Shooting In The Dark Explains Mediocre Advertising Work


Right off the bat, allow me to apologise for those who may label my cover for this issue of WEEKENDER as sexist.

The point I am trying to make is draw your attention to a matter that is very serious. Without sounding too apologetic, I have thrown in a hunk shot to balance the argument.

BTW, I am heartened to report Unilever will rename Fair & Lovely, a skin-lightening cream which has been criticised for promoting negative stereotypes around dark skin tones.

This was propelled by many petitions one of which garnered almost 15,000 signature in recent weeks.

Now back to the serious issue I am on about….

The trade of advertising is actually a sound business concept and have been around for a long time. But some marketers, unfortunately mostly government clients, think it is a “kacang-putih” business.

While there are some bad apples in most industries, by and large the advertising profession is run by well-meaning, strategic thinking businessmen.

It is not akin to buying sweets at a supermarket checkout counter as a matter of course, but more like investing in a home as a matter of priority.

Some readers may ask why am I labouring this point…well, because you and I are paying for advertising that goes down the toilet faster than you can say Hurri Clean.

And nowhere is advertising work so mediocre than in the case of Tourism Malaysia’s campaigns. Apart from being painfully derivative (same old, same old), one only has to look at how other countries promote themselves to see that we are in an endless rut of rotten thinking.

The closest thing to a campaign slogan we have is “Truly Asia”, whose authorship is always disputed and claimed by those who know it will advantage them.

Truth be told, it was part of a concept paper penned by one very brilliant Filipina creative director, Bayo-born amazing concert pianist called Julie Lingan, and the owner of the agency was a Dutch national, born in Jakarta whose claim to fame is writing speeches for Bob Kennedy.

“Some men look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that are not, and ask why not?”
– Robert F. Kennedy

“Truly Asia” was not even a slogan (most slogans say more than the obvious in a finger-lickin’ way) but was the title of a strategy paper Julie wrote. At best, you can call it a positioning statement.

But lo and behold, after the Tourism Minister glanced at the paper, he started using it in his narrative. The rest of the story is well documented.

Memorable advertising boils down to a sharp brief from the client. Unfortunately, this skill rarely exists within the confines of government marketing departments or their procurement.

So the advertising agency ends us second-guessing everyone in a well tested formula of reverse engineering.

Usual responses like “it is in our annual report” or “our website has everything” are the usual brushoffs advertising professionals have to deal with from most clients when they have to seek out vital info.

In an ideal world, the Brief is the blueprint for focused thinking, billing justification (so MOF cannot play God) and collective judgement. Signed off like a business contract. Nowadays, briefs arrive via WhatsApp!

Tourism Malaysia’s brief looks more like a wish list, and it does not get better than this.

Yasmin in her element is a script well written and read

One of the most distressing conditions is when you have to present to government officials whose minds are either protocol-weary or wondering why the real boss is not in the meeting hence diminishing the value of their attendance in the first place.

They have these archaic huge rectangle-shape hierarchical seating arrangements inside these very still and mind-numbing boardrooms, the centre of which is hollow and ample for a small buffet spread.

I once saw an infamous friend of mine in advertising, the late Idris Pawanchik, jump over the table and joget in the centre while presenting!

It is during moments like these when I recall our late Yasmin Ahmad’s style in handling tricky situations. She’d just waltz in with script in hand and not much else in her presentation bag. The huge crowd of “decision-makers” are then forced to apply all their attention to her, and her only.

The swirling of coffee mugs with overloaded week-old creamer comes to a stop. Then she’ll fish out some piece of paper and start to narrate this beautiful story with her equally elegant voice.

Adding a slight anglicised twang in her tone, plus a dash of connived superiority, she’d have the audience eating out of her hands hanging on to her every word.

Bam, meeting over: message delivered!
Ahh, how much we all miss her! I digress again, apologies.

Most government advertising and communications pitches are a farce, decisions by committees where top down compliance is the pecking order barely allowing equitable judgement. 

Even simple ideas will not survive this punishing process, that’s why Yasmin was always adamant, persistent and ruthlessly so, she was never going to let someone who spent a few months in a local ad agency in Penang after graduation, and sitting in a cushy procurement position in government tell her what’s right for the market.

After all, as I mentioned, they were playing with our money. Plus don’t we want our campaigns to be successful?

Marketing Communications 101

Short of making it sound simplistic, or sounding like a smart ass, here are some tips for decision-makers to chew on….as this is the serious part of the article…

Tell the advertising agency what you want to communicate and let them tell you how to do so.

Marketing Objective: the sole prerogative of the client – it can include market share ambitions, sales forecasts, desired positioning, etc.

Advertising Objective: can be discussed and brainstormed together by client and agency – it will outline what the advertising should achieve on terms of mind share against set evaluation metrics.

Brand Promise/Insight: this must be agreed by all parties and should be as single-minded as possible. Here is where USP (Unique Selling Proposition), USI (Unique Selling Image) and USE (Unique Selling Experience) come into play. The benefits can be tangible (clear physical differentiators) or tangible (emotional): hard vs soft expectations.

Idea: this is the communication agency’s raison d’être. Step aside and judge them purely on this, once the earlier pre-requisites have been observed. When deciding put yourself in the audience (consumer’s) shoes, and be human.

Leave your God-complex behind and let them articulate the brand promise in the most persuasive way possible.

This is where the tone and manner of the communication will come to bear and compete the creative thinking process.

So there you have it, the Client Brief decoded, deconstructed and demystified for all to use. Remember, prepare to be surprised. Safe ideas never changed the world.

All this looks good you say; but in the real world you have to politically correct. Well there is a lazy way out.

I know of consultancies who can make this process into a science so you can tick the right boxes. Yes, someone has actually thought this through.

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