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IHAVEANIDEA.ORG > articles >  Critiquing With The Critic ihaveanidea Interviews Bob Garfield

Critiquing With The Critic ihaveanidea Interviews Bob Garfield

Posted on December 4, 2007 and read 1,566 times

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Some people consider Bob Garfield to be a harmless distraction. Others call him something comparable to The Great Satan. Still others think he’s an arrogant son of a bitch who hasn’t worked a day in our business and thus doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about.

But if any of these things are true, why do so many of us tune in to what the most famous ad critic in the world has to say? Why do we quibble over how many stars he gives a particular spot or campaign in his column in Advertising Age? It might be because Bob has an excellent track record of predicting success and failures early on in an ad’s life (according to Bob, he’s batting about .988). It might be because he’s a pretty good storyteller, even if some of us think the stories are fiction. Or it might be because after all of our navel gazing, it’s actually refreshing to hear what an outsider has to say. Whatever the reason, Brett and Jay from ihaveanidea had a chance to sit down and chat with the author, critic and radio personality a few weeks ago at the CASSIES in Toronto.

ihaveanidea: We’re here at the CASSIES, which generally isn’t viewed as a particularly sexy show since it focuses on results. Why do you think results-based awards like these and the Effies don’t get the attention from creatives that the flashier shows do? Is it at the creatives’ peril?

Bob: It’s definitely at their peril. The whole reason why we’re here tonight is because clients need to sell things to folks, and the advertising industry is supposed to help that process along. While advertising does present an opportunity to show how clever you are, that’s not what it’s for. The industry has many frustrated comedians, film directors and artists who imagine they’re developing their own personal portfolio on the client’s dime, and they stupidly look down on the commercial aspect of what they do.

On the other hand, some of the greatest advertising of all time isn’t logical, linear, left-brained stuff, but rather artistic work that seem to come from nowhere. But while it’s true that a few of the greatest campaigns seem to come from nowhere, almost all of the worst campaigns also seem to come from nowhere. For example, you have Apple’s ‘1984’. Probably the best commercial ever created. They broke all the rules, they didn’t show the product, they didn’t explain it even though they were introducing technology that never existed before, they chose a literary reference. This was thinking that was astonishingly out-of-the-box. But for every ‘1984’ there are a bazillion examples of artistic out-of-the-box thinking that is utter crap that just wastes the client’s money and doesn’t sell anything.

It’s tough, but I’m pretty scornful of those who are scornful about results.

“…for every ‘1984’ there are a bazillion examples of artistic out-of-the-box thinking that is utter crap that just wastes the client’s money and doesn’t sell anything.”

ihaveanidea: How the hell are you supposed to calculate results these days anyways, with all these new forms of advertising that keep evolving and changing? I mean, it can’t be X amount of eyeballs on such-and-such prime time program equals this number of sales anymore, can it?

Bob: Let me put it this way. The people who prepare entries for award shows like the CASSIES and Effies must be the same people who put together Colin Powell’s presentation to the UN before the Iraq War. I think the statistical arguments can sometimes be on the dubious side. It’s the artful arrangement of facts and data to give the illusion of spectacular results, when in fact it’s pretty impossible to isolate the variables that are behind sales success.

If a brand is doing well and it’s out there spending money on advertising, it’s sort of ipso facto that the advertising is performing. And every once in a while, an ad campaign does astonishing things, and those always get recognized at results award shows.

ihaveanidea: So how do you calculate the success of something like Dove ‘Evolution’: something relatively inexpensive to produce, zero dollars spent on media, tons of impressions, tons of exposure, probably not a huge financial investment on the part of Dove. Is it all one big numbers game?

Bob: Exactly, it’s one big magical numbers game. This is an industry that for the past 15 years has been obsessed with things like reach and frequency and return on investment, as if ROI can be measured accurately. That’s more fun with numbers. How many views did ‘Evolution’ get on YouTube? Five, ten million? That’s nothing compared to a simple 30 second spot on ‘Dancing With The Stars.’ But how do you work the numbers to show that the smaller group of viewers actively sought out ‘Evolution’ and had it recommended to them by their friend’s MySpace page, versus the number of people who left the room during the commercial break of ‘Dancing With The Stars,’ or changed the channel or TiVo’d right through the spot? It’s all one big indefinable numbers game. The word of mouth industry is trying to come up with a way to calculate numbers, because they have to quantify what they do, but whatever they come up with will be bullshit.

That number system will be bullshit, but the result won’t be. A cool internet link forwarded to you by a friend, or even a minor acquaintance, has more credibility than anything you see in a magazine, newspaper, television, airport wall or banner ad. It would be nice to attach a number to that, but it would only be an invented one.

ihaveanidea: Speaking of the internet, what do you think of marketers’ attempts at getting into social networks like MySpace, Facebook and Second Life?

Bob: They definitely understand that they have to do something with these networks. They’re getting in there, feeling around, trying to have a presence, most of them are blundering while some have done some really cool stuff. I honestly believe that most of them don’t quite grasp the central truth that they no longer get to tell people what their brand means, what it’s for, what the slogan is, in some cases what even the product should be. These will all be group decisions made online, most of the time right behind a client’s back.

I don’t think most people grasp the ‘revolution’ part of ‘digital revolution.’ They think we had radio, then TV, and now the internet is just the next step. It’s not the next step; it’s far beyond a step.

“…most clients don’t quite grasp the central truth that they no longer get to tell people what their brand means.”

ihaveanidea: Let’s talk about you for a bit. You’ve never worked in advertising. What made you take an interest in it, enough to make a career out of writing about it and critiquing it, but actually be in the business?

Bob: You’re right, I’ve never been in the business, and I still feel there’s a lot I don’t know about it. I’m a journalist at heart. I got into this completely by accident. I started working at USA Today in 1982, and I was informed on the first day that I was to be the advertising and marketing columnist. Initially I really wasn’t interested in doing it, but hey, that was my job, and in the early days of USA Today, very few writers were allowed to write in their own voice as I was. So I grew to enjoy it, and my column began to take a more prominent space in the paper.

Eventually Advertising Age came along and asked me to write for them. It wasn’t to write a review column, but rather a general interest feature. But AdWeek had this review column, and they were doing better than us numbers-wise, so I got drafted into writing a review column. I didn’t mind it, and I’ve been pretty good at it. Mind you, I don’t think advertising is all that complicated. It might be complicated to create it, but it sure isn’t complicated to analyze it. There aren’t that many things to analyze. Maybe that’s why my predictions are never wrong.

ihaveanidea: Rarely wrong.

Bob: (laughs) okay, rarely wrong. My predictions, which always happen as the spots are breaking or even before they break, my thoughts on how they’ll fare in the marketplace almost always come true. Out of a thousand spots, I’ve been wrong maybe a dozen times. Not because I’m terribly gifted, it’s just a combination of longevity and basic skills.

“I had explained that I took away half a star for a minor production issue, and it was if I had questioned his mother’s virtue.”

ihaveanidea: I have no doubt in my mind that some people take issue with your reviews. Have you ever been confronted about your reviews?

Bob: I tend to avoid ad people. It’s hard to be a critic and have them as your friends or enemies at the same time, so I’m usually at arms length. But once in a while I’m in their midst, namely at Cannes. One night at dinner in Cannes in a very fancy restaurant, this guy came up to me. He was half in the bag, and he was very upset that I gave one of his ads 3½ stars instead of 4 stars. I had explained that I took away half a star for a minor production issue, and it was if I had questioned his mother’s virtue. He came over the dining room table at me. Fortunately I was a much bigger person physically, so it didn’t get too out of hand.

ihaveanidea: So with all this critiquing and observation of ads, do you think you could make a successful ad yourself? What if you were thrown into a creative department? What if you were given your own agency?

Bob: The Garfield ad agency would be more like Grey than Crispin Porter. There would be a lot of successes and very few failures, but there would be no Apple Macintosh, there would be no ‘A Diamond Is Forever’, no Marlboro cowboy, no Nike ‘Just Do It.’ These transcending campaigns that build industries on the strength of an advertising message would most likely not come from my agency. It would be a workmanlike agency that behaved in a coherent, linear fashion. That said, I wouldn’t go into the ad agency business anyways, because that model is collapsing.

ihaveanidea: Collapsing? So where do you think this business will be in ten years?

Bob: I think the advertising industry is completely fucked. Too many people within it are in denial about what is happening around them, about how the media is changing. Their business model is in no way adapted to the realities of the digital culture. They’ve done a poor job in adapting their own creative and media shops to the digital world. They’ve ceded this opportunity to digital agencies, which are now being snatched up by holding companies. Oh, the holding companies will survive; I just don’t think their portfolios will be as thick with advertising agencies anymore.

I don’t think that advertising, even so called viral advertising, will play as big a role in the future. I believe the relationships between consumers and marketers are going to be so much more direct and have so little to do with external images that advertising as we know it will cease to be important. Outdoor and ambient will still be relevant, if not more so, but the internet has brought a whole new level of connection where advertising is less important.

But hey, I review 30 second TV commercials for a living, so how fucked am I?

Brett McKenzie
Chief Writer/SBN2

Jay Thompson
VP of Stuff




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