Ad-libs: Turn something old into something new

Ad-libs: Turn something old into something new

By John Foust
Raleigh, NC

OldPhotoSometimes the best way to come up with a new idea is to look to the past. When I was in the ad agency business, I once did an ad for a construction equipment distributor to celebrate their 65 years in business. Since most anniversary ads are of the cookie cutter “congratulations to us” variety, I wanted to do something stronger – something that would be relevant to their audience.

In promoting equipment companies, there are three choices: products, service and parts. Products can change over time, as old lines are dropped and new lines are changed or added. But parts and service departments reflect the depth of a company’s commitment to customers. In this case, my client had a rich history of keeping their customers’ equipment on the job.

My general idea was: A lot of things have changed over the years. But one thing that has never changed is our long-standing commitment to our customers.

This theme was a start, but I needed a compelling visual. I asked around in their office and was pleased to learn that there was a file of old photographs. So I found a secluded desk in the corner, began panning for ideas, and less than an hour later, found what I needed – a large, black and white photo of two mechanics working on an engine. The picture was in remarkably good condition, even though it was over 40 years old. And it had obviously been taken by a professional photographer. The lighting was good, the image was sharp and the mechanics were working, not posing. The photo had the unmistakable stamp of authenticity.

It would have taken a lot of money and time to duplicate that vintage photograph. But it didn’t cost a cent. It was right there in a file drawer.

That old picture reinforced the company’s 65 years of customer service. Those mechanics were the heroes of the ad, of course. But the beneficiaries of their skills were – and still are – the customers. As I fleshed out the copy, I couldn’t help but wonder about missed opportunities. How many ideas have never been found, because I (and maybe you, too) have been looking in the wrong places?

In my journey through those old photos, I found plenty of other idea possibilities: Here was their original building, with a freshly painted sign in front. Here was their fleet of service trucks and drivers, lined up like race cars at the starting line. Here was an action photo of a bulldozer on a job site. And here was their founder, surrounded by department managers and key staff members.

Leonardo Da Vinci described people as, “Those who see. Those who see when they are shown. Those who do not see.”

Sometimes advertising wizardry is simply a matter of vision. It’s a fact that creative people see possibilities where others don’t. Old photographs represent just one kind of treasure which might be hidden in your advertisers’ files. Who knows what else you might find?


John Foust has conducted training programs for thousands of newspaper advertising professionals. Many ad departments are using his training videos to save time and get quick results from in-house training. E-mail for information:

(c) Copyright 2014 by John Foust. All rights reserved.