"I'm in the furniture business. Which media should I use?"

"I'd like to target people who are afraid of the dentist. Can you recommend a good mailing list company?"

"My uncle uses TV ads to attract new customers, and they work really well for him. What's your opinion of TV?"

"No one in my town listens to the radio anymore. Everyone has satellite or an iPod."

"I tried advertising. It doesn't work for my kind of business."

People say things like this and expect me to have an intelligent response. What usually happens is I stand there, dull eyed, with my mouth hanging open. These aren't my favorite moments.

When my brain finally recovers, and I tell them the truth they need to hear, they act as though I've sidestepped their question. The following is the truth they needed to hear. If you're asking similar questions, maybe you need to hear it, too.

Relevance is what determines whether an ad works or not. Every medium fails when it delivers a message no one cares about. Have you ever run an ad that failed? Let's see what really happened:

1. The ad was so predictable, few people even noticed it.
Solution: Get a new ad writer or remove the handcuffs from the one you've got.

2. Prospective customers noticed the ad, received the message and understood it perfectly. They just didn't care.
Solution: Dump the irrelevant subject matter. Discover what people actually care about and talk about that instead.

3. The ad's message would've been relevant, but it was unclear.
Solution: Remind your writer that creativity often gets in the way of clarity. Remind your layout artist that the prettiest ad is rarely the most effective. You're running a business, not a magazine. Make sure the dynamic duo understands that their continued employment depends on creating ads that sell the product. And if you take care of both of those jobs, don't be afraid to criticize yourself and correct your mistakes.

4. You committed to an ad campaign that was shorter than your product selling cycle.
If people buy your product once a week, don't expect your ads to return a profit during the first week. If people buy once a month, don't expect to break even on your advertising during the first 30 days. If your product selling cycle is longer than two years, you can expect to lose money on your ads--even if they're good--for the first four to six months. You'll start pulling ahead during the second six months. But your real growth won't happen until you begin reaching that same group of people for a second year.
Solution: Commit to an ad campaign commensurate with your product selling cycle.

5. The listener wasn't engaged because the ad was written from a cultural perspective other than their own. This is why Anglo-conceived Hispanic campaigns usually fail. Translating language is easy. Transferring cultural perspective is nearly impossible.
Solution: Hire a different ad writer to create the second campaign. Make sure the writer is from the cultural background he or she is trying to reach.

Here are the bottom lines:

  • Ads that fail in one medium will usually fail in others.
  • The medium is not the message; the message is the message.
  • And the message is what matters most.

To deliver a pointless message powerfully is the definition of hype. To deliver a powerful message pointlessly is the result of weak creative content. But to deliver a powerful message powerfully is the first step in making a fortune.