What The Mad Men Knew
There is so much talk about communication media these days, and so little talk about the message. When we mention it at all, we call it “content.” As in, “contents,” useful not so much to communicate but to fill a kind of communication container.
The container, these days, is the center of the conversation.
But communication fails when it’s produced by “people who spend all their time fussing with the tools and techniques of advertising, perhaps because they’re not very sensitive, intuitive, or inventive and must find something to hide behind. They spend their professional lives running around arguing about long copy versus short, about the importance of subheads, whether photography is better than artwork, and what percentage of the page should be given over to illustration and what to copy.”
So wrote the creative director for a prominent Detroit ad agency back in the Mad Men era. In a memo dated Oct. 4, 1966, he considered what marketing people should be thinking about: How their messages are possibly going to compete with all the distractions and competing chores and heavy worries in the lives of each consumer they are trying to reach.
How do you engage people? I believe you engage them by telling them something they agree with … by proving something to them on a page or a TV screen right before their very eyes … by appealing to their selfish interests, and their unselfish ones … by offering something they want to hear … by surprising them or shocking them with a headline … by offering them hope or help with a problem … or by adding humor to their lives.
I believe you can get to people by challenging them … by disarming them … by appealing to their sense of honesty and truthfulness … by saying something they’ve known or felt all their lives but never seen in print.
The problem is to remember, to remember to think first of people and then of the product. … The world is not about advertising. It is about people.
Who was the Mad Man adman who wrote that? My Dad man, the late Tom Murray.
I imagine my plain and simple love and admiration for my dad—and my mother, who was one of the copywriters who received that memo—is why I write about communication. And I’m sure it’s the source of my focus: People, and the very difficult, very human job of truly, meaningfully reaching them.
Why do you do what you do?
David Murray is a longtime commentator on communication. The editor of Vital Speeches of the Day, he also writes for magazines and newspapers. And he blogs about his work and his life at Writing Boots.