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helping others is scary…

Helping a sister agency within your network is a double-edged sword if ever there was one. In theory the helper gets the benefit of participating in important national or global business, which can mean lucrative assignments with blue chip clients as well as face time with your company’s top management. In theory…

The reality is often far less lucrative for the helper. For one thing, the help you provide is speculative. Aka unpaid. If they/you lose the pitch it stays that way, which actually is a loss, given whatever hours (usually plenty) your office sunk into it.

To encourage participation, agency brass generally promise and always imply that should the network win its engagement a fair share of the revenue will come your way. In my lengthy experience of helping –and, yes, also soliciting help- this rarely happens. With few exceptions, the soliciting office keeps the money, makes the work and holds all the key relationships.

And that’s the winning scenario!

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before any verdict is rendered a shit-ton of work must be produced, the bigger the stakes the more work that is required. There are other reasons for soliciting help from a network partner (geography, skill sets, etc.) but it almost always comes down to increasing the breadth and depth of your agency’s response.

The only person who has the juice to request (aka commandeer) another office’s resources is the network’s CEO, (though the actual request may come from one of his lieutenants, perhaps the CMO or Head of Strategy.)

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“More resources…or I will release the hounds!”

Answering the dinner bell is is what constitutes your “face time” with top management. While this experience has genuine value, it is also far more one sided than you’d like. Trust me. Command central is only interested in winning. Once they’ve drafted you they are only concerned with your output. Not your opinion. Not your participation. Most certainly not your emotional health.

This means what you think it does. You are building a pyramid for Pharaoh. When “feedback” for your efforts does come, it will be a litany of change orders delivered by a fear driven messenger. He will smile and listen to you vent. It will change nothing. Therefore, any illusion you may have regarding a dialog with He Who Wears The Crown needs to be forgotten. Building a pyramid demands heavy lifting and your office can either do so angrily or stoically. It makes no difference to Pharaoh. Either way, you’re gonna do it.

All this being, said I’ve never declined giving help no matter the circumstances. And my guess is neither will you. Look. People are intrinsically good, even ad people. We are wired to provide assistance. We may fancy ourselves as solo creators but we also want to play for a winning team. What’s good for the goose, right? Yes, they will cry wolf once too often. Yes, you’ll be mortgaging your time on a loan that might never get repaid. And yes you will want to kill someone in the home office. But then you will get back to work. We always do.

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“Does anyone remember laughter?” For some reason, Robert Plant ad-libbed the question during Led Zeppelin’s classic rock anthem, Stairway to Heaven. It’s a wincing sort of line, now relegated to music trivia.

I was reminded of Plant’s exhortation, however, during a recent creative presentation to a client. Bit of set up. On WebEx, our audience was an unseen entity. This is seldom a good thing, like talking to a brick wall. Still, my team had done an exemplary job creating and executing campaigns and I had high confidence going in. After the preamble from the account person I launched the artillery. Sometimes it takes me a minute or two to get my mojo but once I’m rolling it’s like dealing cards. Ace. Ace. King. Boom! God, I love that feeling.

When I completed the volley I looked at my colleagues, valuing their reactions in lieu of clients I could not see. (This always makes me feel the way a dog must after doing tricks for his master.) Thankfully, my team nodded in the affirmative. Good boy, Steffan!

But from the dreaded Polycom: Silence.

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Nervously, the account person asked if everyone on the line was still with us. After an interminable silence: “Yes… proceed.”

Okayyyy. I guess that’s a positive reaction. Beats “we’ve heard enough.” And yet, like any creator showing his wares I crave so much more. But like any professional you soldier on. Surely, the next campaign will get a reaction. When the client sees those blessed ad like objects then…

Then they will provide some muted feedback and get back to us. Which is more or less what happened. Which is more or less what always happens. In fact, one of the clients had actually dropped off the call at some unknown point during my presentation.

Sigh.

I ask you: Should not seeing creative be the most exciting part of any marketer’s day? Isn’t that the good part? It is for me, at least I want it to be. Desperately.

Alas, client expectations breed fear and anxiety. Even the most enthusiastic agency executives have built a tolerance for it. Perhaps naively, the best of us hope for the best. But a muted or concern-filled reaction is frankly the norm. Even the greatest ideas are met with frowns or, if we’re lucky, polite consideration. We all know how Chiat Day’s “1984” commercial for Apple was at first poorly received. We all know Van Gogh died poor and insane.

What a freaking shame. I think what we do is magical and fun… That is until I’m brought down to muddy earth by frowns and polite consideration. I guess I am a fool. For I always think next time will be different. Does anyone remember laughter?

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“Me hate thinking about ads.”

Read this piece by Bob Hoffman, former Chairman/CEO of namesake advertising agency, Hoffman Lewis and host of the popular trade blog, The Ad Contrarian. In the story, Bob laments how advertisers insist all their communications “close the gap” between them and the consumer. He writes: “We are always trying to force-feed a conclusion on consumers, when having the consumer draw her own conclusion would be a lot more effective.”

I could not agree more with Bob’s observation and lamentation. He is not just more or less correct. He is profoundly on the money. With few exceptions, the typical client has little or no patience for marketing communications that let a consumer draw his or her own conclusions. The typical left-brain MBA will not accept the notion, quoting Bob again, “that if a person is left to fill in the final gap, there will be a much greater chance that something will be learned rather than just heard.”

Even in the digital/social age, where we have supposedly learned that it’s all about the conversation, most marketers default to didactic messaging like mice to cheese. It’s almost like they can’t help it. As human beings they must know attraction works better than promotion. But the left-brain is just too powerful. Tell them it’s faster or cheaper, it says. Give them feeds. Give them speeds. Always be closing!

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No category is exempt, including the most modern businesses on earth. In many respects, B2B technology clients are even more culpable than classic advertisers. After all, this is where the suspect term “demand generation” comes from. From generating leads to downloading white papers, no group of advertisers has plumbed the marketing funnel like our friends in technology. They have proof that it works. If you serve enough ads to exactly the right people you will get click through.

But what they do not know is how lucrative an intuitive argument might be. Alas, the fear that people won’t pay attention is a crippling one. The voice of fear goes something like this: “People don’t know who we are or what we do. They don’t have time to learn. They only want solutions.” Or: “We don’t have the time or budget to tell a story. People need to get the message in three seconds or less.” Time and money. Always that. Yet, in a very real way they are also saying people hate ads so let’s just hook who we can and go home.

The great irony is these are the same folks who admire Apple’s ingenious campaigns and refer to them constantly. I can’t tell you how many first meetings I’ve been in where we’ve all marveled at this work together… then several weeks later we’re putting a CTA in a postage stamp sized banner. Like that’s going to make a difference.

We’re are not selling tacos to stoners. Technology companies are about important, innovative and complicated things. The people that buy these things are (presumably) some of the smartest people on earth. They think differently. Should not marketing to them be equally compelling?

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This is not a tirade about clients who don’t get it. When it comes to maintaining the status quo we are all complicit. Yes, we show big ideas. Often we even sell them. Then the fear creeps in. From them, it starts as a comment. “We love the idea but the message needs to be clearer.” Grows into a concern. An issue. Soon apathy for the idea blooms like algae.

Sound familiar?

Desperately, we tweak the work. Then we make changes. Death by a thousand cuts. Or, exasperated, we finally give up and look for a new idea that closes the gap: an equation with a lower common denominator. Creative algebra for the demand generation.

As an epilogue the agency and client agree that the big idea will come later. Next time. After we get our footing. Make our nut. Relationships are tricky and precious and as everyone in Adland knows without them there can be no next time.

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Just add hot water…

Time for a true and funny story and, as it happens, the learning of one my new favorite phrases: Chocolate Teapot. What the hell is a chocolate teapot you ask? I’ll get to that. But first the story…

Partly because of my agency’s history and also our Bay Area location, at gyro we handle a lot of technology clients. On our roster we have some of the biggest tech firms in the world and just as many small. All of them are dear to us. The big ones keep us honest. The small ones keep us sharp. Or is it the other way around? Suffice to say, we are fortunate for having all of them.

Like any agency, when a RFI (Request for Information) and/or RFP (Request for Proposal) comes over the transom we quickly assemble the management team to see if the company would be a good fit –for both parties. Like any agency, we are reluctant to pass on new business. It happens. But usually we at least opt to meet the prospect.

A while back a query arrived from the new CMO of a technology company based in New Zealand. The fellow was planning on expanding operations in the US and was looking for an agency to help him to it. Without naming names, his company did have credibility as a going concern in its country of origin. The business model intrigued us. We scheduled a meeting.

So the guy comes in. He’s a nice enough person and the senior members of the agency carved out two hours for credentials and conversation. We had coffee service and bagels and everybody was up for the meeting. After going through our “creds” we got into the man’s business, talked strategy and outlined various scenarios we thought might be of interest to him. A spirited and fun discussion followed.

Somewhere along the way the man uttered the expression “chocolate teapot” as in ‘the website was as useful as a chocolate teapot.’ I’d never heard the expression and neither had my colleagues. We all appreciated the poetry of it. Pour hot water into a chocolate teapot. Useless!

Two hours go by and the man is completely engaged –a good thing- so we all silently agreed to go over our allotted time. About three hours in our Managing Director steered the conversation to the sensitive topic of budget. We rightly assumed we had a willing prospect and besides, at that point, what else are we going to discuss?

This charming, bespectacled New Zealander replied, “I have five or six thousand dollars to play with.”

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You should have seen our faces. Our smiles looked like they had been carved out by a plastic surgeon. Not to be crass but if one added up the salaries in the room and multiplied them by three hours we’d already eclipsed that number. With politeness we resolutely ended our meeting.

Afterward, one of us joked: “Well, that was about as useful as a chocolate teapot.” Though thankfully seldom used, the phrase became part of our vocabulary. Which, I guess, is the icing on the teapot.

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I like to think I’m a good writer. I like to think I’m a good presenter. Alas, I still haven’t figured out how to sell a client a piece of work they do not want to do. Has anyone… really? Precious few clients are predisposed to do breakthrough work. For most, advertising (regardless of platform) is just a line item. An ever-smaller box to be checked. That these clients don’t behave more bullishly or even see the virtue of truly creative marketing is their part of the problem.

But what is my part? I believe in options. I like to show clients several campaigns for any given assignment. Of these we of course make a recommendation. Sometimes they go with it. Many times they don’t. We still consider it a victory (for both sides) if a client gloms on to one of the other campaigns. If none of them are runts then we have nothing to worry about. Right? Wrong?

Either way, that’s been my policy. But I do wonder. Should we/I have pressed harder for our recommendation? Certainly my creative team would want as much. Yet, if a client desires a hamburger you can sell the steak all you want the client will only get frustrated and maybe even to the point where they balk at the goddamn hamburger. Then what have we got? That’s right: a pissed off client and no sale.

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So, we ask: What do you want on your burger?

Yet, when I look back at some of these outcomes I second-guess what might have been had we gotten our way. In order for an agency –any agency- to get to the next level it has to demonstrate extraordinary creative and have at least one iconic campaign to its name. Iconic work rarely comes from compromise or committee. So, I wrestle with the vogue notion of collaboration. Tissue sessions are practical as they vest client participants in the eventual outcome but they also corrupt the outcome, playing to a common denominator.

We all know this but what’s a girl to do? If we force a piece of work down a client’s throat they will most likely spit it back out and usually in our face. Produced ideas –bad, good or great- often don’t reveal themselves in the first weeks of communications, let alone a creative presentation. If a CEO questions the CMO about newly approved work it rarely ends well for all parties, including the agency. Therefore, the CMO is risk averse. Questions turn to concerns, which quickly become issues and then the kill switch is pulled. Second chances are rare. Therefore, doing work that instantly appeals to the many tends to be the safest bet. Rare is the CMO who stays fast with a seemingly risky bet, or makes one in the first place.

Do not assume strategy plays a decisive role in choosing creative. Filet and hamburger are on strategy for meat dishes. Alas, hamburger is a crowd pleaser. Adding to that, it is faster and cheaper.

I’ve worked at enough places to know there are plenty of creative chefs in the kitchen. Dissing agencies for dishing out burgers is easy but perhaps unfair. Not when precious few customers appreciate the cuisine.

It’s maddening. What I can control is putting out a good menu and pitching the top items to the best of my ability. After that I can use all the help I can get. And divine intervention from the Gods of Advertising.

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