Mon Jul 25th 2011

How to play the ad game

You’ve probably never heard of the Universal Law of Awesomeness, but it goes something like this:  If you want to be awesome at something, there are only two steps you must take.

1.  Learn all the rules.
2.  Play the game better than anyone else.

If your game is advertising, you might be tempted to argue that there aren’t rules to it anymore. Or at least that the good players break those rules all the time.

It’s a seductive argument, and it’s dead wrong. 

Sure, the ways brands connect with people are changing all the time, and that trend shows no sign of slowing down.

But the basic goal of advertising is the same: to connect with people in hopes of changing a behavior. That’s the game. 

And the reality is, there are more rules than ever in the advertising industry because every new platform has a set all its own. It may be difficult to name the rules themselves, but it’s easy to spot when they get broken.

Like when a brand plasters itself all over your Facebook wall after you decide, against your better judgment, to Like its page. 

Or when an app supposedly designed to make your life easier or more enjoyable allows so many disruptive advertisements, you don’t even want to use it.

And not only does each platform have a set of rules, but there are plenty of other rules a good advertiser still needs to learn. Rules of human behavior, attention span, habits of the eye, subconscious connections, and so on, and so on, and so on.

Really, advertising is one of the most rule-intensive games you could ever learn. It’s just that we’re afraid of the word itself – rules. But doesn’t it feel different when you think of them in terms of a game rather than laws? 

Laws focus on what you can and cannot do.  That’s not true with game rules. In a game, the rules help you understand how to play. 

Some things work. Some things don’t. 

And in our game, you don’t get a penalty if you break the rules. If you look back at the list, “Don’t break the rules” isn’t on there. Sometimes trying something different, something risky, is essential to playing well. 

But it would be a mistake to say the best players break the rules all the time. They actually only break a few rules, only when the time is right, and only with a damn good reason. 

Meanwhile, they’re abiding by a bunch of other rules they wouldn’t dare break because they know what it takes to win.

What rules do you think are important in today’s ad game? Which ones do you find yourself breaking often?