A flash in the Internet pan…

Back in the days of dial-up, I worked on the Earthlink account. As you may recall, Earthlink was, and maybe still is, an Internet Service Provider (ISP). Based in Atlanta, created by a funky rich dude, for a moment in time they actually were a brand to be reckoned with; but alas, for a number of reasons, that moment was doomed to pass. And it did.

However, this post is not about Earthlink’s business model or the advertising we did for them.

Rather, my story is about the color orange. Because of Halloween, orange is ubiquitous come late October. It is especially so in the Bay Area (where I live) on account of the San Francisco Giants playing in, and winning, the 2014 World Series. Their team colors are orange and black, just like Halloween. As fate would have it, the parade for the champion Giants will be on October 31st. Market Street will be a sea of orange and black.


Orange you proud to be a Giant’s fan?

Go back 15 plus years, late 90’s, and the marketing team from Earthlink is briefing my team and me. They were good people and we were delighted to be helping them –even if, in the coming years, Big Cable and the computer companies were going to eat them for lunch…

Anyway, we were discussing expectations and mandatories for our as of yet un-created campaign. Here is when the CMO uttered a sentence I will never forget. She says, “Steffan, we own the color orange.”

“Um,” I said back to her, “Don’t you think orange belongs to Halloween?”


Orange belongs to Jack…

I wasn’t being a dick. I knew what the CMO meant. Yes, the Earthlink logo had orange in it. Sure, orange was a featured color in their brand guidelines. But I was resolute. Earthlink could not possibly…and would not ever…own the color orange. A national holiday or a major sport’s team can own a color. Just ask Christmas about green and red. Or the Green Bay Packer’s about green and gold. Orange (and black) means Halloween. And to a lesser extent, the San Francisco Giants. End of story.

Let’s be fair. The Earthlink folks are not the first marketers to think their particular brand walks on water. Most CMO’s and their get act as if the companies they work for are magical places of wonder and that their logos are iconic. Some brands can make a better case than others on “owning” certain equities. Coca Cola and the color red for example. But even that’s a push. When I see red I think of many other things before thinking of Coke. Don’t you?

Regardless, there’s no way on earth a fussy baby brand like Earthlink could ever lay claim to such an idiosyncratic color like orange. And so I have come to love/hate the brand narcissism prevalent in our industry. Having done my share of guidelines I get the pretense but it never fails to get my goat.

The true Nightmare before Christmas…

You’re looking at the first pile of holiday catalogues to cram my home’s mailbox. They arrived October 15th, one half month before Halloween.

Disgusting retail bastards.

Look, I know I’m not a holiday kind of guy but does anyone (and I’m including demented, bored shut-ins) appreciate receiving Christmas catalogues in October? Do folks actually look at them, let alone use them? Do you? Surely some of us must. Or why on earth would so many companies continue killing trees to make reams and reams of this crap?

Obviously, much of it now comes via the Internet. Delete! Delete! Delete! But a shit-ton still arrives in the US mail, enough paper to snap a mailbox right off its hinges. (This has happened to me and I’d like to thank mail carriers everywhere for endlessly cramming.)

Being a copywriter, I’ve done my share of collateral. While not in the least bit glamorous I don’t begrudge it as a selling tool -part of the proverbial marketing mix. My father cut his teeth writing for the once-iconic Sear’s catalog. I get their value. As a consumer, I also appreciate a well-designed and informative catalog, from time to time. You know, something to look at on the toilet.

“I’m not ready for Xmas.”

It’s the pre-pre-pre holiday part that chafes. It’s such a bad look. To me it reeks of desperation and greed. Doesn’t anyone in management worry about the long-term effects of shocking the consumer stream so early and often? I sure as hell won’t to do my actual Christmas shopping at a store that’s been bugging me about it since early Fall. I reckon I’m not alone. Yet, however large our group, we must still be a minority. As I wrote earlier, this seemingly premature Xmas pounding must demonstrate ROI.

Many years ago, I remember reading a particular “letter from the editor” in one of the magazines we get at home. In it, the man apologized in advance for all the subscription cards permeating his publication (basically all periodicals). He called them annoying and intrusive but said that until they stopped working they won’t stop using them. In other words, the tactics were crude but effective.

While I recoil at receiving holiday catalogs while baseball is still being played I also am not the one who does the vast majority of my family’s holiday shopping. Who knows? Maybe my wife and others like her get a warm feeling seeing ornamented fir trees sprouting up all over the kitchen counter. In our case, we might never know, as I immediately throw every single one of ‘em into the recycling.

Alas, there will be nothing I can do to stop the impending storm of TV commercials. Any day now.


“Hey you!”

Someone I greatly respect expressed concerns that my recent post documenting “bad client behavior” and “deeply challenging agency politics” was just inviting trouble. In other words he was afraid I was angering sleeping giants and that said giants would hurt me. To quote him: “Do you think the people you’re criticizing will repent or resent?”

First of all, I’m not so stupid as to call anyone out by name that could hurt my interests or me. Secondly, I look for bigger themes than straight up hating. For example, my last post was more about the rampant fear of creativity in Adland than difficult clients. The corrosive effects of fear on creativity make for bad clients, bad creative directors and bad ads.

That said my respected peer’s concern is a valid one. Or it was, anyway. Commenting about one’s clients, even positively, used to be grounds for swift reprisals –from them as well as your own superiors, whichever came first. These days, things are a lot more socially transparent. Casual Friday has extended into just about every facet of our work lives, creating open and even chaotic working environments. Everyone has strong opinions and most of us express them freely.

Like it or not, the days of companies “controlling their message” are over. Corporate PR might well be a relic of last century. Facebook, twitter and myriad other online critics, watch dogs and finger-pointers will not tolerate “spin.” They call bullshit at the drop of a buzzword. Not too long ago I would get into fairly contentious debates with principals in my own company about what was appropriate social behavior for our clients and us. Allegedly controversial things I wrote about on this blog were just icebreakers to far bigger discussions. Yes, there were consequences.

But what the hell else am I going to write? Pimp jobs for my agency? Ad reviews? Come on. Look, there are things I love and hate about this business. Covering those topics is what makes Gods of Advertising special –to me anyway. Call me crazy but I believe sharing on what works means it’s incrementally more likely to keep working. Conversely, writing honestly about the negatives might just nudge Adland in a slightly better direction. Naïve? Of course. But what blogger isn’t?

I think fear of creativity is a legitimate theme and a provocative one. Ergo it’s the perfect stuff for we ad practitioners to think, write and talk about. I’m utterly convinced that bravery in writing –any writing- is, after craft, all that matters. Anyone disagree with me? I rest my case.


Why are client’s so difficult?

Those of us in the creative department have asked the question so many times it has become rote. Clients are difficult. Period. Especially when it comes to buying and approving work. We expect them to demand changes to the concepts, to the script, to the voiceover, to the scene, to the CTA, to the size of the logo and so on.

We have become uncomfortably numb. We expect our work to be criticized. So much so the creation process has “revisions and changes” baked right into it. Furthermore, we are told –indeed, I’ve said it myself- if we were in our client’s shoes we’d do the same thing. To use the ultimate cliché “it is what it is.”

But you know what? That’s bullshit. I am far from perfect but I am usually an accepting and grateful client. When I hire someone to do a creative job –be it a director or an architect or whomever- I never give him or her the kind of scrutiny that is typically given to me and/or my team. At home an interior designer shows me some designs I tell him which one I like, we discuss time and money, and I pay the man. This even when things are late and over budget, which they invariably are. Once in a while I have a question or an honest mistake has been made. We address it. Done. On to the next. Even though it’s my money I am seldom a dick.

Chances are you’re the same way.

So, why are advertising clients so difficult? Why all the concerns, tweaks and rejections? I think the answer is fear based. CMO’s and their get are terrified (sometimes understandably) of losing their jobs. Often their counterparts at the agency feel the same way. Every tree we plant better bear fruit. Or else! With all that pressure (much of it self-imposed) it makes me wonder how they (or we) even get up in the morning.

Yet the resulting behavior –hacking at the tree- absolutely guarantees the tree will be barren. Or its yield will be paltry. In the end death by a thousand cuts is no different than doing nothing at all. Either way, the very thing one fears happening… happens. The team is blown up. Another CMO is brought in and in turn another agency. The process begins all over again.

Creating campaigns is thrilling. Yet, their potential is and always will be unknown. Hence the thrill. No one can be sure how an audience will react to a thing until the thing is out there. What makes a client nervous might be what makes the thing truly great. We all know the story behind the world’s greatest advertisement, Apple’s “1984.” When it was screened to dealers everyone except its creators and Steve Jobs hated it. The agency, Chiat Day was asked to fire-sell the media, which happened to be two slots on the Super Bowl. One insertion was not sold. The spot ran. And the rest is history. Granted the follow-up commercial, “Lemmings” was an abject failure. Still, was Apple really hurt by it? No. Being reckless and cavalier has never hurt the brand. Frankly, Apple could stand to be more brave. Again.

So put it out there. Instead of ‘why are we so afraid?’ let’s ask ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’ If it doesn’t work as planned we try something else.

Were it that simple, right?



Apple’s founder, Steve Jobs died three year ago in October. And so I found myself re-reading passages from the best-selling biography, by Walter Isaacson. Among the book’s many surprises, none are as jolting (to me) as the endless examples depicting Steve Jobs as an egomaniacal tyrant. Since so much has already been said regarding these controversial passages, I won’t go into them here. Among other things, he publicly berated his staff, stole ideas, took credit inappropriately and was unpardonably cruel to his family.

This by no means diminishes Job’s enormous contribution to Apple and, indeed, the world. Case in point, I’m writing this on one of his inventions. I use his stuff every day, constantly. So do most of you. For all its recent bugaboos, Apple is still, basically, the most impressive brand in the world. And Steve Jobs had a shit ton to do with it.

Should that excuse him for having been an “assoholic” as one of his peers called him?

In a rare bit of self-awareness, Jobs admitted to being overly rough on his people but he remained unapologetic. He claimed the Mac would never have been created if not for his intolerance and meanness. Many people, including some he was ruthless to, concurred. In the end, according to Isaacson, they didn’t mind getting fucked over by a visionary.

Makes me think. In my personal life I’ve been frequently challenged in matters of social discourse. I’m uncomfortable making small talk and listening to it as well. I’ve been an ass. Perhaps my record at work isn’t quite as spotty but it’s hardly immaculate either. I can be… difficult.

I’m not a creative visionary like Steve Jobs was but, on the other hand, I am always trying to improve my behavior. What struck me about Steve Jobs is that he never bothered. When a brave insider called him on his bad behavior Jobs berated the man: “You don’t know what it’s like being me!”

Well, now we do.

Jobs’ claimed he was perpetually hard on Apple employees because otherwise the company would have softened, invariably inviting “B” players and eventually “C” players; which, of course, was unacceptable (to him).

Was also an asshole…

Few of us are “special” like Steve Jobs but then we are not as cruel and unfair as he was either. Does that make us “B” players? Can an “A” player be a nice person?

Precious few creative geniuses grace Adland. Yet, I’m privileged to have known several of these men and women and can say, with a fair degree of certainty, that they were not assholes.

Author’s note: Upon first reading Jobs’ biography I wrote a draft of above story. The is my second look at the topic.


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