Tip of the Iceberg

November 20, 2011

A bit of advertising trivia.  Not too many years ago, there was a term often used to categorize different forms of advertising. This term was first used in Europe, but quickly spread to the U.S. as agencies consolidated, and global agency networks were born.  The term? “Above The Line.” It referred to advertising that was deemed acceptable (by whom, I never knew), and was most often used as slang for TV, radio and print. The truth is, it emerged as the result of an accounting procedure that was used for recording the cost of advertising in client budgets. “Above The Line” advertising costs were considered acceptable to itemize in a budget. Of course, the antithesis term followed, “Below The Line.”  This referred to advertising that was considered non-traditional and really, it was used as a derogatory term for the less sophisticated forms of advertising, in particular sales promotions, direct marketing, database marketing and direct mail.  If you worked in these emerging areas of any ad agency, you were considered the cellar dwellers (or, as one agency head once referred to our group, the “trolls under the bridge.”  True story!).

Back in the day, almost all of the focus and resources went towards that part of the advertising and marketing iceberg that was visible–above the (water) line–the campaign creative. In fact, without naming names, I recall high-paid Creative Directors being treated literally as royalty within the various agencies where I worked. The TV, print and radio creative was the religion, and the geniuses who birthed the ideas were the gods. Creativity ran the ad world.

Yes, the times they are a changing. In 1995, Budweiser had one of the top campaigns of the year. Remember it? The swamp frogs, starring Louie and Frankie. In fact, Gore Verbinski directed the spots. Don’t recognize the name? He went on to be the director of the Pirates of the Caribbean series. Quick–what was the top campaign from last year? I’ll let you research it yourself. You’ll discover as I did…there is no such category anymore.

A recruiter friend of mine just last week lamented the fact that suddenly he is being inundated by clients who are looking for seasoned professionals with “below the line” experience (translation: direct and database marketing expertise).  Global agency conglomerates have switched positions in their names, putting the direct brand first (Wunderman and Draft FCB come to mind). The reasons? There are many, but much of it has to do with the fact that these “trolls”, who were all raised on the boring, non-glam, “below-the-(water)-line” skill areas such as data, analytics, database technology, measurability, R-O-I, systems planning, and the more-science-than-art skills of discovering compelling insights from vast quantities of information, now provide the backbone skills needed for successful marketing.

Although times HAVE changed, terms “above-the-line” and “below-the-line” work even better in today’s world. Take that iceberg. Today, instead of symbolizing the campaign creative, the tip is the part of the marketing mix that is visible to the target, representing the numerous channels for reaching prospects and customers alike.  But also like an iceberg, increasingly the entire foundation for all marketing now lies “below-the-(water)-line”. You see, it’s still all of the non-glam, boring, complex data, systems and technology junk that enables the tip of the iceberg to be visible.  So, while the perceived market value of the expertise of the “trolls” continues to grow rapidly, here’s the good news (for the creative types, at least)…the trolls’ work still remains below-the-(water)-line.


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