Michael Weaver: Local ad man makes his mark

Michael Weaver

Michael Weaver stands over 6 feet. He wears smart-looking schoolboy glasses. He has a full head of blonde hair, despite his 66 years of age. In his European-style clothing and Oxford shoes, he looks like he just flew in from Manhattan. And he did — sort of. After 25 years in advertising on Madison Avenue, he moved to Hilton Head Island.

“At the age of 19, I chose advertising and I remember why — I’d always be learning about somebody else’s business instead of being stuck in one,” said Weaver, who is now a local marketing and advertising consultant. “I really enjoy what I do, I enjoy it to this day. I expect to keep working until I keel over.”

Weaver, who has a degree in journalism, noticed that his fellow journalism graduates were often pigeonholed into newspaper desk jobs that stifled their creativity. Advertising had energy, style and wit.

Advertisers were still writing the words and drawing the pictures when Weaver started out on Madison Avenue in the 1970s. Back then, advertisers built campaigns on ideas that could change the course of industries or make fortunes. Weaver thinks we’ve lost that, and that ads without ideas are meaningless.

The move from traditional media — print, radio, TV — to digital — websites, social media, videos — transformed the advertising industry in the late ’90 s. New content delivery systems like cable TV and the internet ended the era of the mass audience. Audience segmentation grew and continues to grow today.

The development of powerful ad servers created a dynamic capacity to target, deliver and measure the performance of ad campaigns online.The irony is that, although the new technology enabled powerful marketing tools,it usurped the creative process.  

“Not a single ad in a magazine I read the other night had an idea behind it. Not a single ad. Instead of creating the most engaging way to leverage a message, they used colorful font and large letters, as if that could replace a good idea,” Weaver said. “Deciding on a main idea means setting aside a dozen others. Without that discipline, you’re creating an impression, not an engagement. Thousands of experiences in my career learning how great ad campaigns are put together taught me to craft the story, not the circus poster.”

The current craze in advertising is algorithm-driven ads on the web: programmatic advertising. Traditionally human ad buyers negotiate the purchase of digital advertising space. Programmatic advertising uses software that automates the decision-making process of media buying.  

“Programmatic advertising started with the purchase of digital ads on websites. It makes the ad-buying process more efficient. But that does not necessarily mean it makes the media performance more efficient. It may sometimes impair the effectiveness of media planning,” Weaver said.

The endless navigational capabilities online can lead to media saturation, displaying as much content as possible just because you can. The result can be chaos — the circus poster that competes for the attention of consumers instead of engaging them in a story. Effective digital media plays off user behavior and enhances their experience rather than interrupts it.

“I’m also watchful that programmatic advertising can cause some skills to atrophy. Critical judgment suffers when people depend too much on automated programs,” Weaver said. “I’ve seen the tools take over the mind more than once.”

Weaver invented the concept of “cataloging,” sorting digital media with an eye towards effective page layout, using what’s unique about the medium to create experiences that engage consumers.  

The behavioral targeting capabilities of programmatic systems are heavily tied to tracking cookies. If ads can be personalized so they speak directly and intimately to each consumer, does that suggest that advertisers have too much information about us? 

“People consciously exchange information in order to get service on the Web. Data about their interests and preferences helps people get more personalized service,” Weaver said. “Now, security is another matter altogether. The security of personal data, like payment information, has to be ironclad. It looks like a few companies have some serious work to do to assure that.”

Weaver, who has two grown sons — James, 36, who is president of Point Grey Pictures, and David, 33, the assistant to the chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment — said he hopes to use his skills to boost the island’s economic development.

“When marketing is truly effective people make a better living. With all due respect, most of what gets called economic development is really just economic relocation — somebody moves a business from one city to another. When marketing works efficiently and effectively, profits and payrolls both grow where they are planted,” he said. “I've been fortunate to take part in some remarkable examples of this, so I know it to be true. That's why wasteful marketing bugs me.”