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Ad guys’ book is self-centered, half-baked

A new book on advertising reminds me of a joke William Shatner once told on “Saturday Night Live”: “Star Trek” is really popular in Japan, where it’s known as “Sulu, Master of Navigation.”

That same self-glorying attitude is on display in “Baked In: Creating Products and Businesses that Market Themselves” by Alex Bogusky and John Winsor.

Running at a mere 150 pages of big type, the book is the ad guys’ parochial perspective on why advertising and marketing so often fall flat. Surprise -- they say it’s not the ad guys’ fault. It’s the products’ fault. If only products were more innovative, cooler, more in tune with consumers. If only they would create entirely new markets, as did the iPod. If only management would realize that the marketing guys are the smartest people in the room.

Specifically, Bogusky and Winsor argue, antiquated organizational charts separate product design and marketing into those much-maligned “silos,” which must be broken down. “The goal of a new design process should be to elevate both marketing and product design together at the strategic level, fueled by the same powerful narrative.” By doing so, companies create products for which the marketing is “baked in.”

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Translation: Put the marketing guys in charge.

The authors are certainly talented fellows. Bogusky is co-chairman of Crispin Porter & Bogusky, one of the world’s most innovative companies, according to “Fast Company” magazine; Winsor was CP&B;'s vice president and executive director of strategy and innovation until he left in October to create Victors & Spoils, an agency specializing in crowd-sourcing solutions. Being the superstars they are -- in a business that rarely questions success or gainsays talk of innovation, no matter how inane -- perhaps Bogusky and Winsor never had an editor to challenge them on some the most evident holes in their book. Allow me.

First, the “baked in” metaphor is obscenely cliched -- right up there with “new paradigm” and “leverage” -- and not particularly revealing. As near as I can tell, baked-in marketing means qualities that make the product better, more desirable and more relevant to the consumer (for example, the stripped-down, Web-friendly, affordable Flip video camera). The authors spend most of this book arguing the self-evident and universally unopposed notion that better products tend to sell better. Stipulated, gentlemen.

Contending that “digital tools have empowered everyone with the ability to effect change through his or her own creativity,” the authors propose a time when consumers will be able to design their own running shoe, drop off the plan at the local 3-D printer, lace ‘em up and go. Except that running shoes are highly technical objects that draw on esoteric fields of biomechanics and materials science. People are likely to cripple themselves running in shoes of their own design. You might as well expect cardiac bypass patients to customize their own thoracic surgery instruments.

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Concerning the notion that product, brand and marketing should share and mutually reinforce the same “narrative,” the authors use the example of GM’s despised uber-SUV, the Hummer H2. The ads for the H2, they note, invoked a “Zen-like” narrative of experience and exploration, ending with a long aerial zoom-out until all we see is a big blue marble of the Earth. This was an example of marketing actually being used to “correct issues the product creates” -- namely, the impression that the H2 was a land-raping oil monster. “What a waste,” they write, “to say one thing with the industrial design and then . . . try to take it back with the marketing.”

Well, yes, absolutely. What is marketing for if not to minimize the downside? Think about the marketing campaigns for oil companies, with all those towheaded children, fields of wildflowers and earnest scientists in lab coats, swirling beakers of breakthrough car juice. What about all those burger ads with skinny people in them? And what would the authors have GM’s marketing guys do with the H2 in order to make the advertising consistent with the product narrative? Show the truck leaping from skull to skull on Mt. Rushmore?

There’s a reason why companies employ engineers, programmers, designers, buyers, manufacturing and logistical support specialists in the product development silo, and it’s not to be the fun police or keep marketing guys from dreaming their big dreams. It’s because making a product or providing a service is always a complex process of costs and compromises, the art of the possible.

This brings me to the fundamental flaw in the book, manifested in the title and perpetuated until the last page: The notion that industrial design and advertising/marketing are somehow equal in terms of time, effort, resources, allotment of genius. They are not. It’s far easier to craft marketing to fit the product than to craft product to fit somebody’s idea of good marketing. To suggest otherwise seems arrogant and naive.

Meanwhile, there’s a deep, disturbing streak of 2.0 elitism in this book. What if your business isn’t a Web-enabled alarm clock or hipster T-shirts? What if your business is toilet paper, or electrical distribution boxes, or yard and garden tools? Absolutely, it would be awesome if you could go back and crowd-source, Twitter-pate and innovate the common rake, but you can’t because the tooling is paid for, your supplier of steel and wood handles is established, and you haven’t got the money to break open new paradigms in yard care. Can Bogusky and Winsor help you? Not really.

As far as I know, no one would argue that marketing shouldn’t have a seat at the product development table, so much of the book feels like shadowboxing.

It must be said, many of the book’s “28 rules for baking in” are reasonable and sensible, though its examples are as thin as the stratosphere. By all means, think outside the box; use your company’s products; jump from silo to silo (though don’t be surprised if you annoy people who think you’re clueless about things you complain about); use good names; trust your intuition, etc.

All of these are good suggestions, and all of them could be found in an employee handbook from Procter & Gamble in 1955.

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At one point, the authors write, “after you’ve been at the same organization for a long time you begin to believe your vision to the exclusion of others.” Precisely.

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dan.neil@latimes.com


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