Media Guru Archive: Bob Garfield
Bob Garfield, Media Critic, Dissects Marketplace Dynamics And Forecasts the Future at 2003 Media Guru Breakfast
Bob Garfield, well-known AD AGE columnist, ABC News advertising analyst, book author and co-host of NPR’s “On the Media,” spoke as Quantum Media’s “Media Guru” at the Harvard Business School Club on April 30th, 2003.
Garfield’s insightful, entertaining comments were off the record, as are the contents of all Media Guru breakfasts, but he has given us permission to share some of his remarks from the hour-long question-and-answer session conducted by Ava Seave, Quantum Media Principal.
One of the highlights of the session: an audience member asked a particularly technical question, and in response Garfield boldly threw down $240 in cash on the lectern and bet that the questioner was a graduate of the Harvard Business School. The questioner admitted to being a Stanford Business School graduate instead, and said that was the easiest $240 he had ever made!
Garfield’s opinionated viewpoints on the media world were plain-spoken, well-informed and pithy. For example, when asked about the effects of TIVO on the future of ad-supported media, Garfield said the fact is that 70-80% of TIVO users zap ads, and thus, “The media has its skivvies in a wad for a good reason. We’re now in the upfront period, and even though the total audience for network TV has dropped dramatically, and Nielsen ratings are unreliable,” people are still spending tremendous amounts of money on network advertising.
He continued, due to TIVO and a number of other factors, “The industry as we know it won’t be there in 10 years.”
His explanation for the current buying frenzy? “Fear breeds irrationality.”
A brief summary of his comments on a few other key topics follows.
The Proposed FCC Rule Changes: Garfield says, “The FCC wants to give the entire world to three companies.” When asked to outline the pros and cons of the rule changes, Garfield responded:
Pros: There is the claim of more media choice out there—that we’ve gone from three networks to an endless diversity of channels including the Discovery Channel, the History Channel, and the Learning Channel. He thinks this is an “illusory argument,” because the content on those channels is still all sex and dead bodies.
Cons: “Michael Powell is marching to a tune dictated by Rupert Murdoch. I don’t want to live in a world where Rupert Murdoch and Michael Eisner and Google are making all the decisions. Look at the music business—Clear Channel does focus groups on what people want to listen to. As a result, you’re only ever going to hear of 20 music groups. Project that worldwide regarding news and other content. The public interest has to be considered. The FCC isn’t looking out for the public. I want the FCC to look out for me.”
Can advertising do anything good? Garfield says, “Yes. Good advertising works, unquestionably. Even bad advertising works. It sends a signal to the consumer about the marketer and confers substance. And great advertising works great wonders.” Examples? “Just Do It” from Nike, “The Marlboro Man” (unfortunately, says Garfield), and “Smokey the Bear” in the PSA arena. In addition, advertising has done a great job of underwriting the media culture; “Brillo” (and others like it) underwrote “our watching the moon landing and the coverage of the Vietnam War.”
Did advertising ever make you buy anything? Yes. Once at 3 AM he watched a long ad for the “Miracle Fishing Lure.” Its “compelling underwater photography” and images of the lure wiggling and the fish biting persuaded him to buy it. Years later he was on a TV show about fishing filmed on the St. Lawrence River. He used the Miracle Fishing Lure, and learned that, essentially, “the product didn’t work.”
Current advertising prices. Garfield says, “They aren’t rational. At the network upfronts, they’ve risen…for a quickly declining audience.”
The ad agency business. We’ve gone from the traditional ad agency business with 15% commissions, one agency, and one client. Now there are just five large holding companies with portfolios of agencies that can service competing brands and have complex fee structures, somewhat based on performance. “Measuring ad effectiveness, though, is too hard to figure out, and many of these formulas for compensation are ridiculous.”
Some people such as Al Ries argue that we’re seeing the death of advertising, that ad creative people have gone nuts. Do you agree? On ad creative people? Yes, they’ve embraced all the wrong values, and we’re seeing a coarsening of the culture.
Is PR the solution? "No, that premise is preposterous. Nobody ever built a brand with PR. PR can’t be a substitute for ads. Ads work. How do we know that ads work? If you stop advertising, sales drop."
Which ad agencies’ work do you admire? Wieden & Kennedy’s work for Nike and Miller High-Life. Goodby Silverstein & Partners’ ework for Saturn—it’s smart, funny, but not gratuitously funny. The joke is about the sell.
Ad prices are declining faster than circulation is declining, and if ads in “paid” print media are more targeted, then shouldn’t ad dollars migrate from TV to print? “You would hope so. There are a few magazines where the ads are part of the package—VOGUE, HARPER’S BAZAAR. I just know that print is hurting right now, and I see an increasingly a-literate future.”
What do you think about AOL’s new ad campaign? AOL’s problem is that they WERE the bubble; they stood for the bubble. They were wildly overvalued, and now they’re properly valued. Their direct acquisition of customers was expensive, but it worked. Now they’re trying to use advertising to acquire and keep customers. It won’t really work. Their only real advantage in the race for broadband customers is that they have a lot of existing customers to draw from. It’s not brand loyalty, exactly. More like brand familiarity . . . "