January 20, 2019

What’s really wrong with Israel’s ad campaign

The ads calling for Israelis to return home recently produced by the Israeli Ministry of Absorption and subsequently killed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are being criticized for all the wrong reasons.

Exactly a year ago this month, I was invited to a meeting in the office of the Israeli Ministry of Absorption to provide an hour of consultation regarding this campaign.

My first question to the team in charge was, “Which Israelis?”  And my second question was, “If you run this campaign, what will be your measure of success?”

As I teach my graduate students in the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Southern California, knowing how to ask seemingly simple but invasive, laser sharp questions at the very beginning of any campaign determines the professionalism of the nonprofit marketer. And the willingness of the client to grapple with the answers to those questions, which are never simple, determines the viability of the process.

I didn’t receive satisfactory answers to either question from the Ministry of Absorption. But being a good-hearted Zionist and wanting them to succeed at what they were resolved to do, I instead launched into a strategic education session about how they needed to travel this course, in order to achieve success.

I predicted, based on my years of experience in the advertising business and, subsequently, marketing the nonprofit world, that if the Ministry made TV commercials, they would risk becoming emotionally entangled in the creative excitement of the process and overlook finding the strategy that could lead to results. And that is what happened.

As far as 30-second spots go, the ones they made are exceptional. They do not, however, truly demonstrate how Israelis view their relationship with World Jewry, as so many pundits have been writing. These spots are, rather, simply the manifestation of an ad agency copywriter and art director developing a concept to create a series of simple but clever, potentially award-winning spots to add to their portfolio. That is how the industry works. Each spot is professionally conceptualized, poignant, powerful, dramatically executed, emotional, well-lit, beautifully shot, finely acted and artistically edited. Their message is crisp, clear and memorable.

So the Jewish Community in America is insulted and up in arms.

But as a community we can, and will, get over the strategic stupidity of these spots, which didn’t take into consideration or research how they would make Jewish Americans or Israelis married to Americans feel. The truth is, we’re not suffering from any consequences. Ultimately, the Israeli Ministry of Absorption will regain its credibility. Everyone will get over it.

More important, those, is the fact that these misguided spots indicate a far deeper problem, in which not only Israelis, but also the nonprofit Jewish world as whole, continually errs, wasting millions of dollars and shekels. The problem comes from using both the wrong marketing strategies and the wrong implementation.

The Ministry of Absorption, just like the Israeli government itself and many worldwide Jewish organizations, wanted a quick fix. They wanted an instant buzz. They wanted to see their cause in lights. They wanted to make a name for themselves.  They wanted to work with award-winning ad agencies that know how to sell cars and hamburgers, but not how to advocate for issues that can help change the course of the Jewish community or Israel.

In other words, they wanted magic.

It is a recurring problem, from which the Jewish enterprise is suffering greatly. The proof is that our good causes are not advancing. They are continuing to shrink. Aside from the ever-growing depth, texture, creativity and excitement within our vibrant core, more and more Jews continue to choose to pay less and less attention. Look at the shrinking involvement in federations, synagogues and day schools.  In the world of international Israel advocacy, we’re seeing a miserable failure. And on the fundraising front, we had issues way before the economy went south.

Most of the Jewish organizations that contact me believe marketing should create magic. When I first entered the nonprofit world, they requested and expected the magical solution to take the form of Public Service Announcements (PSAs), which end up airing on television during the remnant hours—around midnight. Years later, they thought magic would emerge from Case Statements—voluminous full-color brochures with deep human stories about their cause. (Most recipients threw those brochures away.)  Then, the magic was supposed to come from branding, logos, taglines and clever headlines. Now, the magic bullet is supposed to be social marketing – spreading a message via all the young people who know how to move their way around the Internet.

In their time, all these have been necessary and required outlets. But they don’t produce magic. And no one strategy or tactic can be the whole marketing solution to any hope for success.

Issues and causes, and the nonprofits or government entities that make them their mission, are complex organisms reflecting the soul of a society. And their marketing needs to reflect that complexity.

Marketing is about passion, both for the cause and for a love of humanity. It is about the art of focus. It is about critical thinking and big ideas. It’s about identifying influencers and their networks. It’s about segmentation. It’s about the rigors of community organizing. It’s about human labor, budget and a commitment to be ongoing from the client. It’s about patience and an ability to stay the course, to be flexible and aware of a changing society.  It’s about creativity. It is about sensitivity to your market, especially in the Jewish world.  It’s about many complicated actions and collaborations. 

But more than anything, creating great marketing requires the courage to take a risk and stand up to all the mavens who think they know better and who insist that marketing is magic and your job is to provide it.

So because of the ill-considered belief system and the pressure for instant results, everyone continues to reach for magic—as did the Ministry of Absorption.

Did they really think that 30-second commercials alone could convince people to pick up their lives move back to Israel?

The one thing the Ministry of Absorption did get right is that they need to market their cause and they need to create a budget to make it happen.

Until the Jewish world and Israel get serious and open themselves to the complex discipline of nonprofit marketing, and and until they commit their resources to doing it right, they will be wasting millions of dollars and shekels on the expectations of magic.

Gary Wexler, a former ad agency creative director, is the Adjunct Lecturer in Nonprofit Marketing in the Masters Program at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California (USC)