Deflating the XL balloon

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So, Superbowl XL came and went... and so did the advertisements... and so did my hopes and dreams. Yeah, there were a few good ones, there were some pretty ones, and as always, there were some funny ones... but is it just me or were most of them kind of... disappointing?

For all the hype and pricetags, for all the self-proclaimed advertising geniuses who worked on most of these ads, I have to admit that I expected a lot better. But considering the following list, I'm not surprised.

Top Ten comments overheard in pre-Superbowl agency-client creative meetings:

1. "Okay, so... how many more celebrities can we get for another million?"
2. "And then, the guy gets tackled! In his own office! It'll be a riot."
3. "Just like the last one, but with more monkeys this time."
4. "The clydesdales football game, but with a twist."
5. "Picture it: Broadway meets fast food."
6. "Two words: Cleavage."
7. "Five blades, you say? Um... maybe we should do something futuristic?"
8. "It's kind of generic, but once we digitally add your logo behind the talking head, no one will notice."
9. "I think that we can probably get Leonard Nimoy to come in on this."
10. "And then the can of Diet Coke gets stepped on! Hi hi!"


Very few of these ads will still be on our minds a month from now. None stand a chance of becoming cultural icons. The big showcase is over, and for the most part, it was boring and poorly executed.

For the most part.

There were some nice surprises, like Ford's "green" and Dove's wonderful self esteem ad... but they were the minority... And while they were good, they weren't extraordinary by any stretch of the imagination.

I hate to hear people talk about "the demise of TV advertising". I really do. I grew up loving TV ads, and I can't imagine the world without them. But you know, something's going to have to change. Creative for the sake of creative isn't good enough. (Especially when it's so derivative.) Spending millions on thirty-second celebrity endorsements isn't either. Not when so many other ways to communicate with your customers now exist. Cheaper ways. More effective ways. If TV advertising is to survive, it's going to have to take a step back and really give some thought to its future.

By taking a step back, I mean taking a BIG step back.

I've been meeting a lot of people lately who work for relatively small advertising agencies. They're small only in size, not talent or ideas or potential. I've listened to a few of their principals talk about their frustration when it comes to not being in the running against major ad agencies in New York, California or Florida, and it bothers me that in this day and age, issues of geography and perception and size still seem to be almost insurmountable obstacles. Fact: Big corporations like big agencies. Big corporations like big city partners.

And unfortunately, most big corporations, like most big agencies seem to like big pricetags too.

Often at the expense of great work.

Wait. No. Not just great work. Great work that also gets results.

The question not enough marketing Veeps in corporate America are asking yet is this: "Is big really the answer anymore?"

Is big still about results, or has it completely become only about ego and hype?

Here are Seth Godin's thoughts on the matter:

"Enron (big) got audited by Andersen (big) and failed (big.) (...) American Airlines (big) is getting creamed by Jet Blue (think small). BoingBoing (four people) has a readership growing a hundred times faster than the New Yorker (hundreds of people).

I’m writing this on a laptop at a skateboard park… that added wifi for parents. Because they wanted to. It took them a few minutes and $50. No big meetings, corporate policies or feasibility studies. They just did it.

Today, little companies often make more money than big companies. Little churches grow faster than worldwide ones. Little jets are way faster (door to door) than big ones.

Today, Craigslist (18 employees) is the fourth most visited site according to some measures. They are partly owned by eBay (more than 4,000 employees) which hopes to stay in the same league, traffic-wise. They’re certainly not growing nearly as fast.

Small means the founder makes a far greater percentage of the customer interactions. Small means the founder is close to the decisions that matter and can make them, quickly.

Small is the new big because small gives you the flexibility to change the business model when your competition changes theirs.

Small means you can tell the truth on your blog.

Small means that you can answer email from your customers.

Small means that you will outsource the boring, low-impact stuff like manufacturing and shipping and billing and packing to others, while you keep the power because you invent the remarkable and tell stories to people who want to hear them.

A small law firm or accounting firm or ad agency is succeeding because they’re good, not because they’re big. So smart small companies are happy to hire them.

A small restaurant has an owner who greets you by name.

A small venture fund doesn’t have to fund big bad ideas in order to get capital doing work. They can make small investments in tiny companies with good (big) ideas.

A small church has a minister with the time to visit you in the hospital when you’re sick.

Is it better to be the head of Craigslist or the head of UPS?"

You don't have to agree with everything Seth has to say, but he does make some pretty good points.

Also be sure to check out fellow Corante contributor John Moore's short but insightful audio commentary on the XL debacle.

It isn't to say that big and corporate are always bad. I don't want to make these kinds of generalizations. Look at Ford's "green" ad. Look at Dove. FedEx and Budweiser and Nike. It isn't all bad. Not at all. Johnnie Moore points us to a fantastic little reminder that small isn't always the answer. The answer is context. From Russell Davies:

"It's easy these days to be seduced by the delights of little, 'authentic' local brands, we like the the specialists and the mom and pop size. Brands like that have real appeal and emotional advantages. But a big brand that uses its scale effectively (ie not to bully or bewilder people, but to connect and delight them) has a rarer and more interesting opportunity. We shouldn't use communications to try and make big brands small (which is often the temptation) we should use them to help big brands connect and make their scale something positive for people..."

Read the full piece here.

But back to my point: Smaller agencies. Less glitzy zip codes. Maybe, just maybe, they're worth a shot. Maybe they're small enough that they actually take the time to get inside a brand culture. A customer culture. Maybe they're used to coming up with more powerful advertisements. The kinds of advertisements that inspire and motivate. The kinds of advertisments that translate into more than just... 30 seconds of noise. Think deeper brand equity, increased familiarity with a product or product line, and yes, ultimately, increased sales.

Ask yourself this: Do the Whopperettes make you want to eat a Whopper? Does a loosely sci-fi faux-trailer make you want to buy a five-bladed razor? Does a guy in a suit who could just as easily be yapping about aspirin make you want to join Blockbuster's vaguely Netflix-ish club?

Did you honestly answer "yes" to any of these questions?

With the rise of blogs, WOMM, podcasts and other new marketing tools, with PR's rebirth about to kick into high gear, with numbers starting to look scary on the print side, There's work to be done. This is not the time for major advertising agencies to hide behind irrelevant metrics. So what if 90 million viewers saw your ad? If it was lousy, you just threw a whole lot of cash down the drain, didn't you?

The questions you should be asking your marketing department are these: How many viewers loved it? How many viewers hated it? How many viewers didn't care? How many viewers will go out and buy your car or your soft drink or your service as a result?

How is your company better off today because of your ad?

Maybe it's time to demand more from your ad agencies. The talent is out there. There are no limits to creativity and insight. $2.5 million ought to buy you a fantastic ad. Heck, if you aren't considering the next Superbowl as an option, $6,000 ought to buy you a fantastic ad too. If you aren't getting the results you want from any of the usual places, perhaps it's time for a change. A different approach, even.

AdPulp's David Burn says it best:

"This year's commercials were uneventful through and through, with only a few bright spots, which is hard to understand on some level. When you have 90 million viewers paying attention, you better have something to say."

When you have 90 million viewers paying attention, you better have something to say. You betcha.

Oh well. Better luck next year.

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