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CEO Roundtable: Advertising

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Springfield Business Journal Editorial Vice President Eric Olson discusses the advertising industry with Laura McCaskill, president and CEO of The Medical Package LLC; Angela Smith, owner of ADsmith Marketing & Advertising; and Brandon Welch, president of Frank & Maven.

Eric Olson: As we’re reentering business operations, is there a universal message that businesses should be thinking about or positioning themselves around as you’re talking to your clients?
Laura McCaskill: My business is different than (my fellow panelists’) businesses in that I’m very specific to the medical space. One of the things, as far as ad agencies, that I think they would agree with me on – we’re called that, but that’s a very small part of what we do. We’re really strategic communication companies. My clients are very traditional. But I think the biggest challenge, and particularly, I had read one time that in the Middle Ages, a person’s lifetime accumulation of knowledge was one page. Pretty shocking. Today, people spend about six and a half hours on the internet per day; that’s a lot. And they look at 6,000 to 10,000 ads every day. So you have to differentiate, and the messaging has to be what is of value to that person. I think we’re going to see more collaboration with charities, with things that are extremely meaningful to people. It’s not the advertising of “Mad Men.”
Angela Smith: It’s always been about making that emotional connection. How you do that at any given time depends on the emotion of the consumers and what they are going to be concerned about. What are the trigger points now that they will resonate to? It’s any business having to connect what their “why” is in a way that is meaningful to a consumer to get that emotional response. Something that I think was really an interesting quote, and I agree with it: Crisis can speed up changes that are on the way; it almost can serve as an accelerant. I think because of the pandemic, the way we’re telling stories is changing. A lot of the digital techniques that all of our clients, even telemedicine, have had to change because of it. You always have to know what is on that consumer’s mind at any given point.

Tuned in
Olson: How do you stay tuned to the emotions of the consumers?
Smith: We do lots of focus groups. In fact, I’m moderating one tonight for financial services and moderating one Thursday night for homebuilding services. We can all have access to national research. We can get it at our fingertips. But we like to talk to the end users. We used to have this wonderful focus group facility, but now we’re doing Zoom focus groups, which we have found to be even better because if someone is oversharing, you can mute them. [Laughs] We’re also getting more people willing to participate because they can do it at home.
Brandon Welch: I go straight to the front-line salespeople. The customer will tell you what they want based on conversations with the salesperson or whoever’s interacting with them. To answer the question as asked, I don’t think the position has changed. I don’t think technology changes that; I don’t think a pandemic changes that; I don’t think human beings have changed for thousands of years. I think they will always do what matters to them when it matters to them. A lot of people spend a lot of time asking what is the technology or what is the sophisticated way to find that out instead of just going, “Do I know a person like this?” And ask them. You can do it via focus groups, which is part of our process, but also go to your receptionist and ask that person to take a log for the next three weeks of every call that comes in and note what were the No. 1 questions and then take the top five to 10 and make sure they’re within a click’s distance. Don’t make them go looking for it. I subscribe to a theory known as the pendulum theory, which is that we’re constantly trading value systems from we-focused values to me-focused values. That’s a book written by Roy Williams. We are very much at the height of a we-focused society – obviously, things that are less individualistic and more for the common good. One mark of direct-response advertising is that we go to pain, pain, pain, and there’s a lot of, increasingly in a digital and transactional world, there’s a lot of pain, ask, pain, ask. An underutilized tool is hope. Nothing happens if you don’t connect with a human and offer them a better life.
McCaskill: Many times, my clients are not in touch with their customer or they’re not in touch with field sales. That’s a problem. But I think now things are so fast paced that you kind of have to have the quarterback. You have to know where the ball is going to be. I almost feel like I’m living in that world that what worked yesterday is not going to work right now. I have to be so far ahead of it looking at trends. In my business, we used to have three-hour attention spans in communication messages for medical information; we’re now down to three minutes. I’ve had to adapt to that constantly as far as more dynamic content.
Smith: It is a challenge and hard to look in that crystal ball. Frankly, I think three minutes is an eternity. In your business, it may be three minutes. With us, it may be more like five seconds.
Welch: You get eight on a website – eight seconds.
Smith: Eight if they can find what they are looking for quickly.
Olson: In that eight-second-or-less window when you open up that home page, what needs to be there?
McCaskill: Angela said it: It’s emotion. One of the No. 1 rules is emotion trumps intellect.
Smith: The emotion could be hope. It could be fear. It could be love. You’ve got to have that immediate emotional connection that makes them want to know more. And if you don’t have that in a flash, then you’ve wasted all of your effort in trying to get that consumer to that site.
Welch: Validate the need, pain, hope or fear. Or better yet if you can do more than one. Quickly, succinctly connect how your product can overcome that need, pain, hope or fear, and then give the most reasonable next step for action. Websites, in particular, are information first, and we forgot somewhere along the line that our job as marketers is not to educate people, it’s to inspire them.
Smith: One of the phrases that I absolutely loathe is we have to educate the consumer. I hate that because consumers are not waiting to be educated.
Welch: When’s the last time you found yourself wondering about the certifications of your local plumber? It’s not that those things aren’t important; it’s just that you have to put this little “which means” caveat to that. I have an XYZ certification, which means you’re going to be X. You’ve got to connect it back to a need, pain, hope or fear. There are all kinds of intelligent media buyers, but if it doesn’t connect with a human and offer them a better life, nothing matters.
Smith: Another way that we look at it is that you want to change the consumer’s current belief and current action to the desired belief and the desired action. You do it by giving a promise and backing it up. You’re not going to get that change to occur without that promise.

Emotion vs. logic
Olson: Where does logic come into play here?
Welch: What are we selling and when is what I would ask. The hardest customer to earn is the one that’s at the finish line. (Artificial intelligence) and all the technology, which is all the programmatic things that are designed to find the customer at the time they’re buying – that comes at a cost. It comes at a trade-off of media spend. It also comes at a cost of relationship. A person who already knows, likes and trusts you is going to be a much easier, profitable and better long-term customer in most categories than one that looked at you and picked you off a list based off your price. They’re going to leave you for the exact same reason. We call that a today customer or a tomorrow customer. The best marketing plans have provisions for all three customers: today, tomorrow and yesterday. If you talk about tech and the flashiness and the hype of advertising, it’s leads. A lead is a person with a need, and you can meet that need today, which often is based on price. Cool, you have a great transactional strategy. I’m more interested for my clients in the customers that won’t buy today for any reason, but you build a relationship with them so that one day when they do need you, they feel like they already know, like and trust you. The logic, if you’re talking about a transactional customer, is targeting and testing based. But I would say that the customer that we all actually want is the long-term partner, not the speed date. That is not science based. You cannot measure the collective emotions, experiences and connections of a person on a spreadsheet.
Smith: He’s really getting into branding and the importance of creating that brand that means trust to those repeat consumers.
McCaskill: The logic follows, but a trusted friend is something we should all return to. That’s what people are looking for, and they do that with the emotional connection. If they sense that you’re ethical and trustworthy, they’ll return to that. You don’t really initiate that few seconds on logic.
Smith: The emotion is what hits you first. And then you look for the reasons to back up that emotion.
Welch: Or else we wouldn’t be buying $120,000 cars telling ourselves it will give ourselves better gas mileage. Win the heart and the mind will follow.
Olson: What are the successful trends you’re seeing this year and going into 2022? It could be devices, platforms or media types.
McCaskill: One of the things that I noticed … is in the automotive industry, particularly how trucks are being sold. It’s always been a curiosity to me since women make the major purchasing decisions as to how they didn’t relate to women. I’m seeing some of the General Motors projects, developing automobiles that are connecting to emotion and women who want to go boondocking in those vehicles on their own. Finally, instead of just “It’s got this much horsepower.”
Smith: Or they think that you put a young, scantily clad woman on a commercial and that a woman is going to buy it? No.
McCaskill: I’ve also seen people tapping in more toward inclusion and diversity, which I think is very exciting. I wanted to give a quick shoutout, and we don’t really do hospital-based marketing, but I wanted to give a shoutout to CoxHealth because it’s been really kind of dry over the years, and all of a sudden we have this brand personality that cares about health in our community and it has a community garden. It kind of knocked my socks off, the narrative. That’s a really big change for a health care institution. All of the sudden you have the emotion.
Smith: Video isn’t an option anymore, and it’s not video just for TV. It’s for all kinds of online purposes because we’re in a multichannel world, so you have to have content that’s going to support that. When we are approaching a project and how to tell the story, we’re thinking of all the different channels that content needs to go across. If it’s a video project, we think how many different pieces of content can we get from this particular shoot? That’s not going away. People would rather watch a video than read.
Welch: If we’re talking about coming out of the pandemic, Craig Groeschel says, “Nothing grows without pain.” And the pain was, we can’t have that face-to-face interaction. You have an entire industry and entire culture of sales in general that was just literally robbed of their superpower, which is charisma and human connection. The companies that made it through that on top innovated very quickly to do that component of selling virtually. I have a client that will do near $80 million this year, 100% virtual sales that would literally never have been sold any way but hand to hand before. The research is that 97% of consumers would prefer to start their shopping process online anyway. There were industries that were not forced to do it until they were. The ones that got good at that became eternally good at that. I think that they are knocking larger, more stuck-in-their-ways competitors off their post. A branding strategy that is tried and true: Show up in somebody’s life as often as possible, talk to them about things that matter and do it in a consistently endearing way.
Smith: He’s spot on. I’m going to add on, any interaction that you have, whether it is in person or it’s online, has to be totally frictionless. It has to work. If you have a chat feature and it doesn’t work, you just lost them. That gets right back into the whole dilemma that so many people have now about employment, not having the training, not having employees at all in some cases, but it’s what we refer to as that marketing bridge. When they come to you, they have to get their expectations and their needs met – those emotional needs met. And if they’re not, they’re angry, you’re going to get bad reviews and you’re down the tubes. Forty-two percent of consumers would pay more for a friendly and welcoming experience, 52% would pay more for speedy and efficient service and 73% said that a positive customer experience is key in influencing their brand loyalties. It is a study by PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Marketing to the workforce
Olson: This is a historically tight labor market. How can businesses position themselves with their brand to recruit? Everyone is hiring, and the options are seemingly endless.
Welch: Stop writing help wanted ads and start writing letters to your future, ideal team member. People come to you for a dollar, they’re going to leave you for a dollar. If they come to you for a job, they’re going to leave you for a job. If they come to you for a family, they will not leave their family without serious consideration. We have a very specific style for writing recruitment ads, or letters is what we call them – basically, an open letter to imagine the person that is sitting across the table from you and write to them about their deepest inner desires. Most of ours we make intentionally long to filter out people. Write the ad for the company you’d want to work for. Hopefully it’s true. I can’t do a whole lot for a company when it’s not true. That process still has not failed us.
McCaskill: It’s not necessarily about money, and I think employers miss that. It has to do with some flexibility, appreciation, particularly when you work with creatives, a common vision, and trying to really understand their life.
Smith: I started noticing it with a lot of millennial employees, but it’s way bigger than that. When we’re talking with our clients, we’re asking some tough questions, and sometimes we do this in our focus groups when we reveal who the focus group is for. We find that there are people who’ve done business with them, and we want to know what that experience was truly like. If you’re writing the letter for the dream job, but the company doesn’t match that, your candidates are going to find that out very quickly. We can go back and we can recommend that they get some coaching on how to turn a toxic work environment into a really wonderful, welcoming environment that matches today’s expectations. People that have that traditional mindset better get over it or retire. They’re not going to have that same kind of success with employees. And the cost of replacing employees is so high. A lot of people are going to want that work-life balance, and that means they are not going to work Saturdays or they want to work from home a few days a week if their work allows it.
Welch: There’s a competitive force where he who has the best, easiest, flexible environment will win. That’s not practical for a lot of companies. When somebody is complaining about that, it’s not that they’re saying your benefits or your job sucks. They’re saying the portion of my life I’m trading for this job is no longer worth it. That’s a deeper look as a leader. We have to stop asking about our employees wasting our time and ask, are we wasting our employees’ time?
Smith: Your employees can tell you what a good culture looks like for them. So often the owner tries to look at what they think it is, but they aren’t their employees. To find out what that looks like for the team, what we do with our team, we ask them, through face to face or we survey them and we get input. Some of them said we want to continue to learn, so we’re giving them 40 hours of learning time a year.
Welch: The best advertising strategy is to be a company worth selling. So many people are looking at us, saying, “Market my product.” And it’s not a marketing problem; it’s a heart problem.
Smith: There’s very little that any of us can do with a company that has a heart problem. Sometimes there are companies that have a “why” problem. They don’t know what their own mission is.
McCaskill: I write for [a company] a mission statement and brand promise. They thank me for the mission statement and the brand promise. You think that a company would get that down on their own. Once we get this, the rest is execution. Who are you? And what do you want to do? And who do you want to serve?

Excerpts by Executive Editor Christine Temple, ctemple@sbj.net.

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