What "The Father of Modern Advertising" Can Teach Us About the Future of the Ad Agency Business


With so much changing about the advertising business, it is useful to go back to the origin of the industry to discover what has remained through all the changes. 

The most recent "Under the Influence" podcast featured  Albert Lasker, "The most interesting adman in the world" (and early leader of what was to become FCB).  

I loved this anecdote:

One day [Albert Lasker] was sitting in his offices, and a secretary handed him a note that said: 

"I am downstairs in the saloon. I can tell you what advertising is. I know you don't know. If you wish to know what advertising is, send the word 'Yes' down with the bellboy. Signed – John E. Kennedy."

Lasker was intrigued and sent the word 'Yes' down to the saloon.

Kennedy was shown into Lasker's office.

He was a strapping 6-foot tall, ex-Mountie who used to write ads for the Hudson's Bay Company.

When Kennedy asked Lasker if he knew what advertising was, Lasker said, "I think so. It's news." [news is perhaps what we'd call storytelling]

Kennedy said no, news was just a technique.

The secret to advertising, Kennedy said, can be summed up in just three words:

"Salesmanship in print."

Those three words would change the advertising world forever…

"Salesmanship in print" was an epiphany to the advertising world in 1904.

What's today's equivalent of "salesmanship in print"? Perhaps considering the proliferation of channels we could call it "mediated salesmanship". 

What is the timeless value proposition of the ad agency business?

Lasker's most successful campaigns seem to have something in common: a fresh perspective on an existing product, based on a consumer insight. For example: 

- from selling oranges to linking "Drink an Orange" to the breakfast ritual

- from puffed wheat to "cereal shot from a gun" 

- from birth control to "Planned Parenthood" 

- Kleenex napkin (for wiping off make-up) to a "Disposable handkerchief" 

This isn't storytelling per se, it is more about a creative perspective on the product. What we do is give consumers a different story about a product. And this enhances their experience of the product. This is perhaps a shift from story-telling (you tell the story), to story-making - where you offer a perspective, or do something, that gives people a new story to attach to a product or experience. 

This is pretty much what advertising agencies still do. So what else hasn't changed?

- Results: no matter what, clients want results, usually sales.

- Persuasion: it needs to change behavior in some way. It needs to be convincing. 

- Emotion: drives action & memorability

- Attention: clients want to be noticed. 

- Relevance: the work must be relatable and relevant to the target audience

- Insight:  great work is always based on an insight into human psychology of the target 

- Efficiency: clients will always want to pay less for more, and faster

- Recognition: clients will always want their brand to be more recognised

- Timing: when people see the ad, and the timing of the campaign in relation to whatever else is happening in the world is always going to be important. 

If we innovate in service of these values, we will thrive. Marketing today still requires creative perspectives and brilliant copywriting, but is also informed by user experience design, behavioral economics, smart targeting (e.g. Google Adwords and Programmatic), and machine learning (smart recommendations and adaptive offers).

What are the other timeless truths of advertising or your aspect of the business (whether production, or print, or traffic, or strategy...). Our world is changing fast! The practices change, the principles remain.