The three little bears

I've worked at three different kinds of agencies since starting out in the ad biz. One was small (four people to begin with, eight when I left), one was quite large (like a thousand or something ridiculous) and one that was medium sized (between 100 and 200). Having worked in a variety of environments, I wondered if I could offer up some pros and cons to each, just in case somebody was wondering about the aforementioned topic. Anyways, here's a few things I've noticed:

Small Agency

You do everything, start to finish
You feel like part of a family
Uncomplicated work environment
You feel like you own the place

You do everything, start to finish
Social life?
No creative resources

Medium Agency

You have help from other departments to realize the work
Good peer pressure
Good roster of hungry clients (I think the size of the shop attracts the size of the client)
Lot's of assignments floating around
Little politics

Long hours
Medium is a stepping stone to large

Large agency

Good pay and benefits
Short hours
Nice people

Lot's of politics
Too many people working on a project
A good meeting is better than good work

I think it might be obvious, but I like to work in a medium size shop. To me it just feels right. Anybody else have a different point of view? Agree, disagree?

Most of those working in the trenches of mundanity, I salute you

With all the focus among us advertising creatures on what the cool new thing is, how many of us are working on accounts that are susceptible to that thing, whatever it is?

I keep thinking that, while we all look at and talk about cool advertising stuff online and in trade journals and so on, it’s probably only one percent of us or five percent of us that actually do that stuff, while the rest of us are working on updating a cereal box, or developing a postcard mailer to executives at banks, or refreshing the website of a manufacturer of fasteners, or creating in-store signage at some donut chain, or shooting another sappy hospital commercial or a spot for energy bars or Endust, or putting together a sales kit to doctors promoting some new pharmaceutical product or working on some piece of a telecommunications company’s vast direct mail program or a new 4th of July promotion for frozen fish sticks or yet another banner ad for wireless headphones or . . .

None of which really qualifies, generally, as the cool stuff.

So that little sliver of the industry represented by the Crispins and the Goodbys and the Chiats and the Mothers and the [insert other hip agencies here] gets to work on the cool stuff (though, truth be told, only a certain portion of the folks at those agencies get to do the cool stuff while another sizeable portion are relegated to doing the less cool stuff for presumably otherwise cool clients.)

The remainder of us, the vast majority, will never work at those places. Instead, we will labor at the big dinosaur agencies like DDB and DraftFCB and Burnett and Grey and BBDO and Burnett and JWT, where one half of one percent of the work approaches coolness and is submitted for consideration at Cannes, etc.

Or we work at unremarkable mid-sized and small ad agencies or design firms or interactive firms or DM houses or promotions houses or we are freelance, and we do all the “workmanlike” heavy lifting that keeps American commerce’s conversation going, fueling the machine of free enterprise and we take pride in occasionally solving very hard communications problems with solutions that are more eloquent and interesting than anyone cares to hear us explain.

Or we don’t, and instead we crank out crap, knowing full well that it’s crap, and we look at and talk about cool advertising stuff online and in trade journals and so on.

Ask not for whom the bell curve tolls. It tolls for thee. And me.

NOTE TO LAURENCE MINSKY: Thanks for the thoughtful amplification and expansion on my post of last week. I heartily endorse your point. By the way, the spot I was working on was a TV spot, not a radio spot. But both media share this issue.

Being Tough

I know in this business we talk a lot about being thick-skinned and tough, but it's not only this type of "tough" that is a challenge. You really have to be physically tough and have strong will power to succeed in this business. Some nights you really put your body through a torture test. Pulling an all-nighter, or finishing up at 3AM and coming in for the 8AM (I call it "the pinch" where the CD responds late at night and the account team plans the meeting early). And even the thick-skinned part of it is more about being calm after the client doesn't like what you spent all that time doing. When you just think "man, I could've been sleeping". It's keeping Zen while getting beaten, and smiling, and thanking, and asking for one more shot.

A long time ago I read a book (whose name I can't recall) about a kid growing up in Spanish Harlem. At one point he's talking about street fighting, and getting punched. How you can't flinch, because if you do, that next punch is about to land. He said the way you show you're a tough fighter is that you don't flinch, you sniff up the blood and look them dead in the eye.

So next time a client, or CD, or accountie hits you hard. Sniff it up and keep fighting even harder. It scares the hell out of them.

act like you just quit

Most workplaces are riddled with corporate bureaucracy and office politics, which doesn't foster the open environment needed for innovation and creativity to take hold. So what's a person trying to be creative or innovate to do?

Act like you just gave two weeks notice. Or, act like you just quit.

Have you ever thought about how different we act when we have two weeks left to work at a job? All of a sudden our confidence goes way up, we take more risks, and we don't try to impress the boss. In fact, we do what we think we should do, not what we think our boss or colleague think we should do. In short, we stop allowing the politics and bureaucracy to affect us in any meaningful way.

That sounds great, but even as I write it, I don't think I've ever quite lived up to this ideal - yet. I'm no Peter Gibbons, but he is my office hero.

I do want to throw out one caution: this new attitude can, at times, lead one to be rude or arrogant. That's not the goal. And, I think it can be avoided by thinking about what Seth Godin writes: "If I believed what you believe, I'd probably be acting exactly the same way you are right now."

A little empathy coupled with a "I just quit and have nothing to lose attitude" can be powerful. I'm convinced that it is what is needed for creativity and innovation to thrive. And potentially, what's needed for all of us to keep our sanity.

What’s The Issue Behind The Change?

I applaud Jim Morris for his column on Monday, “Fear No Music Mix” and for his letter to his client. Radio is a highly effective, yet highly misunderstood medium. It’s a shame that many in the creative department try to work their way off radio and work toward the glossy world of print or the glamour or television. We should all fight for creating radio spots that are on par with the executional sophistication as print and television (save the latest Head On commercial).

But the second to last paragraph in his column reminded me of a lesson I’d learned early in my career. Something I occasionally forget in my day-to-day endeavors. But before I mention it, let me ask a question: Have you ever joked about a client because he or she asked you to make the logo bigger or put it on top of the ad or given some other direction on how to change the ad?

While Jim was level headed in his response, I have seen quite a few tantrums. But rather than getting angry, ask yourself, “What’s the issue that he or she is trying to address?” Many people don’t like to raise problems or issue. Rather, they seek solutions. The less-than-satisfying solution comes from the fact that the client might not recognize all of the possible options or have enough time to generate all of them, so they suggest the obvious, which is usually the least effective one as well. (Of course, the client’s suggestion might be the right one.)

Then, since the solution comes from the client, it is interpreted as a dictate. But it might not be one. Clients are reasonable and want the best creative. That’s why they’ve hired you. That’s your job as a creative director, copywriter, art director, strategist, planner, or account executive. Just use the direction to develop insights into the underlying issue and work from there, because something else might be going on: For instance, in Jim’s case, the client felt that the arrangement was too dark, an issue that was easily fixed without changing the mix. And, if you’re having trouble identifying the issue behind a suggested change, ask for a call with the client.

Of course, there are clients who won’t listen. If this happens too often, my suggestion is to find another client. But when your client is willing to listen to additional options, don’t just take a change request at face value unless you completely agree with it. Your client, the brands you promote, and your portfolio deserves nothing less.

And on a final note, my apologies to Jim for co-opting his column. I probably misread your intent and the actual situation you encountered, but your words inspired mine.

I (heart) The Process

Some of the best advice I got when I started out in this biz was actually given to me by our own Peanuts writer Chairman Jimmy. He said, "You have to love the process of advertising, not the ads."

It was kind of hard to accept at first. All that time flipping through the award annuals got me really loving all those awesome, pretty, and oh so clever ads. I wanted to make some of those.

But I've quickly come to understand from my own experience what he meant. The process of advertising is about making great ideas and then watching them die. And then coming up with new ideas, making better ads, and watching those die and then doing it all over again.

If you're in this game because you really love ads, the process will probably just make you one sad, bitter, pissed off person. But if you're in this business because you love the challenge of starting from scratch for the seventh time, even after you feel like the well has gone dry, and working late on something that will most likely die, then you're probably going to end up making ads that a lot of other people really love.

Fear No Music Mix

The following is a slightly edited version of the email I sent one of my favorite clients last week regarding the audio mix for a TV spot we are working on.

“I just got your voicemail expressing concern about whether the music is too loud and the VO too quiet in the mix for our spot. Here’s the thing:

John Mennella (owner of id music in Chicago) and I mixed the track, paying scrupulous attention to keeping the VO totally in the clear. We listened to the track on four different sets of speakers of all sizes.

I also played the track on my big fancy stereo, my laptop, a boom box and on my auxiliary stereo system set up in the basement. That's a total of eight sets of speakers ranging from 2 inches to 15 inches. Absolutely no question—every word is completely in the clear and understandable.

What you are responding to, I am convinced, is that the music is more present in relation to the voice than is usual or customary. Generally, when commercial audio tracks are being mixed, the people involved play it safe to a fault, mixing the music way down, so that it can barely be heard and not really felt at all—far below the level it needs to be in order to hear what is being said.

This path-of-least-resistance habit stems from laziness and fear and has been so ubiquitous for so many decades that the entire industry has, in effect, calibrated its collective ears so as to hear audio tracks with this built in, highly skewed, bias.

I am urging you to wipe your aural slate clean and listen to it fresh. Let's not be so cautious with this track that we emasculate the impact of the spot as a whole.

If I'm being a little passionate about this, it's because, for decades, I've been having this discussion with creative directors, producers and clients. I've seen so many powerful music tracks mixed out of existence, that I've made the policy decision to make a big stink about it every time, in the hope that I can convince at least my brightest clients not to waste the money they've invested in the music.

Thanks for listening.”

My client listened to it fresh and agreed the mix was fine. Instead, he determined it was the arrangement that was at issue. Too dark. So we undarkened it and everyone was happy. Yay.

Anybody out there know of any other arguments or strategies to defend the appropriate presence of music in commercial contexts?

Mac Attack

I saw this banner ad on the New York Times home page a few days ago and thought it was pretty neat. I really love the dialogue in this campaign, and it's really cool that they brought it so gracefully into web. Now I know these aren't breakthrough ads necessarily. I know that breaking that invisible wall isn't a new trick, not even in web, but there's something disruptive about it that gets your attention and makes you giggle. Kudos.

Why we get into this biz

When I was just a young student I remember visiting a Chicago ad agency and talking to the ECD there. We were chatting about advertising and why people get into the business. He told me that the reason any of us get into this business is to meet famous people. I remember thinking how strange that was to me, because it was for sure not why I got into the business.

I got into the business because I love the psychology of it. There's something great about figuring out how people think. Making people change the way they thought before. Finding the sweet spot in a strategy that you can execute against and really say something powerful.

Now that I've been working for a while I think I understand where he was coming from. It's not the reason I got into it, but there's something nice about being able to call up the latest great director, or getting a star to be in your commercial, or to talk to the best designers on the planet. There's something really nice about associating with people who are at the top of their fields. It's like a secret society of the accomplished, and for some crazy, stupid reason, they've let us in. Lucky us.

Has advertising lost its sense of discovery?

I recently started using StumbleUpon to explore the web. If you've never heard of it or used it, I suggest signing up / clicking on the link above to learn more. What I love about StumbleUpon is that it enhances one of the key ways in which I use the web: to discover.

This got me thinking about advertising. Has advertising lost it's ability to tell us (as consumers) something new? Has it lost its sense of discovery? I don't know about you, but I rarely (if ever) discover something new (let alone something I care about) from an advertisement. Is that advertising's fault or have the tools at our disposal changed so much that advertising (in its traditional form) is becoming less relevant to our sense of discovery? Instead, is advertising now all about creating objects of desire? I don't know, but I wonder...

What to do When You Got Nothin'

It happens to the best of us. You're juggling a dozen projects at once and deadlines are falling left and right like hand grenades. You can't run. You've just got to suck it up and deliver something. Kind of like this blog post I'm supposed to somehow write in the midst of an insane week. Well, here are a few guidelines on What to do When You Got Nothin'

  • Just start typing or writing stuff down. Anything. The longer the page stays white, the longer you'll be stuck with nothin'

  • **** Start with the stupidest idea you can think of, and then just add a little creative twist to it.

  • Put extra spaces between your ideas or copy so it feels like more work than it really was.

  • Add "and then something really funny happens" to the end of all your ideas or scripts.

  • **** Use "Jazz hands" when presenting your ideas. It may just work.

  • **** Throw some wacky ideas in the mix that you know will never sell but might make who ever is reading your work smile.

  • Stay positive. After every idea you write down say, "That's One Show Gold baby," out loud to yourself.

  • **** Put stars beside a lot of your ideas, so people know that those are the really good ones.

  • And, last but not least, be sure at the end of your list of ideas you write "More to come."

There's something in the water

Like many others in advertising I went to an ad program, The Miami Ad School (like "The" Ohio State University). It was a good school at a good time because I was able to study with some great people under some amazing teachers. Most of my close peers went on to some pretty sweet gigs, I mean really top tier shops.

A while back I wondered why it was that so many of my friends went onto do such enviable work at these great places?

So I got to thinking about my days in ad school. What did we learn there that influenced us all so much? Now I'm not entirely sure what it was but there definitely was something about that time and place at The Miami Ad School. There was an aura that surrounded it.

When I really try to capture that spark I keep thinking about one teacher in particular, a teacher named Diego. If he had a catchphrase it would be "that's cool." And that's really the basis of his feedback. If you presented bad work it was "come on man make it cool," if you presented good work it was only "that's cool." No more no less.

And all of us seemed to embrace that attitude toward advertising. No special formula, no complicated concepting process, just try to make things cool. And I think that has stayed with us. This insight into advertising was very small but mind and career altering. Diego was a great teacher.

There is something about greatness that spawns greatness.

Or maybe it's something in the water.

Beating Dead Clydesdales

While watching the Packers take Seattle to school last weekend, I was subjected to what I believe is at least the fourth iteration of the “Dude” “campaign” from Budweiser.

What I really want to know is, who do we blame for this decades-long Budweiser tradition of taking one-shot 30 second spots, sometimes good, sometimes not, and bludgeoning the idea to death over the course of far too many subsequent spots?

Is this caused by a client so desperate, they cling to the most modest of successes and ride it until it grinds into abject failure? Or is it an ad agency with a delusionally inflated sense of the richness and brilliance of its own ideas, an agency unwilling to ever concede that one of its ideas might have, at best, one leg?

I rue the day that I praised the first of these “Dude” spots. But it was such a beautifully simple, unassuming, subtly executed spot that rang true and wasn’t yet in love with itself.

The recent history of Budweiser is strewn with carnage left in the wake of their fatal inability to leave a one-shot alone—frogs, whassupers, and now the eternal parade of the dude-utterers. Even when this brand does come across an idea with legs, they spot an ant and imagine a millipede, as has been the case with their long ago worn out “Real men of genius” radio campaign.

I realize that a good beer advertising idea is a rare and precious thing, seldom seen in these parts, but isn’t that all the more reason to nurture and protect it and respect its boundaries, rather than exploiting, devaluing and demeaning it until any memory of its original brilliance is eclipsed by the slagheap of its strained successors?

Man, I love this job (a creative's look)

It’s so easy to forget in the daily crunch, but every now and then it dawns on me that we work in the coolest industry ever. We’re bitter and upset a lot. We complain and criticize. We get screamed at and burnt out. But man, this is a sweet job! Essentially we sit around and think and talk with our friends. All the client really does is give us a topic of discussion. Who else gets to do that and get paid? Alright, so we have to solve some problems here and there. And get tortured at on occasion. And get into bitter arguments on whether it should be called a “squirrel-phone” or “squirrel-o-phone”. But at the end of it we laugh more than we cry. We get tingles more in a month than most people get in a year. Then we go around the world working with the most creative minds on the planet and even celebrities at times. And at the end they slap us with a pretty nice paycheck and some of the most random cool perks of any industry. It’s great to be in advertising. Try not to forget it.

Maybe we should stop skipping commercials

I came across this quote the other day and it made me scared,

Watch for multiple networks to begin downsizing their screens and surrounding the content with “L”-shaped real estate for advertisers to use. - David Goetzl, MediaPost
Is this better than a 30 or 15 second spot? As a consumer, I'm skeptical. As a creative, I'm skeptical. As an account person, I'm elated.

If this is the consequence of DVRs, then maybe we should all stop skipping commercials.

Now, a couple of questions:
  1. Do you think this has the potential to be effective?
  2. How, if at all, can this be leveraged creatively?
  3. Will consumers accept this or reject it?
  4. Will the increased accountability lead to increased effectiveness in communicating a message?

Please accept this thought

While looking back on two projects from last year, I started thinking about something ad legend Ed McCabe said when I was interviewing him for my book, How to Succeed in Advertising When All You Have Is Talent: “If something is immediately liked, you should be very suspicious of it. Advertising is about the future. Beethoven wrote a concerto and a violinist came in and said it couldn’t be played. Beethoven answered, ‘Oh yes, of course, it’s meant for a later age.' That has a lot do with advertising.” I think he was right. Do you agree as well? Please let me know. Just click on the comments below to reply.

A medium isn't an idea

Maybe the big idea is just some old paradigm relic these days, but I’m sorry, effective persuasive communication will always depend on a good idea, well executed. As my philosophy profs liked to say, it’s a necessary, though perhaps not a sufficient condition.

This is true regardless of the medium. Take, for example, an ad I came across the other day while walking down the street in downtown Chicago. I don’t know what the term is for this particular form of communication, so I’ll just describe it. It was a plexiglass box, maybe 3’x5’, attached, if I recall correctly, to a light post. The box was divided vertically into two compartments. Each compartment contained a bunch of actual popped popcorn, labeled Orville Redenbacher on one side, brand X on the other. And printed across this container was some line to the effect of, “See the difference?”

Problem was, although the Redenbacher side was slightly more full, which might imply larger kernels (which, historically, has been the benefit they claim), this advantage is not clearly stated, nor was the amount that much different. Other than that, both batches looked about the same, and it was not, to me, a very appetizing context. Old popcorn looks old. The whole presentation merely invited the question, “What difference?”

A side-by-side comparison of two competing products that reveals the clear advantage of one over the other is a time-honored approach that will probably always be with us. But this was not that. And the eye-catchingness/engagingness/call it what you will of the plexiglass box only contributed to the failure of this communication.
With all due respect to Marshall McLuhan, in advertising, the medium is not the message, at least not by itself. The message is the message. And a medium isn’t an idea, much less a good idea, much less a big idea.

You could argue that this popcorn diarama was a good idea, badly executed, but I don’t think so. I think it was a pretty good execution of a bad idea. A side-by-side comparison can be a good idea, or at least the basis for a good idea, but only if you take into consideration the particular product, and the particular message regarding that product. Whoever did this Redenbacher ad didn’t seem to do either.

interpreting innovation

Bill Taylor of Harvard Business recently wrote a post about Innovation. In it he describes a new phenomenon he calls Innovation Overdrive,

"What is Innovation Overdrive? First, the gnawing sense that even though breakthrough advances in computing, communications, and consumer electronics are wonderful, anything in excess is a poison—and it feels like we’re all chugging from a poisoned chalice."
I think we can all relate to this feeling of having too much to read, too much to keep up with, too many new technologies, too many ideas, not enough time, yada, yada, yada.

But, I think Innovation Overdrive is only part of the story. The other part (and arguably more important) is that we aren't yet good at interpreting innovation. The fact that innovation is happening a lot is wonderful and should be encouraged, but we need to get better at understanding which ones are actually innovative and which ones should be forgotten. The fact that we haven't yet learned how to decipher good innovation from bad is what leads to the problems Bill talks about in his post, not because it's happening too much.

Contrast Bill's thoughts with a recent article in the Economist about Evan Williams, founder of Blogger and Twitter. The article details how Evan innovates by stumbling upon ideas and reliving frustrations (i.e. I don't like the way this works), and asking the question,
"...what can we take away to create something new?” A decade ago, you could have started with Yahoo! and taken away all the clutter around the search box to get Google. When he took Blogger and took away everything except one 140-character line, he had Twitter. Radical constraints, he believes, can lead to breakthroughs in simplicity and entirely new things."
Well that's interesting. It's starting to sound like a criteria we should be using to interpret innovation. Perhaps that is all we need to overcome what Bill calls Innovation Overdrive. What do ya'll think?

is IT in you?

Tag lines. Slogans. Key Visuals. Campaigns. We think. Day and night. About. Them. What’s the new hook to sell the same old product? What’s the “key differentiator” today, Guy? Every day wringing that sponge. Searching for something we can package and use to the “benefit-of-our-clients”. Well, friends, it’s time.

We hereby declare this Friday, January 4th as “Pause-it Day”.

Snap out of it and refuel your creativity by just observing some. Or you can do what we plan to do, start writing music again. You see, expressing yourself in ways that don’t directly involve a laptop can be a welcome refresher when your creativity is parched.

Hey, maybe you don’t need to do this at all. Maybe these are just the ramblings of two workaholics without lives. Maybe you get your fuel from doing Google searches, checking your MySpace or reading tired-ass blogs. Who knows? Who cares. Just tell all your buddy’s that live like us that the 4th is a day for all the “weirdos” that can’t draw the line between what they do and what they love as easily as a tax attorney can.

Judo Chop!

2008 Advertising Industry Resolutions

To help ring in the new year, we thought we would create some New Year's Resolutions for the entire ad industry. Please do your best to keep them.

1. No more advertising of random URLs that lead you to pointless micro-sites.

2. We will try to go an entire year without using animals in our commercials.

3. We will stop giving awards to ads that only 15 people have ever seen.

4. Let's resolve not to give the "Real Men of Genius" radio any more
awards merely out of habit.

5. We'll stop creating faux-amateur looking viral videos.

6. We will stop calling web films "viral videos".

7. We will refrain from making the volume of our ads ridiculously higher than the volume of the show.

8. We will stop using great music over crappy spots.

9. We will refrain from anything ambient that uses sewer grates.

10. Let's not declare traditional advertising entirely dead until maybe
next year.

What Ad Industry Resolutions would you add to the list?