Paint-By-Number Advertising And Selling


(By Roy Williams) People don’t paint by number as often as they did 50 years ago. My personal theory is that we came to our senses and realized paint-by-number paintings are perfectly awful. But we still see and hear a lot of advertising-by-number and sales-by-number. I blame the colleges.

Paint-by-number paintings employ a template. I’m not against templates. I’ve created dozens of them. The purpose of a template is to give beginners a way to begin. The hope, of course, is that the beginner will learn to improvise, develop new techniques, and leave the template behind. But then some fool of an instructor carves the template in stone and treats it as an idol to be worshiped, a perfection to which we should all aspire, a standard to which we should all be held.

Pause with me for a moment to thank merciful God above that the template worshippers never discovered poetry. If they had, all poems would begin “Roses are red, violets are blue…”

Sadly, the template worshippers discovered marketing in the 1950s.

That’s when most of our tragic advertise-by-number and sales-by-number templates were developed, popularized, and adopted as standard operating procedure. These obsolete templates from the 1950s are why we hate most advertising and are suspicious of most salespeople.

Advertise-by-Number Template No. 1: Your “unique selling proposition.”
Business owners are usually introduced to this template by well-meaning ad writers who ask, “What is it that you do differently than your competitors? We need to focus on what you do that they don’t do. What makes you different and special and better than everyone else?”

Truth: Bad advertising is about you, your company, your product, your service. “Me, me, me, me, me.” It walks into the room and shouts, “Here I am!”

Good advertising is about the customer, and how you hope to improve their world. Good advertising walks into the room and smiles, “There you are!”

Advertise-by-Number Template No. 2: Reach the right people.
Targeting the “right” customer is always more expensive. This is why media salespeople want you to focus your attention on reaching “the perfect target customer.” Age. Gender. Income. ZIP code. Purchase history. “This is my target. Find me the Facebook lookalikes.”

Truth: Decisions are never made in a vacuum. To become a household word, you must also reach the influencers, the friends and neighbors, sons and daughters, husbands and wives, co-workers and employers of your customer. But happily, this “unfiltered” mass audience is extremely affordable.

Truth: Telling an interesting story — saying the right thing — is much more important than “reaching the right customer.” When you learn to speak to the heart, you’re going to be surprised at how many people suddenly become the “right” people. Online engagement, page views, time spent on site, and word of mouth will skyrocket. Advertise-by-Number

Template No. 3: Tell them what they want to hear.
“Tell them what they want to hear,” is the very definition of hype! Hyperbolic statements of high relevance, but low credibility, cause customers to roll their eyes and whisper, “That would be impressive if I believed you.”

Truth: You gain credibility when you are open, honest, and vulnerable. The strongest ads create a bond with the customer. Win the heart, and the mind will follow. Your customer can always find logic to support what their heart has already decided.

Sales-by-Number Template No. 1: Everyone is an extrovert.
“Engage the customer immediately. Make eye contact. Smile big. Shake their hand. Pat their back. Never quit talking. In other words, be friendly.” Extroverts live to talk. Face-to-face. Nose-to-nose. It gives them energy and makes them feel good. Does it surprise you that extroverts are naturally attracted to selling? Here’s what’s funny: They’re just treating you how they prefer to be treated.

Truth: What feels like “friendliness” to the extrovert feels like “assault” to the introvert. And 49.5 percent of the population is introverted. Are you beginning to understand why has become the No. 1 search engine for product research, even when we’re planning to buy the product at a local brick-and-mortar store?

Truth: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” assumes that everyone is like you. If you want happier customers, you must learn to “do unto others as they prefer to be done unto.”

Sales-by-Number Template No. 2: Dominate the conversation.
“Don’t let the customer lead you. You must lead them. Don’t listen to their story. Make them listen to yours.”

Truth: People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care. And the way to let people know that you truly care is to listen to them carefully, and then help them find what they want, not what you want
them to have.

Have I put the matter too strongly? Have I?

Do I sound like I have a chip on my shoulder? Do I sound like I’m a little bit angry?

If so, it is only because I’ve been reading Grace Paley (1922-2007), who said, “Let us go forth with fear and courage and rage to save the world.”

I’m just trying to save the world from bad advertising and tacky salesmanship.

Do you want to help?

Roy H. Williams is president of Wizard of Ads Inc.


  1. You’re screaming into the abyss, Roy. The mantra from on high is still “if it ain’t broke, don’t try harder”. You should just give up. I did. It’s easier this way. Let radio be. It doesn’t care what you think.

  2. As he is so adept at cobbling together a number of cogent, specific thoughts, Roy may yet be tossing pearls.
    This one article is strong enough to be motivating to any manager or owner – in principle.
    In the meantime, it would not be too untoward to speculate that most readers, especially as the material refers to ad copy, will continue to default to: “For all your advertising needs…”


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