Making advertising about more than just sales: John Osborn

by Balt Heldring (GSB ’14)

Ever wonder who was behind AT&T’s “It’s Not Complicated” advertising campaign?

A series of TV commercials that feature funny conversations among four little kids and a young man seated around a classroom table, the “It’s Not Complicated” ads are not only entertaining, but also simply effective. With a shot of humor, AT&T’s product benefits are boiled down to simple value propositions even kids can appreciate.

AT&T’s popular campaign can be attributed to the creative vision of John Osborn, president and CEO of BBDO New York, who spoke at Fordham last Monday as part of Marketing Career Week.

Raised by his mother, Osborn learned to take care of himself by working hard and earning his place in society. People helped him along the way, and he said he has spent the time since he was a child working to give back to those people and society.

He finds no better way of doing that than through advertising. Over the years, Osborn has worked with General Electric, FedEx, Starbucks and many others to market their brands.

Presenting to a sea of passionate Fordham marketing students eager to learn what the world of advertising holds for them, Osborn ignited his speech with a simple concept: The Soul of Selling.

“Every brand has a head, heart and soul that connect a product to its customers,” he said. In other words, people are more willing to engage with a company’s product if the brand represents a higher purpose, such as corporate responsibility or generosity.

This belief is what makes Osborn an ideal choice for executive-in-residence at Fordham’s Center for Positive Marketing, a position he holds now. The center is built around the idea that marketing has the potential to improve people’s daily lives and make business better.

Osborn said that the current transition from traditional media — newspapers and magazines — to new forms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram has shown him and his fellow marketing executives that consumers are becoming more scattered, making it harder to market products. The way they advertise has to change accordingly.

“Today, people aren’t focused on one thing,” Osborn said. “They are always multitasking, so it makes it increasingly harder to grasp their attention. Therefore, advertisers must find a way to engage the consumer with the advertisement — and there is no better way than creating a campaign inspired by a meaningful purpose.”

For example, BBDO client Starbucks recently launched a campaign to advertise that it offers more than coffee. The campaign, known as the Starbucks Love Project, showed people around the world singing the Beatles’ classic song “All You Need Is Love” to generate money for people living with HIV/AIDS in Africa. Yes, the campaign increased sales, but it also shined a light on values that Starbucks wanted to be seen as representing. The company tried to bring its customers a new way of doing good.

“Ninety-one percent of consumers are likely to switch brands to one that supports a good cause,” said Osborn, who has helped companies like General Electric and FedEx launch similar campaigns.

When asked how he tackles new campaigns, Osborn replied, “There is no one formula for each campaign. Each one is different in its own unique way. It’s what makes me excited to go to work every day.”

Heads nodded in agreement around the room, because this is the way Fordham students want to feel about their future jobs, too. In reality, it’s what everyone strives to achieve.

Osborn’s primary advice to any student determined to have a successful career in marketing was to be intellectually curious. “Find out what your passion is, what interests you, and what you love to learn,” he said, “because the day you stop learning is the day the job is no longer for you.”

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