THE DOTCOM DEBATE: Have advertising agencies failed their dotcom clients? Here two industry figures argue over whether broadcast media is really the right way to launch a dotcom business



Americans have a most expressive phrase - ’pissing contests’ - which

mocks the foolish efforts of rivals to outdo each other. There is such a

contest in weird and wacky dotcom country as well, where they talk in

throwaway fashion of ’burn rates’ - how fast they piss away investors’

money. The only measurement is loss - how great and how quickly

achieved. Profit doesn’t come into it.

In this, many of the dotcommas, as I call them, should thank their ad

agencies. Most often their ads’ objectives are ill-judged, the media

inappropriate and the content wrong.

’Promise, large promise, is the soul of an advertisement,’ Dr Johnson

noted nearly 250 years ago. He knew, like anyone outside adland’s mutual

admiration society, that people have one chief sentiment when they see

an ad: ’What’s in it for me?’ You can expand that to: ’Can you do

something for me that nobody else can or better than they can?’ You will

find it hard to locate even the scintilla of a promise in much dotcom

advertising, let alone a competitive one.

Say it loud, say it proud

But something even more basic is usually ignored. Some 100 years after

Johnson, George R Rowell, founder of US ad trade journal Printer’s Ink,

advised: ’Come right down with the facts, boldly, firmly, unflinchingly.

Say directly what it is, what it has done, what it will do.’

The old rhyme applies: ’Tell me quick and tell me true what your

product’s going to do, or else, my love, to hell with you.’ Most dotcom

ads simply don’t say what they offer. Such stupidity is staggering.

Consider It offers bargains - yet do its posters say so?

Hardly ever. It tries harder to be clever than to make a competitive

case. To suggest I surprise my girlfriend on Valentine’s Day by taking

her sister to Paris is no reason to use It is a reason

to go to Paris - and some copywriter’s idea of a good joke.

Or how about another service that has had a huge amount of money

lavished on it, None of the posters or giveaway cards

I saw said ’save money’. Is that so hard?

Or Books Online, whose posters featuring lovers ended up obscuring the

benefit by reducing the site name to initials - BOL - instead of the

full title, which at least explains what is offered.

Many of the dotcommas rightly want to build a brand. But they have it

all the wrong way round. First get the sales. If the service is good,

the brand will follow. What use is a brand if you’re broke? Ask


Even a huge success such as Direct Line took years to climb from nowhere

to being a big brand. It understood the importance of getting across the

message of its unique positioning. Every ad got response and built the


It is possible to do good above-the-line advertising in this sector, but

I’ve had to search hard for examples. ’Virgin dotcom slash cars’ -

simple, brief, to the point and clever, too.

Grand advertising people dismiss the tawdry business of getting sales to

the sepulchral vault ’below-the-line’. I suspect the reason for the

term’s popularity is simple. Most of those who use it have little

inclination and less talent for getting sales. They prefer petty

creative pyrotechnics.

I don’t blame them. Years of bruising experience taught me it is very

hard to make customers part with money.

But as Rosser Reeves said when asked why his ads weren’t more ’tasteful’

in a 1965 interview: ’What do you want from me? Fine writing? Or would

you like to see the goddam sales curve stop going down and start going

up?’ If dotcommas want to get sales - they certainly need them - they

should try asking those who specialise in getting them. Direct


I have written before about the debatable wisdom of using posters to

introduce a new, fairly complex idea. The medium is ideal for simple

propositions, but it is utter folly if the content is wrong anyhow. is a good example. Its idea is stolen at 300th remove from the

60s ’Lipsmackin’ thirstquenching’ Pepsi campaign. Great for simple

product reminders - but what if you are new? Does ’Yeeeahduuudeboard

waxinghotrodding’ introduce a cheap phone service well? In small letters

below, the poster explains the service and its benefits. It has some

great offers, so why hide them?

Explain yourself

Plagiarism rules, OK? Claranet uses the same idea. Its poster reads:

’Service.Round the clock without clocking up a big bill’ - another dire

punster at work.

Beneath is another word sequence, which is illegible because it is too

far away even when walking, let alone in a car moving at speed. I just

wonder, what service?

On the London Underground, I read wwwhat happens when you

Who cares? What the hell is

What happens if you keep running such rubbish? You go broke. I learned

this over 40 years ago - and I had to learn it fast, or get fired. This

sanction should be rigorously applied to the self-satisfied, sloppy

thinkers responsible for most dotcom advertising.

Happily, there is an alternative, first suggested over a century


It has never been too popular in ad agencies, perhaps because it exposes

the shortcomings of creative minds rather cruelly. It is called

professionalism. Let me explain how it works.

Every time you run an ad, measure its result. See which messages and

media do better and stick with them. See which do worse and cut


You will then have some chance of success. Or you can keep going back to

disillusioned and (rightly) sceptical investors for more money to


Drayton Bird runs the Drayton Bird Partnership


It’s easy to look back with scepticism and wise words on the dotcom

Armada that set sail in late-1999. It left harbour with such bold

ambition and proud boasts, yet within six months the flotilla has

seemingly run aground. Funding has dried up, budgets have been cut,

staff have been laid off. And the mighty flagship Boo has sunk.

It’s easy to reach some extreme conclusions: there’s no future in

business-to-consumer dotcoms; no digital brand should ever use broadcast

media; only ’bricks and clicks’ brands will succeed long-term.

Does the apparent failure of broadcast media to secure successful dotcom

launches represent its death knell? Can future dotcom launches place

greater trust in campaigns based entirely on the more targeted weaponry

of direct marketing?

I think broadcast media’s role on the communication map will remain

hugely important in the digital age for any brand, dotcom or otherwise.

Moreover, I suggest that if we allow the future to be only about

one-on-one marketing, we will see a dismantling of the essence of what

makes great brands.

Learning from mistakes

Let us try to understand what has been going wrong over the past six

months. Setting aside some of the now obvious flaws in business models

employed by many dotcoms, there were a number of serious communication

mistakes made.

First, some media plans were built not with the objective of growing

real consumer business, but with a view to raising consumer awareness

and thereby impressing the City for IPO. Not a top long-term business


Second, they adopted a one-size-fits-all solution. Too often clients

came in with a fixed view of what they needed. So you saw brands with

very narrow targets on prime-time television, and brands with complex

messages on outdoor.

Finally, many campaigns treated dotcoms as established brands and

developed quite abstract, attitude-based communication for them. Yes, I

think breathing is lovely too. But what do you want me to do now?

So some of the basic principles of communication planning were ignored.

Does this mean broadcast media such as TV and outdoor - most often at

the centre of the media miscalculations of the dotcoms - should be out

of bounds for dotcom brands?

Of course not. A bad workman blames his tools. Broadcast media has for

years now been cursed by Lord Leverhulme’s mythical ’half my spend is

wasted’ comment. A misguided assumption has arisen where-by broadcast is

seen as a crude wasteful weapon. And a picture is painted of some utopia

where all communication will be laser-targeted and individually


But this fantasy world makes one hugely important oversight: brands are

about shared experience, a sense of belonging, communal discussion.

Great brands bind people together. Brands have and will always need

public fame to succeed, as well as private relationships. How can we

overlook the importance of fame to brands when all around us, beyond

conventional brand communication, there is a consolidation of culture

around fame?

As the world spins faster, as media fragment and information and choice

expand exponentially, consumers have been seeking security and

reassurance in fame and shared experience. Isn’t reassurance, security,

shared experience what brands are all about? People need and want what

brands deliver now more than ever.

To make the most of this, we need media that deliver fame quickly and

cost-effectively. We need broadcast media. Madonna’s global status was

not born on an intimate, personally tailored mail-out. It was delivered

by a tapestry of communication, with broadcast TV at its centre.

Levi’s Flat Eric was launched unbranded online to establish a foundation

of opinion leader credibility. But we then took him onto broadcast TV to

acquire the social currency we knew was critical to success. We then

used that social currency to acquire broader fame and interest through

PR, merchandising and a record.

Community awareness

This is what we call New Broadcast. It’s not the crude broadcast

howitzer of old, it’s broadcast employed for what it’s good at -

creating shared interest and understanding - in harmony with other

communications media.

The basic principles hold true for the humble dotcom start-up as they do

for the lofty world of household celebrities and global brands. Any

brand with ambitious growth plans needs to establish awareness of itself

in communities beyond the particular consumers most likely to purchase

in the near future.

We’ve employed the same principles with success on smaller dotcom brands

such as Ready2Shop and FTYourMoney. Reduce the brand promise to a simple

thought (Ready2 - real women’s interests; FTYourMoney - financial

control). Establish branded social currency around that thought through

broadcast media; capitalise on the currency through PR and relationship


My abiding memory of the dotcom Armada phase of digital development will

be that extraordinary TV show, Who Wants To Be An E-Millionaire. As I

shuddered at its poor Johnny-Come-Lately timing, as I squirmed at the

’we-did-this-in-a-day’ cowboy ads, I took some solace in the row of

worthies seemingly equating serious business decisions with Blankety

Blank. It wasn’t just the communications industry that made a bad call

over dotcoms.

Steve Kershaw is managing director of BBH Unlimited.


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