Advertising and fly fishing are two areas to which I devote many hours of most of my days. I have created ads all my adult life – while I am relatively new to the art of tying my own flies. Over the pandemic, when we all had too much time on our hands while sitting at home, I found I really enjoyed this fiddly little hobby. As I twisted bits of peacock feather and dyed rabbit hair onto tiny fishhooks between Zoom meetings, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between advertising and fly fishing.
Firstly, some basics. A “fly” is what you fish with on a fly rod. These miniature life-like little sculptures are as light as a feather (as most are made of feathers) and require focus and patience to create them. Once “tied” and completed, the fly is cast onto the water in such a way that it presents itself to a nearby fish – usually a trout – as an insect floating helplessly and deliciously on the surface of the water. The hope is the aforementioned fish will notice it, be very interested in it, and ultimately decide it has to have it.
The hope in advertising is the same. We want our clients’ customers to notice our ads, be very interested in their product, and ultimately decide they have to buy it.
Here are four points that are applicable in both fields.
#1. Presentation is important
With a traditional rod and reel, you have a weighted lure to cast the line and a float to hold it in place in the water. In fly fishing, you have neither of those. You just have the back and forth motion of your wrist to send the fly out. The idea of fly fishing is to let the line gently unfurl onto the water in such a way to land the fly no differently than an actual insect would land on the surface. If you slap the line against the water or plop the fly onto the surface directly over the trout, that fish will likely be spooked and scurry away.
Speaking to consumers is no different. We find the channels they are on and try to present our messaging in a way that will get noticed but in the right way. It is very easy to get noticed in the wrong way. We have all seen banners that take over the page and ruin the user experience. We have all seen TV ads that shout at us with large prices and loud music. We have all received unwanted political messages via SMS. And just because we “noticed” the message that was presented to us, it doesn’t mean it was appreciated or effective. We need to find the balance with our messaging as we give them a laugh, tug a heartstring, make them think. Respect the customer — or they will just swim away.
#2. Don’t underestimate
When you head to the water with a traditional rod and reel, you try to find a place that is known for its fish. You usually know how deep they are, what they are eating, when they are feeding and you just… wait. Fly fishing is different. You are actively looking for the trout and they can be hard to see. But they can see you. And they know you’re not supposed to be there. In fact, I’ve had a trout follow me around a lake just to keep an eye on me. He wasn’t dumb.
Consumers aren’t dumb either. People know when they are being manipulated. They know when a company is greenwashing or jumping on the bandwagon of the latest cause du jour. They aren’t mindless consuming machines. They appreciate a clever headline, a story, an idea.
#3. There is no one “right” way
It took me a long time to realise this with fly fishing. I had become quite skilled at casting and presenting my fly on top of the water, but one afternoon I learned a different lesson when I spotted a big brown trout and cast my fly upstream from it. I was letting the natural current of the river take it directly to him, but it felt like the fish was taking active measures to avoid it. After thirty minutes of casting my fly perfectly and repeatedly to that ideal spot, I had enough of that fish. But, instead of slowly, painstakingly retrieving my line centimetre by centimetre in an effort to look like an insect swimming away, I just pulled up stumps and yanked it in quickly to get it over with — and that’s when the fish finally went for the fly. Same fly, same fish, same everything – except, at the last minute, I changed the speed in which I took in the line. I tried something (although inadvertently) different and got the result I was looking for.
If your marketing isn’t working, maybe look to approach things differently. Rather than another series of Adshels or influencer endorsements or a social media campaign, maybe spend some of that marketing budget on trying something different than what you normally would to get a different result.
#4. It doesn’t have to be perfect to succeed
The tutorials for fly tying have very specific gauges and rules on exactly what length of feathers to use, what size hooks are best for certain flies, which colours to use and which ones not to use. These are great guidelines that have most likely been perfected by the best fly-fishers and fly tiers around the world in numerous books and how-to videos. But sometimes it’s okay to stray from the guidelines to try something different… because they are just that: a guide. I have made all kinds of flies that aren’t perfect. So what if the fly has a tail that’s too long, or wings that are a little wonky, three antennae rather than two? Maybe that additional movement or larger silhouette in the water piques the interest of a curious fish?
I think both agencies and clients sometimes forget that it’s okay to go against guidelines and best practices occasionally. Case in point: Facebook gives its guidelines on how to make the perfect ad for their platform so that it can stand out and be noticed. You know the recipe: a large mobile-friendly super at the beginning of the ad, the client logo, bright colours in the first three seconds, make it work without sound, shoot for 9×16 format, etc. They have the exact meeting, with every client, in every vertical, in almost every country on the planet. If you are in advertising or marketing, I am sure you have sat in one, if not many, of these presentations. The thing is, if clients are being advised by Facebook to use the same exact formula to stand out on a platform from their competitors… competitors who are adhering to the same guidelines… How is anyone supposed to stand out in a sea of the same?
With advertising, you might do everything right to catch that elusive “fish”: the perfect fly, the perfect cast, the perfect river, the perfect spot in the river, the perfect time of day — but the fish just won’t take the fly. And if that happens, it’s time to try something different. Like this different guy here.
This is far from a perfect fly. It’s tied on a hook size that’s too big. The colours are wrong. The feather length is out of scale for the length of the hook. The thread is the wrong colour and thickness. The tail is too long compared to the hook size. I didn’t properly trim the elk hair. But you know what? This is also the very first fly I tied myself that caught a fish.