5 Things Small Businesses Can Learn From Some of the Greatest Names in Advertising

By Rhonda Bradley / 31 October 2018

Learn what your small business can do to mimic the success of some of history’s greatest advertising geniuses.

In this article, we share advice from some of the biggest names in the advertising industry, past and present. Discover what years of creativity, experience, and leadership has taught them, and find out how to apply the lessons to help your brand succeed.

Throughout the pages that follow, you’ll notice that none of the advice refers to big budgets or large teams. All these gems of wisdom can benefit today’s small business owners and "solopreneurs."

Here are the lessons we’ll cover:

  1. Adopt a “Frontier” Mentality
  2. Cultivate Your Curiosity
  3. Don’t Ignore Research
  4. Learn to Start Over
  5. Leave Your Doors Open

1. Adopt a “Frontier” Mentality

  • Tips from W+K Lodge, a technology division of Wieden+Kennedy ad agency, named Ad Agency of the Year 2018 by Ad Age Magazine.
W+K screenshot
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Beware of routine if you hope to bring creativity to life. According to W+K Lodge's blog on Medium.com, tech brands that rely too much on routine might fall prey to the “innovator's dilemma.” 

In other words, it’s easy to fall into the routine of doing what you know how to do best, including targeting the same audience and sticking to preferred channels and messaging.

The Lodge recommends that brands adopt a “frontier mentality.” In other words, commit to exploring the uncomfortable perimeters of a market, such as:

  • Emerging technologies
  • Emerging platforms
  • Risky or niche business models

Push your boundaries and step outside of traditional workflows and established metrics. All of the above requires you to stretch your strategic thinking.

Wieden+Kennedy agency (W+K) is a firm believer in embracing emerging technologies, which they claim are the frontiers of today’s landscape. They embrace AI and robotics as a means to develop new experiences for W+K brands.

For example, Nike’s Live Design Experience, developed by W+K Lodge, allows users to customize Nike shoes with voice commands. To create a Live Design, users slip on a special pair of shoes and stand on the design platform as a images are projected onto the shoes. 

In the image below, you see how the technology adjusted the design of the shoe when the wearer said the word “hamburger.”

Nike Live Design Experience
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Innovative technology, such as the Nike Live Design Experience, is at the core of W+K’s philosophy. “Everything we’re doing is in a new format in some way,” explains Lodge manager Paulo Ribeiro. 

2. Cultivate Your Curiosity

  • Tips from George Tannenbaum, former executive creative director and copy chief at Ogilvy & Mather, one of the world’s largest advertising companies. 

George Tannenbaum

In a recent post at his blog “Ad Aged,” George Tannenbaum shares his advice in a piece titled “60 Things I’ve Learned in 60 Years.” 

Throughout the 60-point article, one central message rings clear – cultivating one’s curiosity is a key ingredient to success in marketing.

One shining example of a creative businessperson who is well-known for his adventurous spirit is Virgin Group founder and billionaire Richard Branson.

In a blog post titled “My Top 10 Adventures,” Branson encourages readers to celebrate the “thrill, value, and wonder of adventure, from adrenaline-fueled pursuits, to being daring in your career and adding exploration to your daily life.”

Richard Branson

Here are a few more takeaways from Tannenbaum’s list that align with his lesson on curiosity:

  • Be constantly learning. Tannenbaum recommends visiting museums, reading books, and seeking out answers to what motivates people, and also, what makes them laugh.
  • Study advertising history. Go beyond what’s winning awards in today’s world. He stresses, “We should know our Ogilvy, Gossage, Bernbach – even Rosser Reeves.”
  • Hire people who don’t look like you. “So we don’t have a business that looks like business looked forty years ago.”

In an article entitled, “Five Ways To Cultivate Curiosity And Tap Into Your Creativity,” Josh Ritchie offers tips for developing a curious mindset, including:

  • Reading
  • Practice asking “why”
  • Hang out with a child

Many of George Tannenbaum's tips reflect the sentiment of his former agency’s founding father, David Ogilvy.

In the next section, we share advice from Ogilvy himself.

3. Don’t Ignore Research

David Oglivy
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David Ogilvy believed himself to be a terrible copywriter and claimed he was helpless without research material.

To prepare for a campaign, Ogilvy spent much of his time researching the products he was going to write about, and looking at every competing ad that had been published in the 20 years prior.

Once his research was complete, Ogilvy wrote down the problem that his product was trying to solve, then made a list of “every conceivable fact and selling idea.”

“The key to success is to promise the consumer a benefit — like better flavor, whiter wash, more miles per gallon, a better complexion," said Oglivy.

“The key to success is to promise the consumer a benefit — like better flavor, whiter wash, more miles per gallon, a better complexion."

Ogilvy’s research and benefits-driven advertising shine through clearly in his advertising headlines. 

For example, he penned the infamous Rolls-Royce slogan “At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock.”

Famous Rolls-Royce slogan
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Another well-known David Ogilvy headline was written for Sears' first national advertising campaign. To let readers know about the benefits of their return policy, the headline simply read “How to Get Your Money Back at Sears.” 

Sears by Oglivy Screenshot
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The process of research, problem-solving, and benefits is a technique that today’s copywriters use on a daily basis. Ogilvy’s approach to advertising is timeless, and taught in nearly every beginner copywriting course to this day.

Discover the top 15 advertising and marketing companies.

4. Learn to Start Over

  • Tips from Jeff Goodby, co-founder of and co-chairman at Goodby Silverstein & Partners, an ad agency that was named “2018 Comeback Agency of the Year” by Ad Age Magazine after a $1 billion year in 2017.
Jeff Goodby screenshot
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Sometimes creative people get so wrapped up in a project or idea, they can’t see the forest through the trees. 

In an interview with Adweek Magazine, Jeff Goodby talks about how important it is to recognize when an idea or project isn't working and let it go.

Goodby says that it takes a lot of faith in yourself to be able to scratch an idea and start over, but in the end, “many times you think back and say ‘s***, I’m really glad I did that, because that first idea wasn’t that good.’” 

One example of a company that let go of one project to start over is a computer called the “Apple Lisa,” produced by Apple under Steve Job’s leadership in 1983. 

Although the computer itself was a technical success, the $10,000 price tag didn’t go over well with consumers. 

Apple Lisa
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Development of the Apple Lisa cost the company $100 million, yet it sold only 10,000 units. 

Apple dropped the project and moved on to other, more profitable, developments. According to PC Magazine, it was one of Apple’s biggest failures and legend has it that Apple “buried the evidence, er, excess inventory... in a landfill in Logan, Utah.”

5. Leave Your Doors Open

  • Our final tip comes to us as a story about ad man John Hunt, as told by Leon Jacobs. John Hunt is co-founder of and creative chairman at TBWA Worldwide, a unit of the Omnicom Group, the world’s 3rd largest ad agency holding company. 
John Hunt screenshot
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In his self-penned article “10 Lessons I Learned From A Career In Advertising,” Leon Jacobs tells the story of a younger John Hunt before he went on to co-found TBWA.

After 2 years away from Hunt Lascaris advertising agency, Leon returned to work for the firm once again. 

Upon his return, he noticed a change in the company’s culture – the doors were closed, teams worked in isolation, and people protected their ideas.

When asked by Hunt if he noticed a difference in the company from 2 years prior, Leon commented on the closed doors. He mentioned the way people used to drift in and out of each other’s offices, asking colleagues for feedback in a more collaborative environment.

 Jacobs goes on to recount

“The next morning, when I arrived at work - every single door in the creative department had been removed overnight.”

The power of collaborative learning was appreciated - and celebrated - by both Jacobs and Hunt. 

Brands Should Cultivate Creativity to Fuel Success

Even though this advice comes from big-name talent at large advertising agencies, it can all be applied to help small businesses:

  • Develop unique content
  • Produce extraordinary marketing campaigns
  • Develop in-house talent

As you’re checking off your “to-do” lists and going about your daily tasks, remember to prioritize creativity as one of your business’s most valuable tools. Find ways to cultivate creativity among your team in order to develop marketing campaigns of the highest-possible quality.

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