In undergrad, I decided to major in Advertising on a whim. I am now a faculty member at that same school. And I owe it all to two guys named David.
When I originally came to OU, I had settled on pre-pharmacy as my field of study. In high school, I had a knack for the media arts and found a passion for design via the World Wide Web. At the same time, I had received advice to not make my passion my career (which seems counterintuitive to nearly everything I’ve heard since) and so I decided to build upon my love for chemistry, the only science class I thoroughly enjoyed. In truth, I was much happier with my English Lit classes and it wouldn’t take me more than a couple of weeks of college to decide I’d rather pursue my love for media.
It had just so happened that the H.H. Herbert School of Journalism and Mass Communication had recently elevated to the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication due to a gift from the Gaylord family that partially funded a brand new building.
On the eve before the start of classes, with our printed schedules in one hand and a campus map in the other, my friends and I stumbled upon Gaylord Hall. My eyes widened as I saw the master control room. I was mesmerized by the buttons, switchers, knobs, and lights. The computer lab was rows and rows of Mac Pro stations.
I told myself I would make it through the semester of chemistry and calculus, but I knew where I was already headed. Later that semester, I switched over to Gaylord College at my advising appointment and secured an internship with OUDaily.com for the Spring semester.
I spent the next year taking JMC pre-requisite classes and working evenings at the Daily. It was in the newsroom that I met a more senior colleague who told me to consider advertising. In more or less words, he told me that I could still pursue the creative side, but I could also take some business and economics classes which would look good on my resume. I took him at his word and, all of the sudden, I was majoring in Advertising.
Naturally, the first course I took as an advertising student was Introduction to Advertising. The class, to my surprise, was very popular and held in a large lecture hall.
David Tarpenning, my instructor, who students refer to simply as “Tarp,” introduced himself. He explained that he had been teaching OU for about seven or eight years after spending 30 years in the advertising business in OKC. He shared that he was also a proud alum of OU and that he, too, had switched his major to advertising after one semester of chemistry and trigonometry as a petroleum engineering student.
I felt an immediate kinship.
As I read the syllabus, I noticed that one of the assignments was to write a report on a book about advertising. He had listed ten or so books, and so I made my way after class to the local Barnes & Noble to see which ones they had in stock. Scanning the shelves in the business section of the store, I could only find one: Confessions of an Advertising Man by David Ogilvy. I purchased it and dove right in.
Today, I tell students that, despite its age, the book is an excellent resource for a student. It’s very straightforward and incredibly practical. Written during the Mad Men era of Advertising (originally published in 1963), Ogilvy is considered one of, if not the most, influential marketers of his time. A lot of that credit is due to his ability to brand commodities. He branded credit cards (American Express), gasoline (Shell), and tonic water (Schwepps). But his best branded product was possibly himself. The book is a mixture of stories, rules of the road, and Ogilvy-isms that continue to litter the industry today.
It didn’t take long for the book to click with me. The second chapter contains stories about pitching to potential clients, including the following story:
In 1958 we were invited by Standard Oil (New Jersey) to show them what kind of advertising we would run if they were to hire us. Ten days later I presented them with a hamper of fourteen different campaigns, and won the account. Next to luck, fertility and midnight oil are the best weapons to use in hunting new business.
We spent $30,000 on a speculative presentation to Bromo Seltzer. It was based on a cogently argued thesis that the majority of headaches are of psychosomatic origin. But LeMoyne Billings, who was then Bromo Seltzer’s advertising manager, preferred a presentation made by Lennen & Newell.
Today we have neither the time nor the stomach to prepare speculative campaigns. Instead, we show our prospects what we have done for other manufacturers, we explain our policies, and we introduce our department heads. We try to reveal ourselves as we really are, warts and all. If the prospective client likes the look of us, he hires us. If he doesn’t like the look of us, we are better off without him.
When KLM Royal Dutch Airlines decided to change agencies, they invited Ogilvy, Benson & Mather and four others to prepare speculative campaigns. We were first on their tour of inspection. I opened the meeting by saying, “We have prepared nothing. Instead we would like you to tell us about your problems. Then you can visit the other four agencies on your list. They have all prepared speculative campaigns. If you like any of them, your choice will be easy. If you don’t, come back and hire us. We will then embark on the research which always precedes the preparation of advertisements at our agency.”
The Dutchmen accepted this bleak proposition, and five days later, after seeing the speculative campaigns prepared by the other agencies, they came back and hired us. To my great joy. You cannot generalize. In some cases it pays to show speculative advertisements, as with Jersey and Helena Rubinstein. In some cases, it pays to be the one agency which refuses to do so, as with KLM.
It was here that I learned two simple truths about advertising.
The first is that it’s relational. Ultimately, clients will work with those with whom they connect.
The second truth is that good work is grounded in good research. The best ideas are not simply the best because they are unique or funny or shocking. They work because they spent the time up top to research the target consumer and, thus, plan to position the brand accordingly.
I also loved the image of Ogilvy walking into a pitch fully uninterested in pitching spec work since he wasn’t given time to research. In hindsight, the antiestablishment part of me probably liked this part the best.
For some people, when you asked them when they fell in love with what they do, that can’t point to a specific moment. They explain that it just happened somewhere along the way. I have the privilege of being able to point to the exact page of a simple book that I was reading when I fell in love with the art of the advertising industry.
I now teach Intro to Advertising. In fact, I inherited the course directly from David Tarpenning. I was honored when Debbie Yount, the area head of Strategic Communication, asked me to do so knowing that Tarp was retiring.
I spent the entire year thinking about that class and how I would eventually put my spin on it. I decided that I would approach it as not just explaining how advertising worked but how it began, evolved, and continues to evolve with society. I wanted to tell the story of advertising.
One thing I knew for sure was that I wanted to make sure that, while I wouldn’t assign a book report, I would work into the class some lecture about Ogilvy. For the past four years, I’ve told the story of reading that first book and falling in love with the craft.
It wasn’t until this summer that I had more to add to the story. Somehow, I stumbled upon a 15-year-old email that I sent to Tarp. Apparently, I was enjoying the book so much that I wanted to email him to let him know:
I would like to add that I have, in nine years of teaching, never had a student email me telling me they were loving an assignment. Which goes to show that 1.) there is now documented evidence that I am not lying to my students when I say I really enjoyed reading the book and 2.) I was destined to teach advertising. What a nerd!
And then I got the surprise of a lifetime. As I was teaching Intro to Advertising, I saw a camera crew come in. Shortly after, I see a familiar silhouette standing in the awning of the room. David Tarpenning was on campus as they were filming a short video that would introduce him when he received the Distinguished Alumni award at the upcoming Gaylord Eve of Celebration.
I convinced him to join me at the front of the class. I pulled up that email and, nearly in tears, personally thanked him for helping fuel my passion for advertising. I also asked him if he had any advice to pass on to the newest set of advertising students.
You gotta really love it, he told them.
Today, Tarp was back on campus receiving yet another award for the work he did to create Top Jobs: a student-led event focused on helping our students network and learn about the industry from several local, regional, and global agencies.
So, congrats, Tarp. Your humility means you are not wanting to be celebrated, but it’s important that you know how much you mean to your former students. Without knowing it, you set me on a wonderful career path with a simple assignment.