Treasure hunt for ad ideas

John Foust

Sep 1, 2023

Not all treasures consist of gold and silver. For those of us in the advertising business, some are hidden away in file cabinets and company archives.

Some years ago, I attended an exhibit of treasure from the Atocha shipwreck which treasure hunter Mel Fisher had located off the coast of Florida. The Atocha was the most famous ship in the Spanish fleet that sank in 1622 in a hurricane near the Florida Keys. The exhibit was at a jewelry store that had made special accomodations for the display. All of the regular merchandise had been stored away to make room for silver bars, gold coins and jewelry. It was an impressive show, and there was a waiting line outside.

When it was my turn to enter, a representative handed a silver bar to me and asked, “Heavy, isn’t it?” As I carefully moved the bar from hand to hand to test its weight, he mentioned that it was worth thousands of dollars. Although I’ve forgotten the exact amount, it was enough to buy a fancy new car. I told him I was just looking and spent about 30 minutes gazing at display cases and pondering buried treasure. “Just think,” I said to myself, “many years ago, these artifacts were lost at the bottom of the ocean. And here they are today, looking as good as new.”

Lost treasures have fascinated people for centuries. But not all treasures consist of gold and silver. For those of us in the advertising business, some are hidden away in file cabinets and company archives.

Take Jessica, for example. She told me about one of her advertising accounts, a local lumber company which has been in business for many years. “For as long as I can remember,” she said, “the company had run generic ‘look at us, we’re in the lumber business’ ads. All of the ads featured nondescript illustrations of stacks of lumber, with the headline, ‘Three generations of service’ and their logo at the bottom. Since a lot of their customers are commercial building contractors, they saw advertising as just a way to keep their name in front of the public.

“I knew there was a better way, so I did a little research on their advertising history. I looked through a file of their old ads, and it didn’t take long to find a series on woodworking projects. I suggested that they: (1) update their image ads to offer specific discounts to contractors and (2) revive the woodworking idea to differentiate their friendly-neighbor philosophy from the big box store across town.

“It was an easy sale, because it was an update of an idea they had previously run. We expanded their advertising to include both approaches — both with the underlying ‘Three generations of service’ theme. The first woodworking ad featured a birdhouse (with building instructions). The second one featured a kids’ playhouse (also with instructions). The next ad spotlighted picnic tables, and it went on from there. The campaign was a real boost to their business, and it added an element of personality.”

Jessica came up with a real winner. And it all started with a treasure hunt for ideas. © Copyright 2023 by John Foust. All rights reserved.

John Foust has conducted training programs for thousands of newspaper advertising professionals. Many ad departments are using his training videos to save time and get quick results from in-house training. Email for information: