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Lessons from the red-headed stepchild

Earlier in my career I did a lot of recruitment advertising and employee communications, the red-headed stepchild of proper advertising. At times, it was a fun and rewarding work – Connecting people with hopes of a better life, which is what changing jobs is all about.

The creative process went like this: You’d meet with a client on Monday, pitch creative on Wednesday, then produce and ship the materials by Friday. Ads would run on Sunday and by Wednesday you’d have a good idea if you were successful or not. It was a grind, but one that offered instant gratification, something other forms of creative work do not allow.

All new assignments started the same way: We’d go meet with a new client and talk about their goals for the adverts and what made their company different. We would dig into the company to learn about their culture, benefits packages and any other relevant bits the might make them look like an attractive employer to a job-seeker.

“Our benefits are the best-in-class…” No they’re not. In fact, almost every major corporation in the US at the time offered identical packages.

“We have a diverse workforce…” This one always got me. Most of the clients who made this claim were anything but.

Over time, we got a cynical about these kinds of claims: If you have to say it, you probably aren’t it.

I’ve thought about this a lot over the past week, especially as I grokked on the posting entitled Are these good ads good.

The point of that post was to question the validity of those advertisements as ads. What I did not dive into is that those ads do indeed give you a deeper understanding of who the company is, and the values that they hold. There is something to say for that.

The end result of those ads from The Gap and Apple is the complete opposite of the returns from the briefing sessions with my recruitment clients mentioned above. We would know what they offered their employees, but we struggled to understand who they were. And how to put a face on an otherwise faceless organization.

But I keep going back to my premise: Does this form of advertising that focuses all its attention on social issues, explicitly telegraphing the company’s values and beliefs translate into conversion and sales?

There has to be  balance where the company can project their values, not overtly but through the products and services they offer. It’s not about what you say or how you say it, rather it’s about what you do that defines who you are.