What Makes an Ad Successful?

With over 30 years of experience in the industry, John Adams shares what it takes to make a great Super Bowl advertisement

The Martin Agency has created the jingles for Freecreditreport.com, "Peggy," the worthless customer service agent for Discover Card and the caveman, shown here, for Geico. (Courtesy of The Martin Agency)

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For Geico, the agency has taken a multipronged approach, with ads featuring the gecko, cavemen, Kash and the rhetorical questions guy.

Yeah, that has been an interesting journey to get to that place. When you look at that from the standpoint of a marketer who is classically trained in marketing, you say, “That is absolute heresy. That is crazy to do that, to have three or four different campaigns not to mention the fact that often two or more of these campaigns are running at the same time.” We all learned that you take one selling idea and you hammer it over and over again, otherwise people won’t get it. If you have more than one message in the market about your brand, people will become confused about what you stand for.

As we worked with Geico over the last 17 years, we have looked at a lot of things, including cultural phenomena. We began to observe the way entertainment is being developed and consumed today, and it is changing. One simple example: the crime drama. Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, “Dragnet” had a little opening gambit between Jack Webb (who played Sergeant Joe Friday) and his colleague, and then there would be a single crime that took place and was solved in the course of that 30-minute episode. You flash-forward to the seminal crime drama of the last decade, and you have “The Sopranos.” Well, “The Sopranos” has multiple stories going on at the same time. You have Tony Soprano’s story and you have Carmela’s story and you have Uncle Junior’s story. You might not see any development in a particular story line during one episode, and then the next episode somebody will look at somebody in a funny way and you will realize, oh yes, that goes back to that incident two episodes ago. It is a similar phenomenon with the series “24” and with the program “Lost.”

We are being barraged. We have CNN on TV, with two separate crawls going across the bottom of the screen. We have multiple things going on at the same time on our computer screens. We have advertising popping up. We began to notice this, and we began to experiment with it. What we have discovered is that, sure enough, people are not confused. People are fascinated. We have the great advantage that some people respond to the cavemen. They think the cavemen are hilarious. Other people think it’s stupid, but they like the gecko.

From your seat, what ad has been the biggest game changer for the industry?

I don’t think there is a single ad. The entire digital experience of advertising is the game changer of the last half-century. For so many decades, advertising has been the process of presentation. We have a product, we decide what the product should stand for, how it will appeal to its target audience, and we present the product that way in advertising. One-way communication: presentation. Now, of course, we are not the only people who define the way a brand is perceived. We have bloggers. We have Twitter. We have Facebook. We have YouTube, where people do parodies of television commercials. We are in the business of starting a conversation and then participating in the conversation. We now have to understand and embrace the fact that we and our clients are not the only creators of our brand’s stories. Our consumers, people out there in the world, are co-creators, because their response to our advertising might be seen by as many people as the advertising.

We will build a foundation. Then, our consumers will put in some bricks. If we are smart, we will respond not only to our own view of the brand’s story but also to the consumers’ view. And so we have come to use a term here that underscores the point. We talk about the change from storytelling to story building. We and our consumers are building stories.


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