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 lastminute.com. 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 lastminute.com. 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, Thetrainline.com. 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
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.
Quip.com 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?
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 breathe.com?
Who cares? What the hell is breathe.com?
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
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
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.
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
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
Steve Kershaw is managing director of BBH Unlimited.