Advertising Wisdom From the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency

One of the most important figures in advertising whom you’ve probably never heard of is Claude Hopkins. He pioneered coupons, direct marketing, mailing lists, and campaign optimization in the late 1800s.

Better known for his marketing treatise, “Scientific Advertising,” Hopkins also wrote a charming retrospective on his career, “My Life in Advertising.” In it, Hopkins writes of his first brush with ROI (define) based premiums on CPM (define) advertising, when he was just a kid with a bicycle:

    I would go to the advertiser and solicit the job of distributing [flyers]. There were one thousand homes in our city. I would offer to place one bill in each home for $2. It meant traveling some thirty-five miles. Other boys offered to do the same job for $1.50, but they would place several bills in a home and would skip all the far-away homes. I asked advertisers to compare the results, and I soon obtained a monopoly.

    That was my first experience with traced results. It taught me to stand for known and compared returns, and I have urged them ever since. In no other way can real service reveal its advantage. Doing anything blindly is folly.

Now if the young Hopkins had only taken this a step further and charged an extra $0.50 per customer who walked into the store with a flyer and had delivered flyers only to families he knew would be interested in the advertised product or service, he could have saved us a lot of trouble by introducing CPA (define) models and behavioral targeting in the 1870s.

CPA in Botswana

Precious Ramotswe, the main character in the fictional book and HBO series, “The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency,” has a neighborhood boy distribute flyers for her business. When her colleague expresses concern that the boy will take their money and just dump the flyers, Ramotswe tells the boy he’ll be paid a small amount to distribute them and a bonus for each customer who comes in with a flyer. The ad campaign works, and her business takes off.

The odd similarity is that ad networks today aren’t particularly more trustworthy than the $1.50 boys of Hopkins’ time or the fictional rascal in “Detective Agency.”

Say you’re a media planner. When you put an ad network on your plan as a behavioral targeting buy, how do you know you’re actually getting behavioral targeting? Measure the performance?

Was performance what you wanted, or was it behavioral targeting? Does the ad network have pixels on your landing and conversion pages to optimize the campaign? If so, can you be sure that it’s not just retargeting? Do you even have the ability to tell if it’s primarily doing retargeting?

It’s worthwhile to think this through. For example, a media planner friend put a behavioral targeting ad network on her plan, based on its claimed partnership with a major data provider. She later discovered in talking directly with the data provider that her ad network had no relationship with it, which explained the relatively poor performance.

The inability to directly monitor the activities of some ad networks, combined with agency’s and media buyers’ seriousness about media buying, creates a lot of stress on a media team. Having stressed customers can make life as an ad network stressful, too, because each customer often has a different set of sensitivities.

Mick Jagger’s Lessons for Advertising

It’s true enough that “you can’t always get what you want,” but truer still that your chances improve if you can clearly articulate what you want and what you don’t want. A typical insertion order for display advertising has space for about 20 to 30 characters in most slots on the form, leaving no place for key metrics, goals, and constraints.

Ad networks and media teams need to work together to be sure they’re all in agreement, otherwise there can be unfortunate surprises in the middle of a campaign. And the safest goals and constraints to have are those that the media team can measure for themselves.

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