Rules of Thumb

We all need a few rules of thumb

How else would we know how to keep a safe distance from the car in front of us? (1 car length for every 10 mph.) Or how to proportion oil and vinegar properly in a salad dressing (3:1). Or how to build a civilized Tanqueray martini (1,000:1). More important, we need rules to help us navigate around our jobs, to grease the machinery of commerce, to mix metaphors.

E.g., When are we overspending on production values?

Now that’s a question that unsettles a lot of people. Production budgets* can be uncharted waters, because while it’s a bit challenging to predict the costs of easily quantifed ad insertions, radio spots, mailings, etc., it is much, much harder to evaluate slippery, subjective, qualitative factors. Six-color printing with foil stamping and photos by Annie Liebowitz versus a postcard with clip art? Radio spots with Gene Hackman reading over an original score by Radiohead versus a local announcer over needle-drop music? Computer-generated wizardry from Industrial Light & Magic versus the client’s home movies? Or, most likely, somewhere on the vast stretch in between?

Aim for a production budget that’s 10% of the total projected lifetime media budget.

If, for example, you’re making TV spots that are going to run on $5,000,000 worth of air time over a projected two-year lifetime, you can safely invest as much as $500,000 in total production costs. The 10% rule holds true even for, say, radio spots budgeted for $10,000 in media; don’t spend $4,000 on talent. Very few advertisers, truth to tell, overspend on production values. They’re much more likely to pinch pennies in production to spend more in media. It’s a strategy we can label, um, naive – because it shortchanges the investment with the greater leverage.

When should we retire a campaign we think is worn out?

We ran that ad already. We said that before. Didn’t we run that last month? Won’t people skip over that if they’ve seen it before? Shouldn’t we make a change? Rule of thumb:

Not until consumers tell you loud and clear.

Clients and agencies both get restless, bored by campaigns long before they lose their effectiveness with consumers. Readers and listeners don’t even start to pay attention until they’ve been exposed to the message 3 to 7 times. (We may be personally invested in the message, studying it carefully and often, but remember our audience is indifferent, inattentive, and elusive.) Patience.

How can I avoid creating and running hideously awful radio spots?

Radio is a breeding-ground of Bad Strategies, Badly Executed. Want proof? Tune in a radio station you don’t normally listen to, and listen to 10 spots. How many of them are gee-I-wish-I-had-thought-of-that wonderful? Uh-huh. Zero. Maybe one. Sometimes two, if you got lucky … or have, let’s say, very lenient standards. Rules of Thumb:

Dialog where both voices add positive selling points is raw sewage.

"You use Brandname?" "No, I use new, improved Brandname!" "I hear it’s got just one calorie!" "That’s right, Betty. And no waxy, yellow buildup!" Ad nauseam.

Of those 10 bad spots you listened to, some surely fell into this category. They pretend to be dialog, but it’s really just one sales pitch with two voices alternating. Listeners in our commercial-intensive culture always have their defenses up to filter out Sales Pitches, and this kind of primitive writing gets ignored effortlessly. Naive advertisers do it all the time, but you might as well set fire to your money – at least that would get noticed.

No conflict = no story = no involvement = no persuasion.

By the way, 93.6% of all spots with cheerful, talking inanimate objects (“Hi! I’m your furnace filter!”) were written for morons, by morons.

Finally, using cheap, non-union voice and on-camera talent (yes, that includes the client, as in all those egomaniacal car dealers) is almost always a mistake. What’s more amateurish than a typical retailer, grinning and shouting? Great ads are powerful, effective, difficult, and rare. For your campaign to deliver an eye-popping ROI, insist on the best available writers and performers.

What marketing functions should we keep in-house?

Hey. Why pay for agency talent? After all, anybody can write an ad.

True. It’s also true that anybody can play the violin.Tuck it under your chin, pick up the bow, rub the bow across the strings. Even on your first try, out comes sound. Rule of thumb:

Keep in house only those functions that you could profitably sell on the street against professional competition.

Most clients wisely outsource creative and media functions, for the same reasons they outsource tax audits, legal work, and elevator repairs. In-house creative is often uninspired, pitiful and/or painful.

Come on, now. What is your basic business? It ain’t elevator repair. Or writing headlines. Do inside what you do best and turn to pro’s for all the rest.

How many of these rules have exceptions?

Oh, all of them.

Chanel, e.g., is all in-house, but the ads are terrific. Go figure.

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