If you don't get noticed, you don't have anything

I want to share the most important quote in the history of advertising with you:

“If you don’t get noticed, you don’t have anything. You just have to be noticed, but the trick is in getting noticed naturally, without screaming or tricks.”
— Leo Burnett

Burnett understood advertising. His Chicago agency is one of the world’s most recognizable, and he or his team were responsible for creating “you’re in good hands with Allstate,” “flying the friendly skies” with United and Tony the Tiger.

You see, getting noticed, naturally, is advertising’s primary goal. Today, Americans see more than 3,000 advertising messages a day. If you want to get noticed, you can’t just be good, you have to be better than everyone else. As the saying goes, "be so good they can’t ignore you."

So why do so many higher education ad campaigns look exactly the same?

I’ve watched the higher ed advertising process, and I believe that there are two main reasons why most higher education advertising campaigns are forgettable. First, institutions have not taken the time to boldly define their brands, and as a result, they create safe, boring work. The second is that many higher education marketing professionals do not understand how to most effectively work with advertising agencies. Here are some tips to help you get better work from your agency:

Accept Only Great Creative

Remember, if you don’t get noticed, you don’t have anything. Tell yourself you won’t settle for anything less than great creative and believe it. If you think your job is to look like everyone else, you’ve already failed. Real position requires sacrifice. The first step to working with an ad agency is knowing what your brand needs -- and that’s creative, compelling content.

Define Your Brand

If you don’t have a consistent, clearly-defined visual style and you can’t clearly articulate your brand’s message, voice and its tone, an ad agency isn’t going to help you, no matter what they tell you. Rarely do ad agencies possess even a working understanding of the higher education marketplace, and I have yet to walk into an ad agency with an extensive research department.

It’s not that they don’t want to help, but the reality is this: Most ad agencies are based on a tired, outdated business model that goes something like this: Get client by pitching good work with an affordable price tag, win advertising award with client’s material, use advertising award to pitch new client, get new client, lose original client because of a mix of rising rates and inattentiveness. Creative staff come and go faster than you can learn their names. A lot of times, you’re being pitched a.) creative someone else rejected b.) old, tired, safe ideas or c.) whatever just popped into the pitching agents mind right before the meeting. Remember, you are in the driver's seat. 

Come to the meeting prepared. Know your brand. Don't trust someone else to do your job for you. 

Choose Your Agency Wisely

You don’t have to work with the first agency that contacts you. Set up a meeting at their office and get a feeling for how their operation runs. Are they orderly and purposeful, or does it seem like chaos? Ask specific questions. If you can get the agency to pitch you, do it, even if it means spending a little money. Better a little to know than a lot to find out. 

Pay attention to the way the agency responds to your questions. Do they seem patient and engaged, or do they seem distracted and perhaps even a little arrogant? You will be partners with this agency. Do they ask questions about your brand, or do they make rush judgments based on their perception? Make sure the culture, attitude and values of the agency and its people match your institution's.

Don’t Get Sold

O.K., so you picked an agency and made it to creative review day. Awesome. Here’s something I can guarantee you one of the creative presenters is going to do: They are going to explain the creative to you -- what it means, what it is influenced by and how it relates to your brand. That’s good, but I mostly ignore these pitches because both the agency and I know that if it has to be explained, it probably isn’t very good. Don’t worry, they’ll explain it whether it’s good or not, but great creative stands on its own -- remember, it has to stand on its own in the marketplace, unless the agency plans to go door-to-door and explain it to every viewer. 

This doesn’t mean you should make a knee-jerk reaction. What you’re being shown is new, and there is a good chance you won’t like it, but that doesn't mean it isn't good. Ask questions and pause; sit with your initial reaction. I usually know how I feel about the creative immediately, but it takes a day or so for me to understand why I feel that way. 

Test It

This is the big one. Go get some students and let them tell you what to think. You can use a mix of current students, prospective students and other people that fit your target audience and might provide insightful feedback.

Here’s a story from when I was working at Texas Wesleyan: We were testing out a host of different billboards promoting our small size to a tepid response. As I was walking out of the room, I heard one of the students say “Why don’t they just say ‘Small is the new big?’”

Billboard achieved.

Give Useful Feedback

You hear agency people complain about this quite often. “I’ll know it when I see it” is an ineffective way to get somewhere. Give direct, specific feedback. Don’t suggest another execution (you’re paying them, remember?), but you can suggest different approaches. If it’s the copy that doesn’t work, say it. Fortunately, if you tested your creative with a focus group, you should have received some very direct and specific feedback. Now is your time to use it.

Be a Partner

Just because you are giving real, direct feedback to your agency doesn’t mean you aren’t partners. In fact, many agencies will appreciate you being direct with them. Don’t be aggressive, rude or condescending. Reaffirm that we’re all working toward the same goal.

Remember: It’s much easier to maintain a relationship with a quality ad partner than it is to cycle constantly through agencies.

Darren White is the principal consultant at D. White & Company, a higher ed marketing & management consulting firm based in Jacksonville, Fla. DWCo. helps universities make great marketing. Want to strengthen your marketing? Contact us and set up an appointment.