The AdPulp Interview: Ad Contrarian Revisited

Bob Hoffman, also known as The Ad Contrarian, has written two books about advertising. His first was self-titled and his second is 101 Contrarian Ideas About Advertising, which has been getting a solid reception since its release in eBook form last November.

I had the opportunity to catch up with Hoffman over beers in Portland recently. He said he enjoyed making books more than blogs, and that he’s putting his new book out in print soon. Given the time we invest in our blogs, I felt the “books over blogs” topic needed further exploration. Thanks to Hoffman’s clarity and way with words, you can see for yourself what he thinks about writing, publishing, advertising, branding and more.

Q. Why write a book, when you’ve already published much of this material on your blog?

A. Ego. There’s very little prestige in being a “blogger,” but a whole lot of it in being an “author.” My mother would be proud.

Q. I understand your eBook is selling pretty well in the Amazon store, and now you’re preparing to offer a printed version. How well is the eBook doing, and why do you need a printed version too?

A. The eBook started out great. It was in the top 10 advertising eBooks on Amazon for a couple of months. But let’s be realistic here. Advertising eBooks, as a category, is a very small slice of a very small pizza.

For one shining moment it was actually the best-seller in the category. However, sales drop off when I don’t promote it on the blog. I’m walking a tightrope between pissing my blog readers off with self-promotion and keeping sales from evaporating.

I’m preparing a printed version of the book for a few reasons.

First, I am amazed at how many people don’t realize they can read an eBook on their Mac or PC.

Second, I am amazed (and encouraged) at how many people don’t like reading eBooks and want a real book.

Third, you can’t hand an eBook to a prospect.

Q. Is a book deal important to you? Or are you one of the brave, digitally-empowered DIYers, who sees little need for a traditional publishing house or their publicity department?

A. Ideally, a book deal would be lovely. It would be nice to have the resources of a publisher behind the book.
However, when I met with publishers about my first book, The Ad Contrarian, they wanted me to make changes that were going to take another six months. I had no appetite for that. I’m sure they were right and the book would have been a lot better, but I have a day job and I just can’t devote the time and energy that publishers rightly expect.

So we published a limited number of the books ourselves here at the agency. Believe it or not, if you go to Amazon now you can find used copies of the book on sale for over $100.

For my new book, I considered very briefly meeting with publishers but quickly talked myself out of it. Kindle Direct Publishing has made digital publishing so easy and attractive that even a knucklehead like me can do it.

The paper version of the book is almost ready for printing. I’m going to use Amazon’s CreateSpace. Fortunately, I have the help of the agency’s design and print production departments.

Q. Can you tell us about your writing process? When you made the original blog posts that eventually became the book, were you conscious of the end goal?

A. No, I was never conscious that I might turn the blog posts and articles into a book. It just hit me one day that it might work as a book.

One of the downsides of writing a blog that doesn’t report news or gossip is that it doesn’t have wide appeal. But one of the upsides is that it turns out you can re-purpose it.

Q. Curating your own content seems like a hard job to me. What was that process like? How did you decide what material to use, what not to use, what to rewrite, and so on?

A. It took me a year to go through all my stuff and decide what should go and what should stay. I’m still not sure about the decisions I made.

Fortunately I have a few good friends in the business who were willing to read the thing for me and help me with decisions.

My goal was to reach a balance between information and entertainment. I wanted the book to be a good amalgam of logic and silliness.

I’m sure it would have been better if I had hired an editor, but I’m a very impatient person and I just wanted the damn thing done.

Q. I have your book on my Kindle. Is the eBook also available in the iTunes store and for the Nook?

A. No. Compared to the Kindle bookstore, publishing to the iBookstore has been a complete technical nightmare. I did my Kindle publishing on a Sunday afternoon. I am in my fourth month of trying to publish to the iBookstore and am no closer than I was in November. They are impossible to deal with and provide no help and no support. I’ve about given up.

I will publish to Nook once I get the printed book done.

Q. How did you arrive at the price of $2.99 for the eBook? What will the printed version cost?

A. I read an article in The Wall Street Journal that said eBooks priced above $2.99 don’t sell. For a while during the holidays I had the book priced at $.99 and that really seemed to help sales.

I am thinking of selling the paper book for $1,000,000. I won’t sell many, but if I just sell one…

The publishing business is like the music business. There are 10 people making a billion dollars and a billion people making 10 dollars.

Fortunately, I don’t need the money from book sales. So far I have made enough money to keep George Parker in booze and cigarettes for a half hour.

Q. Why do “authors” have authority that most “bloggers” can only dream about?

A. It’s like the difference between a cook and a chef. They do the same thing, but one is French.

It has to do with the web. Blogging has the smell of amateurism. Publishing is more aristocratic.

Q. Can you calculate the ROI of your Ad Contrarian blog and the book that was born from it, in personal terms and in relation to Hoffman/Lewis?

A. In personal terms the ROI on the book has been incalculable. I have gotten more personal satisfaction from the book than from anything else I have done in my career.

As far as the agency is concerned, the ROI from the book has been zero. In fact, my whole stint as a blogger and author has probably cost us more business than it has won us.

Remember, the way you become a “contrarian” is by disagreeing with everyone. People don’t like to be disagreed with — particularly clients.

Q. Are you working on your next book? What’s it about?

A. Yes, but I am stalled. It’s a novel about advertising. I have about 70 pages written that I’m fairly happy with. But I haven’t written anything new since December. I don’t know where to take the book. I may just decide it’s a novella.

One of the problems in being a copywriter is that you spend your life taking great quantities of information and reducing them to their simplest form. Writing a novel is the exact opposite. You start with a simple idea and flesh it out. Except for my torso, I seem to be a bad flesher-outer.

Q. Finally, you’re helping to educate inside the industry. Not every practitioner is cut out for that, because teaching the craft is a different skill than practicing the craft. Can you discuss what it takes to teach one’s peers in a way they will accept, and in the best cases honor?

A. It’s nice of you to say that and I hope you’re right. But my sneaking suspicion is that most of the people who read my stuff think of me as a novelty act.

To be honest, I am not trying to educate anyone. I have been in this business for almost 40 years. It’s always been a business in which bullshit artists have thrived. But I’ve never seen anything like this. My writing is not meant to be educational. It’s a cry for help.

As for what it takes to teach one’s peers, I’m not a good enough “creative” person to teach them anything about the art of advertising. I just hope I can teach some people how to think straight.

Q. You make it clear in the book that you have no time for account planners and strategists who obfuscate rather than elucidate. I wonder, does this scare people away from working at Hoffman/Lewis?

A. Probably. We have a very specific culture at Hoffman/Lewis and we have very clear ideas of what is acceptable and what isn’t.

We have no patience for sidewalk psychologists and amateur anthropologists. If you speak simply and think clearly we like you. If you’re a brand babbler or a jargon monkey, it ain’t gonna work.

Q. You’re a big believer in product-based advertising, and argue that “branding” is mostly social science hogwash. The field isn’t really that narrow, is it?

A. No it’s not. I am a fervent believer in the power of brands.

Where I diverge from most of my colleagues is in how you build a brand. In most cases I believe the best way to build a brand is with convincing product advertising, not “branding.”

To me, a strong brand is a by-product. It comes from doing other things well.

However, there are some categories in which “brand” advertising is very effective. These are image categories – fashion, soda, booze, etc. But for most advertisers, product-focused advertising is a more effective way to build a brand. Apple is the perfect example.

Q. If awards are nothing but circle jerks, and there’s more to life than money, how should ad people be compensated for a job well done?

A. The only way the ad industry can compensate people for a job well-done is with those two things – recognition and money. They’re the only tools in the kit.

Naturally, we want more. We want happiness and peace of mind and self-respect. Martin Sorrell can’t give us that – that stuff comes from the inside.

Previously on AdPulp: The AdPulp Interview: Bob Hoffman, from April 20, 2009. Also, you can access the entire series here.



About David Burn

I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. Today—after working for seven agencies in five states—I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.