Can Advertising Survive Digital? Yes—By Leaving ‘Mad Men’ Behind

Dan Lyons talks to one cutting-edge Ad Man about how to sell a motorcycle—with no ads.

Courtesy of Questus Partners

Jeff Rosenblum is drinking tea at Soho House, a private club in lower Manhattan, and explaining to me that most advertising doesn’t work, and that the entire advertising industry is stuck in the past and desperately needs to be blown up and reinvented—not exactly what I’d expected to hear from a guy who runs an advertising agency that counts Suzuki, Universal Theme Parks, Capital One, and General Mills among its clients.

“Advertising hasn’t changed since the 1960s,” says Rosenblum, 40, the cofounder of a 50-person agency called Questus that specializes in digital media and just won an Agency of the Year award from iMedia, a publication that tracks the online marketing industry. “But we’re on the verge of a revolution. People are starting to realize that there are more effective ways to build a brand than through advertising.”

Rosenblum is so passionate about this that he’s even made a documentary film, The Naked Brand, in which he bashes his own industry. “My father looked at it and said, `So what’s your master plan here? Because it looks like you’re going to get hoisted with your own petard,’” Rosenblum says. But the son disagrees: he thinks the revolution is coming whether people like it or not, so he might as well become part of the destruction.

In his film, he argues that companies for decades have behaved abominably and then used advertising to cover up their behavior. The Internet, by giving consumers a voice, has rendered that strategy useless because consumers can now sink a brand with a blitz of online complaints. His advice to big brands: instead of pumping millions of dollars into advertising, why not invest that money into actually fixing your company? Don’t just say you’re great—actually try to be great. Once you’ve done that, you can use social media to spread the word.

In this brave new world, the role of advertising agencies would change as well. Instead of being a pack of well-paid liars, ad agencies would act more like consultants, helping companies figure out how to fix their businesses and improve their brand reputation based on actual accomplishments.

The problem is that most big agencies either can’t or won’t adapt to this way of thinking. They’re still cranking out 30-second spots and splattering banner ads on Web sites, even though it’s become clear that we’ve all become very good at tuning out those advertisements. The big ad agencies stick with their 50-year-old business model because they don’t know what else to do. As a result, Rosenblum says, the entire advertising industry, which is worth $150 billion in the U.S., $300 billion worldwide, is about to get blown to bits.

Rosenblum has always considered himself something of an outsider in the ad business. He cofounded Questus 12 years ago with Jordan Berg, a buddy from the University of Vermont. Neither one of them had any experience in advertising. Rosenblum was working in market research. Berg was an artist. “I think the fact that we didn’t have a background in advertising has been a huge advantage,” Rosenblum says.

To show how the new approach should work, Rosenblum points to the work Questus did for Suzuki, to promote its Hayabusa superbike, a high-end monster capable of speeds approaching 200 miles per hour and carrying a $14,000 price tag. Using social media “listening tools,” Questus discovered that the Hayabusa was immensely popular among Latinos and African-Americans. More important, Questus found that Hayabusa owners felt a powerful emotional connection to their bike.

“For a lot of these guys it’s a form of self-expression. It’s part of what makes them who they are,” Rosenblum says. Questus found that some owners even recorded rap songs about their bikes—and that was when the lightbulb went off. “The thing is that you can’t change people’s behavior with social media, but you can use social media to understand their behavior and to accelerate it,” Rosenblum says.

Toward that end, Questus created a website called Busa Beats, hired DJs to create a bunch of beats and background music, and licensed technology that enables visitors to the site to create their own rap music over any of the beats. Then they created a competition where people could vote for the rap song they liked best. The winner got a customized Hayabusa. “Now we’ve got people doing marketing for us,” Rosenblum says. “Guys go online and record a rap song, and then they go to MySpace, Twitter, and Facebook and tell their friends, `Hey, go listen to my rap and vote for me.’”

Soon the site had tens of thousands of visitors. The guy who won the competition became so popular that he went on to release a CD and do concerts. That was 2009. By last year the contest had gained so much buzz that basketball legend Michael Jordan’s motorcycle racing team, Michael Jordan Motorsports, asked to get involved as a sponsor for the next competition, and designed last year’s prize bike, and didn’t charge Suzuki any sponsorship fees. Even better, unlike a 30-second spot that runs on TV and then is gone, or a campaign that might run for a few months, the Busa Beats project can run forever—not just because the website remains up, but because now people are carrying Busa Beats songs around in their iPods and iPhones. The campaign just keeps spreading and growing.

And that, Rosenblum says, is what the new age of advertising should be: not putting pointless ads on websites or blasting stuff at people on TV, but finding ways to accelerate the word-of-mouth advertising that people already are doing. On behalf of everyone who hates being bombarded with these crappy ads that clutter up the Web (which I think is pretty much everyone), I say: bring it on.