The ad that poisoned Sensis

Sensis customers were told there was no alternative to a Yellow Pages listing even as a more agile digital competitor was emerging. Years later, it paid the ultimate price for ignoring its customer base.

In a strange way, the 'Not Happy, Jan' advertisement created by Clemenger BBDO for Yellow Pages in 2000 was the harbinger of Sensis’s eventual fate.

The 30-second commercial shows a small business that missed that year’s Yellow Pages directory because an employee – Jan – forgot. Jan ends up running down the street with those words ringing in her ears. You can watch it here.

It was one of the best, most successful ads in television history. Actress Deborah Kennedy’s famous line, which she made up on the day of filming, has entered the vernacular. But for all its success, the ad was also a window into the business’s soul, and revealed the reason Sensis would eventually sink.

Night after night, customers had the Yellow Pages’ monopoly thrust in their faces: they – and Sensis employees – were being told there was no alternative to the Yellow Pages just as one was actually emerging. At the time, Google’s great new search engine was just starting to gain traction; within five years it was revolutionising advertising and business listings.

That Clemenger ad was inviting small businesses to find some other way to get known than to pay Sensis’s price and make bloody sure they got their ad copy in on time or miss out. Google was only too happy to oblige – for a small(er) fee, of course.

At about the same time the Fairfax classified advertising monopoly was being lost to REA, Seek and Carsales for similar reasons.

Ten years ago, when Ziggy Switkowski wanted to put them together, Sensis and Fairfax were each worth about $10 billion. Combined they would have made a $20 billion media behemoth.

Now Sensis is worth $650 million and Fairfax $1.5 billion. Would that merger a decade ago have changed their bleak destinies? Definitely not. It would have been a double bunger.

They would still have been eaten by Google, REA, Seek and Carsales. The only way around that would have been to cannibalise themselves rather defend the indefensible, which their management and boards were simply not capable of doing.

The four lunch-eaters, by the way, are now worth collectively $430 billion – of which Google represents $418 billion – created from thin air in little more than a decade.

That’s the digital age for you: fast fortunes online and dismal declines in print.

But 'print versus digital' is a superficial analysis of what’s happening. The means of delivering information is not the point. It’s really all about that most over-used business clichés: 'customer focus'.

The internet is clearly a better of way of providing people with lists of businesses and items for sale than paper dumped on your doorstep: you get to list a lot more things more cheaply, it's every day, not once a year and the listings are much more easily searched. That’s been obvious for 20 years.

If Fairfax and Sensis had been focused on their customers they would have quickly embraced the new technologies as a much better way to serve them, instead of simply defending existing profits.

David Thodey at Telstra has been successfully banging on about customer focus for five years now because he knows that if you get that right, profits follow.

But he was too late to save Sensis from its 2011 crash, the seeds of which were sown by one of the best advertisements ever made.

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