Opinion: How advertising became a conversation business

In the days of Mad Men, marketers believed word of mouth was no match for a million dollars in network airtime. Not anymore.

“PR people understand this but can never execute it: if you don’t like what is being said, change the conversation.” —Don Draper

As creative director at Sterling Cooper, the fictitious advertising agency at the heart of Mad Men, Don Draper is fast becoming an industry icon, unleashing timeless maxims on the nature of the advertising business. The show is set in the early ’60s, and yet his insights seem to strike a chord for those still plying their trade in the ad game. But when Draper advised a client in crisis to “change the conversation,” the show’s writers unwittingly showed just how much has changed since 1963.

In Mad Men’s era, marketers of all stripes — but especially advertisers — operated from the singular principle of top-down communication. There were fewer channels of communication and fewer media outlets, and so it felt like there were fewer voices. Much more importantly, there was less of a voice for consumers in that mix. The thought was that people weren’t really talking about brands with any sort of impact. And that’s why Don takes a swipe at the PR industry, which has always been about generating word of mouth rather than dominating it.

Sure, people would chat about advertising at the metaphorical water cooler, but the belief was that conversation couldn’t possibly have the same impact as a million-dollar commercial or network airtime. Advertisers thought that they could quite literally change the conversation — shut down one side of it until their message was the only one being heard. Draper may have called it a conversation, but he meant to shout louder and better than everyone else, until the conversation became a monologue — is monologue.

That’s all changed, of course. Marketing, PR and word of mouth are now deeply intertwined. The marketing monologue is a relic: it’s all dialogue, all the time. It’s an Internet-driven phenomenon, as the development of a two-way media channel has transformed the thinking in the industry to the point where consumer engagement to spread a message is now a part of most marketing plans.

Taking advantage of this conversation means giving up control and engaging in the chatter on the street. One can’t join a conversation without first paying attention to what’s being said, and how, and by whom.

Nowhere is this more evident, lately, than in the sad death of bike courier Darcy Sheppard and the subsequent arrest of former Ontario attorney general Michael Bryant. The battle for Bryant’s image is already being waged, in advance of his actual court case. A fight that until recently would have been fought almost exclusively through television appearances and press conferences is now a conversation being had online. Sheppard supporters have annotated surveillance camera footage and posted it on YouTube to argue Bryant’s guilt (with tens of thousands of views); Bryant’s team has started a blog and a Twitter feed (both called “Bryantfacts”) to reply to “demonstrable errors of fact” surrounding the event; a counter-Twitter (there’s a new term!) called “Bryanttruths” has been established too. The last thing his team wants to do is to engage on this immediate, uncontrolled series of ground skirmishes — but they’re smart enough to know that a modern marketer has to join the conversation.

So what does this mean, in practical terms? How do we really follow the rules of a conversation in marketing?

First of all, we listen. And in this case, that means paying attention to what people are saying about our brands and companies (and in Bryant’s case, our public figures). It starts with regular, constant searching online for any reference to your subject. So join every Facebook group that makes reference to your company; search for your brand on Twitter every day; and pay attention to what is being said.

Next, we have to respect the rules of the conversation. No shouting, no overpowering, and we wait our turn. If you’re starting a social media campaign, make sure that your branded work looks more like the site that it’s a part of. Great branded Facebook pages feel like great Facebook pages first. It also means accepting that some negative feedback is a part of the deal, just as it is with any conversation.

And lastly, we give to the conversation. Increasingly, this means getting your message out there in as entertaining a fashion as possible — even if it sometimes means losing a little bit of that brand sell. Whether it’s an unbelievably entertaining 30 seconds of video or a terrific game or something else entirely, we need to let people know that they are going to like talking to us, and then they’ll come back for more.

Don Draper would certainly approve of that.

Max Valiquette is a Toronto-based consultant on marketing, media and modern consumers.