Do the coastal elites who work in Manhattan and L.A. ad agencies truly understand what motivates the people in the middle of the nation to buy hamburgers, life insurance policies, and pickup trucks? Clearly, the best of them do. So, is there anything to the claim that agency staffers need an education in Red State America?
Patrick Coffee, senior editor for Adweek, travelled to Nashville recently to meet Paul Jankowski of the Nashville, Tenn.-based New Heartland Group. Jankowski, for one, sees opportunity in our bitterly divided nation. “Stereotypes kill, and having expertise in the culture you’re trying to reach is critical,” says Jankowski.
His agency aims to facilitate that expertise through a new twist on the time-tested theory of cultural immersion in which executives from the client and agency sides visit Tennessee for two- to three-day tours designed to help them better understand a massive consumer group.
My introduction to this practice begins at 8 a.m. on a crisp January morning, when a New Heartland van arrives to meet our group—which includes reps from Arby’s and its agency of record, Fallon—at the new Thompson Nashville hotel for a daylong introduction to the local culture.
Coffee goes on to detail the hipster joints the group visited, which seems entirely beside the point. Cultural immersion in the real Heartland happens in revival tents, shooting ranges, and at Friday night football games.
Coffee also spoke to Greg Andersen, a veteran of New York and Los Angeles agencies who recently returned home to run Bailey Lauerman in Omaha, Neb. “Not everyone wants the mid-century modern home, the vintage muscle car and the organic diet.”
I understand why agencies located in the Heartland might choose to position themselves as better able to relate to a particular consumer group like church-going soccer moms. We all need to specialize in something. What I do not buy is that it takes a farmer to sell another farmer a John Deere tractor. In fact, there’s something offensive about the idea. Great ad makers from coast-to-coast will walk a mile in the farmer’s shoes, but at the end of the day, ads are made on an Apple computer, under the influence of espresso and soft lighting.
Diversity is as American as apple pie. It does not exist exclusively in coastal cities. Likewise, lack of diversity continues to plague various sections of our society. The ad business lacks diversity, and big American cities like Portland, Oregon lack diversity. At the same time, Portland is home of one of the world’s great advertising agencies. Which leads me to believe that complexity is the true reality on the ground, no matter where the ground is located. Great advertising runs on insights into what moves people. There’s no geo-cultural boundary to cross here. There are customers to attract.