Darrin work parts of Betwitched were the most accurate portrayals of advertising he'd seen in any art form. Seems like a weird thing to say about a show about witchcraft (and where they just subbed in a replacement actor for the male lead without saying a word) but there you go.
For those who don't remember, Samantha's husband, Darrin Stephens, works at the advertising firm of McMann & Tate and directly reports to executive Larry Tate who is a master of sucking up to clients. Often times, some magic spell gone wrong would get out of hand and the wacky result would be noticed by an outraged McMann & Tate client who threatens to remove his business. Larry would chastise Darrin who, thinking on his feet, would spin the situation by saying it was all part of his ad pitch. Larry would be about to fired Darrin publicly up to the moment the client did a 180 and said "I love it" then Larry would wrap his arms around Darrin and take credit to the client.
Omitting the witchcraft part, that's Larry Tate's job and the job of countless ad execs: Kiss the client's butt 24/7. Appeal to their vanity, be completely flexible about your ideas, flip-flop wildly, it's all there.
More full disclosure, my real-life godfather was actor Ed Andrews who twice played the fussy client on Bewitched. Nobody in the business did "stuffy" better than Ed, whom you probably best know as Grandpa in Sixteen Candles. Speaking of something that didn't age well: Long-Duk Dong in that movie. [insert gong sound] Oof.
Anyway, when you are picturing 60s and 70s advertising, make sure to also remember McMann-Tate when you're thinking about Sterling-Cooper from Mad Men.