The Great Madison Avenue Ripoff

This would make a great “Saturday Night Live” sketch if the truth weren’t more outrageous.

I’m talking, of course, about the rush of “dot com” companies to advertise in the real world, and the rush of ad agencies to take their money.

Some of the stuff you’ve been conned into buying is really outrageous. Guys in t-shirts getting other guys in t-shirts to hold hands – that’s C|’s big idea. Then there’s Amazon’s “Mitch Miller Chorus,” a group of men in identical sweaters singing the silliest jingles they can think of as loudly and enthusiastically as possible.

And these are the good ones!

What’s worse is how much we’re paying for this nonsense. Some radio stations are increasing their rates four-fold for 60-second spots, and getting it, the San Francisco Examiner reports. Agencies are now supposed to have two rate books, one for regular companies and a second, higher one for “dot coms.”

There was reason for this early in the year. Many “dot com” management teams were finding it impossible to make up their minds, leaving creative teams in holding patterns for weeks. Others simply skipped out on the bill.

But now we’re seeing open checkbooks go begging, $10 million accounts no one will bid on, and agencies insisting that clients interview them. The rush by real world companies to “dot com” their existing ads –,, – doesn’t help.

The reason “dot coms” are partying like it’s 1999 is the assumption that venture capitalists are saying, “2000, zero zero party over, out of time.” If you don’t get heard now, the story goes, you won’t get a hearing.

Frankly, I can’t imagine a more Clueless assumption than that one, but it’s a nightmare I expect (dare I say, hope?) will come true. A lot of venture managers are going to wake up from this free-spending binge next month with awful financial hangovers. My guess is 90 percent of this quarter’s “dot com” advertising money is being wasted.

How can I be confident in that? While they’re ripping-off anxious clients, ad agencies are forgetting the discipline that brought them into the game in the first place. Ads aren’t measured in awareness, they’re measured in customers. They’re not about getting attention, but about getting a trial, a once-in-a-business-lifetime opportunity to satisfy. Online branding isn’t about winning word of mouth around the water cooler, but word of mouse after work.

Quick, name five ads for “dot com” companies you’ve seen in the last three months (other than the two I mentioned at the top of this column) and what they’re promising. You may be able to do it – you live and work in this business. But I’ll bet your neighbor can’t name one. (OK, maybe two.) And the ads they do name probably won’t be for pure “dot com” plays at all, but experienced advertisers like Apple and IBM.

The smartest executive teams this holiday season were those who saved their money and stayed at their jobs. Call it Scrooge’s Revenge.

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