E.B. Moss: I have a very special episode today Of Insider InSites. I'm talking to Stuart Elliott - who raised the bar on media, marketing, and advertising journalism. ...In my role as managing editor, I look up to you as a contributor to MediaVillage. Stuart was one of the longest running columnists with the New York Times. He wrote the advertising column for about 23 years. I have some big shoes to aspire to over at MediaVillage and we're so thrilled that he contributes to our publication now, and really adds that point of differentiation for us.
This is a working lunch. We're here at Canteen 82 in the heart of the Upper West Side of New York City. We might have some dumplings and egg drop soup while we talk. It's an extra pleasure to dine and chat with you. I have quite a few questions for you Stuart.
Elliott: We may have to order dessert.
Moss: Perfect. Stuart, I'm coming at this with a fresh perspective. I want to understand your past, the present, and where we're going with the future. Let's start with the past. Can you talk to me about what it was like to start out at the New York Times about 25 years ago?
Elliott: Yeah. I started at the Times in 1991. They brought me in to take over the daily advertising column which by that point had been running in the business section for about 50, 60 years. It started in the mid 1930s and there had been a number of reporters who had been in charge of it. I think the most notable of my predecessors, one of them was Carl Spielvogel, who later joined the very industry that he was covering.
Another predecessor of mine was Peter Bart who later went on to a long career at Variety. Possibly the best known of them all was a fellow named Phil Dougherty who had written the column from 1966 through 1988. Then there'd been a couple of other people after him. Then I came in in 1991. This of course was pre-internet. There was some word processing and we were still using faxes to receive material, pre-email. All of that, of course made for revolutionary changes in how we did our jobs and what it was we were covering.
Moss: You have a lot of experience covering the ad industry. What qualified you, Stuart, if I can be as blunt as that?
Before the Times ... I was the TV/Radio reporter for a newspaper in upstate New York. And I worked at the Detroit Free Press covering advertising and marketing mostly regarding the auto industry because of all the ad agencies in Detroit that at the time were handling the automotive accounts for the big car makers. I also covered retailing and consumer product companies in the Michigan market like Kellogg's.
From there I worked for Advertising Age then USA Today covering advertising and marketing from a consumer point of view....
Moss: Did you ever actually have your hands on at an ad agency? Were you ever “the guy?”
Elliott: For one summer, I worked in the mail room at DDB when DDB was on 42nd street off of Fifth Avenue, the building where I think the New Yorker was for many years. That was my only actual experience in the business.
Moss: It sounds like a Broadway play.
Elliott: I learned enough about the ad industry to know I wanted to write about it, not to be in it.
Moss: Got it. I think that’s how a lot of us feel especially these days. Let's talk about what you covered in 1991 to 2000.
Elliott: A lot of it was very much the bread and butter of the advertising business which even to this day remains the main aspects of it: getting clients, losing clients, landing accounts, losing accounts, hiring, firing. ...I started doing more coverage of the work, the campaigns that resulted from all the back-ing and forth-ing of the accounts. Some of that was inspired by what I had done previously: The saying at USA Today was that the celebrities of the money section, where my work appeared, were Coke and Pepsi and McDonald's and Burger King and all these other big corporations that were doing the marketing to the readers of the paper. I brought some of that perspective to the Times in those early years along with what began to be an increasing, accelerating amount of deal making, mergers and acquisitions, as the giant holding companies were forming and reforming and trying to take each other over.
Moss: Is there a standout example of a campaign that you remember from the late '90s before 9/11?
Elliott: Even with the rise of cable TV and the niching of the consumer segments that had already started, a lot of focus was on mass advertising. I think probably the biggest manifestation of that was the annual Super Bowl ads...as the major advertisers all began vying to come up with their really breakthrough commercials. Back then we called it buzz, now of course it's about going viral. In that period some of the ads the people remember are the McDonald's Super Bowl ads like, “Nothing but Net” and of course the Bud Bowl campaign that Budweiser did every year for the Super Bowl for many years...[and] the war between Coke versus Pepsi which took place inside the Super Bowl to the point where Pepsi vanquished Coke, and Coke left the Super Bowl for many years ....
Moss: ...How would you describe the difference now in Super Bowl advertising activity and all of the teasing that goes on to breaking of those ads versus then?
Elliott: It’s like every day is now the Super Bowl in that every ad campaign now [is] trying to get that breakthrough moment, trying to get special attention. It's so much harder now with the audience and the media so fragmented. ... Back then the Super Bowl ads were just dropped on an unsuspecting public ...The whole idea was to keep the idea was to use the element of surprise.
That changed with the rise of the internet and especially with social media. Now the idea is to build up all that pre-game attention and virality so that by the time the commercial appears in the game, millions of people will have already seen it and talked about it.... Obviously, the internet had a profound effect on not only everything I covered but how I worked. ...The most obvious example was a Super Bowl [XXXIV] that was called the Dot-Com Bowl. There were a dozen different dot coms advertising in the game.... Most of the companies that advertised in that game collapsed not long after. It became notorious for that.
I think what happened subsequently is that most of what has been developed over the years has been driven by the consumer, by the users. It's based on what the people want. Nobody had to run ads saying, “Use Facebook - it's fun.” Or, “Twitter now more than ever.” These were things that the public discovered to a large part on their own.... A lot of what's happened since then has just been this mad dash by the marketers and the media companies and the ad agencies to keep up with where consumers are going and which tech choices that they're making.
EB Moss: ...I think that when consumers discover something they imbue it with more trust. We're fighting a big battle with that right now.
Stuart Elliott: Brands have to operate on many levels at once. You have to get your product right. ... It could be a value, it could be heritage, it could be the fact that you're ahead of everyone else technologically on different things....Then you also have to get the marketing right, which is not just to run a lot of TV commercials and print ads like in the old days. You have to figure out what works for your brand and tailor it -- whether it's traditional media or new media or a mix of them, or no media at all and use social instead .... Then on top of that you have to be very adept at navigating this landscape...where a lot of consumers are expecting brands to behave in a certain way. That behavior can change based on a president’s tweet.
That is fraught with peril. It used to be that giant corporations kept out of politics, kept out of the daily news stream, they didn't want to have anything to do with that. The feeling was that if you take a stand ... you risk alienating a large chunk of potential consumers. Nowadays particularly in a world where there are niche markets and mass brands are less prominent, there is some belief that it's necessary to have a side, take a stand and have your consumers know what you believe in. [But] you can alienate consumers for not taking a stand as much as you can nowadays for taking a stand....
[There’s] also another issue now. Most brands at this point have universal awareness. [Now the] market is so crowded a lot of companies have resisted introducing new brands. Most of what comes out now are line extensions.... General Mills, for instance: they don't introduce new cereals, they just introduce new varieties of Cheerios....With the fading of the mass market it's just enormously difficult and expensive to launch something in a broad way.
...I think also another big change has been that you assume that the consumers know about marketing and advertising. They know they're being sold and they know that you know and you know that they know. In a lot of cases, advertisers to get attention...you notice a lot of advertising campaigns set in focus groups. [Or] the “real people, not actors” campaigns. Of course, there's artifice involved with that but at the same time it strips away some of the fakery supposedly. That's what presents it as, “here's what people look like when they came and told this giant garage and it's all these different Chevys.”
For all this at the same, there are a lot of things that haven't changed. The goal is still to get people to buy things. There are certain plays that are still being used now like they were decades ago: Value - of course maybe that has a different meaning now - maybe it's more value for money as opposed to just being cheap quality; Heritage has always been a brand pitch. You can make a case that now maybe it's even more of interest than it was in the past....
Moss: There's cultural heritage but then there's also multicultural. I think it's fascinating that as the minority and majority population shifts, advertisers still seem to not have a handle on how to appeal to various cultural groups. What do you think about that?
Elliott: That's a good point. I was writing stories about advertisers and whether or not they wanted to reach out to the LGBTQ market more than 25 years ago....Even to this day, a large part of it has to do with the fact that the adverting, marketing and media industries are for the most part pretty homogenous.... However, the makeup of the country is changing and this argument that keeps being made is that, “If the consumers look different than they used to, isn't it important for advertisers and the marketers to get on that train and to recognize that?” They keep making that argument and there is progress - and there are ads that run today that I'm flabbergasted that I'm seeing, compared to how long it took in the old days: Ads with LGBT consumers inside of mainstream campaigns, ads with interracial couples, ads that run in mainstream media in Spanish.... At the same time, you see a lot of stuff that just really falls short. Thanks to social media, the advertisers and agencies that are involved with those deficient advertising campaigns find out very quickly from the public that their ad was not up to par.
Moss: Do you have any favorite columns over the years?
Elliott: I love all my “children.” It's hard to pick. I did do a piece once years ago where Absolut Vodka - which was at the time entirely running print advertising only - would hold an event every year for all the different magazine ad sales teams. They were invited to present ideas for the coming year for interesting and different Absolut advertising campaigns. It was a wild and crazy, multi hour floor show with people dressed up in costumes; body painted models were utilized to make one pitch.
Moss: Sounds like a day in the life of MediaVillage!
Elliott: The death of Joe Camel was also a big story - when the tobacco companies agreed to end the use of cartoon characters in advertising.... A lot of stories I did after 9/11 were on how the marketing community responded or didn't respond to what happened. And, a big thing during the financial crisis and the recession was how a lot of very traditional advertising appeals came back - like history and heritage. They were ads that were invoking the great depression which I thought I'd never see. There they were talking about, “We made it through then and we’ll make it through again now.” They were right.
Moss: I’d pick one of your most recent articles for MediaVillage - on the anniversary of the release of the Edsel.
Elliott: I've gotten a lot of good feedback on that piece because it's coming up on 60 years that the Edsel was first introduced by the Ford Motor Company. It was a line of cars that were introduced that were the wrong product at the wrong time, advertised the wrong way. It's since become synonymous with marketing failure or even with corporate failure in America. I love those stories because it gives you a chance to not only look back but to see what it is that still resonates. There are lessons to be learned from a lot of the things that happened way back when..... [One] played out not that long after with the campaign for the original Volkswagen beetle. An intrinsic part of the campaign was to poke fun at the marketing being done by the conventional, traditional automakers. The maybe most famous Volkswagen ad, “Think Small,” was a real slap in the face at the idea that the American automakers were advocating back then was that the bigger the car, the better....A lot of people began to see things the way that DDB was asking them to. There was a revolution as a result.
Moss: We often get a lesson when we read your columns. We also get a touch of humor, which I love. Are you feeling optimistic enough about where we are in the industry that you can still inject humor in your writing?
Elliott: Yeah. I think it's important to look at what people are doing for a living. It's important to them, it's their careers. The advertising industry, the media industry are economic engines if you want to look at it that way. At the same time, you have to not take it that seriously compared with some other really critical things that are going on. Especially these days. There's a joke in a movie that I like to quote, where the character gets mixed up and he's asked about the world situation, he says, “it's hopeless but not serious.”
Moss: We just did an event for about 300 young people called thed 1st Five Summer Intern experience. What’s the hopeful message you would give them, Stuart?
Elliott: I would say that it's a fantastic time to be in these industries, there's a lot of change going on, which I think is good for people who are starting out trying to make their mark. Also, I think a lot of the traditional barriers to entry are lowered. I think when there's a younger person in the room the older people will not ignore them these days. They might turn to them and say, “well, what do you think? How do we reach these Millennials, how do we reach Gen Z?!”
Compared to past periods of time in the business it's not required to have a million years of experience to have a seat at the table. ...Working your way up the ladder, there's still some of that. At the same time I think it's easier to make your way.
Moss: Yeah. Less requirement to start in the mail room like you did.
Elliott: Exactly. ...you have to try to cast a wide net, to try not to be too set in your ways. ...I try to look broadly in terms of what's going on and keep abreast of the changes in the industries that we cover. Also in popular culture.
Moss: What do you read?
Elliott: MediaVillage, of course! .... And I subscribe to a lot of email newsletters and blogs and keep up with the headlines...and try to watch a lot of different TV and streaming video -- stuff I normally wouldn’t watch. I don't fast-forward through the commercials though!