Forty Years of Thinking Outside The Box For Local Advertisers
Story By Brad Goins • Photos By Jason Carroll
If you wanted to know what’s what in Southwest Louisiana advertising, one of the people you’d ask is Peter O’Carroll. Part of the reason O’Carroll knows so much about advertising is that he’s genuinely fascinated by the subject. He’s studied and observed it. And he’s spent 40 years running a local advertising agency. “Advertising has always been an interesting topic to me,” he says.
A few weeks ago, after a long, fruitless search for a Jamaican restaurant, O’Carroll and I settled into a booth in Miyako, and I started figuring out what could make a person so interested in advertising.
The interest began a number of years ago. O’Carroll got a master’s in journalism at LSU. In the process of doing so, he took several courses in communications and advertising. And he found he enjoyed them.
After he got his master’s, O’Carroll decided to “step off the cliff” and open his own advertising agency in Lake Charles — The O’Carroll Group, which went into business April 1, 1978.
“It was one person — me.” But at least there wasn’t a tremendous amount of competition. “There were only two other agencies in Lake Charles.” They’ve since gone out of business.
That was a sign of things to come. “Lake Charles has always been a market of few ad agencies,” says O’Carroll. “You could always count them on one hand. Many have come and gone.”
So how has O’Carroll’s agency endured for 40 years? “By doing great advertising,” he says with a laugh. “Seriously, part of it is sheer persistence.”
But also, he says, “we try to live by some principles.” The principles are pretty basic. Still, says O’Carroll, not every agency follows them.
“We insist on being category-exclusive. If you’re working for a client, you don’t represent another business in that category.” For instance, if one of your clients is a bank, don’t take on another bank. “That’s like trying to serve two masters,” he says.
Then there are principles about the proper flow of funds. “We are an agency, and that requires a great deal of trust. When our client pays us for the advertising we’ve placed on their behalf, we’re obligated to first pay their media bills — then we keep only what’s left, our commission. That’s the rule: It’s not your money until you pay the media.”
O’Carroll gives the hypothetical example of a client who tells the agency to buy advertising in several media — say, television commercials, billboards and magazine ads. The total price tag is $10,000. When the client pays the advertising agency for those ads, the agency must pay the television station, billboard company and magazine immediately, and keep only the commission portion.
But occasionally, an agency owner may be under pressure to meet payroll, cover rent, make utility payments and so forth. He has the client’s check for $10,000 in his hand. So, he makes the unwise decision to pay his own bills with the check — and the media bills go unpaid.
When the media start missing the money for the ads, they may go to the advertiser — the agency’s client — who in turn will go to the agency and ask what happened to the funds. The financial and legal fallout from this kind of scenario has caused some agencies to go out of business.
“We’ve built a reputation and trust over our 40 years,” says O’Carroll. In the end, he says, his agency just tries to make the “best, most effective advertising” for their clients. “We’re successful when our clients are successful.”
When he first started out, O’Carroll ran a small quick-printing operation in his building for about five years. “It provided an income while the agency was in its early stages.”
Meanwhile, Peter’s brother, Pat, was running the popular Pat O’Carroll’s restaurant in Lake Charles in the 1980s. It was one of Peter’s first advertising clients. Peter recalls designing a different “collectible” drinking mug for the restaurant every month. He says he still owns about 50 of the old mugs, and many others in the Lake Area are proud owners of similar collections. “People still ask me about those silly advertising mugs — 30 years later,” he says. “My first claim to fame!”
O’Carroll started off by calling his agency Peter O’Carroll Advertising. After a few years, that was changed to the O’Carroll Group. The name change reflected not only the fact that the business had taken on several employees, but also that it had branched out into areas beyond advertising — such as public relations and other marketing services.
What An Ad Agency Does
People have seen shows like Mad Men, but they may not know what an ad agency does, says O’Carroll. “We don’t really tell people what we do behind the scenes. We put the spotlight on our clients.”
So, what do they do? “We help the client with their advertising strategy and planning, then we create [the advertisements], produce them and place them in the various media.” O’Carroll says his agency operates as a sort of one-stop shop for companies who want to advertise.
Some clients are quite happy to put the entire business of advertising in the group’s hands. O’Carroll said he’s had clients tell him, “We’re so thankful we don’t have to sit through a hundred media sales calls.”
During the last 40 years, a lot’s changed in the way agencies make ads. “One big change is the technology we use to produce and distribute advertising. [Years ago], for print ads, we had to go to typesetters for the type, then we had to do paste-up by hand.” Then “a big graphic arts camera took a picture” of the ad. Finally, the “ad slick” was sent to the newspaper or magazine.
And these ads had to be hand-delivered. “We had a runner on staff for delivering ads to the media, [including] tapes to TV and radio stations.
“It was a breakthrough when everything went digital. When they invented PDFs, we could actually email an ad to its destination. It’s allowed us to do more ad production work with fewer people.”
And, he says, such computer design programs as Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign now enable local agencies to “create richer-looking, more attractive ads.”
“Another big change came with the Internet,” says O’Carroll.
Before the dawn of the cyber age, people had three television networks to choose from. Most families watched the evening news on TV, read the daily newspaper and listened to the radio.
“Advertisers used to have just the traditional mass media,” says O’Carroll. “Now all the new media [that have come with the rise of the Internet] have taken their place beside radio, TV, newspapers, magazines and billboards.”
Ad agencies have always used demographics to get their advertising messages to “the right people.” For instance, O’Carroll says, if the makers of laundry detergent wanted to target “homemakers,” they would advertise on TV programs watched by that demographic group.
“The Internet takes that to a whole new level,” says O’Carroll. “Google and other Internet data companies know so much about your likes, your buying patterns, the websites you visit, [they have] the ability to target ads more precisely than ever.”
With the Internet has come “all kinds of new media” and the advertising that goes with them — banner ads on websites, sponsored posts on social media, Google Adwords (which enables an advertiser’s ad to pop up when someone does a search for a similar product), and video pre-roll ads (the short advertisement that runs before you see a video on YouTube).
O’Carroll says users are sometimes surprised to see an ad for a local company precede an internationally popular YouTube video. But online platforms from Google to Instagram to Pandora allow anyone — even small local advertisers — to place ads that target their own local geographic area. O’Carroll also notes that with all the advances in digital graphic design and video editing software, “a local ad or commercial can look as good as a national one.”
“Internet advertising is built on algorithms” that match ads to a particular consumer’s interests, says O’Carroll. “Behavior A implies an interest in product B,” and so forth.
It’s not a perfect system. O’Carroll tells me that his son, who is a neurologist, does not use Facebook. But when O’Carroll goes on his own Facebook page, he routinely sees advertisements pop up for products of interest to neurologists.
How can this be? Well, Peter O’Carroll’s son has exactly the same name as his father. Some algorithm is generating the result that these two Peter O’Carrolls are the same person.
(We know the algorithms don’t always work as intended. As a writer, I’m often obliged to do research on products I have no interest in. But, inevitably, ads for the products I’ve researched start showing up on my computer screen mere seconds after I’ve completed my work.)
In spite of the glitches in the new tech, it does offer some substantial benefits. “Online advertising is very measurable,” says O’Carroll. It’s easy to show a client how many times a particular ad was viewed or was clicked.
“These new media require us to adapt our creativity,” says O’Carroll. “We’re trying to stay ahead of the curve. We have to stay on top of this stuff.”
More Media On The Stage
Of course, the algorithm-driven advertising that can target millions of people individually is radically different from the traditional way ads are seen in print media. “If you’re reading Lagniappe, the ads are right there in front of you as you turn the pages,” says O’Carroll. You don’t have to worry about seeing an ad for a Caribbean cruise or a sports drink or a Vera Wang platinum creamer pop up out of the blue just because you once showed some interest in a similar product.
Most feel, though, that advertising in media fueled by the Internet is the inevitable future. O’Carroll says that online advertising expenditures surpassed television advertising in 2016, and the online ad market is expected to be 50 percent larger than TV advertising by 2021.
One big fallout of the growth of new media is the significant shrinkage in the number of newspapers, magazines and other print periodicals. We live in an era when we’ve grown accustomed to learning that such print media giants as the Chicago Sun-Times and the Houston Press have gone out of business. We see news video of crowds of employees leaving the Times-Picayune offices with cardboard boxes when that venerable media institution scales back to publishing three days a week.
Given the apparent decline of print media, how does O’Carroll explain the ability of Lagniappe magazine to put out one 100-page issue after another, year after year? “Something about it resonates with the community,” says O’Carroll. “You’ve got to have decent editorial [content] to attract readers and advertising. Readers translate into advertising, and that translates into pages.”
O’Carroll is less pessimistic than others about the future of print media. He sees a future in which traditional print media, as well as radio and television, share the stage with all the new forms of media that have come with the cyber world. Given O’Carroll’s experience in and knowledge of advertising, it’s a prediction that must be taken seriously.