We spoke with Robert Douglas, CEO of Left Off Madison, on the topic of how we can look back to move forward. What can we learrn from past influential advertising? The undeniable effects of a catchy jingle, and character-driven work, among many other things.
Tell us about your role and how long you been working in the world of advertising.
With more than 25 years of ad agency experience, it was time to be an entrepreneur. My business partner and I launched Left Off Madison during the pandemic. Perhaps not the best time, but it has worked—thankfully! As the CEO, my role is the same as I have had for the last 10+ years—wear multiple hats ranging from daily client management and growth to nurturing and encouraging our people as well as guiding creative and media teams, operations, finance, and HR. And yes, my partner and I will work at multiple levels ranging from project manager to launching ad campaigns if we need to.
My interest in the ad industry dates to my childhood. I had a unique upbringing growing-up at a home that has become a popular filming location for commercials, Saturday Night Live skits, TV shows, movies, and more. I never wanted to go into film production, but I have a great respect and appreciation for it. The Douglas House is widely known within the New York film production industry. It remains very active today as evidenced by this recent Jimmy Fallon and Chris Stapleton skit HERE.
Are there some common staples or tropes that have developed in recent years within the industry? How do these compare to the ones of 10 or even 20 years ago?
At a high-level, I don’t find much difference in storytelling today versus the past. Both eras have a healthy dose of storytelling that illuminates how a brand, product or service should make consumers feel. The biggest change in storytelling today versus 10 or 20 years ago is time or engagement time. Stories are increasingly shorter adapting to consumer attention spans of 3-seconds or 7-seconds before people can skip an ad online. The use of a 15-second ad these days seems long. Creatives have now had to reframe “what is a story?” to fit advertising platforms of today.
What were some aspects or qualities about ads from the past that you feel modern advertising could benefit from adopting?
Jingles and clever creative. Jingles have been replaced with music licensing or music scoring. Jingles were born to be memorable and effective in becoming ear worms all the way to the store. There are so many including: Dr Pepper (“I’m A Pepper”), Alka Seltzer (Plop, Plop Fizz, Fizz), and Band-Aid (“Stuck On Band-Aid”). The truth is using licensed music from Beyonce, Shakira or Taylor Swift does very well in ad creative research. It can easily add 20-percentage points in testing. But in real life, the licensed music track has a short shelf-life that lives until the spot is off-air. A jingle is an ownable asset of the brand. The effects of a good jingle can last lifetime for consumers. How does that Oscar Mayer jingle go? You know it.
The truth is that clever ad campaigns have been created, but they haven’t passed through the 95-layers of approvals found in larger agencies and equally big clients. This is literally choking and killing creative and big media ideas.
Was the work approached differently or have the methods remained the same?
Methods are generally the same, but I find two things have affected the output over the past 5-10 years: data, technology, and the approval process.
Data and technology have empowered both client and agencies to develop and deliver mass customization of ad messages. Near-personalized ad messages based upon your cookie data, purchase behavior, memberships, or another. In short, creative today is delivered at a scale that we’ve never seen in the past, except for maybe direct mail and tier-2 automotive partnerships.
The creative approval process has grown horrific. These larger agencies, and equally large clients, are beholden to an outrageous approval process like we’ve never seen before. One of my favorite advertising slogans in addition to “Good, fast, cheap. Pick 2” is this one about creative and/or media approvals: “If you don’t have the power to say yes, then you don’t have the power to say no.”
How have ads evolved to keep up with technological and cultural advancements such as smartphones and the internet?
Mass versioning and adaption. In the past, a creative team delivered an ad campaign that was adapted to TV, radio, outdoor and print. Today that ad campaign can be expanded 10-fold or greater. Yes, the inclusion of advertising on the world wide web and smartphones contributed to the expansion. But the biggest shift has come with data and technology where we can now deliver mass personalization. These are ad messages that feel more personalized, more relevant to the consumer. The data tools enable us to segment audiences into many sub-segments—beyond demographics. Technology enables us to deliver the even-more-right message to the even-more-right consumer segment.
One additional recent development is culture—or more specifically ethnicity and race. I’ve been doing that since around 2000 and I have never seen more movement by brands and marketers than over the past 18 months to include people of different heritages in advertising. There’s still work to be done. But having said that, this now adds a new, additional layer of demand on creative and media to develop more versions so that we can mass personalize through media.
Do you feel as though ageism is a problem in the advertising industry?
Yes, ageism is a problem in many areas but more specifically in the larger business units of holding companies. Let me please explain.
It’s the larger advertising agency business units that are getting walloped by client demands for lower agency service fees. This client demand creates substantial friction with agency-fueled operational issues.
Put all this into a crucible and the result is that agencies must spend less on employees. Who typically gets paid less? The answer: younger people. Older people—especially those with tenure in the company and industry—have a growing salary expectation year after year. Agencies simply see it that they can not afford them all, so they cut the older, more expensive talent.
In my opinion is that the culprit behind all of this is the reconciled full-time employee (FTE) agency compensation model. That’s a mouth full. Agencies providing clients with a staffing plan of personnel who will work on their business. Their contracted time on the client business multiplied by their individual rate + overhead is the agency fee built on an FTE model. At the end of year, there is a reconciliation. The agency must prove through time sheets that the employees worked on the business as contracted. A client can ask for a credit if employees did not fulfill their obligation. The reconciled FTE agency compensation model is detrimental to both the client and agency. It should be eliminated, but client procurement departments are too often unyielding on this.
What advertisements do you remember seeing when you were younger that left an impression on you and why do you think they stayed with you?
Reflecting upon that, I discover that character-driven ad campaigns come to memory including those for Charmin (Mr. Whipple), Palmolive (Madge), Life Cereal (Mikey), and American Express (Karl Malden). Also, those using jingles including Dr Pepper (“I’m A Pepper”), Alka Seltzer (Plop, Plop Fizz, Fizz), and Band-Aid (“Stuck On Band-Aid”). Clever spots from Federal Express (John Moschitta as fast talker), EF Hutton (“When EF Hutton talks…”), and Snickers (Betty White in “Snickers Satisfies”) rank at the top of my memory.
Looking to the future, where do you think the advertisement industry is heading?
Besides a whole lot of mid-sized companies scrambling to get their own 1st party data collection going as they weather cold, harsh reality of a cookless targeting future, I see a huge push in DTC. In the wake of the pandemic that has led to increases in online shopping and home deliveries combined with shipping issues and the scarcity of products in stores, there will be rapid growth in companies selling direct-to-consumer. Shipping more and more through USPS, UPS, and FedEx. Added to that, I see an increase in borderless purchases. Goods being bought and shipped to the U.S. direct from Italy, Brazil, or Japan for example.
On the creative and production side, I simply see a ton more versioning and adaption to fulfill our new-ish ability to deliver mass personalization to individuals at home, on their mobile device, etc. This will require an expanded creative resource among agencies. The senior creative team develops the master campaign idea. A boatload more junior creative people will version that master campaign idea into a myriad of new ad messages to serve to various audiences and media platforms. A third layer—that already exists within a few holding companies (e.g., Hogarth at WPP) adapts creative to all the sizes required in the media plan. In my opinion, that “boatload of junior creative” cannot be offshored. It will need to be executed by creative personnel within the agency.