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Wizard of Ads

Lessons Learned From The Poor


Im 21 years old, but my thinning hair makes me look about 30. I consider this to be my greatest asset. I walk the retail sidewalks, looking in windows, deciding if Ill go in. A peddler goes door to door unthinkingly, playing the odds, but I choose my doors carefully, looking for those little indicators that whisper, The owner of this business has a brain.

I climb wooden stairs to the trailer-house office of a mobile home dealer on Admiral Boulevard. Behind me is the neighborhood of Ponyboy Curtis, an unfiltered assortment of bent automobiles, broken houses, and discarded people.

My footsteps drum the wooden deck. Behind the glass, two men drink scotch at a coffee table in a cloud of Winston and Lucky Strike. The heavier one looks up at me, then back to his scotch as I swing open the door and step inside.

Whatever youre sellin, were not buyin. His eyes never leave the scotch.

Probably advertising, said the other, careful not to look my way.

I came in here because you guys appear from the road to be smarter than most. Dont tell me I made a mistake.

Both men turn to look at me. The second one speaks again. What makes you think were so smart?

The sign, the flags, and the angle of presentation.

His eyes grow cold and hard. Explain.

I raise a finger. Five sheets of inch-and-an-eighth tongue-in-groove plywood gave you an 8-by-20 sign on which you painted Veterans Housing Specialists in exactly the same style and colors a government agency would use. Youre looking for that Veterans Administration one-dollar move-in money that you know every Vietnam vet has available to them. Youre smart enough to paint the sign. Im smart enough to know its working.

A second finger. Every dealer on mobile home row uses exactly the same strings of cheap vinyl flags to get attention. Red, yellow, blue, green, and white. But you paid extra for strings of metallic silver and metallic gold. It makes your mobile homes look upscale.

Three fingers. You have the least inventory of any dealer, but your customers never realize it because while every other dealer places their homes parallel to the road, youve angled yours so no home is ever parallel to the road. This is visually more interesting, gets more attention, makes the homes seem distinctive, and youre creating leading lines in a V-shape that guide the eyes of passers-by to your seemingly official Veterans Housing Specialists sign.

The second one stood up. Im Jim McDuffie. Pointing to his partner, he said, Thats Mac McKean. Reaching toward me for a handshake, he said, And youre our new advertising guy. Tell me what I need to buy.

I like to tell that story because it makes me look smart. There are other stories I dont like to tell.

Jim McDuffies business is big enough to advertise in multiple ways. This means I have a safety net. If the ads on my tiny little radio station dont produce results, the traffic generated by the other stations will cover me. I rarely have this luxury.

The upside of working for the smallest radio station in the city is that I can make presentations to businesses with budgets too small for any station but mine. In other words, the salespeople who work for the larger stations are limited to just one of every 100 businesses. The other 99 cant afford their rates, but every business in town can afford me.

Thats the problem. People buy my station because its all they can afford. Nothing else. No safety net. If my ads dont work, the electric bill doesnt get paid, the kids dont have money for school lunches, and the ad man is a con man.

When my ads failed, I had nowhere to hide because my clients could afford no one but me. Id been given all the money they had. Pain is the teacher you never forget.

When I lost my hair at an early age, I knew it gave me an advantage. But it took a few years for me to realize that being the only salesperson for the number 23 station in a city of 22 stations gave me an even bigger advantage. No other salesperson was given a private physics laboratory in which they could accurately measure the cause and effect of each of the variables in advertising.

Thank you, Mr. Kitchell, for trusting me with your money 34 years ago. I learned some hard lessons at the expense of a lot of good people like yourself who couldnt afford to lose what I cost them. I kept the education you bought me and helped a lot of people with it. Many of them became hugely successful.

None of those happy people ever really knew the debt they owed you. But Ive never forgotten what we learned, you and I. The parts that worked. The parts that didnt.

I think of you often, Mr. Kitchell, and I still regret that I was unable to take you where you deserved to go.

Roy H. Williams is president of Wizard of Ads Inc. E-mail:

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