Ad Nauseum
by Stevan Alburty

From The Net
November 1995

1995 by Stevan Alburty
    All rights reserved.




In 1925, a Hollywood producer pitched studio boss Jack Warner on the idea of filming "The Jazz Singer," the first talking motion picture. Warner sat behind his desk, irritably chomping on his cigar, and finally growled, "Who in the hell wants to hear actors talk?"

Ad agencies are displaying a similar myopia as more and more corporations rush head-over-html to the World Wide Web.

For years, ad agencies treated online services as the clannish amusement of a bunch of disc jockeys with far too much Cheetos dust under their fingernails. But when The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal started moving their Internet stories to the front page, the agencies got nervous. Just as every family has at least one drooling, unshaven relative they trot out at the holidays, every ad agency had some creaky sample of multimedia they had produced, which they now demoed at every new business pitch to show prospective clients how they understood "new media."

Ad agencies have been glacial in their response to the Internet. The reasons are largely generational. The majority of senior ad agency executives are fairly illiterate when it comes to computers. Most of them think "return key" is something you do just before you leave the hotel in the morning. If they can do e-mail, they think they're Steve Jobs. And so the online world might as well be Mars to them. They don't use it and so they simply don't get it. (Show me an account executive or art director who jokes about propeller heads and uses "nerd" in every other sentence and I'll show you somebody in the throes of the digital equivalent of homosexual panic.)

Most ad agencies have great difficulty distinguishing between the Web and direct mail. With few exceptions, the sites they develop for clients bear a strong resemblance to clickable brochures - there's a heavy reliance on photos recycled from print ads and lots of words, words, words. (For some bizarre reason, corporate sites just love to put all of their press releases online. Gee, I was going to finish The Brothers Karamazov tonight, but I think I'll read through a couple of year's worth of Chevron Oil press releases instead.)

When agencies sit down to design corporate sites, they need to use the same branding strategies they hopefully apply to the rest of their client's advertising. Who is the audience? What is the targeted, specific message they need to hear? And most importantly, what can you give the user that is of tangible, compelling value?

If you would like to see an example of how to develop thrilling corporate content, turn your browser northward and visit the web site of the Canadian brewer, Molson. ( A joint production of Toronto ad agency MacLaren McCann and the software design studio, Cybersight, Molson has managed to pull off a branding coup. Their content metaphor, as well as their intended audience, is nothing less than the entire country of Canada. There are the requisite listings of Canadian events and an abundant use of fetching maple leaves. But the site also uses a variety of tools to create an entire online community, complete with user profiles, live "pub chat", discussion groups with a decidedly Canadian edge and e-mail which can be sent to other registered users of the site. You can bet that no one walks away from this domain without knowing who Molson is and what they stand for. Oh, Canada!

On a more tepid side of the border, DDB Needham has developed a web site for Frito-Lay which displays a retro-60's graphic of a tiger wearing sneakers and sunglasses and the stomach-wrenching headline, "A Happenin' Place in Cyberspace." (Believe me, I'm not giving you the URL for your own good.) The content is predominately devoted to breathlessly fascinating facts about Frito-Lay snack foods and, surprise surprise, their ad campaigns. (Did you know that DORITOS brand Cooler Ranch Tortilla Chips were introduced in 1994? I, for one, will sleep better tonight just knowing this.)

If we're in the midst of a digital revolution, what has Madison Avenue deployed as cavalry?

New York's energetic, if unpronounceable, Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer, has established an entire onsite web design and production unit. Besides translating MCI's popular "Gramercy Press" to the web, Messner has developed sites for Volvo and 1-800-COLLECT.

By contrast, some of the country's most famous agencies have done little more than appoint someone with the euphemisms "new media" or "new technologies" in their title. Or they have deputized somebody in the computer department who taught themselves HTML and boom, they're in business.

This planet's communications DNA is in the midst of an evolutionary mutation. This is hardly the time for Madison Avenue to look like Jurassic Park.