How to Approve Advertising

It’s rare, but it happens.

Every once in a while, a storyboard, layout or copy will come back from the approval process better than when it left. More concise, more compelling, more persuasive. But more often the edges get knocked off. Arresting phrases and provocative visuals get homogenized. And three more selling points worm their way into the copy.

What went wrong?

Everybody had the best of intentions; nobody tried to make ineffective advertising; everybody just did his or her job. But the more people in the hierarchy, the more likely you are to get committee-written pudding.

There’s a better way.

Encourage, nurture and protect good advertising by observing these few guidelines:

Structure the approval process.

This may seem obvious, but at many agencies and most clients, the process can be a bit haphazard. Sometimes copy and layouts are routed through a legal department, sometimes not. Two key people go on vacation; everything stops. Publish your rules and stick to them.

Minimize the number of approvers.

We know clients where an approval consists of one person’s signature. That’s not always a good idea, but it works more often than not. On the other extreme, we’ve experienced companies where ads accumulate initials from as many as 40 people. Honest. The advertising that this bureaucracy gives birth to is always inoffensive, conventional and dull. It’s the bland leading the bland. In fact, one brand manager made a poignant plea for work that was "routable" to make her job easier. When you start with vanilla, how can you ever get real advertising?

Stick to the strategy.

Ads should not stray from a written campaign strategy statement. And any changes that you suggest should stay on course, too. Anyone who’s not certain what the strategy is has no business being involved. Take away their pencils.

When approval turns communications vanilla…
when committees edit…
when matters of taste become matters of debate…
when words that compel are “softened” into words guaranteed not to offend…
what can you do to protect your investment?
Circulate an untouched original.

As changes are suggested on a photocopy, insist that an original accompany it, as a benchmark to keep people from "playing telephone," changing the changes of the changes, drifting away from the intended message. Better still, make anybody who wants to suggest a change write it down on a piece of paper, sign it, and attatch it to the original to identify the heroes and villains and cut down on trivial changes. (It takes a bit of effort, after all, to write out "I think the word ‘taste’ should be changed to ‘flavor’ in paragraph 7.") One needs real conviction to write out suggestions and sign them, in contrast to scrawling anonymous proofreader’s marks on a sheet of paper. Besides, if you’re the big kahuna, you might be astonished at the kind of thinking your subordinates have been "protecting" you from. Four V.P.’s, each nudging a campaign toward what they "know" you’ll buy, can prevent you from ever seeing new ideas.

If you suggest significant changes, explain them.

Write a note to help people understand your reasoning … especially the original copywriters and art directors … so the errors won’t be repeated on the next assignment.

Look to subtract, not add.

The best editors are simplifiers. Learn from them. Look for ways to simplify, focus, and shorten. Almost everybody can think of "one more reason" to buy a product or service, but those additions usually weaken copy.

Stick to your knitting.

If you’re not an art director, don’t pick out typefaces. If you’re a lawyer, stick to legal editing. Committee art is as feeble as committee copy.

Don’t study the ad.

(A note to the lawyer we just talked to in the paragraph above: this one doesn’t apply to you.) As much as we’d like to believe there’s an audience waiting breathlessly to hear from us so they can carefully analyze our deathless prose, the typical reader won’t give us more than a few seconds to prove interesting, memorable, and relevant. That’s why your immediate, visceral reaction means so much. It also goes a long way to explain why we urged you to subtract a few paragraphs ago: one compelling "story" will seduce the prospect to stay tuned, read on, or listen carefully. By contrast, the typical manufacturer-speak ad with "10 good reasons" will be dismissed as too much to read, or "trying to sell me something," or indefensible bragging, i.e., "they can’t possibly be the highest quality and the lowest price."

In an advertising-saturated culture, you can’t sell anybody anything.

All your audiences have bulletproof defenses up to deflect the hundreds upon hundreds of messages that assault their eyes and ears daily. They are all expert sales-detectors and utterly immune to your "forceful logic and clear benefits" … so much so, that if you do indeed have 10 good reasons, you’re only 9 subtractions away from a strategy. Notice earlier we used a different verb: seduce. If you can disarm them, get them to lower the defense shields, and then get them to empathize with your brand story, you may well be in a position … not to sell them, but to let them buy.

Write down your unwritten rules.

One of the frustrations of the process is working around eccentricities and personal whimsies. ("You made it green? They hate green.") You’re probably unaware of all the unwritten rules you’ve been accumulating over the years. But it’s important that you learn what they are … and write them down: get everybody reading from the same sheet of music from the start.

Using "tell the doctor it hurts" can evoke great works from ad agencies… plus lawyers, accountants, architects, plumbers… even (aha!) doctors.
Just tell the doctor where it hurts.

For best results when working with a team of professionals, don’t prescribe the cure. Don’t even diagnose the disease. Name the symptoms. The difference, for example, between "this photo doesn’t make me hungry" and "put some strawberries in the cereal" is the difference between creative direction and a creative straitjacket. Talk about what results you want, then leave the execution up to creative people you trust. Their solution(s) may be better than you could have dictated … or even imagined.

FYI: We originally published the bulk of this article in Advertising Age in March 1981. (During the last ice age.) We haven’t seen much need to change our views. If you agree, disagree, or have an opinion you’d like to share, we’d be happy to shut up and listen.

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