Newspaper Advertising: Where content is king

Dylan Williams, the strategy director at Mother, wades through a month's supply of newspapers in an attempt to define what is the best practise for newspapers when it comes to advertising.

So the brief says review a month's worth of newspapers and write 2,000 words on best practise in newspaper advertising. Diary-style please, and an emphasis on brand ads over retail-detail stuff.

And I'm thrown here.

Because, tellingly, for all the nice TV commercials I've hung around and tried to claim credit for in the last ten years, I can only think of two occasions where I've set out to make an ad that will sit in a newspaper. A Paddy Power topical that placed odds on John Prescott and the bloke he smacked the day before, and a similarly fast turnaround Lynx ad during "Lewinsky-gate".

Now I'm sure I've made stacks of newspaper ads. Audi alone must have accounted for 30-odd during the "Rip-Off Britain" trading frenzy of 1999. But only twice in a decade have I actually sat down and thought about newspapers as a distinct medium. About how people read them. About why people read them. About the profiles of different reader groups. About weekend and weekday readership. About commuter reading and stationary reading. About the layout, art direction, design ethic and overall feel of each of our main newspapers.

The rest of my newspaper ads just languished under a big clumsy segment of my mind called "Print". A lazy place where all static advertising is presumed homogeneous: 48 sheets, crosstracks, bus backs, glossy double-page spreads, and broadsheet half-pagers. All much of a muchness. Really shabby of me.

So, as I say, I'm thrown.

Although, judging by what I'm reviewing, perhaps I'm not the only one.

But let's start with the planner bit. The bit we're good at. The bit where we talk about the death of something. Because, surely in these heady days of "citizen journalism", blogging and digging, the days of the old-fashioned news rag are numbered. Made redundant by the immediacy and democracy of the Digital Age.

Surely it doesn't matter that strategy directors know sweet nothing about newspaper advertising, given that the medium is soon to be last century's fish and chip wrapping.

Well, I don't buy that. As history tells us (at every single conference), no new medium ever made an old one redundant. People's relationships with newspapers will change. Perhaps the pace of the modern working week will demand a faster news channel, Monday to Friday. But, as the slow movement catches on, and people start to protect their weekends from the whirlwind that is our accelerated culture, I can't help but think newspapers will become more important, not less. Intelligent editing and reviewing of the week I just missed? I'd pay for that. Moreover, I don't want to live in a bespoke universe of one, where I only receive the on-demand news that I'm interested in. I want to read what everyone is reading. And another thing, you just can't deny the sheer sensuality of the medium: the smell, the feel and rustling sound of the paper. Or the ritual of shaking, licking your finger and opening. Or the associations with lazy days in the pub/spread across the bed on a Sunday/rolled up as the weapon of choice in the works van before the graft starts. These things aren't going to die out. People love them. They may be inefficient and commercially unsound, but they're culturally significant. And you've got to hope culture beats commerce, right?

So newspapers are going to remain hugely important.

And so newspaper advertising has the potential to remain so as well.

But, God knows, we need to raise our game if this is to happen.

The brief said concentrate on "brand ads". So I will. But this descriptor troubles me. Surely everything a brand does is brand communication? Be it a big-budget philosophy number or a little offer ad, they're all still manifestations of the brand, aren't they? They're all going to have an influence on the bundle of perceptions and associations a particular logo conjures in people's minds? Indeed, brands don't belong to brand managers. They belong to all of us. We all have the power to co-define a brand by how we use it. And abuse it. How else has Ronald McDonald, the face of family fast-food fun, come to symbolise American corporate imperialism, de-forestation and childhood obesity ?

So I've not made a distinction between "brand ads" and "retail-detail ads". I've just looked at the ads. And written about the ones I remember.

I've not really stuck to a diary format, either. Not to be contrary. But because I've had to skim-read so many papers in such a short space of time, I've noticed editors have evolved the way they package and convey news and opinion. Long diatribes have bullet-point summaries and key point quotes. Opinion pieces are accompanied by edited highlights. And everyone does league tables. What's best? What's hot? What's high on the cool-o-meter? It's all information in bitesize chunks these days. It shows how the people behind the papers have thought long and hard about the changing world in which their readers live. And about how they need to evolve in order to successfully engage them. Can we say we've done the same? Let's see. In my own league table ...

7. In seventh place comes a neat little quarter-pager for Waterstone's. The theorists will like this one. Particularly the ones that use Eyetrack. Eyetrack is a piece of technology developed for the air defence industry to measure eye movements over a fraction of a second. It's one of those research tools I have a moral issue with. It's all a bit 50s. A bit "mad scientist". But I'm told it lends weight to some of our hypotheses on how people read newspapers, so it's worth a mention. If it's to be believed, people read the "review" section of newspapers from front to back. Consequently, the right-hand side is the place for your ad to be. This Waterstone's one is. And, yes, I admit, you do notice it. So it ticks all the boxes for placement.

The reasons I like this are two-fold. One, I like the message. It says that humans make the best search engines. I like this idea. And I like the way it gently knocks at Amazon without feeling the need to start getting all directly comparative. For me, as soon as you have to define yourself through the competition, you've already lost. The other reason I like this is because of the illustration style. First, it stands out from the surrounding photography and type. And second, I like the way the eyes are drawn. All oversized and round. Just like Ol' Dirty Bastard on ecstasy. Made me smile.

6. I thought I'd get Tesco out of the way early. Simple, well branded, great offers, an affable tone of voice. And sure, it works. But I'm starting to find this campaign really irritating, truth be told. A case study in the tyranny of a "big idea". I like big brand ideas. Ideas such as Lynx and "seduction". Or Johnny Walker and "progress". But I've gone off big advertising ideas. They just get analysed, codified and turned into a formula that is rigidly adhered to across all media in perpetuity. I'm bombarded by "Every little helps" and red, white and blue from so many angles, I'm starting to resent Tesco. Change the record. I get it. Learn from Honda. It didn't do "cog II" and "cog III". Reveal a different facet of your character, because you're getting boring. And I'm becoming suspicious that there is a disconnect between your matey tone of voice and your real corporate agenda. Maybe there's such a thing as too effective, because I'm starting to hate you.

5. In fifth, I'm plumping for an ad for BA Clubworld. It's easy on the eye. By some way, the best-looking image I found as I leafed through the paper. But more importantly, it doesn't fight with its host. It looks great, but remains in keeping with the overall look and feel of the surrounding content. This ad isn't looking to disrupt. Instead, it simply enhances the look of the page. And the use of the ticket stub as a branding device is a great idea.

4. At some point, I might well be part of the target audience for a Volkswagen vans ad. And this one would work on me. Just a neat parallel between the comfort of its vans and its cars. A simple way of flipping all the positive equity of VW cars onto its van fleet - and, in particular, its new Crafter. And all done in the same understated tradition of great VW ads. Eyetrack wouldn't like it, though. According to the boffins, blokes read tabloids back to front. Therefore, the ad should be on the left-hand side. Particularly if it's in the sports section. Maybe this one still worked because it was more interesting than a boring piece on Manchester United's Louis Saha?

3. Hellmann's gets my bronze. I'm a big fan of brands that openly encourage their consumers to offer up ideas and opinions. Be they views on the ads, product usage, NPD, material sourcing, or the general direction of the brand. If international brands are now more powerful than national governments, it's important they listen to us. Easy when you're Nike and you can host online forums for trainer obsessives. Bit tougher when you're a mayonnaise, one would think.

But this ad is the result of a brilliantly simple initiative. Ask people to send in their favourite Hellmann's sandwich recipe, and make the "winner" the ad. Nice layout, nice-looking sarnie. All salami and grilled mozzarella. Very Guardian reader. Which is just where it sits. Wonder if it would have run the same sandwich in the Daily Star? Or just plumped for the fish-finger toasty instead ?

2. This full-page colour ad for socialworkandcare.co.uk was very nearly the winner. It doesn't adhere to any of the received wisdoms, as far as I can tell. It's not single-minded. It's a comic strip with a slightly dismantled narrative structure, requiring the reader to fill in the gaps. It's not very simple. It's a hotch-potch of different illustrative and photo styles, in the tradition of old Dave McKean Sandman-style front covers. And it's hardly immediate.

But it works, because it's more interesting than everything else on the page. In conception, construction and in the effect it has. In fact, I doubt that the broadsheet it is in could've written as touching an article on the same subject.

1. If there's anyone still reading, the best newspaper ads I saw in October were those for Channel 4, E4 and More4. And let's face it, they're not newspaper ads. They're posters. Programme-led posters. Initially, this made me think that maybe the "New School" are right. You know long copy is dead, people don't have time, you just need a high concept captured in one dominant image and be done with it. I'm not sure that's right. ITV also ran programme-led poster-as-press ads in October - with a similar clever placement strategy. But it was nowhere near as impactful. Channel 4's work, be it for Dispatches - The Blunkett Tapes, Unanimous or Stop Treating Me Like A Kid isn't brilliant because of its format. It's because each ad has a great idea at its centre, and is then brought to life in a visually stunning way.

Each ad is more captivating and original than any other image on the page. And ITV's aren't. I can't think of any other reason than that. Ever since last year's spot for the series of programmes under the umbrella title of Iraq: The Bloody Circus, people have been asking if Channel 4 is the best ad agency in London. On this evidence alone, the TV channel is the best newspaper ad agency.

So what do I make of all this? What conclusions can I infer from this?

Well, on first inspection, there isn't a common characteristic that all the ads in my league appear to share. There is no single "x-factor" that they all exude. They all work in different ways. Some overtly express a benefit. Some focus on a truth. There's blunt and forthright. There's subtle and suggestive. From clunky illustration to hyper-real photography. Clear message to allegory and metaphor.

So there's no obvious family resemblance, other than that in their own way, they're all good.

But then maybe that's it. Maybe it isn't more complicated than that.

Maybe the real question, at least for us strategy types, is what we can do to help get good ones out more often.

I've got two suggestions:

1. We need to have a wider set of reference points.

That is, we need to broaden our competitive reviews and deepen our appreciation of media environments.

Some of the ads in the table integrated seamlessly with their surroundings. Some stood out markedly. But, somehow, they all improved the page that they were sitting on. They all looked like they appreciated the space in which they were positioned. And that's the point, I think.

If brands are to successfully exist in a culture, they need to enrich that culture in some way. The same goes for media environment. That means, when brands go on TV, they've got to be better than the programmes. Or be part of better programmes. If brands get involved with events, their presence needs to add to the experience. So when brands pronounce themselves in newspapers, they've got to improve the overall read. Be that by working with the surrounding content, or by simply being better than the content altogether. Funnier, sexier, more informative, more insightful, more arresting, more whatever.

The reason this doesn't happen on TV very often is because we haven't reframed our competitive and complementary sets to include the programmes. We don't really consider Laddette to Lady or the ITN News as either a potential friend or foe.

And the same goes for newspapers. We don't consider articles, photography and editorial styles at all. We don't view them as potential allies that can help a brand successfully engage a reader. Nor do we consider these as competition. Stuff that's competing with us for a share of people's minds. No, we just satisfy ourselves with doing the best ad in our category. And this is nowhere near enough.

2. We should reverse the traditional advertising process.

The conventional advertising process works "message-out". Everything else in popular culture works "audience-back". I wonder if that might be why most ads these days are less interesting than the programmes and articles they're placed among?

As an explanation, in advertising, we spend the majority of our time deep-mining the brand, its market and the business problem. We rarely look up until our "brand onion" is filled with words and our proposition is finely honed. Creativity is relegated to something that happens at the end: a sugar coating we wrap the intended message in to make it more palatable for the audience. It's only when we're out of brief writing and into creative development that we really start to consider what sort of stuff will engage our target. It is only then that we really ask what sorts of things makes our target laugh. What turns them on. What would amaze them. These have become back-end considerations for us.

Everything else in popular culture - TV programmes, feature films, pop promos, theatre, graphic novels, fashion design, graffiti, and, yes, newspapers - works the other way around. The practitioners of these disciplines start by appreciating what people are into. And what they might be into next. What they might enjoy. And then they work back to the story, lyrics, review or opinion piece in question.

I can't help but think we should flip the way we do things. How much more engaging would brand communication be if we spent longer thinking about our audience and less time on our own agendas? If we started by asking what Guardian readers might find uplifting on a Monday, rather than, how do we make this two-for-one toothpaste offer sound remotely attractive. Or, if we asked how a brand could credibly attach itself to something genuinely entertaining, rather than how we can use a gag or a supermodel to dress up an otherwise wholly uninspiring message. How we can genuinely earn our target audiences' attention, rather than simply gnaw at it with a double-helping of starbursts, puns and over-claim?

After a month-long think, my views on best practise in newspaper advertising can be summed up as follows:

The ads have got to contribute to the page they sit on. Either by harnessing the power of the surrounding content or by simply being better than it.

And we'll improve our chances of doing one of these two things if we think more broadly about the culture and media environment we are looking to exist within.

And if we flip our start and end points to think just that little bit more about what people are inherently into and a little less about how our commercial messages can be dressed up to appear more interesting than they really are.

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