A view from Dave Trott: What actually is advertising?
A view from Dave Trott

What actually is advertising?

When I started in advertising at BMP, it was a crash course in what advertising actually is.

As a junior, they made me do trade ads straight away.

I didn’t know what trade ads were, I’d never even seen one.

I’d studied advertising in New York, I had a degree in it.

But as a student, I trained by writing print/poster/TV campaigns for famous brands.

Ideas that could work across any media with millions of pounds (dollars) behind them.

Suddenly, I’m told to do ads in: The Grocer (supermarket trade magazine), The Hardware Trade Journal (builders’ trade mag) and The Electrical Retail Trader (self-explanatory).

What even is a trade ad, how is it different from a regular ad?

I kept doing what I thought were great consumer ads, but they kept getting turned down.

After a week, John Webster said: “If you can’t even do a trade ad, maybe we made a mistake hiring you.”

Then the head of traffic, Sandy McKenzie, came over and said: “You’re making a fucking drama out of this, just show me what you’ve got.”

I showed Sandy all the roughs I’d done, nothing I would have dared show in New York.

Sandy grabbed the worst of the lot, a weak pun, and said: “That’s funny, that’ll do.”

He took it away, got it printed, it was my first-ever ad and he saved my job.

And I thought, what’s going on here, I don’t get this?

The managing director, David Batterbee, was from East Ham so, unlike most account men, he spoke English – so I asked him to explain it to me.

He said, a trade ad isn’t like an ordinary ad because it doesn’t talk to consumers.

It talks to the people who have to stock and sell the products.

We have to tell them why they should stock ours.

So that’s a very different message, all they care about is will it make me money?

So the message always is, here’s why this product will sell.

It will sell because of these sales figures, or because it’s at this trade show, or because we’re putting this much money behind our TV campaign, so that’s why you should stock it.

And I got it: in fact, it became a cliché.

STOCK AND DISPLAY AND SELL, SELL, SELL was the brief, but with (hopefully) a clever pun.

And my first lesson in real advertising started right there.

Put simply: if a product is in the shops, you can buy it; if it’s not, you can’t.

So the object of a trade ad was to get it into the shops.

Or, updated for the internet age, visibility that creates push and pull.

If it’s in front of you (supermarket or laptop), you’re more likely to pick it up (or click on it).

We control the media one of two ways, money and creativity.

The media department handles the money, the creative department handles creativity.

In supermarkets, visibility is called “category management”.

That meant, whichever brand could convince the retailer they knew more about maximising sales would get the biggest say in how all the brands were displayed.

So they would make sure they got the best and biggest display for their range.

(You can judge the difference by the amount of shelf space Innocent Drinks has since it was bought by Coca-Cola.)

So the lesson is, advertising isn’t just a direct line between the person who makes the product and the person who buys it.

The thinking isn’t so prosaic as: let’s do an award-winning ad and sales will go up.

The thinking should be: where in this chain is the money best spent against?

Look at the difference between the thinking behind all Abbott Mead’s Sainsbury’s campaigns versus every other retailer.

The thinking from the planning, to the media, to the creative.

It’s a bit more complicated than doing a LOST CAT ad.

Dave Trott is the author of The Power of Ignorance, Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three