|FROM A DESK MADE OUT OF A HOLLOW-CORE DOOR to expensive techno-offices. From a stock price that broke 80to getting the ax the day it fell to 2. Yes, I just spent two years in the e-commerce boom... and bust. Here is some of what I learned:
Just as there is no New Economy (e-commerce is new, but you still have to turn a profit), there may be new media and new techniques, but the Ad Biz itself never changes. Online shops, no matter how grandiose their self-images, wind up creatively downstream of the TV agencys campaign, just like direct and promotion shops do. Your best shot at getting to do it your way remains the accounts the mainline hotshots wont touch at all. (My best experience? A b-to-b sites campaign, where I sold practically everything I came up with right to the marketing director and the two zillionaires who started it.)
Other old rules remain just as true. Online agencies do their worst work for themselves, too. You always work for the only agency whose PR department doesnt know anyone at any publication, anywhere. Sites that have only existed since last April resist your ideas for clever placements or innovative media units... because theyve always done it this way. Your reward for helping build a place from nothing... is a new CD who thinks nothing done before him was any good.
BUT HEY. YOU'VE BEEN AROUND. You knew all that. Some things that none of us knew until we discovered them the hard way five minutes ago:
Banners dont work. Except when they do. Banners dont work as brand-building ads an inch high. (Not when people have 54 TVs.) What theyre not good at is luring you completely away from what youre interested in. But what they can be good at is luring you toward something similar to what youre interested in. I did some clever banners for a modem aimed at online gamers. Astoundingly, they did very well on online gaming sites.
The other shocker is... banners work when theyre funny, smart, well-targeted. And short. And when they use cool technology like Flash or Java artfully... and when you can find a site that will accept that technology, even though they havent always done it that way. (Youd be amazed at the high-tech content sites that only take medieval-tech banners.) Despite the fact that banner clickthrough rates are a nanoblip above zero, I succeeded in getting double digits a few times. It wasnt genius, but it did take some smartsfrom all departments.
Online is still in the metaphor stage*its like print, its like TV, its like a catalog. Online will start to achieve its true potential when somebody sells a product, from first flicker of interest to Thank You For Your Order, entirely within an interactive experience... one that seduces you as well as a TV spot, informs you as well as a catalog, and responds to your questions and needs as sensitively as a good salesperson... and yet one that isnt really like any of those things.
Creative can help a great product, but it cant save a bad one online. Everyone can compare everything at once; if your price is high or your service mediocre, your own customers will say so on Deja.com. In many ways advertising has never been so impotent.
Last but not least, I learned (ouch) that stock options are no substitute for cash. The only thing that is a substitute for cash is still... experience. Online, like every other specialty in our heavily siloed industry, is populated by people whove only ever worked in that area. Bring some wisdom from another field to e-commerce, then gather some wisdom there to take back with you, and youll have something way more valuable than options at 48 for a stock at 2.
* After this issue went out to my regular mailing list, I received the following reply from my first and possibly sanest creative director, the estimable Joe Norris at Sullivan Higdon & Sink:
Hey, Michael G'bart!
As always, I read your latest edition of Shameless Self-Promotion with great interest. As always, it was packed with wry commentary, pithy insight, and movies that I never even heard of, but now desperately want to see.