Doctor Spin

In a few weeks, the QEII conference centre, just around the corner from the Palace of Westminster, will play host to the serious parts of the ABA conference. But the sumptuous venue, complete with airport-style X-ray machines and the sort of security guards who are not retired lollipop men, recently played host to another gathering of professionals watching their industry go through massive changes and looking for ways to build a business in the new economy.

The International Advertising Association Congress gathered together the great, the good and the powerful in advertising, most of whom were there to listen to the list of new media gurus who might just tell them how they were going to make sure their clients continued to sell in a multichannel, multicutural, multimedium and multimessage world.

Nicholas Negroponte, director of the Media Laboratory at MIT and co-founder of Wired magazine, told his congregation: “Advertising is not necessarily interruptive. The goal is to make it so good, so personalised, that people pay more to get it.” Then he went on to talk about the internet fridges, intelligent ballpoints and interactive polo mints that would make it all possible.

But while we wait for this WAPing great, wonderful wireless world where marketing messages are literally built into the fabric of society and probably our nervous system, there is still a real world out there, real products and services to sell and messages to be created that bridge the gap. And it was here that one presentation offered something to talk about, literally.

Robert Scarpelli, chief creative officer at ad agency DDB, trademarked a term that he said guided all the work his company does. “Talk value” is quite simply the power of an ad or more generally a marketing message to get talked about. If people are discussing it in pubs, if kids are repeating the catchphrase in the playground, if the papers and chat shows are doing features on it – it's got talk value. The example Scarpelli used was a campaign for Budweiser beer in the US which has not only introduced a new phrase into the US vocabulary and made the actors into celebrities, but got the media talking about the ads on TV and radio news shows, talk shows and sports shows across the US and even across the internet.

The campaign features some guys (that's the term apparently), hanging out in a apartment, chilling and watching “the game”. Oh forget it, I can't keep this up. Basically it's four young black men watching an American football game and drinking beer. The story of the ad is about their phone conversations, each of which begins with the phrase “Whassup!” (translation: What's up? Further translation: What are you doing?). To which the answer is: “Watching the game, having a Bud.”

Now none of this really works firstly in the UK and secondly in print, but it certainly works. The pronunciation and the greeting have entered popular culture, becoming something that cannot be ignored and in Negroponte's terms, people can't get enough of it. Official and unofficial parodies and parodies of parodies are multiplying, and everywhere Whassup goes on creating talk value for the brand.

Now of course the assembled audience for Scarpelli's presentation were hardened ad hacks with numerous creative executions (as they call them) under their ponytails, but what can legal marketers learn from their fast moving consumer goods (fmcg) brethren?

Well, as I write this I am looking at a corporate yoyo, branded mousemat, logo encrusted biro and even a stick of rock with a firm's message written right though it. Pardon me while I take a moment to discuss these with friends down the pub. But first I'll dash off an email telling my colleague about it…

Now, of course, legal marketers are not selling anything as frivolous as beer. Professional services are erm… professional. But buyers – and yes you do have buyers – are human. They want to be entertained, surprised even smile when you try to sell them something.

That is a good enough reason to try to create marketing message with talk value, but if you needed any more reasons Scarpelli estimates that Whassup got his client's product $10m (£6.6m) worth of free advertising as it was replayed, analysed and, above all, talked about.