Q&A: Jordan Zimmerman turned a B+ at USF into billions

The head of the nation's 14th-largest ad agency started his journey to success after finding fault with a model he was taught at USF.
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TAMPA — When Jordan Zimmerman gave $10 million to the University of South Florida last week, he said it was because the university inspired him to become the successful advertising executive he is today.

USF inspired him, mainly, by being wrong.

Zimmerman was a USF undergraduate in the 1980s when a professor explained the "purchase funnel." That's a marketing model used to explain a consumer's journey — awareness, interest, desire, action — from learning about a product to buying it.

Zimmerman thought that model was wrong.

"I realized that people don't buy things because of awareness," he said. "Awareness is an empty promise."

He realized that an ad campaign must be designed to improve sales first.

"Profitability was at the bottom of the funnel and awareness at the top, so I flipped it," he said. "I got excited and I started to write a business plan."

His business plan earned him a B+. He used that concept to start Zimmerman Advertising. The Fort Lauderdale company is now the 14th-largest ad agency in the nation with $3 billion in annual billings.

Zimmerman said his insight was to apply the concept of ROI, or return on investment, to the world of advertising. An ad campaign that didn't immediately increase profits was a failure, he decided. Companies don't have time to wait for a new campaign to pay off.

"When I talked about ROI, everybody laughed," he said. "Nobody did it 30 years ago. Now everyone talks about ROI, but I was way ahead of them."

When he's not running his agency, Zimmerman is heavily involved at USF. He sits on the board of trustees. And he's been helping reshape USF's advertising curriculum since 2005, when he realized the university was still teaching the same advertising concepts he rejected in the 1980s.

The Zimmerman Advertising Program, or ZAP, allows students to study, live and work together. Starting this fall, ZAP will allow advertising students to earn a bachelor's degree and a master's in five years.

His $10 million donation led USF to rename the new Zimmerman School of Advertising and Mass Communications after him. USF also installed his own personal brand — a giant 10- by 10-foot green "Z" — on the side of the building.

Zimmerman is a brand unto himself. The fit-and-trim 59-year-old gets up at 3 a.m. to get in his first workout of the day. On his blog he dispenses everything from his business insights to his conservative political views to going vegan.

He talked to the Tampa Bay Times about his approach to advertising, Mad Men and whether branding is an art or a science.

What is your most important rule when it comes to the advertising industry?

Having the correct insights through research that can differentiate your brand from the competitive set that you compete against.

So it's about researching your clients and their competitors?

It's really researching the primary audience. Say our core audience is women between ages 19 and 49. What are some of the insights about why they shop at my store or why they shop a competitor's?

I'll give you an example: For Party City, one of the insights we learned when we first won the business was our primary audience thought the store was expensive because it was a specialty store and they thought it had limited inventory. Nothing could be further from the truth.

So we built the tag line "Nobody has more party for less." We changed the value proposition in the tag line and that tag line shifts by holiday: "Nobody has more Halloween for less" or "Nobody has more New Year's for less," and so on.

Those are differentiating insights, and their business has been hugely successful since we won their business.

What is the biggest misconception about the ad business?

That it's about the creativity. It's not about the output of the work. It's about the outcome of the work. Clients are hiring us to produce outcomes for them, so our job for us as an agency is to position and activate the brand.

You position and activate a brand through incredible research and insights. I've always said we must give the consumer a better reason to buy than price.

Why do ad campaigns backfire? McDonald's is dealing with declining sales and profits. Its new "Happy" mascot is scaring customers and the company is struggling to sell itself in a world of healthy food options. How do you avoid that?

You have to understand what consumer preference is, and that's why research and strategy are so important. You have to understand the trends today. Consumers want to eat healthy with Chipotle, so you have to deliver on that promise no matter what product you're selling.

We look at that all the time, and we also test and test and test. It isn't about what I like or what the people who work for me like. It's about what will activate the consumer to consider doing business with the brand today.

Is it getting harder to advertise products today?

Of course, because it's more and more fragmented. Thirty years ago I bought (airtime on) three TV stations to reach 90 percent of the market. Now I have to buy 500.

You have to be more tactical. You have to be much more sophisticated about multichannel categories. It's not just television. It's not just radio. It's not just the Internet. It all cohesively fits together.

Is there an example of a campaign that didn't succeed the way you wanted it to?

No. They all did. God, I wish I had one (failure).

What do you think of the advertising executives on the TV series Mad Men? Do you spend all day drinking cocktails at lunch?

It is badly misconstrued. That is not our business at all. Don't be fooled: It is long, tedious hours, and it's incredibly hard work. But it's very rewarding work.

When you nail it, when you nail it very well — look at what "Better Ingredients. Better Pizza" did for Papa John's Pizza. We brought it to real life in a unique and exciting way.

You say that a brand campaign has to have a return on investment, or ROI. But aren't branding campaigns subjective? How can you guarantee that consumers will react favorably to a brand? Isn't it more art than science?

Yes, it's a science. Or it's irresponsible. Advertising is not about positioning. It's about positioning and activating. Ads have to show a P&L (profit and loss), too. Every month companies publish a profit and loss statement. They're either making money or losing money.

Trust me, a couple of months of losing money and you're not going to be an advertising agency much longer.

But aren't you still gambling that people will react favorably to an ad campaign?

Not if you do the proper research, come up with the proper insights and run with it. This is a really sophisticated analytical business that works.

If you do it the right way and you're patient, you'll succeed. We do it right and we're patient.

Contact Jamal Thalji at [email protected] or (813) 226-3404. Follow @jthalji.

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