The importance of thinking small

The importance of thinking small

By John Foust

Raleigh, NC

 You may have heard about Volkswagen’s initial ad campaign. At a time when big gas guzzlers were the norm on the roads, a European carmaker had the seemingly impossible job of convincing North American consumers to buy smaller cars. With direction from the Doyle Dane Bernbach ad agency, one of their first print ads featured a small photo of the VW Beetle, surrounded by a sea of blank space. The headline read, “Think small,” and the text explained the benefits of a car with easy maintenance and good gas mileage. Sales sky-rocketed and VW became a marketing sensation. Years later, Advertising Age magazine named it the best ad of all time.

Little things make a big difference. We all know what a typographical error can do to a message. A misplaced comma can throw an advertised product’s price off track by thousands of dollars. A misspelled name in an obituary can cause heartache and bitterness for a grieving family. And rushed – or neglected – proofreading can result in mistakes that are ridiculed for years.

I remember seeing a full-page ad for a local furniture store. Art and copy were provided by a national manufacturer, with room for each store that used the ad to insert its own logo and address. But in this instance, the bottom of the ad read, “Name of Store, Address, City.” The ad had made it all the way through the placement process, without anyone catching the error. A make-good wouldn’t have captured the same audience, because the ad appeared in a special section.

Details matter. A sales person sits across from three people at a conference table. Introductions are quickly made, but the sales person doesn’t write down the names. Or the sales person receives a business card from each person, but doesn’t place the cards in left-to-right order on the table. Then in the middle of the presentation, he or she calls someone by the wrong name. That kind of mistake can doom a sale.

Have you ever wondered why airlines send luggage to the wrong airports? Maybe the problem starts at check-in. Each airport has a three-letter code. Get one letter wrong, and a suitcase ends up in Orlando (MCO) instead of Kansas City (MCI). Or it goes to Boston (BOS) instead of Boise (BOI). Or it lands in Mendoza, Argentina (MDZ) instead of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (MDT).

We hear a lot of talk these days about “thinking big” and “shooting for the stars.” Those are good things. But along the way, I encourage us – all of us – to tighten our focus. Let’s remember the importance of the day-to-day details of our work and our relationships with others. Let’s make sure every ad – and every ad schedule – is checked for errors. Let’s make sure to arrive on time for appointments. Let’s leave the best parking spaces for customers, when we visit an advertiser’s place of business. Let’s take time to say, “Thank you.”

Let’s think small.


(c) Copyright 2018 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: