Think bigger than native advertising

One of the biggest challenges legacy media companies face today is learning to think big enough to meet the real 21st-century needs of advertisers.

There’s a lot of talk about native advertising right now. Done right, it can help to meet those real needs. But native is, at best, only a small piece of a much bigger puzzle.

For those who learn how to solve that bigger puzzle for advertisers, the payoff can be much greater than just another sale of print space, air time or digital display units.

The challenge

Everybody knows the old saw, attributed to Ted Levitt of Harvard, that the customer doesn’t want a quarter-inch drill, he wants a quarter-inch hole.

In the media business, the advertiser doesn’t want print, digital, native, email, social, etc. — he/she wants a customer showing up who’s ready to spend money. That’s the “quarter-inch hole,” and all forms of advertising are only means to this end.

In the old, pre-digital days, it was pretty easy to get that outcome. Put ads in a newspaper that everyone reads, or on TV stations everybody watches, and you’re done. It didn’t take a lot of sophistication to sell or buy those solutions; we were selling mainly media space or time — a commodity for which there were few substitutes.

Today, no single medium — and therefore no single type of advertising — has that kind of reach and engagement. To get noticed and to drive action, it takes much more creative thinking, applied across multiple media, in multiple forms, to cut through the ever-present multi-channel roar.

A different way of thinking

But too often, our sales people are still just selling drills. Even when they do a needs analysis, they tend to build the solution out of the products they have at hand and consider it done. “Here are the drills you need.” That’s too small.

What I’m advocating is different. Put yourself in the place of the customer and let your imagination run. As that business owner or operator, you want to reach and convince every potential customer that you are the hands-down best choice for the product or service you sell. Using everything you know about content and 21st-century media tools, how would you get that done?

Back in the ’90s, I was publisher of a community daily newspaper in Monroe, MI. Things were simpler then, and the money was rolling in. But I kept looking at the ad revenue reports and thinking about the major local advertisers who paid us so much money, week in and week out. What were we giving them in return, besides the commodity of print space?

I’d seen the studies that said what advertisers most wanted from their media sales people was good ideas. I knew we weren’t giving them much — we were mostly just “picking up the ads.”

Brainstorm Marketing

I decided to do something about it. I pulled together the four or five best media thinkers in our company to think creatively about a couple of our biggest local advertisers. We challenged ourselves to think like an agency about how to take these businesses to the next level. We called it “Brainstorm Marketing.”

One of the advertisers was a family-owned furniture and appliance dealer in business for decades. They did a good job, but they were going up against big-box competition, and their image was tired.

We set out to change that. We created a new logo, designed a new look for their delivery trucks, recommended a new design for their storefront, provided a more inviting layout for their floor plan … and, yes, redesigned their print ads. All together, these changes updated their brand and made their image more inviting and compelling.

Durocher's logoTo top it off, we came up with a new ad tag to position them against the big boxes: “Durocher’s — where you’re right at home.”

They loved it, and they eagerly adopted almost all of it. They’re still using much of the program, and to this day, there’s still a special relationship between that advertiser and that newspaper.

Back then, a lot our creativity went into the physical space, because there wasn’t any digital space yet. Today, that kind of creativity is badly needed in the digital space.


The Florida Times-Union, aka Times-Union Media, is doing a lot of this kind of thinking these days. Early this year, they focused on Sonny’s BBQ, a barbecue restaurant franchise company with more than 120 locations across the Southeast.

Sonny’s hadn’t advertised with the T-U for several years, but Brad Bradner, digital sales manager,  and Tim Horton, retail sales manager (since promoted to sales director at the Amarillo Globe-News/AGN Media) believed the right campaign could win their business. They’d talked to Sonny’s enough to know they would listen.

The sales guys joined forces with three members of the T-U’s audience team — Kurt Caywood, VP of audience, Jeff Davis, creative director, and Joe DeSalvo, managing editor of specialty audience, to brainstorm about how to move the 15 local Sonny’s franchise units to top of mind.

The key, Kurt said, was coming up with an idea for unique, compelling content and presentation. The goal – the quarter-inch hole – was to increase trust and familiarity in the brand and drive conversions and sales.

Out of their brainstorming came a plan for a 13-week multi-media campaign. It would feature local Sonny’s pitmasters giving great advice on how home barbecue chefs could get excellent results.

Summer seriesA centerpiece of the program was a weekly series of native-advertising feature articles anchored at the bottom of the front page of the paper’s weekly Taste section. Each installment featured a Sonny’s employee with his favorite barbecue tips (prominently labeled “Brought to you by Sonny’s BBQ”).

Another major element was a series of weekly videos featuring Matt Pittman, the T-U’s video personality, interviewing Sonny himself and the same pitmasters as the print articles. Each video was shot in the setting of a franchise location.

Also included:

  • Banners on the T-U site,, for 91,000 impressions a week
  • Front-page sticky notes
  • T-U Media search buys focused on Sonny’s catering services
  • T-U Media digital display ads focused on catering
  • A responsive-design landing page for click-throughs from all of the digital elements

You can see the landing page, the articles and the videos at

Throughout the discussions with Sonny’s, the T-U team emphasized conversions, and they held weekly meetings with the client to provide the metrics showing the program’s performance.

The program was a big success, providing not only great click-throughs, but also a measured lift at the cash registers at the Sonny’s locations. The customer was thrilled.

Sonny’s was just the beginning. Based on that campaign’s success, the Jacksonville team is working on a number of other big ideas for local clients.

For each customer, Kurt says, the ideas are different because the customer’s desired target audiences and desired outcomes are different. The brainstorming team applies its best creative thinking to those goals, using whatever combination of media makes the most sense.

It’s hard to imagine this creative synergy occurring if we hadn’t decided back in 2012 that we needed to create VP of audience positions at each of the Morris newspaper business units. It takes a combination of sales, audience and content skills applied across all platforms to generate ideas that achieve big enough outcomes in today’s crowded media spaces.

Despite all the buzz around native advertising, this broader kind of creative thinking about how best to achieve the advertiser’s goals is what’s needed. Native advertising will often be a part of it, but it’s only one means to the advertiser’s desired end.

There are good people all over the traditional media business who are capable of thinking big enough to get this done. Let’s step up and do it.


Posted on November 6, 2014, in Advertising, Digital media sales, Media business model, Native advertising, Revenue, Sales and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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