Don Draper pitches to Conrad Hilton in Season 3 of Mad Men. Photo: AMC Don Draper pitches to Conrad Hilton in Season 3 of Mad Men. Photo: AMC

I don’t mourn Mad Men. Don’t get me wrong—I never missed an episode. And though I was in diapers when the series was originally set, I could still recognize lots about agency life in the ‘60s that lingered into the beginning of my own career. That was fun.

It’s just that Mad Men also had the unfortunate cultural effect of normalizing some bad behaviour in the ad game that lingers still, even making it fashionable. And the worst of it hasn’t been the booze, philandering or snap-brim hats. The worst of it has been the arrogant belief that one brilliant, well-crafted message can change hearts and minds, and transform a business overnight.

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Clinging to this quaint notion is somehow understandable when you see it in grizzled agency veterans on the back nine, pining for the days of grilled swordfish on the set. What’s surprising is that you also see it among marketers barely old enough to know what a commercial break is.

More often than not and, oddly, especially with young companies, discussions about brand strategy devolve to discussions about what to say, even when advertising is nowhere in the plans. Not that messages don’t matter. Eventually, they do (more on this in a moment). But for modern brands, worrying about your pitch first has become a marker for insincerity. Before anybody is going to believe a word you say, you have to earn the right to say it.

That licence, it turns out, has been the hallmark of almost every great brand to emerge since the ’80s. Look at global darlings like Google, Red Bull, Starbucks, Under Armour and Patagonia, or beloved Canadian brands like WestJet and Lululemon: Thanks to marketing’s fetish for the new, these brands had often been cited as proof that advertising was, in fact, dead, because none of them did much of it on their way to becoming stars. What they did instead was focus on their sense of purpose and on doing things—sometimes with theatrical flourish—that would manifest it. In other words, they stood for something, behaved accordingly and focused on being beacons instead of drift nets.

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Advertising didn’t die, of course; those companies are today committed advertisers. Even Google, the most almighty of modern brands, does so as if its life depends on it. From a budget of just $188 million in 2006, Google’s global ad spend has shot up to $3 billion, the second-highest ratio of ad dollars to revenue of any brand among Forbes’ 10 most valuable companies, behind only Coca-Cola. That’s not because Google’s high-minded idea of building a brand around a purpose didn’t work—it’s because it did. Besides earning it the means to advertise, waiting until it had a community of users meant it could be confident someone would listen. Advertising simply knit those people into a congregation.

Nobody could reasonably argue anymore that advertising alone is an efficient way to build a business. The abundance of digital media means the cost of our limited capacity for attention has outpaced inflation for the past 20 years. Advertising’s persistence reveals a more focused role, though, and if you sell high-involvement products like cars, liquor and fashion, you already know what it is: Advertising makes everything else work better. It reminds, confirms and sanctions. It’s a proven correlate to word of mouth. It says your brand matters and validates how you got here. But, increasingly, it’s a victory lap, the climax rather than the beginning of how you build brand value. Advertising can be a tool for harvesting goodwill you grew the hard way, over time, by your actions. But it sure isn’t a substitute for it.

It’s hard to believe we ever invented desire out of thin air with a clever turn of phrase or a sticky meme. It’s hard to believe people were ever actually that impressionable. Then again, maybe ads were all they had to go by in marketing’s Jet Age. Regardless, none of these things is the case anymore. The art of brand strategy has finally grown up, and the recipe has become altogether more rigorous: Be something. Then do something. Then—maybe—say something.

Bruce Philp is a brand strategy consultant and author of Consumer Republic, winner of the 2012 National Business Book Award. This article is from the November 2015 issue of Canadian Business. Subscribe now!

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