Breakthrough Financial Creative

By Benjamin Wheeler

Breakthrough financial advertising is not an oxymoron. The $5 billion financial services category has traveled light years in the past five years. Main Street has embraced Wall Street and this new breed of enlightened, Suze Orman-educated financial consumer has been empowered to make both financial decisions -- and more importantly -- financial choices. For a financial marketer, charged with making a meaningful impression on this new breed of informed consumer, this raises new challenges.

Like a whisper, financial advertising must capture attention without compromising a marketer's credibility. It's not enough to be bold and stand out for the sake of standing out.

Making a bold idea mean something to a market, and proving this to management, is paramount.

Anyone in charge of generating breakthrough advertising knows that few categories are as challenging as financial services. Package goods as a category is much easier, because package goods marketers understand their environment is a fight for shelf space, therefore they start with differentiated product benefits and superiority claims. Not so in the financial services category. Even if you have a competitive edge, there are compliance and SEC issues to battle. The ability to make superlative claims such as "our investment advisors will make you 25% richer than any of our comptitors" is rare to impossible. This lack of specificity leads to a focus that is too often on the broadly over-cultivated territory of "how we are better because of the way we do things."

The resulting problem is that there is a sea of sameness in the category.

What does it take?

Companies plunking down millions of dollars can't afford sameness.

In an incredibly fragmented mediascape, companies have to be bold. Compelling messages need to simply explain the product while getting consumers' attention through differentiated branding platforms. This brings us to the question "what is it that makes financial or any other kind of advertising really breakthrough?"

Mark DiMassimo, president and chief creative officer of DiMassimo Advertising points to simplicity.

"Simplicity defines the best financial services advertising, but simplicity can be a misleading guide as there are a lot of simple campaigns that are simply awful," he says.

"The most sophisticated teams make the best work. There is no formula, no plan or process that will work every time. Through a series of distinctions, followed by a series of meaningful subtractions, these teams end up with a simple solution, which bypasses the clichés of the category and connects with the target audience on the level of values," he says. "Values, paradoxically, constitute the fashion component of great financial advertising," Dimassimo continues. "Not because the values go out of style, but because the meaning of the values you wear on your sleeve changes over time. Citibank, for example, has gotten a lot of mileage out of putting money in perspective. This is a perennial value, but it is also a fresh and timely one for a bank to wear. GEICO sticks with the good news of simple savings. Merrill Lynch chose the right reason to come out with 'bullish' as did prudential with 'the rock' and Allstate with 'good hands.' Brands attempting to imitate these hits of the past might as well be wearing a leisure suit," says DiMassimo.

Joyce King Thomas, executive vice president, deputy creative director of McCann Erickson and creator of the "priceless" campaign for MasterCard answered the question simply: "Well, my MasterCard client wants -- and demands -- breakthrough creative ideas. Sometimes it's tempting for agencies to show large volumes of work. Instead, we try to show just the ideas we've fallen in love with. And when you're 'in love' with your work, it's much easier for the client to fall in love, too."

"Gut response," Matt Kasindorf with Needleman Drossman & Partners says. "Great creative work in financial services advertising is not unlike great creative work in other categories. We can't forget that business people are consumers, too. They're just usually under a lot more stress. In today's world, we are all moving faster and faster than ever before. We really don't have time for distractions. And that makes advertising have to work harder than ever, as well."

Mark Benson used to be chief marketing officer for KeyCorp's Champion Mortgage.

"My approach for creative development was the same that would be used in a classical consumer package goods marketing program and the creative was a direct result of consumer research," he says. "For example, prospective customers were identified in terms of how they perceived their credit attitudinally. Those prospects were interviewed one-on-one in laddering focus groups to determine what their emotional sweet spots were and that data was used to develop the creative.

"Then animatics for TV (roughly produced commercials used for consumer research before producing the final version) or voice-over for radio spots would be used in one-on-one interviews with similar prospects in each DMA to ascertain that the creative would be well received."

There are many different ways of getting there, but ultimately the goal of break through advertising is to produce tangible results.

Advertising is an investment

Advertising is often seen as an expense by upper management, and not an investment with a measurable return. It's often cut during a rough economy when it's most effective. To really move the needle on how advertising is ultimately perceived and justified by upper management and the board of directors, you have to do something radical for the category and then stand behind it for several years. Unless you have unlimited funds you have to 'zag' when everyone else is in 'zig' mode.

In the financial world, it's similar to having a contrarian investment philosophy. The best ideas should make people sit up and take notice, change their behavior or perceptions and make upper management nervous. E-trade, Lending, Citigroup and Mastercard are my favorite category-busting campaigns, because they stand out for good emotional and empowering reasons, not always associated with large, impersonal financial institutions. Aflac and GEICO may not be my favorite campaigns, but I willingly admit they are tactical masterpieces for standing out in the category with clear brand objectives.

As a marketer you inevitably have to ask yourself, "Who can be blamed for being conservative?" Actually, you can, especially if you are expected to show a return on your advertising investment. The Aflac duck is a bold approach, a strategic home run, because it is a radical departure from the norms of the category and stands out in an extremely cluttered environment. It's also enduring and poolable, not just a one hit wonder. But how does one get the management of a conservative financial institution to invest millions of dollars in a talking duck?

The best advice is to pre-sell the advertising as a financial investment like other investments. And clearly define exactly what the goals are. For an unknown brand, it's 'brand awareness.' For a troubled brand, it's 'a change in brand perception.' For a known brand, advertising may take a cue from Sergio Zyman and be linked directly to 'profits' with specific promotions.

Whatever it is, position it as an investment goal. Make it clear about what you are starting with and where you would like to be, then be realistic with what it's going to take to get you there. Only then does it start to really make sense. You have to take unusual tactics to achieve your financial goals. Doing something that doesn't stand out and make a connection with it's audience in this category is a huge financial mistake.

Putting measurement systems in place

Joyce King Thomas of McCann Erickson says, "My client definitely sees advertising as an investment. They're proud to have famous advertising that has a real, measurable impact on their business. They do tracking of the advertising and measure the advertising's performance with several proprietary systems. And it's definitely working."

A measurement system in place is critical to understanding what you are getting out of your investment. For most, this comes in the form of consumer research where brand awareness, brand perception, intent to purchase, or even direct purchases are tracked on an ongoing basis. Success is gauged to how well advertising moved the needle against baseline numbers established at the onset.

The advantage of having research is that you have something tangible to put in front of anybody who doubts the effectiveness of advertising. But traditional testing is not always an established practice in the financial services category, as it is in other categories. Everyone I asked agreed that testing was a good thing, but the importance of testing is not always understood at the very top levels of a company.

"Typical testing and proof for other categories is too 'new' for our category," says Elisa Romm of MasterCard. "The direct correlation that package goods believe in between advertising, promotion, pricing, packaging and share is not agreed to in our category. So, any proof we find that advertising or marketing in the bigger sense works is looked at skeptically.

"I think factual proof is important. If we can keep things away from opinion, we can prove that advertising works. I try hard to keep everyone's opinion out of it, and just say it's the consumer that counts. After you have proof the consumer is reacting positively, management's faith in the advertising investment grows."

Don't underestimate politics

One marketing director with a strong background in PR has seen some of the ironies in the business. He says that his CEO "simply doesn't believe in advertising." People would ask, "Surely he sees the benefit of 'I heard of you' when he walks into a significant business pitch and is up against better known competitors?" He agreed and cited an article in Forbes Magazine featuring the CEO that has made a difference in the sales process.

"When it first came out, nobody in the sales force thought too much of it, but when it came to an important sales call, what's the first thing that came out of their briefcases?" the manager says.

The fact that every organization has its politics cannot be ignored. Sometimes it's a competing department. Sometimes someone in the sales force is bent out of shape because advertising stole some of their thunder. Sometimes it's the CEO's spouse who doesn't like a certain color. Agencies are also notorious for internal politics. We all live in highly political organizations. But if you've done your work, positioned advertising as an investment, and put a measurement system in place to help with the decision making process, then you're ready for boardroom politics. Boardroom politics should never be underestimated, and the more facts and numbers you can throw in the face of executives, the better chance you have of gaining and retaining respect and credit for your success. Testing can be expensive, but a good rule of thumb is "The smaller the budget, the less elaborate the testing." Even on a small scale, good qualitative testing is a valuable tool.

How do you do more with less?

Whether you have ten dollars or a half billion dollars, you always want to get the most for your advertising budget.

"Even though you might not call MasterCard's budget small, they are still outspent by their largest competitor," says Joyce King Thomas. "So we try to make sure our work is memorable and hangs together so we stand for one thing in the consumer's mind. Generally, the smaller the budget, the noisier the work should be. As for small production dollars, we've done some very fun spots for very little money. For example, we did a spot about MasterCard's golf sponsorship using free NASA footage of one of the astronauts playing golf on the moon. That was a very popular spot, and cost very little to produce."

Integrated marketing is also impotant to the process, according to Mark Benson, formerly of KeyCorp, because it delivers exponential value for the marketing dollar.

"However, I believe that integrated marketing is also one of the most misused terms in marketing today," he explains. "There are those who mistakenly believe that the mere fact that multiple disciplines are used constitute integrated marketing. True integrated marketing leverages the synergistic relationship between advertising, marketing and public relations."

Michael Rosen, senior vice president of media sales at Bloomberg says that there are different ways and a variety of places where people can be reached.

"In our recent BTV advertising campaign, we focused on our core audience who already tune in to Bloomberg Television. Rather than going broad, we find creative ways to reach the financial professional. We know where they are and what their interests are...catch them when they're at the gym, getting coffee or on the elevators. The best place to expand our audience is to look to cross promotions," Rosen explains.

It's not what you have it's what you do with it that counts.

The bottom line

The challenge often rests not only with coming up with the breakthrough strategy and subsequent creative ideas, but with creating an internal environment where breakthrough thinking can actually be encouraged by upper management.

Once you've achieved this internal feng shui, (in which the fewest barriers possible exist) the most critical element in achieving a breakthrough strategy is getting breakthrough advertising, exemplified in bold creative. Consumer behavior will follow if you buy the best creative you can afford to break through the clutter.

But be aware. Agencies don't create breakthrough ideas, people do. Many clients pick an agency with a great name and pitch team only to discover that the actual people they liked are not servicing their account. Clients have to shop within the agency to find the people most qualified to do the work. If your account is too small for the agency to be important, walk away as fast as you can. A seasoned freelance creative team on a $2 million account can exceed your expectations. A junior team at a well-known agency may disappoint you.

Don't buy an agency with a proven reputation, buy people with proven reputations. In the end, it's better to have a great strategy and resulting creative that moves the needle and demonstrates to top management that their "above the line" dollars are a good investment.

Great creatives are great strategic thinkers. It's not always the creative department with the big idea and it's not always the account department with the big strategy. Sometimes it's the media department. The bottom line is that if you buy great creative minds, you get great creative, but you have to get in bed and support those ideas by selling senior management. You have to back it up. Being safe never won the battle. Truly great strategies personified by bold creative proven in market research and embraced by senior management, is truly nirvana.

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