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She’s surprisingly hard to find…

In the latest issue of GQ are hundreds of fashion ads featuring hip, trendy people and not one of them is interacting with a smart phone or tablet. And yet, in reality that’s all these people do. I was taken by this dichotomy between the idealized world and the real world.

If technology is so NOW then why isn’t it conceptually a part of these ads targeting the very people who most want to be seen as hip, sexy and cool? I Tweeted the question and wasn’t surprised by the interest it created. There’s something very telling going on here. But what exactly?

Here’s my theory. It’s simple but also unsettling. Despite (or because of) our addiction to smart phones and computing, we don’t want to see ourselves that way. At least not through the mirror of advertising. GQ has page after page of young, beautiful people NOT interacting with technology. Instead they are rowing boats, camping, driving convertibles, kissing… In other words, doing all the things we aspired to do before we fell into our iPhones.

Walk down Chicago’s Magnificent Mile or NYC’s 5th Avenue and what do you see? Real versions of these same people tethered to ear buds, faces buried in their smart phones. Girls walking and texting is so rampant they should put up signs.

I’m no exception. I spend so much time at my computer it causes family problems. Seeing all these fashion-y people not on their computers was like an epiphany. We are still in denial about our addiction to technology.

The ambivalence in my lead is based on mitigating factors I will get to. First some praise. These new GE commercials are more than TV spots they are truly short films, carefully and wonderfully produced. Every element has been rendered at the highest level of craft. Listen to Beck’s score, for example, how it gently but persuasively pushes our buttons, keying in on what is humanly relevant and even profound. Making us feel the message.

Not to be a shill for GE or its ad agency, BBDO but I could easily rhapsodize about any aspect of these commercials. The casting. The writing. The cinematography. Like them or not, anyone who knows anything about production will recognize the obvious care (and cost) that went into making these commercials. BBDO has long been known for it’s prowess in making exemplary TV campaigns, and these will do nothing to hurt that reputation.

Tonally, both commercials remind me of certain odd, brave feature films that, like them or not, are deserving of praise. Spike Jonze’s award winning film, Her. And the decidedly more flawed but fascinating Luc Besson feature, Lucy. Vaguely unsettling but ultimately heart-wrenching stories of technology, people and the mysteries of life are what propel those films and these commercials.

The comparison is more obvious with Her. Its quirky yet deeply intimate style is, in my view, exactly what the filmmakers of the GE commercials were going for. I chose Lucy because, despite a dubious concept and being silly around the edges, it shoots for the stars and damn near gets there. Lucy is fresh and interesting film. It’s not boring. It tried hard to rise above its genre and B-movie pedigree. Morgan Freeman and Scarlet Johansson certainly helped.

Likewise, these commercials try harder than most. Way more.

That said I am struggling with how similar the GE Scary Ideas film is conceptually to the attached German commercial for Epuron, The Power of Wind, which won countless awards in 2007-08, including top honors in Cannes. You can’t tell me BBDO’s savvy creative leadership were unawares. I’m certain they not only knew about Wind but likely set about emulating it. I’m not sure how I feel about that. Ten years ago I would have called it plagiarism. Now, I’m not sure the term even applies. Is it iteration or a rip off?

Yet, whatever quarrel we may have conceptually or otherwise, we all need to appreciate a client and an agency that tries and unequivocally succeeds at doing something interesting. Period.

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Portrait of a young man as troubled copywriter…

How many times have we in Adland heard variations on the following comment regarding a member of the creative department: “Jack has talent… if only he wasn’t so negative.” Or: “Sally does good work but her negative attitude is holding her back.” The admonishment that creative people are by turns cynical, jaded and petulant –in other words, negative- is as old as creation itself. But is it a fact of life or an overblown stereotype?

Yes.

Negative emotions have always been linked to artistic expression and therefore ability. The cynical writer. The moody painter. The depressed poet. These are but a few of the many common expressions linking negativity to creativity. For perspective try switching adjectives. The cheerful poet? I rest my case.

Rather than dive into the deep ocean of thought on how and why negativity and creativity go hand in hand (pain and suffering being catalysts for art, ego and inferiority, constant rejection), let’s explore what it means in the modern advertising agency. First off, it accentuates the unofficial divide prevalent (to varying degrees) at every agency on earth. While many an account person has been called a jerk or worse, precious few of them earn the moniker moody or melancholic. No sir, that’s our job!

In weird but totally understandable fashion the jaded creative department rolls its collective eyes at the cheery frat boy/sorority girl account exec. And the uber-cheery AE’s roll their eyes back at us. I cannot count all the times I’ve seen a creative person called out by an account executive frustrated by his or her bad attitude.

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Negativity & Creativity

Conversely, I cannot count all the times when a creative has bitched about an obsequious account person. The personality divide defines and disrupts most agency cultures daily. Kind of like yin and yang. Only for us it can become toxic. If we let it. Rather than expecting tigers to change their stripes I believe the solution is mutual respect and acceptance. Live and let live.

Interesting to note (for me anyway) is the typical response a creative person offers up for being so negative. These tend to fall into two very opposite camps. The first type comes off as profoundly indifferent. “Whatever. I don’t care about the shit I’m working on. I’m sick and tired of trying.” Or some such. The second (somewhat thankfully) response is that the man cares a great deal about his work but has become defeated by the dimwitted autocrats running the show. He blames his attitude on others, who thwart his ability to “do good work.” The first is sick of trying. The second is sick of dying trying.

I refuse to editorialize. To me the above paragraphs are like photographs, capturing things as they are. While neither attitude is pleasant to behold (or likely very healthy), both situations are commonplace. Negativity cohabitates with creativity. To some degree we must accept this reality and at times even respect it.

As time goes by most petulant creatives grow out of it. (I like to think I did.) Maturity, hard work and luck all play factors in the lessening of the darkness.

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Who can tame a wild creative?

Finally, there is the irony that negativity actually aids creativity. It is a paradox but the miserable creative is often an inspired one. Therefore, we must embrace edginess, cleverness and cynicism the way a cowboy appreciates a fresh horse. “That pony is mean but man is she beautiful.” The wise account executive learns how to bridle this animal but can never do so completely and not without occasionally getting bucked.

In turn, the rogue pony comes to understand that if it ever wants to leave the corral (i.e. get anywhere) it will have to accept the bridle of professionalism. Either that or get made into glue.

Author’s note: I published a version of this story a while ago. I beg your pardon. Work has been busy!

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“I am the CEO and I’ve got something to say…”

Are you a fan of people who speak their mind, regardless of political correctness? What if they also happen to be CEO’s? That’s the intriguing subject of this piece in AdAge. Whether in a shareholder meeting or on twitter, big shots are thinking out loud: accusing, confessing, defending. Some might argue it is rogue behavior, unnecessarily ruffling feathers, and in turn harming the speaker as well as the company. After all, the CEO is the face of the brand. So shouldn’t he or she be hyper vigilant?

Chick-fil-A’s COO Dan Cathy didn’t think so. In a well-publicized incident, he opined against gay marriage, stating, among other things, “I think we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, ‘We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage’…”

Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook got defiant at shareholders who dared question certain corporate decisions telling them, “if you don’t like it you should get out of this stock.”

Other examples abound. Instead of reacting to the specific comments, let us consider the phenomenon in general. For it is new behavior, arguably unprecedented. Reading the AdAge article, I couldn’t help but remember how corporations and their figureheads used to communicate. Whether embattled or not, just about everything these folks said was defensive, vague and jingoistic. No surprise considering it was vetted, if not written, by someone in corporate communications.

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“Forgive me Father, for I have Tweeted.”

This better safe than sorry attitude permeated a company’s ethos, and it directly impacted marketing as well. Often it seemed that PR and lawyers were approving and even making the advertising. Like a lot of my peers, I resented this. When it came to crafting humanly relevant ads, operating from a place of constant concern (aka fear) was no fun at all.

But then came the Internet and social media. Like it or not, companies could no longer hide behind corporate jargon and generic party lines. Consumers were calling bullshit. People began demanding a more authentic voice from the brands they used, now that they were interacting with them! As the voice of the brand, advertising had to become part of the proverbial conversation. Or at least sound like it was.

Certain agencies caught on. Crispin Porter & Bogusky changed the game by taking a more authentic approach, often bluntly. For example, a campaign for Dominoes Pizza addressed the chain’s mediocre food and delivery head on, including, if I remember correctly, a mea culpa from the company’s head honcho.

Ultimately, I believe all this truth telling and/or truthiness has contributed mightily to the spate of C-suite execs coming out of their cedar closets. Again, look at the new buzzwords: Authentic. Transparent. Converation. now read them as a sentence. Sounds like a mandate to me.

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“I’m writing about data points!”

Last I checked there were over 800 hundred million billion pieces of written content floating around in cyberspace or near by. The number might actually be higher. I stopped counting to walk my dogs.

The point is that everything has been written. A lot. And over again. Which means there is nothing original left to say.

Therefore, the only vital form of writing left is copywriting. What I mean by vital has nothing to do with good. Just that, whether it is read or not, copy always has to be written. Those web pages won’t just fill themselves. Yet.

Guys and gals like us do it. We get paid, albeit triflingly, to make those paragraphs that live deep beneath the touts on a never-ending plethora of websites, which always needs to be refreshed.

Ah, refreshed! What a glorious word. It means for us steady or at least wobbly employment.

Clients demand content, and that takes the form of sentences. All kinds of sentences. Sentences just like the ones I’ve written here. Except they are ostensibly about something. Like Big Data. Or aftershave. Solutions.

And let us not forget infographics, which the Urban Slang dictionary lovingly calls “web pollution.” Or shiny white papers. Like non-alcoholic beer they are seldom selected by anyone but my lord, those are filled with sentences, too. Great big, slobbery ones! The size of great danes.

And we write them.

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“The arrow pointing up was my idea!”

Make fun of banners all you like but there they are. To the left. And to the right. Taking over! Some beseech us to visit fake news stories, which we call branded content or native advertising. Hail Hydra! Those are like whole new ways to write sentences.

Yes, when we go home for the Holidays grandma will still ask: did you do that commercial on TV? The one with the cat and the giant toothbrush. If we are smart we lie and say yes and that the cat got paid in freshly caught tiger shark.

But, alas, her days are numbered. Soon we will be showing off responsive web pages on our smart phones and everyone around the dinner table around the world will lose interest because nobody wants to read white papers on an iPhone or anywhere else for that matter. They will shake their heads and say they can’t believe we get paid for writing crap like that.

And we will say, “I know, crazy right?”

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