Clever Is the Enemy of Smart: Three Ways To Run a Successful Ad Campaign on a Budget

Clever is expensive. It takes time to come up with clever ideas, money to execute them well, and often they just plain don't work.


How important is it to be clever when creating ads? Arguably "clever" campaigns like "Got Milk," "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas" and "I Heart NY" made these brands legendary.

And if you talk to any seasoned ad person, they try very hard to be clever. A catchy headline, sophisticated metaphor, ample doses of humor. And sure, this stuff makes an ad "sticky." Chip and Dan Heath even outlined the formula: Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional and Stories — or SUCCESs.

SUCCESs is great for something where the message is the product, but what good is a clever ad if nobody buys what you are selling?

Take one of our clients as an example. He had a friend of his join the call — a brilliant ad guy — and they both wanted to do a "clever" ad campaign. The ad guy kept telling us about some of the very "clever" ad campaigns that he had done in the past. Campaigns for Apple, IMAX, United Way and other well-known brands in collaboration with famous filmmakers and storytellers.

However, our clientele — including the brilliant ad guy's friend — are small businesses, startups and nonprofits. They definitely do not have the same budget capacity as Apple.

I asked the ad guy what the budgets were for these "clever" ad campaigns. He was excited to tell me they were many hundreds of thousands of dollars. Sometimes millions. Then I asked our client if he had a million dollars to spend on an ad campaign.

He said absolutely not. Then I asked our team if they thought we needed a million dollars to do effective marketing. Our team also said absolutely not.

Clever is expensive. It takes time to come up with clever ideas, money to execute them well, and often they just plain don't work. So here are three ways you can run an ad campaign on a budget, and without "clever."

1. Establish a Value Proposition

The value proposition is the reason people work with you, join your organization or buy your products.

A great value proposition almost always works. Even for the above campaigns, the most important thing is to answer the question: What do you do differently and better than your competitors?

Now, this sounds like a simple question, but it is actually very hard to do. And often the answer is nothing. But if you truly have something that is different and better than your competitors, will "clever" make your message any better?

For example, we are running an ad campaign for The Bureau of Small Projects (we practice what we preach) and the headline is exactly that: The Smartest People In The World Work With The Bureau of Small Projects. This is not clever, just a simple statement of fact.

I asked our team if there was any "clever" way of saying "The Smartest People In The World work with the Bureau of Small Projects" that would make it better, without obscuring the message? We couldn't think of one. Can you?

2. Get Your Message in Front of as Many People as Possible

Once you can articulate what makes you different and better than your competitors, marketing is simple. Just get that message in front of as many people as you can. The good news is, never in the history of the world has there been more ways to get your message out into the world or more people to see it. If what you do is truly different and better than your competitors, people will take notice and come to you.

You can start with the classics: Google Ads, Facebook, Instagram and Linkedin. But these are relatively expensive and are getting less and less effective as more people advertise there. So look for other "out of the way" places to get your message across. Quora and Reddit are much more cost-effective and get quite a bit of traffic. You might also try listing and review sites. They cost nothing to create a listing and then customer reviews move you up the rank.

One trick that can be super effective: Rather than try to get the top spot on Google — which is way harder than the millions of blog posts on the subject and spammers lead you to believe — Google the term you want to rank for, then contact the people who are on the top spot and ask how you can get featured on their page.

3. Look at the Data and Adjust Accordingly

This last part is the most overlooked part of marketing. Almost every organization works hard on its messaging and, at one time or another, takes a shot at running ads. But it's shocking how many people—even seasoned professionals—stop there.

If nobody buys anything, you need to look at the data and figure out why. It sounds simple, but I bet you never do that.

Look at Google Analytics. If people come to your website and leave right away, the problem is likely with the banner image or headline. If they spend a lot of time on the landing page but don't buy, the problem might be with the call to action (or maybe the lack thereof). People love to be told what to do. If they go to the shopping cart but don't buy, the problem might be the price.

If you want to take the data to the next level, install a heatmap software like CrazyEgg or HotJar, and you can find out what part of the web page is not performing well.

After that, it gets addictive, like a video game. You keep making improvements until people buy something, use your service or join your organization. Then make incremental improvements as you go. No cleverness needed, just a little smarts.

With all the disinformation and fake news these days, people seem to be getting tired of clever. Maybe it's time to save some money and give smart a try for a change.

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