The 'in' words for 2006

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In my agency days, I always wanted to see firsthand how well the sales aids we created worked in the field.

One time as we met for a cup of coffee, the rep I'd been assigned to asked whether I was going to report on his performance to his district manager. This was not an uncommon question, so I assured him that I was checking only on our work, not his, and gave it no further thought. Big mistake.  

“Doctor,” he started our first call, “I want to demonstrate how you can cut your antibiotic dosage in half.” And with that he held up the visual aid and ripped it down the middle.

The point of this anecdote will become clear later. First, though, another recollection: The biggest challenge for agency creatives is to produce house ads, often leading to agency self-promotion that's not as good as their work for clients. 

That's why the Creative Portfolio that came as a supplement with the MM&M April issue came as a pleasant surprise: Many of the entries were outstanding. Of the 20 companies that participated, an astonishing 17 billboarded samples of their ads. That's putting “show, don't tell” to the test. What's more, many of them reduced the text to a headline or at most a single paragraph of body copy, further reducing the temptation to engage in empty boasts or a parade of worn-out clichés.

The entry by Goble & Associates struck me as particularly effective, though there were many other fine examples. What G&A managed to do was to get four of their clients to pose with work the agency had done for them, inviting the reader to e-mail any one of them and “ask them yourself” how they had been helped. That's about as far as you can go in creating credibility, though posting their e-mail addresses would have clinched it. Maybe they couldn't get permission. 

Equally impressive was how many of the house ads were distinctively branded. You didn't even have to look for their logos. You immediately knew, just to cite some examples, that the ads were by AbelsonTaylor, DPM, Palio or Sudler & Hennessey. The S&H series is particularly ingenious for having turned an everyday symbol into a virtual trademark, and for having what's called legs—that is, great continuity with enough of a twist to remain fresh. After all, there are an almost unlimited supply of familiar two-word phrases connected by an ampersand. 

The branding of the house ads brings up something else about the Portfolio that caught my attention—the many times the ads referred to “brand” or “branding.” By my casual count, the term was used 19 times. That's not meant as criticism. Rather, it's an obvious reflection of what agencies believe clients and potential clients want to hear. Branding is the current holy grail, the “in” word of marketing in the 2000s.

Back to that torn-up sales aid. The underlying strategy was developed through careful planning by the product team. The focus happened to be not the product's dosage advantage, because we knew that an about-to-be-launched competitor would soon trump us. But it was, long before the term became popular, a careful case of branding—making sure the message, the art, the copy, even the color, were consistent across all media, except in at least one territory where the sales rep ripped it up.

So, to use some other “in” words, you can have an awesome strategy and be passionate about total integration, but if that rep in the privacy of the doctor's office has an issue with it, you can kiss your branding goodbye.

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