The Day After

It was only a year ago that outgoing 4A’s chairman Shelley Lazarus declared, “This is as exciting a time to be in our business as any in the past 30 years.” She believed—as we all did—that we had reached a grand turning point, with a once-in-a-lifetime chance to catch the wave. She was right. We would have been ninnies to turn a blind eye to the new economy.

What a difference a year makes. We have awakened to layoffs, smaller paychecks, a plunging Dow and a queasy market—a boom gone bust.

Has it ever been clearer that we should stick to our knitting: advertising that solidly connects; gives brands emotional context; convinces, persuades, makes mouths water and hearts beat faster and even moves the consumer to (dare I say it?) action!

I’m not suggesting we turn a deaf ear to new ways. But insanity, I’m told, is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. We have to bring meaning and substance to our messages—no matter the technology—and serve it up in the most inspiring and likeable way possible.

The prize? Bulletproof brand loyalty of the fiercest kind.

Advertising, of course, isn’t asked to take a bow for helping fuel the ’90s economy. Instead, we take heat—for being too loud, too long, too in-your-face. But what people should hate and fear is the day advertising stops—stops driving the economy, stops announcing what’s new, what’s in, what eases pain, what starts roman ces, what makes life a little better, a little brighter … maybe a little longer.

Economically, the country is fearful, and fear, as we know, is the mad cow disease of Wall Street. I’m no ditzy Pollyanna, but has there ever been a better time to crank up this best-in-the-world advertising machine and sell our way out of this dumb slump?

We’ve been in slumps before, and smart companies figured it out: What a chance to grow bigger! And make a bundle besides! Slowly but surely, bad times became bad memories.

Can we do it again? More and more advertising seems bent on gener ating talk—and not much more. Yet I know what motivates so many of us: the glut, the graphic gridlock, the tightly packed ads crying for attention. But getting noticed is only one-tenth of the battle. The rest is making people feel something. And maybe—just maybe—making them consider a purchase. Wow, what a concept!

Our strength is only guaranteed by our willingness to despair of our failures and promote our successes. We must urge each other to fix what is broken and improve what isn’t. We recognize excellence in sports, in the arts, in medicine. We should recognize it in advertising, too, beyond the momentary satisfaction of awards.

Back in 1924, Rogers Hornsby, the greatest right-handed hitter of all time, was up to bat. The rookie pitcher threw three pitches over the edge of the plate. Ball one. Ball two. Ball three. “Ump, those were strikes,” the rookie shouted. The ump replied, “Young man, when you throw a strike, Mr. Hornsby will let you know.”

If he didn’t swing, it wasn’t a strike. I trust that what we try to do is produce ad people who want to be, as Hornsby was, the absolute standard.
Phil Dusenberry is chairman of BBDO North America and outgoing chairman of the American Asso ciation of Advertising Agencies. These remarks are excerpted from his speech at the 4A’s conference in Naples, Fla., last Friday.