What’s your favorite ad campaign?

It’s graduation time for all of you soon-to-be advertising junior copywriters and art directors. So if you have a portfolio that will get you in the door (the first hurdle), it’s time to prepare for that face-to-face discussion. And the headline of this column is a very popular interview question. But it’s amazing the number of aspiring professionals who want to get into the industry can’t name one. It’s also amazing the number of people who work in the industry can’t even name one. But I bet you can. What is it? Please list it in the comments section. If not for me (I always like to know what people like), do it to help all those soon-to-be junior copywriters and art directors. After all, if you don’t tell them what to think, who will?

The basics done well

This site for Norton is pretty sweet. I love it when something that has typically been dry gets coolified. I can think of few companies that seem more dull and buttoned up than Norton, but here they loosened that top button and started talking human.

I think it's great when companies step off their ivory pedestals and mingle with the commoners. I wish more companies would do it. Then we could understand what the hell they were saying.

listening to people

Here are a few things to think about the next time you are out listening to people in focus groups, on the street, in their homes, etc.

  • question their answers: people don't intentionally lie (at least not often), but we will make up answers and say things that will make us sound better than we actually are.
  • is it just an "easy answer": often we want to answer something just to get it done with which means we don't elaborate as much as we could.
  • do they know how to answer the question: many questions are tough to answer and need to be asked in a few different ways. if an answer does not make sense, perhaps they did not understand the question.
  • watch their body language: this is key. most communication is non-verbal. non-verbal communication adds context to verbal communication.
  • notice their pattern of response: many people are always positive or negative or apathetic. by noticing this, you can understand their response more fully.
  • understand your own bias: for the most part, it's hard to listen when our own biases are getting in the way. "older people don't get technology", "younger people are hasty", etc. these biases get in the way of actually understanding people for who they are, not who we think they are.

Off Target

Through recent meetings with clients and agency partners I came to the realization that the perspective on how to target a market is still incredibly narrow for most.

For most, if you're targeting a 35 year old tax broker you make an ad that screams "Hey 35 year old tax broker!"But this perspective assumes that a 35 year old tax broker has no aspirations beyond their present existence and no internal vision of who they are.

Consider that in the 80s Wall Street broker scene Sun Tzu's "The Art of War" became popular reading. None of these brokers were on their way into a sword fight, but they could relate based on their vision of themselves as warriors. Thus an ad "targeting" samurai might perform better than an ad targeting a broker sitting at a desk. Even though actual samurai are unlikely to purchase our product.

A more common example is in car commercials where the details given on a car are far too complex for the layman to follow. The layman may be more interested in the car based on the perception that the car was created for the enthusiast who would understand all those things (sort of a "it's what the pros use" perception).

Though it's easy to follow, this thought isn't necessarily intuitive. We need to be careful to close this gap as we present these kind of ideas. Otherwise our clients will think we're idiots selling investment software to ninjas.

The Ramp

This is some footage shot from a train of a giant ramp that was built in the small German town of Oberpfaffelbachen. The ramp was built with the the intentions of launching a car from Germany into America. There was a documentary made about the ramp, and the town that built it that you can watch here.

Now Please assist me with a little experiment. Look at your clock. What time is it? Now click on the links above. Watch. Explore a bit. Then come back and answer the questions in the comment sections (and no cheating) Thank you.

telling a story vs. joining a story

It is often said that we as marketers need to tell stories. We need to tell our client's stories and they need to be great. While I don't disagree, I think the more accurate phrase would be that we need to join a story.

Joining a story means tapping into a movement. It means understanding people so well that the product meets their unique needs exactly. When marketers join a story they are a participant. As a participant in a story you let others talk just as much (if not more) than you, and you accept the language and the mood of the already underway story.

This is a subtle difference, but real nonetheless. The psychology of telling vs. joining is completely different.


--All about the storyteller
--One sided communication
--Story is potentially unwanted
--Story is, well...a story


--All about ALL participants
--Two-way communication
--Story is living and evolving
--The story keeps going when you stop talking

So instead of focusing on telling a story, I suggest we focus on joining a story.

Aren't most advertisers wasting their time and money?

Perhaps the following ramble is simply the product of the brain-addling isolation of the freelance writer. Am I missing something? Am I stating the obvious? Or the obviously confused? After reading this, kindly let me know. Please point out the glaring flaw in my thinking and put me out of my misery.

Within the universe of consumer products, how many brands are competing, at least locally or regionally, for a slot in their potential consumers’ minds? Thousands? Tens of thousands? Surely there is some upper limit to the total number of brands to which one person can feel any allegiance (or any emotion, or any awareness at all, for that matter.)

Isn’t it likely that this upper limit is somewhere in the hundreds? And if that is the case, isn’t it ill-conceived folly for so many companies, especially those with smaller budgets, to be laboring so relentlessly against what will be, for most of them, a futile effort?

If you are a regional manufacturer of some product, let’s say mustard, which is number four in the category, eclipsed by one dominant national number one brand, a perennial national number two and a national number three that is itself barely on consumers’ radar, if at all.

In the absence of some very distinctive, unique benefit, or a dramatic price advantage, what should you, Mr. Mustard, do? How should you be thinking and acting regarding your “brand” (which may not really exist as a brand, to the extent that “brand” is defined as an impression in the minds of consumers?)

I don’t mean to go all Marketing 101 on you here. The point I’m trying to make is that, for many, possibly most, consumer products out there, the idea of using consumer advertising to create a brand in the minds of their target is pure folly, isn’t it? There’s just no room at the inn.

The vast number of products vying for attention vs. the number of brands any one person can hold in his/her head makes this conclusion inevitable. Doesn’t it?

I know that a lot of these products, wisely, never even bother with consumer advertising. But many, many others squander their budgets year after year, on the naïve hope that somehow they can break through. And this is a delusion that most ad agencies are more than happy to encourage. In fact, many agencies live or die on the (naïve? Self-deluded?) aspirations of the world’s struggling number three’s and four’s.

Is it wrong for agencies to behave this way, given the extreme improbability of success? Or does the free enterprise system require such tilting at windmills? Once in a blue moon, a brand defies the odds (usually due entirely to some brilliant advertising) and advertises itself into minds and homes of its target. But for every success story like that, think how many millions of dollars are wasted every year by all those other companies whose products try but fail to rise to the level of a bona fide brand in their targets’ brand-finite minds.

Make Room For Thinking

Sweet vindication. I have long maintained that the bigger the room you’re in, the more able you are to think expansively, and the bigger the ideas you can create. I suspect this contention of mine has been seen by many as naïve, simplistic, and just my lame excuse to get out of the office or cubicle or whatever confined space I’m inhabiting at the moment. But the truth will out.

A recent study has confirmed what I have been saying. It concludes that, when you think in a room with a higher ceiling, you are inclined to “freer, more abstract thinking”, whereas, in a room with a lower ceiling, the tendency is to think smaller and focus on details. So there. Ha. (Obviously, I write these posts in a very tiny room.)

This study did not test that ultimate high ceiling—the out of doors—so the jury’s still out on that environment. But from now on, when I try to explain why I must run off to the nearest big mall food court or library to get some thinking done, I’ll be armed with at least one shred of evidence that my need to seek out an expansive setting is not pure folly.

Have you found this to be true, that you think better or bigger when you’re in a bigger room? I’m curious how common this phenomenon is.

new language of marketing

lets start a new language for marketing. i find that the way that i speak about my job influences how i do my job. that is why i want to start a new marketing lexicon. below is a start. add your own.

  • consumers -> people
  • campaign -> conversation
  • 30 second spot -> 30 second interaction
  • direct response -> direct conversation
  • Customer Relationship Management (CRM) -> Vendor Relationship Management (VRM)
  • purchase funnel -> instant research & purchase
  • reach -> attention
  • consumer insight -> human truth
  • marketing mix modeling -> predictably irrational
  • brand loyalty -> loyal brands
  • advertising agency -> business partner

Thanks for the comments

One of my goals when I post a blog is to get people to comment. Whether I am right or wrong with what I say, I want to start a conversation. Therefore, I want to thank Laura for pointing out that my post last week was close to one that ran a few weeks back and to Littlejohn for coming to my defense and pointing out that the themes of posts may overlap from time to time.

While there was some overlap, I believed that my message in this post was slightly different than the one in T. Willerer's post "Cultivating a questioning discipline."

I failed to look back at "Cultivating a questioning discipline" and, as I recalled his post, it was about how to generate unique insights that enable one to create great solutions. Mine was about how not to get fired. It’s the difference between asking “why” and asking “what.”

I agree with T. Willerer that we should question everything about the assignment. But one can question without physically asking someone. And one can ask for a simple clarification without engaging in deep questioning.

I wrote my post, "Just ask," because I recently overheard a discussion about two art directors. One kept asking questions and inviting feedback. The other worked alone until the end, apparently afraid to admit that she didn't understand the assignment. I don’t have to say which one was more successful. It’s obvious, but the failure could have been avoided if the second AD had only asked for simple clarification.

I was also inspired to write about it when Littlejohn wrote about embracing his stupid. After all, this AD failed because she was afraid to look stupid.

I apologize to T. Willerer for not looking back and for not referencing his post, "Cultivating a questioning discipline" in my post. It was a good post and he covered the need to ask for clarification. But I still would have written my article. Part of my mission with this column is to help people understand what it takes to find and keep employment in our industry. And the little act of asking is key to being successful. So much so, that I now devoted two columns in a row to it.

But enough is enough. Next week, I promise to cover something different. After all, with fewer successful people in the industry, there’s more work for the rest of us. Right?

The Power of the Forken

On a recent weekend trip to the grocery, to pick up some Cinco De Mayo celebratory goodies, I stumbled upon this interesting contraption. It's a plastic fork taped to an ink pen. (This is just my re-creation of the actual Safeway Store specimen; I didn't have my camera at the time.) Well, you might be wondering, as I was, what kind of nimnuts tapes a plastic fork to an ink pen? But as I finished signing my name to the store receipt, and set the Forken back down, I realized it was a very smart nimnuts that taped a plastic fork to an ink pen.

We humans have a habit of pocketing ink pens. Practically every day of our lives we get out a pen to write or sign something then put that pen back in our pocket or purse and go on about our day. So, in banks, stores, doctor offices and places where we sign stuff we tend to pocket pens that don't belong to us. It's not that we have a klepto problem when it comes to ball points, it's just habit.

But by simply taping a plastic fork to a pen it breaks that ingrained habit. We aren't used to putting forks into our pockets; they don't belong there. So we set the Forken back down and walk away. (Maybe smokers should tape a fork to their cigarette lighters at parties too.)

Changing habits and human behavior is what we do in this business. How do we get someone to walk to the other side of the aisle, visit a different URL, or drive to the other side of town, when it is their habit to do the opposite? Yes, I was inspired that day standing in line a the 15-item-or-less lane. Because I realized, sometimes all it takes to completely change a person's ingrained habitual nature and natural tendencies is a taped on plastic fork.

Lest we forget

Here’s the thing. At least in the realm of consumer advertising, when a person experiences an ad, it’s a brief moment, a tiny drop in the stream of their consciousness. They notice the ad, if we’re lucky, and if we’re really lucky, they engage with the ad and maybe even file some kind of positive impression in their head. They may even go to a website or make a call as a result of experiencing the ad. But that’s it. They move on. They don’t think about it any more. They don’t think back to the ad later in the day. They don’t look the ad over with a critical eye. They don’t spend time with it. They don’t start examining each element of the ad. They don’t question the motive of the advertiser. They understand full well that the advertiser will always present their product or service in a positive light. They understand that the advertiser will not denigrate or dis the target. It is safe to assume the person who experiences the ad is smart about advertising. They get the deal. They know their role. They’ve had a lifetime of experience being on the receiving end. They understand what the advertiser is trying to do and why. And, even if they won’t admit it in public, they appreciate, in a small way, being diverted, engaged, entertained and/or informed by a good ad. We would all be well served to remind ourselves and our clients, daily, how unimportant our ad is to the target audience, and how advertising-sophisticated that audience is.

Just Ask

I agree with Littlejohn's post from yesterday. As he wrote, "people suppress their stupid because they want to be the one who has the solution, hits a home run, and brings the big winning idea to the client table."

But I've found that many people also suppress their "stupid," because they don't want to look stupid. This behavior extends beyond holding back on blurting out ad ideas. I have seen people sit and try to figure out an assignment on their own rather than just asking a co-worker or their boss for insight, input, or help.

But one of the great things about this industry is that we're able and encouraged to collaborate. And people tend to remember accomplishments over process. Unless the process was truly miserable.

So go ahead, ask away.

Ask for more information or a clarification. The conversation that results might be what helps you reformulate the problem, enabling you to bring a truly new insight to the table.

Ask your boss or client what he or she would like you do. And, later, ask if he or she thinks you're achieving that goal (or successfully redirecting them to a better goal, if the one they want is not acceptable to you). After all, you're not a mind reader and it's better to know the truth.

Ask to pitch in when you're "up." It's not a mark against you if you can't figure out what to do on you own. And, people will appreciate your helpfulness.

And, finally, ask for feedback on your work as you're progressing. Just make sure it's with someone who won't steal your idea until after your client rejects it. You never know, the comment or reaction you receive - or lack of one - might be the spark you need to refine your idea.

If the obvious benefits of asking are not enough, think of the potential negatives of not asking.

For starters, at the risk of stating the obvious, not asking could actually hurt your career when the bean counters realize how much valuable time has been lost because you didn't ask. So to begin the asking fest, I'd like to close with one question: How did I do with this post? Please let me know in the comments section.

Embrace Your Stupid

"I know this is a really stupid idea but..."

I say those words to my art director partner a lot during our concepting sessions. They are an attempt to forgive the raw, unfiltered, half-baked, silly thought that just popped into my head. And usually what follows is indeed really stupid.

But stupid ideas, I have found, can often spark some really freakin smart ideas.

Too often we suppress our stupid because we want to be the one who has the solution, hit a home run, and brings the big winning idea to the client table. And so we're inclined to sit and wait until we have something clever to say.

But what I love about blurting out a really stupid idea is that it has the power to interrupt your train of thought, and take you down paths you shouldn't go. Or at least a direction most people wouldn't think (or dare) to go. And that's usually a pretty good place to be.

I don't know, maybe that just sounded really stupid.