Stevens Advertising, 190 Monroe Ave. NW in downtown Grand Rapids, has seen plenty of changes in the industry over its 100 years of operation. Courtesy Stevens Advertising
For the advertising industry, the digital age is a double-edged sword.
Executives at Grand Rapids-based Stevens Advertising Agency, 190 Monroe Ave. NW, say the 100-year-old firm’s growth — from $2.8 million in West Michigan net advertising billings in 2015 to $3.3 million in 2016 — came in part from an increase in pay-per-click and digital display ad sales.
But as digital advertising becomes more sophisticated, challenges multiply, said Allen Crater, Stevens’ president.
“One of the big challenges is the fragmentation of how people consume media,” he said. “There are so many platforms and things that come and go. People’s expectations about media change so quickly because of that. Look at Facebook and how it changed from a kid’s platform to an adult’s platform. And now you have Snapchat,” a video- and photo-centric mobile app that sends messages that self-destruct in seconds.
Mike Muller, Stevens’ executive vice president, said it can be a lot of work to stay current with trends.
“Keeping pace with end users and how they consume media (is constant),” he said.
Crater said the firm has to spend time educating clients about changes in advertising tactics.
“It used to be easier,” he said. “You would spend a decent amount of money, put together a beautiful TV ad and reach however many people.
“Now, the approaches you would need to take to reach that same audience are so different. What you could accomplish with one TV ad 25 years ago may take a seven- to eight-pronged approach across channels now to reach the same number of people.”
In the early days of Amway, Stevens hired actor and comedian Bob Hope for TV commercials, touting the direct-sales business and propelling it into national prominence.
Now, the firm works for clients such as Crystal Mountain Resort, Ferris Coffee and Nut, Fusion Academy, Grand Rapids Association of Realtors, Mercy Health, Pine Rest, South Haven Convention and Visitors Bureau, Tourette Association of America and the YMCA, doing anything from rebranding and market entry to sales campaigns.
The industry uses a different set of tools these days.
“A lot of (our) growth has been digitally focused: advanced targeting, research-based targeting and things like that — more sophisticated digital advertising, which increases budgets and spends because they can see the effectiveness,” Muller said, noting that page views, clicks and action steps are all able to be tracked with industry-standard software.
Crater said digital targeting allows advertisers to collect information across platforms and leverage it.
“What we’re able to do from a digital targeting standpoint is a huge trend,” he said. “We can serve up ads to folks on mobile, tablet and computers based on demographic information or psychographic information, which is more like beliefs or emotions or feelings.”
He noted this type of direct targeting — say you mention shoes on Facebook and then instantly start seeing ads from shoe companies — can feel “Big Brother-ish” and invasive to consumers, so it should be levied with care.
Another relatively new approach is “drip marketing.”
Drip marketing is “the ability to communicate with potential customers based on where they’re at in the sales process and engagement process with the brand,” Muller said. “If you have a customer who barely knows you, that dictates how you communicate with them. But as they progress in their knowledge, you can start talking features rather than benefits.”
Crater noted if you have the right software, drip marketing can be “fairly automated.”
“If someone sees your digital display ad and takes a certain action, it may trigger another step in the process and so on,” he said.
Muller cited work the firm did for Crystal Mountain Resort as an example.
“If there’s a visitor who’s been on Crystal Mountain’s website, we can connect them with a real person and market to them based on whether they’re a golfer, downhill skier or looking for a weekend getaway, to make the communication more relevant to who they are and where they’re at,” he said.
Many of their ads take users from social media to the companies’ websites, a mode of directing consumer traffic that wasn’t possible 15 years ago, let alone 100.
Crater and Muller agree that while the tricks of the trade have changed, the firm’s core values remain the same.
“The core three pieces of the agency are built around integrity, having a commitment to our employees … and creative thinking,” Crater said. “Creative thinking has always been important; it’s just the delivery mechanism that has changed.”
Muller added: “We’ve always been all about the results and the strategy to get the results, and that’s been a core focus of the agency. Our job is not to create things for the sake of creating things but to use creativity to drive results.”