Adventures in advertising — or maybe phone repair. We’re not sure yet.

Posted on November 2, 2010


It’s been a while. I’m still trying to build up motivation to get back to this, but it’s proving to be a struggle. So I’ve re-worked something I wrote last year for my advertising blog. It’s all true. No exaggerations.

Think of it as my way of priming the pump, or turning the crank on the engine. Or something.


Hello. Would you be interested in giving me money?

Back in the early ’80s I worked at a small start-up magazine in Toronto. Peter, the owner and publisher, was a true entrepreneur, convinced that with the right attitude anything was possible and the sky was the limit.

That’s how I came to have my first experience as a telecommunications technician. We had one phone line, but Peter wanted two and saw no need to pay for the second one. For reasons known only to him, he decided that my background in editing and commercial art made me uniquely qualified to take on the task.

He managed to get a second phone from somewhere (back then you didn’t just go to a phone store), and for two days I struggled with a mass of wires. After much trial and error, I finally succeeded in fixing it so that instead of one phone, we now had two paper weights.

We may not have seen eye-to-eye on many things, but we did agree on the need for advertising. Without it, he said, we’d go bust in four months.

The only question was how to go about getting it.

My plan was two-fold. For the smaller “bread-and-butter” ads we’d make up flyers to distribute to local businesses. For the larger half- and full-page ads we’d select businesses with products and services that would appeal to our readers and make a personal pitch.

Peter’s plan was cold-calling: phone every business in the area and convince them to place an ad.

We discussed the relative merits of each plan for several hours and in the end decided that cold-calling was the best way to get Peter off my back.

Next came the question of who would do the cold calling.

Since I was already involved with layout, writing, editing, and research, I kind of figured maybe someone else could do it. Specifically the receptionist, whose job presently consisted of answering the phone twice a day (on busy days — and only when the phone was working).

My protestations that, aside from already being over-worked, I had absolutely no talent in sales only encouraged the positive thinker in Peter. I was selling myself short, he told me. After all, with absolutely no training, hadn’t I rewired the phones to give us two lines without the phone company knowing about it?

I reminded him that we still only had one line, and that we’d had to bring in the phone company to get that working again — but there’s no discouraging an optimist in full optimism mode.

Naturally, I ended up doing the cold-calling.

After several days without a single response, Peter told me he’d figured out what the problem was.

The problem wasn’t that we were calling random businesses and trying to commit them to a sizeable financial outlay on the basis of nothing more than a voice on the phone (a phone which, on my end at least, still had an annoying buzz in the line).

No, the problem was that the message was being given by a live person, which meant that there were variations in tone and pitch. This threw off the scientific consistency of the cold call.

He’d read some research on it.

What we needed, he said, was an automatic dialling system and a pre-recorded message.

Of course, we didn’t have an automatic dialling system. We were lucky to have a phone at all. The repairman had been extremely sceptical when we told him the phone wires had got messed up during recent renovations — especially since there there were no signs of renovations having been done in the last 30 years.

On top of this, the only recording system we had was my cheap cassette recorder.

But a true positive thinker doesn’t believe in failure (which is odd, considering how often they experience it). His suggestion was that we (meaning me) would record a message, and then we (meaning me) would call numbers at random and, when someone answered, we (still me) would push “Play.”

What could go wrong?

Peter wrote out a carefully worded message, and that night I spent a couple of hours reading and re-reading it into the tape recorder until there were no unnecessary pauses or stumbles. The next morning, before coming in to work, I called him at the office. As soon as he was on the line I played it for him then asked what he thought.

He didn’t say. He’d hung up.

I learned two important lessons about advertising through this experience.

The first was that if the client himself can’t sit through the ad, it’s probably not going to work.

The second was that lack of advertising does not necessarily mean a magazine will go bust in four months.

We managed it in three.