Dry Goods' Economist Interview
( Originally Published 1902 )
How J. Angus MacDonald Uses His Space—What Attracts Most Attention—" Tell the Truth "—How to Train a Young Man to Write Ads As to Criticism.
Some helpful advertising hints, pertinently put, were furnished an Economist representative the other day in the course of an instructive chat with J. Angus MacDonald, the man who frames and fashions Bloomingdale Bros.' ads. Though young in years, Mr. MacDonald is a veteran in this field, and his observations disclose some of the methods which invest the Blooming-dale ads with their trade-drawing power.
From a typographical standpoint the ads of this store, as they appear in the daily papers, look crowded, and if judged by printers or ad writers generally, would not be accorded so high a place as the ads of some of the other big stores. Questioned upon this point, Mr. MacDonald smiled and hesitated, as if he had heard the criticism before. Then he said: "We buy space in the newspapers in order to use it and that is just what we do with it after we buy it. I believe in the ` open' ad display where it is feasible and expedient; but experience has taught me that in appealing to people who purchase at retail, 'especially women folk, prices cut the most effective figure, and the more prices you give them, and the bigger the list of articles, the better they like it.
"I believe, too, in using art and literature when compatible with the end aimed at, but when their use means a sacrifice of financial results, they should be tabooed. Speaking of art and literature, I am reminded of what Paul Dana, the editor of the Sun, had to say upon this subject at a dinner which I attended. Referring to the work of the advertiser, he said that he occupied an enviable position as compared with the author or the artist. The author, he said, was compelled to stick to literature, and the artist to art, whereas, the advertiser had the privilege of working in both fields—as well as in a third field-the field of business.
"This is true, and perhaps it is this very license that makes some ads ineffective as business-bringers."
After some further remarks upon this phase of the subject, Mr. MacDonald observed: " I suppose that our greatest success lies in the fact that we always know what we are doing."
Parenthetically, it may be here remarked that the whole secret of successful advertising is embodied in that simple sentence.
Reverting to the typographical make-up of Bloomingdale Bros.' ads, Mr. MacDonald said: " The wants of several millions of people are numberless, and the better we cover the ground in calling attention to the extent to which we can sup-ply their needs the better the ad serves its purpose. Our customers, and the general public as well, have become accustomed to this style of advertising, and it is just as characteristic of this store as are other exclusive ideas which we utilize.
" Don't misunderstand me. I don't believe in crowding matter into an ad to such an extent as to make it difficult to read; but I do believe in offering the public the greater variety from which to make selections. We think that we have reduced this end of the business to a science, or as near to that point as possible.
"If our ads elicit adverse criticism on the part of those who think they know better than we do how trade should be appealed to, why, we don't mind it. It is results that tell. Criticism against successful methods is unavailing. Take, to go outside of the pale of the subject for an illustration, the work of the late Burne-Jones. He was bitterly assailed for years by fellow-artists and the critics, and yet, without varying from his methods, he came to be regarded as one of the foremost artists of his day. Pardon the comparison, but so it is with us. We may be criticised, but we get the results; and that's what we are after."
" What is the most attractive feature of an ad to the average run of shoppers?" the Economist representative asked Mr. Mac-Donald during a brief lull in the talk.
" Prices," was the quick reply, followed with " I mean comparative prices, showing at what price the goods were sold and the price at which they are being offered."
In Mr. MacDonald's office, up on the fifth floor of the Bloomingdale Bros.' store, a sign depending from the ceiling bears in large, plain black letters the words, "Tell the Truth." It was this sign that suggested the next question: "What da you consider the most vital principle in advertising?"
To this question Mr. MacDonald replied: "We believe in doing everything we promise to do, and just as we promise to do it," which, it will be noted, was but another way of saying " Tell the Truth."
" Two most successful retail advertisers," he continued, "John E. Powers and M. M. Gillam, both of whom at different times wrote Wanamaker's ads, rigidly adhered to this plan. They were both thoroughly clean and honest, and their characters were reflected in their ads. Prom any standpoint, business or moral, it's better to tell the truth; for if you don't it will soon. be found out. And the advertiser who doesn't live up to his professions must fail."
Asked for some advice to give to the advertiser in the small town, Mr. MacDonald said
"In the first place, I would advise him to get hold of a young man with the intelligence that suggests a proper capacity and ability to do the work once he has mastered the elementary facts. I would, after a proper course of instruction, place him not only in charge of the advertising, but of the window dressing and interior decorating as well. In this way these three departments would be, as they always should be, in complete harmony. Each department would support the others, and the result, assuming that the work be intelligently done, would be the result that always attends careful, wisely directed, systematic effort.
"Then, too, I would have the young man hold frequent conferences with department heads and buyers, requiring him at the same time to become thoroughly familiar with the kind and character of the stock carried in the store. As for suggestions to utilize in his work, I would furnish him with a copy of the Economist and require him to consult it for ideas.
" A young man systematically trained in this manner, provided always that he has the native capacity to do the work as it should be done, and is prolific of original ideas, would soon prove himself invaluable in increasing the store's business. It should be early apparent whether or not the young man is cut out for the work. If he isn't, he should be dropped at once."
In expressing his opinion why so many ads fail of their purpose, Mr. MacDonald said that it was due to the fact that the writers went off at half cock, not having devoted sufficient attention to the proposition before them, whereas, if they gave the subject the study and attention it deserved, success, instead of failure, would result. " That explains the value," he said in conclusion, " of knowing what you are doing."—Dry Goods' Economist, July 23, 1898.