Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Stop Selling, Start Telling

I don't ever want to "sell" another thing as long as I live. Haven't we all been sold too much?

The hideously effective science of low-down, cyncial manipulation of human frailty is not quite dead yet. I was reading an article written by a direct response copywriter (whose anonymity I will protect out of hope for his future redemption), who claims that award-winning advertising does not, categorically, net results; that ads written by traditional ad agencies are generally untested and no one knows if they really work or not. He prefaced his comments with admiration for National Enquirer's winning combination of outrageous headlines and appeal to the lowest common denominator.

It's a common kind of reverse snobbery among direct marketing creatives that goes something like this: sure, the fancy big-agency creatives get the glory, dress in Prada, get the shiny awards and the attention, but what we do works and we can prove it. Like any of your better conceits, there's some truth to it. But there's more to the story.

Awards don't need to be bad for sales. I've worked at agencies, large and small, writing award-winning ads that worked brilliantly (with proven sales figures behind the claim). Others were just award-winning, maybe not so brilliant. I've also worked for dedicated direct marketing agencies, where every emotional thrum was calculated to its most minutely measured nuance. I've also managed to do award-winning, measurably-effective DM work of which I'm proud. Some of it? Not so proud.

A fairly well-kept secret among many traditional ad agencies and their clients is that what gets created "just feels right" to both parties with little empirical evidence for its efficacy. On the other hand, too much traditional direct marketing is unconcerned with delight, cleverness, wit, or anything that distracts from the sales pitch. I sound like I'm arguing against success, but stick with me. I'm arguing against cynical manipulation without regard to the greater good. I'm arguing against hard-sell arm twisting that preys on the vulnerabilities of the aged, poor, or gullible to sell a not-so-good product. Don't sell me because you can. Tell me how my life can be better.

It's wrong to know what works and know what's right and not have a match. With any God-given gift, it is up to each individual to use it wisely, and kindly. That leaves a big playing field with lots of fine choices to be made.

Cynical exploitation is being outed more often because there is much less hiding to be done. Electronica gets the truth out at record speed these days and any nastiness will inevitably seep through even the most carefully crafted p.r. job.

The real question is this. What stories do I want to spend my life telling? Who is making life better? Who works harder and better and with joy? Who truly cares? Whose passion shines through?

My passion is not to sell, but to tell passionate stories worthy of the breath and ink and life I put into them. Passionate commitment to the greater good doesn't involve "selling." It involves meaningful communication, telling stories, having conversations, and bringing something better to greater attention. Pandering manipulation in butt fugly. I'm looking forward to the day when the smarmy sensationalism of tabloid headlines is replaced with invitingly clear stories, told with wit, charm and spirit.

Read Clue Train. Read HughTrain. They represent some fairly insistent evidence of intelligent life within advertising and marketing. It's a hopeful time to be in the business. It had to happen, though. Some of the best, most creative people I've ever known are in some aspect of marketing. Life can only beat a good person down for so long before their innate goodness pushes back with a new way to think about things.