Strange, how something you read or hear today can suddenly trigger a memory. I was paging through this Sunday's builder display ads. You know these ads, they're the ones you all hate to write many-thousand-dollar checks for, but still do because, well, everyone else does and if they do and you don't... well, you know.
After about 20 of these, the repetition set up a hypnotic trance. No, I did not find myself irresistibly reaching for checkbook, car keys and shouting to my wife, "Honey! Come quick! We must buy a NEW HOME NOW with HALF PRICE OPTIONS because if not, we will MISS THIS UNIQUE OPPORTUNITY."
No, I was taken back to a scene a long, long time ago. I was just out of college and toiling as a shift supervisor in the steel mills of south Chicago. My boss, Jim Strickland, was cranky, always hungover and liked to yell. I loved him. Jim was smart, knew the ropes, and no matter what, Jim took care of his people even when some, like me, didn't deserve it. Jim had seen the writing on the wall regarding the future of the steel industry and cared enough about me that he tricked me into having a few beers with Dan, an old college buddy of his. Little did I know this was a clandestine job interview.
We met at Jim's favorite joint in a rough area that most Chicago south-siders called simply, "the bush." After a few pops with Jim and Dan, the conversation rolled around to where I saw my career headed. Why would I want to work in the steel industry? Other than the fact that in elementary school I had been an enthusiastic consumer of the popular "Blue Book" series, which glorified captains of industry such as Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, Thomas Edison and, of course, Andrew Carnegie, the great iron and steel baron, I didn't have much of a reason. I had been, and still am, almost insatiably curious and had considered about every profession there was at one time or another.
I simply wasn't ready to choose and this job was out there, paid great and it was so wholly and totally different than anything in my experience that it held a strange attraction. I told Jim and Dan that working in that mill, with those people, in such horrendous conditions, was just the single most thoroughly real thing I had ever done. I loved it. I hated it. At that time of my life, the mill completely captivated me. I didn't understand why, but I had a strong sense it would become to be about the best education I would ever receive, which turned out to be correct.
The beer kept flowing and as a very lean, with a high metabolism, 22-year-old trying to keep pace with a couple of overweight, 50-ish alcoholics, I was losing and I could feel it. Then Dan looked me in the eye and said, "So you tell me — what is NOT real?" Well, I had been in this debate before. I launched into a discussion about my thoughts on advertising.
As an example, I cited my housemate Tim's current girlfriend, a young ad writer with one of the world's biggest agencies, headquartered in Chicago. She was completely enthralled with how her team had invented the "Taste Me! Taste Me!" Doral Cigarette campaign. It might be time for the youngsters who are reading to change channels, but for those of you who don't recall the TV spot, this brilliant creation featured somehow sexy-looking packs of Dorals dancing provocatively around the screen, with a lone cigarette popping up and down out of each pack, pleading to the viewers, "Taste Me, Taste Me! Come on and Taste Me!" And just in case you didn't get it, the end of the ad featured a train flying into a tunnel. Now, just reading that, didn't you want to run out, buy a pack and light up?
I thus proclaimed to Dan some thoughts I had about advertising. I do recall Dan seeming a bit disconcerted and reluctantly conceding a point or two to me. As we parted, he gave me his card and said, "Call me sometime." The next day I took a good look at the card and read his title, "Senior Vice President," and his company, you guessed it, was the very same ad agency my friend's girlfriend worked for. Turns out her Doral team reported directly to him.
Jim tried to get me to call Dan several times; said he was "really interested in me," and thought it would be good to hire a "contrarian." But I knew there was no way I could deal with being immersed in such BS all day, every day, no matter how much money you could make.
So back to the present. I want you to go find last Sunday's paper and slowly page through the Real Estate section. Read every builder ad a quarter page and larger. What do they say? Put yourself in your customer's shoes. You run an ad for one reason. Because you believe you are tying into a singularly important, highly-motivating issue that will compel a prospective customer to venture out to your product and if your salesperson does her job, you sell a house.
But as a customer, can you feel it? You are spending $300K on a home. The ad just told you that the $10K of options you want will only cost $5K. For real? But is this a real discount or the housing equivalent of a Sears tool ad? And do you think you'd have gotten that anyway? And is the $15 a month in your mortgage payment you'll save making you itchy to buy TODAY? Another ad promises LAST CHANCE! Do you buy it? Another says, "BUILD WITH THE BEST! What? Will that make me the best?
Want to really have some fun? Copy off every one of these ads and tape them around the conference room. With your trusted staff, go stand in front of each one in turn, read it slowly and then shout "Honey quick! Get the checkbook! We gotta buy this one!" Don't worry that your staff will think you are nuts. (You are a builder — they already know.) But after you read five or six ads, make them take turns reading the next ones and trying to seriously, emphatically declare their intention to buy that builder's house. Now see if you can get them to stop laughing.
Now that your crew is softened up, here comes the serious part. Go write on the board the full, sunk cost — all directs and any indirect that you know are there — of all the advertising you did last year. Include print, billboards, radio and TV. Put it down in big letters and stare at it. Now challenge yourselves with the question, "Are we getting the full value for our money?"
I've been around enough to know the answer to that for most of you.The logical follow-up is "if we don't spend it there, where do we spend it?" That's the perfect question — for next month. Meanwhile, engage in this exercise and you'll be way ahead of me. Ask your team to develop a plan to answer this challenge. "If there was no advertising, how specifically would we get prospective customers to know who we are, what we build, how we do business and why they should seek us out and buy our homes?"
But DON'T DELAY! You must ACT NOW! Because FOR A LIMITED TIME ONLY! there are six- and seven-figure bills lying around your office, just waiting to be picked up.