Q: As a newspaper editor, I spend many gruelling hours ensuring each page of each edition is as eye-catching and readable as we can possibly make it. So, when I open the day's paper to see my carefully crafted editorial sitting next to a bewildering ad, with a terrible headline and so much information it makes me feel dizzy, it can make me depressed. Can you say anything to cheer me up?
A: Yes, I think I can. First, forget you're an editor. Put yourself in the place of a reader and look at that page again. I grant you it's possible that a few of your readers are, at that very moment, thinking about getting in some of the items on offer. In which case, however chaotic the ad, they will certainly want to find out more. But to everyone else, this unappetising display will set off your own carefully crafted and eye-catching editorial in the most flattering manner.
Advertisers, certainly, should deplore hideous ads that disobey every time-honoured, common-sense rule about attention, involvement, sequence and readability. And they should deplore them not on aesthetic grounds but because most of the money they spent on buying the space has been recklessly squandered by a bunch of unprofessional idiots. Editors, on the other hand (and they may not wish to concede this publicly), have little to lose. Real people distinguish quite easily between ads and editorial and they don't blame editors for ugly ads. Ugly ads make handsome editorial look even handsomer.
I wouldn't, however, recommend any newspaper to adopt a corporate policy whereby they accept only excruciatingly bad ads on the grounds that they make the bits in-between look better. Bad ads don't achieve attention, readership or results. So the client says press ads don't work and shunts all the money into radio. At which point, the sales director protests and says it wasn't the medium, squire, it was the bloody agency. But, of course, it sounds lame, infuriates the agency and is, anyway, much too late.
Get hold of a few newspapers that carry very, very few ads. English-language papers in foreign parts are often a good example. It's strange how bare and barren they look.
Q: I have had a nagging doubt for some time that I may not be as smart as I think I am. Perhaps you could advise me. Described by some in the business as a whizz media executive, I have been the mastermind of a number of multimedia campaigns that have included some natty executions in the pages of the press. One involved running an ad upside down and another booking space in the shape of a Christmas tree. New research seems to question the effectiveness of what I was convinced were unmissable ads. Could I have been wrong?
A: I wonder why anyone bothers to do new research into all of this when so much old research exists, all of which reaches a similar conclusion.
Alfred Politz, the great American researcher, said it all some 70 years ago. The function of an ad, he pointed out, was to draw attention not to itself but to the product it featured. We shouldn't be invited to admire a mirror; only the image that the mirror reflects. In that sense, many of the best ads are invisible. The response we're after is not "What a fantastic ad!" but: "Can't wait to get my hands on that pint/holiday/DVD."
Anything that makes immediate access to an ad's promise more difficult is bad craftsmanship. Contrast a good newspaper layout with some of the fancier press ads. The first encourages the eye to home in instantly; to become engaged and then to follow through naturally. The fancy ad sees itself as a design element; as an end in itself. Often enough, there's not even an obvious way in.
So I'm sorry to have to tell you that you're right. You're not as smart as you thought you were. Although you must be pretty smart to have realised that before I told you.
Q: As a client, I know the importance of arguing with the agency until the logo in any ad is legible. But can you tell me why it is that the logos on newspaper ads seem to slip through the net? They are so often too small or stamped just where I plant my elbow when I'm reading the paper.
A: I hadn't realised that the tiny logo/invisible packshot problem was worse in newspapers than anywhere else.
And I can never understand why clients like you continue to tolerate the deeply tedious and interminable struggle to get the point of your advertising made visible.
At the root of it is ignorance. Agencies have stopped understanding what the function of a logo is. And clients, though sensing that a large enough logo is important, find it hard to explain why. So agencies, egged on by crazed art directors, see the logo - or the packshot - as an excrescence: as embarrassing in an elegant advertisement as a carbuncle on an elegant nose. So they fight like tigers to render it invisible. Let me take you back to 1955.
Inspired by a seminal paper in the Harvard Business Review, David Ogilvy first articulated the now universally accepted belief that every exposure of every good ad should make a small but cumulative contribution to its brand's reputation. Over time, these often imperceptible contributions make brands strong and distinctive: but only if they are stored.
That's where the logo comes in. A logo - that constant, consistent shorthand for the brand - is a receptacle for the brand's values; a rechargeable battery. And, like a battery, it does two things. It accepts and holds a charge, and it releases that charge on demand. So every ad contributes to the brand's standing and simultaneously releases those stored values that have been many years in the making.
To exclude all consistent imagery from an ad - or to reduce it to insignificance - is to deprive that ad of its ability to act as a receptacle. It cannot be accretive, therefore. Its value will be entirely transitory. It will have wasted more than half of its potential.
The next time you have a ding-dong with your ad agency, try it on with a bit of all this. And do let me know how you get on.
Q: I think my eyesight may be failing because I find it hard to read the words on some newspaper ads. Should I get an eye test?
A: Very ironic. What you don't seem to understand is that nobody reads copy any more. That's because nobody writes copy any more. And that's because nobody reads it. I hope you follow. The copy you could not read was written by an art director, whose turn it was to be the copywriter that week.
He doesn't like copy - it mucks up the layout - so he didn't write much.
Actually, he can't write much because he doesn't know many words. Then, just in case someone like you still tried to read it, the other art director set it in 8 point and reversed it out of lemon yellow. Research showed that nobody read it. This prompted both art directors to say: "I told you so: nobody reads copy any more." And, of course, they're right.