Q&A: <i>American Inventor</i> Judge Ed Evangelista

This advertising expert shares the number-one secret to creating an ad campaign that's certain to help sell your product.

By Sarah Pierce

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Before American Inventor hit the airwaves, you'd probably never heard of Ed Evangelista. But if you've spent any time watching TV or flipping through a magazine, you've seen his talent at work. Evangelista has years of advertising experience with companies such as Rolex, Smirnoff and Merrill Lynch, and is the man behind DeBeers' (now The Diamond Trading Company's) memorable branding campaigns: "Women of the world, raise your right hand," "For your past, present and future," and "I forever do."

We'd bet just about everyone's seen one of those diamond-ring commercials--and that's just the way Evangelista wants it. From TV commercials that work to smart viral marketing tips to "flash mobbing" tactics, here, Evangelista shares his secrets to effective advertising and grabbing your consumers on the go.

Entrepreneur.com:You have a lot of advertising experience in a time when everything's changing--everyone's in a hurry. Right now, what's the best form of advertising to really grab people's attention?

Ed Evangelista: The best form? There is no best form. I think it's very important today that you wrap the consumer 360 degrees [in your marketing message]. You've got to be everywhere that consumer goes because consumers are like a school of fish: If they see you coming, they're going the other way.

I think we have to be at places where they least expect it, and I think that's what people really get surprised about and take notice of. Think about the web: Viral [marketing] is so important. Look at [sites like] MySpace, where you see all these little underground films and pieces of communication being passed around. When [people] find something that's really different or a little quirky and fun, they want to share it with each other.

Listen, today, it's a brand new landscape; it's a whole new ballgame. I think we're all learning as fast as it's changing--and it's changing every day. When you've got places like MySpace and all these other sites popping up with these strange things that are entertaining and different, you've got to figure out ways to use them and do it in a way that doesn't turn off the viewer. Brands today are going to supply the content for entertainment. You have to be everywhere--that's the landscape we're working with. You really have to be smart.

And this can be something as simple as [using] "flash mobs." For example, when they came out with [the movie] The Matrix, they hired 200 to 400 people and dressed them up to look like [the agents] chasing Keanu Reeves. They put them all around New York City and the country and had them walking around, and everyone was wondering "What the hell is that?" That's flash mobbing. Those are the kinds of things [I'm talking about].

What happens is it creates awareness, and it creates a buzz, and it makes people want to go after it. Advertising isn't about pushing anymore; it's about pulling. It's making people want to come to you and seek you out, rather than the old model which is the hard sell, the "push." People don't want that anymore. They don't have time for it, and they don't want to hear it.

Entrepreneur.com:On American Inventor, you said that Erik's Catch Vest was truly an original invention, unlike the other finalists whose inventions you thought were just better versions of old stuff.

Evangelista: The reason I said that was because the definition of an invention is something that never existed before. Do the other [inventions on the show] already exist? I think that in some ways, they do. I think that the [spherical] car seat is just a better version [of the traditional car seat]. I think that there have been word games for as long as people have been communicating. And the [double-traction] bicycle is just a modification of a different kind of bike. I really believe that what Erik did was truly unique because as a training device, no one has ever really tackled--pardon the pun--the issue of catching a football the right way.

Entrepreneur.com:So how important is it for a product to be original when it enters the market?

Evangelista: That's a good question. I don't think it has to be original; I think it has to have something about it that people want, [which is] very important today when people don't have time for anything. That's our biggest issue right now--people don't have time. They don't have time for their families; they don't have time for work or their hobbies; they don't even have time for themselves. The last thing they want to do is waste time with something they just don't want in their lives. So it's very important that we create products that people want to spend time with and engage in.

Entrepreneur.com:Say you have a product that isn't original. How can you spin it advertising-wise to make people take notice and choose your product over other, similar ones?

Evangelista: If you think about it, everything's been done before; it's just the way you attack it and package it [that makes it different]. I mean, look at retro brands. Look at all the brands that use retro types of things from the '50s or '60s. Why do people go for that stuff today? If you look at kids today, they go for the stuff we were doing back in the '70s. Is that original? Well, maybe not to us it isn't, but there's something there that [makes people realize] this product is "getting them." That's important. People want to make sure they align themselves with brands they can say "gets me."

Even more than that, a product has to be aesthetically pleasing. Look at the iPod: As soon as you look at one of those things you have to have one, and it's because it's designed beautifully and is simplicity in it's purest form. Simplicity is the essence of all art. When you look at what you want to engage in today--besides having a product that "gets" me or has something that I can relate to or want to be a part of--I think it comes down to aesthetic.

Entrepreneur.com:Speaking of things being simple, let's go back to Erik and his commercial. Some of the judges thought it was confusing and didn't do his product justice. What are the keys to making a really good commercial?

Evangelista: My first reaction to Erik's commercial was that the concept was interesting, [but] I just didn't feel like they explained what the product did. I think they didn't really spend time at the end to explain the reason for that product, why you need it or what it did. That was a big flaw with that commercial.

Now as far as what makes a great commercial? I wish I knew the answer because then, every day, I'd hit one out of the park. I think what you need to do is be clear. You have to stand for something and fill a need or help somebody make their life better. I think it's very important to sit around and come up with a strategy, figure out who your target is, and talk to [your target audience] in their voice.

Entrepreneur.com:Who do you hope wins American Inventor?

Evangelista: I have to tell you the truth: I think they're all gonna win in the end. There are no losers here. If anything, I think the country will win as well because I really hope that next year when we come back, the inventors start to take it more seriously once they see what the [winner does] with $1 million. I hope the people watching the show who are these basement inventors and people with little crazy notions . . . I hope they realize we're very serious and it's very important that if you have an idea to really start to do something with [your] dream. Everybody's got a dream, but the problem with most people is they don't act on it; they don't do anything about it.

So I don't think there are any losers here. I can't just say one over the other. If you look at each person, it is called American Inventor, so it's about the person as well as the invention. Some of these people really have some tough lives, and they're doing whatever they can to get out of it. You have to look at the whole package, and I think that in the end it's good for everybody.

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