12 takeaways from renowned ad journalist Stuart Elliott


(Former NYT ad journalist Stuart Elliott shared sage advice for United and YouTube advertisers during The NJ Ad Club’s recent town hall.)

During my formative years in advertising, there were these three guys I looked to for “the way.” Three uncles, each one distinctly different.

One was the omnipresent advertising gossip columnist: George Lazarus of the Chicago Tribune.

Another, Bob Garfield was the acerbic critic from AdAge who had a way of backhanding ad campaigns that struck fear into ad people everywhere.

The last, Stuart Elliott, was the gentleman of the bunch. The uncle you always felt lucky to be around because even though he was a big shot, he’d take the time to share everything he knew with you. His column in The New York Times provided rare insights, and in-depth exposés into the otherworldly strategy and thinking of CMOs and ECDs working on the world’s top brands.

So the New Jersey Ad Club’s April 25th town hall featuring the renowned ad journalist Stuart Elliott felt a lot like home for at least one of us in the audience. Those of us lucky enough to spend the evening with Stuart Elliott were treated to great stories and generous lessons that were both enlightening and grounding—kind of like you’d expect from your cool uncle. NJ Ad Club Board Member and Executive Creative Director at Coyne PR, Rob Schnapp’s informed questions set the tone for a revealing and intimate town hall that kept the content current and electric.

Throughout the evening, Elliott spoke like the sage who’s followed the advertising, marketing and media beat with more than the determination of a journalist—but with an undying passion that anyone in the biz can relate to. The conversation arced from earned media to burned airline passengers. He touched on social, Apple and the very-much-alive New York Times. He didn’t make predictions—he swore off that temptation long ago after the dot-com bust of 2001. What he did talk about left all of us wanting more. In the end, his hour and a half seemed much too short. So what did he talk about?

On branding your enemy. Elliott believes the repetition of negative zingers like Trump’s “The failing New York Times” Tweets can be an effective way of communicating. But you run the risk of the person you’re attacking seizing the nickname and throwing it back at you in a nasty way. Elliott said, “It might serve to actually raise them up—from the people that don’t feel it’s fair that they’re under attack.”

Don’t believe the 3 AM Tweets. “The failing New York Times” is not. According to Elliott, they’re now selling more subscriptions per month than they usually sell in a year. Elliott said, “That’s in direct response to these attacks by people who feel their alternative facts are more valid than the facts that journalists come up with.”

It may actually be a smart move to get your brand involved in politics. Conventional wisdom says it’s smart for brands to avoid politics because of the potential of negative backlash. But Elliott brought up an interesting point: while political comments can be polarizing, the benefits of appealing to one group while alienating another can be a smart strategy—especially when the party you’re appealing to represents a large and lucrative market.

Uncle Stuart’s advice for United Airlines: Having made it through the essential mea culpa phase, like many disgraced brands, United is probably thinking about advertising its way back into the hearts of the coach class. Elliott counsels against doing anything too advertisy like Wells Fargo’s current effort which he described as, “Every round is more pathetic as they try to pull at the heartstrings.” In contrast, he recommends following Firestone’s historic example. The tire manufacturer hired  Jimmy Stewart as spokesperson to help the company navigate around the bad publicity they received after a series of tire-shredding incidents. Elliott’s suggestions for UAL: Sully or a retired Supreme Court justice.

Great things about social media Part 1: coalition building. Elliott sees this as an amazing phenomenon. Not only are people using social media to share news and information instantaneously, they are joining forces and springing to action immediately by arranging boycotts and circulating de facto petitions. The power and potential for organizing the masses is unprecedented and being used to great effect.

Limitations of social media—no long game. Elliott sees the weakness of most social media creative as its lack of longevity. Campaigns are short lived, not really the type of work that builds the foundation of a brand. They light up the Internet and fizzle. One example: Oreo’s 2013 Super Bowl Tweet “You can still dunk in the dark” Tweet was a hard act to follow.

“’Twas Madison Avenue that killed the beast” Elliott’s Tweet weeks ago was a commentary on advertisers’ role in removing O’Reilly from his post at Fox News. Elliott sees it as part of a bigger trend. He co-credits social media and the ease with which people were able to instigate coalitions against O’Reilly online. And he co-co-credits the trend of companies increasingly being pressured to make a stand on important issues. These days staying neutral can be riskier than picking a side.

Advertisers are going back to the 30s. Turns out branded content, branded entertainment and content marketing are nothing new. Elliott points out that modern advertisers are employing tactics used in radio in the 30s and TV in the 50s to overcome today’s ad-blocking tendencies and technologies. Some examples he mentioned:

  • Sponsored pre or during-show skits on programs like Jimmy Kimmel
  • Programs like FX Channel’s “The Americas” or “Fargo” presented by one main sponsor and featuring limited commercial interruptions
  • Cast commercials where the actors in the show come out and deliver the commercials during the show. For example, Tina Fey spoke for Snapple on 30 Rock.
  • Online advertisers on sites like are running elaborate short films that are high in artistic value and low on promotional content.

Half of my analytics are wasted; I just don’t know which half. We still haven’t reached Shangri-La in advertising: that mythical ability to pinpoint consumers who actually want to see your ad and are actually in the market for what you’re selling. Elliott said, “The good news is we now have all these ways of doing that. The flip side is that it’s not foolproof. Everyone talks about metrics and data. Because it’s online, it should be easy to measure or good or the data should help you figure out what to do. But in a lot of cases, there’s too much data or people don’t know how to interpret the data or the data might conflict.”

Why is my commercial running on that weird porno or white nationalist video? Maybe this whole idea of turning it over the robots is a little premature. Elliott found irony in the revelation by The Guardian and The Times of London that ads from some of the world’s most respected brands had appeared in some rather unexpected videos on YouTube. These are brands that strain over the proper placement of their ads in traditional paid media, after all. Elliott thinks the fallibility of the algorithms means advertisers will start having to use humans (gasp) to verify potential placements going forward.

The great marketing and advertising are timeless. It’s good to be reminded that boldly authentic advertising that taps universal human truths in clear and compelling ways stands the test of time. The Apple 1984 ad will give viewers goosebumps today the same way it did during the Super Bowl of 1984. And the subversive-sensibility of the original VW beetle ads from the 60s is just as irresistible today as it was then.

What’s the meaning of it all? Or rather, what’s the deal with Super Bowl advertising? Elliott talked extensively about marketers’ undying obsession with Super Bowl advertising. Companies pay millions to run a 15-second spot that will be judged and scrutinized by millions of hungry, ad-savvy unforgiving viewers all at once. Failure to entertain has dire consequences. Elliott referenced the example of shoe retailer, Just for Feet. Their Super Bowl spot was panned as racist and ultimately led to their going out of business shortly after their fail. Yet, the obsession continues. In an era where advertising can be more targeted and cost efficient than ever, why are so many marketers willing to spin the wheel on this ultimate spray-and-pray tactic?

After an inimitable and indelible run at The New York Times, Elliott continues to ponder this and many of life’s other great questions. Follow him here: @stuartenyt, @MediaVillageCom and @cbswatchmag

To Super Bowl or not to Super Bowl? If you’re looking for a spot for the next big game—or you need an awesome case study or campaign—remember I’m here to help. Reach out.