Ad Men Of The Lowcountry
Author: Frank Dunne Jr.
When the TV series Mad Men first came out, people asked me all the time how authentic it was. My first answer is, well, we didn’t really drink that much in the office,” said marketing consultant Michael Weaver who spent 25 years on Madison Avenue. He’s got the bona fides to talk about it. “I’m not quite that old, but those characters represent the guys who hired me,” he said.
For those unfamiliar, Mad Men is a fictional portrayal of Madison Avenue, the advertising agencies and the “ad men” who worked there (Get it? Madison Avenue; ad men; Mad Men?) during the Creative Revolution. That era, roughly the late 1950s through the early 1970s, produced some of the most iconic impressions in advertising history: Doyle Dane Bernbach’s legendary Volkswagen Beetle campaign, McCann-Erickson’s “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” for Coca Cola, Grey Advertising’s “Leave the Driving to Us” for Greyhound, Leo Burnett’s Marlboro Man, Jolly Green Giant and Tony the Tiger, J. Walter Thompson’s “7UP, The Uncola,” and “The Few. The Proud. The Marines.” You can probably recall plenty more on your own.
“But a better answer came to me while I was doing a strategic plan last year,” Weaver continued, “and that is, what’s really most authentic about Mad Men is how highly valued ideas were. Ideas were known to change the course of industries. Ideas were known to make fortunes. Somewhere along the line we lost that.”
The ad business was a very different animal in those days. There were only three television networks—all broadcast—no cable or satellite. Advertising was, for the most part, television, radio, print, billboards and direct mail—the postage stamp kind, not e-mail. Personal computers were still a distant dream, let alone the World Wide Web, social media and mobile apps. Ideas had to be big, because traditional media advertising is a one-way conversation with the advertiser doing all the talking. Today, you click through online ads to find out more about a product, or chat online with a customer service representative. You might find out what other people are saying about the product on social media. You, the consumer, actively participate in the conversation, and if the conversation is sufficiently persuasive, you might hit the buy button right then and there. Not so in the Creative Revolution days when that TV or print ad might give the advertiser one shot at the all-important first impression. Compelling, persuasive stories that made emotional connections were mission critical.
Compelling, persuasive stories are what Weaver is talking about when he says somewhere along the line we lost that. “Technology had kind of taken center stage in marketing,” he said. “But I saw many, many instances where there was no budget and no provision for writing the words and drawing the pictures.” Through his work with his consultancy Strategic Services and with new Bluffton agency Group 46 though, Weaver—along with others in the profession—has observed a shift taking place. “Over the past 10 or 11 months, we have seen a real resurgence of clients who want to be counseled on strategy and direction and brand identity.” In other words, businesses are getting smarter about their marketing, and if you own or run a business you’d do well to pay attention. If there’s a new creative revolution afoot, you’d better be on board to remain competitive.
The good news is that you don’t have to go to Madison Avenue in New York or to Chicago or L.A. and spend a fortune with giant advertising companies. There exists a community of talented marketing professionals right here in our own back yard, some with pedigrees dating almost back to the Creative Revolution and some fresh blood as well, who can show you the way. Nobody will ever mistake Hilton Head Island/Bluffton for Madison Avenue, but the talent and experience is here. Just look at what an important role the local ad business played in creating this community, beginning in the early 1970s, when big resorts like Sea Pines, Palmetto Dunes, and later Port Royal and Shipyard shelled out huge media budgets telling the world about Hilton Head Island. “We were spending over a million dollars a year on marketing for tourism,” said Tom Gardo, who was then public relations and advertising vice president for Sea Pines. “We ran ads, full-page ads, in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Town & Country magazine, all the golf publications and all the tennis publications,” added Gardo’s Palmetto Dunes counterpart, Karen Cerrati.
There were no advertising agencies on the island in those earliest years—the resorts’ in-house marketing departments hired agencies from out of state—and no real chamber of commerce, so the resort companies became Hilton Head Island’s de facto marketing arm. That changed in the late 1970s when economic conditions prompted the resort developers to downsize and the marketing people found themselves out of a job…or did they?
“Phil Lader (then Sea Pines Plantation president) said you can start your own agency and we’ll become your client. That’s how I got started,” Gardo said of his first agency, T. Gardo & Associates. “He handed me a million dollar startup business.” That same year, 1978, Cerrati and her coworker at Palmetto Dunes, Marsha Smelkinson, launched Smelkinson, Cerrati & Co. with two typewriters borrowed from Palmetto Dunes…and the Palmetto Dunes account. “Bob Onorato (then Palmetto Dunes president) was very supportive,” Cerrati said. “It was cost effective for him, so it was a win-win for everybody.”
With million dollar accounts in pocket right out of the gate, the two agencies went on to grow their billings to over $10 million per year, serving such clients as the Hilton Head Chamber of Commerce/Visitor & Convention Bureau, local hotels, a growing roster of restaurants and other small businesses, and out-of-state resort properties who sought their tourism marketing expertise. Through the 1980s and 1990s, with revenue from resorts declining, the agencies turned to the next gold mine: real estate development. And, as if taking its cue from Madison Avenue, the names on the doors of Hilton Head Island advertising agencies went into a seemingly constant state of flux.
Three years after it opened, T. Gardo & Associates merged with TCD-ADV (formed in 1974) to become Gardo, Doughtie & Rose, Inc. (GDR). Michigan agency Biggs, Gilmore & Associates entered the Hilton Head market and purchased Smelkinson, Cerrati in 1986, and GDR three years later. Biggs then sold the entire agency to Chernoff, Silver & Associates of Columbia, South Carolina. Gardo repurchased his stake in 2004 and operated as Chernoff Hilton Head for about five years.
Meanwhile, the now defunct Anderson Group (which spawned another local agency, Spirer Communications) emerged in the middle 1980s and handled the Chamber account as well as Gulfstream, Savannah Memorial Hospital, Embraer, and its own share of real estate developments.
Today Gardo and Cerrati continue the legacy with Denarius Group, the latest incarnation of the agencies they started all those years ago. By whatever name, the agency’s fingerprints can be found on virtually every southern Beaufort County real estate development project that sprung up during the 1990s-early 2000s boom as well as a number of important ballot referendums that helped form our community.
So, why the history lesson? For one, it’s a good story. More important, it illustrates the point that there is an advertising industry here that, like everybody else, has evolved with the times, but it is here nonetheless and well positioned to offer big ad agency quality work to local businesses of every size and shape. A few of the folks in that industry, “the Mad Men of the Lowcountry,” have some advice.
One big advertising mistake that business owners make is failing to develop brand and campaign strategies. They’ll buy an ad and hope it works, or put up a web site or Facebook page with no plan for how to use them. Gardo spoke about a local Hilton Head Island restaurant that had been employing that hit-or-miss approach and was getting beaten down by nearby competitors. “We came to them and we developed a strategy,” he said. That restaurant’s business increased 20 percent in the campaign’s first year and another 20 percent in the second. “So strategies work if you establish a strategy and keep to it and continue to develop it. That’s what most people don’t do.”When we talk about strategies in advertising, we’re not only talking about what media to buy or how many times an ad should run. Content, the message, the words and the pictures, require strategic thinking as well. Advertising people are professional writers, visual artists, and marketing researchers among other things. They do this stuff all day long, and what you say about your product and how you say it is not something to take lightly. It’s not all about features, colors, and sizes. It’s not all about industry awards and accolades. The fact is, most people base purchase decisions on emotions rather than logic. Yes, there are need-based purchases like new tires for your car, but when we buy the stuff that we really want, emotion tends to take over.
The advertising industry has spent over a century and who knows how many billions of dollars finding ways to tap into those emotions and make connections. Look at it this way; what if you picked up a magazine and all the restaurant ads looked just like all the other restaurant ads? We have seafood. We have steaks. We have drink specials at happy hour. You’d probably just turn the page. But suppose one of those ads stands apart from the rest because, through words or pictures, it speaks to you, tells you a story or asks you a question, inspires you to imagine yourself in that restaurant and think about who you’d like to see sitting across the table. Where are you most likely to have your next meal? That’s the kind of thinking behind smart advertising strategies. “They (advertisers) need to partner with a company or with a team that can help deliver their message to the world as to the feelings you will get,” Lockhart said.
Kevin Meany, president of BFG Communications in Bluffton, calls what his agency does “Activating the brand. Making something happen.” BFG, which launched a campaign last year to promote tourism in South Carolina, employs a philosophy emphasizing experiential components—events and in-store promotional activities for example—with traditional and digital media as support. It’s a reflection of Meany’s belief that you get better results from an in-depth, face-to-face conversation with 50 people than from showing a 30-second video to 1,000 people. “It’s the combination of all the little contact points along the journey with the consumer as a customer that add up to success,” he said. “Let’s actually talk to the customers. Let’s engage with them one-to-one and be relevant to them.”
Again, ad pros like Lockhart, Gardo, Cerrati, Meany, and others all note that they see signs of the resurgence that Weaver spoke about—a renaissance of sorts—for smart strategies and strong content in advertising, particularly in the digital realm. “Digital tools are the best tools we’ve ever had in marketing,” Weaver said. “But they’re only the application tools. They don’t provide the energy behind the application, and that has to come from strategy and content.”
Another pitfall that some advertisers face with technology is the notion that technology can replace expertise and experience, the human factor that you get when employing an ad agency to handle your marketing. Rob Lembo of Triad Design Group said, “The computer has made our business a lot easier, but on the other hand it’s flooded the market.” By that he is referring to the folks in business who try to do it themselves. “You have companies who say I have this computer and I have this program so I can do advertising.” A good way to look at it is, you hire an accountant, you hire a lawyer, so why wouldn’t you hire advertising professionals for such an important part of your business? Lembo’s Triad partner, Christina Laios, has some cautionary words about the lack of consistency that often results. “Sometimes they change their look from week to week,” she said, making it difficult for consumers to recognize their company or brand. “They don’t realize the damage they’re doing.”
While Lockhart says that the do-it-yourselfers are Group 46’s biggest competition, he and his colleagues do see more and more businesses coming around to the idea of hiring an advertising agency, especially when they realize that it doesn’t necessarily have to be as expensive as they might perceive. “What you’ll find is that if you develop a strategy that works and stick to it, you actually save money,” Gardo said, meaning that a consistent strategy that works is not an expense, it’s an investment designed to produce a return. “With the pot-shot approach, you were just throwing money away.”
“Advertising is not hit and miss,” Weaver said. Some things work and some things don’t. And with a lot of experience and a lot of perspective you’ve got a better chance to get at what works and stay out of the way of what doesn’t.”
Lockhart pointed out that business is good since launching Group 46, and the others say their experience is similar. “My phone is ringing off the hook,” he said. Do you own or run a business? You’d better listen up. He just might be taking one of those calls from your competitor.