Ad-libs: An alternative to spec ads

Ad-libs: An alternative to spec ads

By John Foust
Raleigh, NC

SalespersonGus is an advertiser who has dealt with ad representatives from a variety of media firms. “One thing that a lot of them have in common is that they like to present new ad ideas in the beginning,” he said. “It’s nice that they make the effort to create spec ads, but most of those ideas are way off target. When I point out the reasons why certain ads are not right for me, they seem to lose enthusiasm.

“On the other hand” he said, “one person really stood out from the crowd. Instead of focusing on a spec idea, he put a couple of my recent ads on the table and built his presentation around that. It was a good way to learn about my business and my advertising objectives. He wasn’t judgmental, and he didn’t have a know-it-all attitude. Instead of trying to talk me into buying an idea, he simply helped me see some things that could be done differently. Needless to say, I placed a lot of advertising in his paper.”

That is an interesting alternative, isn’t it? Instead of presenting spec ads which haven’t run yet, why not focus on ads which have already appeared? It can be an effective way to gain information And as we all know, knowledge is power.

If you try this technique, here are some open-ended questions you can ask:

  1. Who were you trying to reach in this ad? This can lead to a discussion about target audiences and buying styles. Does the ad focus on a specific audience, or does it try to appeal to everyone?
  1. What was your main message? This question can help you understand the advertiser’s products and services – and the relevant features and benefits. Does the objective match the message?
  1. What was the thought process in choosing this particular picture? Is it a stock photograph of a generic group of people? A cutaway diagram of a new product? A photo of the founder of the company? The answer can reveal where the advertiser turns for new ideas.
  1. I notice this ad features a sale. What kind of results did you get? This opens the door to a discussion about expectations. Along the way, you can ask how they decided to feature that particular deal. Was it based on market research or a hunch?
  1. What kinds of special offers have you made in other ads? Sometimes the best way to develop a new strategy is to analyze old strategies. For example, have they relied on sales? Do they use coupons? Are the offers seasonal or year round?
  1. How long you have run this particular campaign? This can reveal the advertiser’s willingness to explore change.
  1. What kind of help did you have with this ad? This is a good way to hear about the advertiser’s influencers. You may learn that a different decision maker should be included in future meetings.

Yes, sometimes current ads can create better conversations – and more sales – than spec ads.

(c) Copyright 2016 by John Foust. All rights reserved.

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: