thinkdifferent
Crazy good!

For the past few days, even longer, I have been working on a manifesto for one of our (hopefully) new clients. Actually, I’ve been working on two. Even more actually, I’ve been working on manifestos for 25 years, since becoming a copywriter.

Nothing suits me more. For like many a creative soul, I am by nature a show off. And this is the way I can do it. I know I am not alone. Most copywriters get off on writing manifestos. At least they’d better. Writing such documents is at the heart of what we do, and can do, for our clients.

Most of you know what I’m talking about. For those unawares, a manifesto or mantra or anthem is the bringing to life in words the highest and most noble aspirations of its subject matter, aka the brand.

Yes, it is advertising copy but in the best sense of the word. Think Apple’s great script to the modern world: Think Different. Consider the lines that first and forever defined Nike to a generation: Just Do It. We know these iconic tags because we fell in love with the manifestos. Frankly, neither line would have lasted this long, or even gotten out the door, if not for their beloved manifestos.

The power and glory of a brilliant manifesto cannot be overstated. They raise the hairs on the back of your neck. They make CMO’s smile. They win pitches. Most of all they change things: attitudes, behaviors, even lives.

At least the good ones do.

Alas, we’ve all heard or, God forbid, written our share of shitty ones. They can be purple or redundant or both. They get long pretty damn fast. They turn into cheesy rip-o-matics. Yet, in a weird way, even the bad ones sound pretty good. They are like pizza that way.

Why?

Because we slave over them. Into these haloed paragraphs we put everything we know or think we know about writing, about persuading, about life. Here you won’t find speeds and feeds, racks and stacks or friends and family call free! None of that. For these are the best neighborhoods in Adland. No thugs allowed.

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The “ad” scientist…

One of the things I’ve come to disdain about our business is how damn serious we take it. Not the craft itself, which I think is beautiful and even pure, but rather the extemporaneous crap we built around it over the years. Stuff like process and proprietary tools; the things we fill our slides with that come before we actually do what we do, which, for those who’ve forgotten, is create work that gets people to think and/or behave in a favorable way to our clients. I was going to say: we make ads; but I realize that “advertising” has become an outmoded term. Still, we are always selling something, even if it’s just a philosophy or an idea. Yet, because of this variable I accept, begrudgingly, that advertising isn’t all we do.

Whatever your take on the matter, you must agree we have complicated what we do beyond what is necessary to doing it well. This is why briefs are no longer brief. This is why Cannes has become a cluster fuck. This is why I am writing this post.

By definition, planning and strategy are the progenitors of creativity. The agency gets an assignment and we formulate a team. The left brains give us facts and insights. The right brains turn them into ideas. In a healthy agency the two sides work together. Part of this is collaboration. Part of it isn’t. Each assignment predicates a different balance of both. Inviolate in all this are the people. The better the people the better the outcomes.

Yet, as obvious and true as all this seems (to me anyway), agencies (not just mine, not just yours, all of them) have endeavored to codify every step we take in getting to our outcome. We call it our process. Basically, process is how agencies mitigate the fear involved with taking a risk. We create the illusion of proof to support an idea. This insight divided by that challenge equals a solution. Ta da!

Another bit of reverse alchemy occurs when we justify an idea after the fact. True story. My one-time creative partner at Leo Burnett, Mark Faulkner devised the brilliant green color that to this day represents the iconic Altoids’ campaign he and I created so many years ago. Taken for granted now, in the campaign’s infancy it was questioned. After all, the client reasoned, the product was white not green. As was the packaging Altoids came in, with red piping.

Altoids 1

I recall vividly my longwinded reply to this client. I stated that Mark’s color scheme evoked the “industrial strength” of a bygone era, like battleships and tough guy locker rooms. I talked about the “steam punk” phenomenon, likening the color to a powerful nostalgia “locked up” in every tin’s DNA. I said a lot of shit that day. And I’m pretty sure everyone in the room bought it. Everyone, that is, accept my partner. Mark rolled his eyes at me (not the first time) and stated where the color really came from: “I chose it because it looked cool.”

It looked cool.

In the end Altoids became a billion-dollar brand and the campaign a perennial award’s show favorite because he made it “look cool.” All that came afterwards –a textbook full of complicated nonsense- had less to do with Altoids’ success than Mark’s divine intuition. Food for thought next time we pray at the altar of agency process. For though we have made our agencies into churches of organized religions, divine inspiration often has nothing to do with it.


Understanding meaning without understanding words…

Tim Nudd of Adweek asks if Beats by Dre “just out-Nike-d Nike” with a new five minute film celebrating the World Cup, which begins shortly in Rio. The answer is yes and the reason isn’t the game’s featured stars’ prowess on the pitch but rather what these athletes do before the games. Hence the film’s title, The Game Before the Game. The rituals, the cultural details, the family involvement. These are the things that make this film shine.

In particular, the riveting opening scene featuring Brazil’s Neymar Jr. engaging his father in a quiet but intense telephone conversation -apparently a pregame ritual. What I especially love about this scene is the use of sub titles. The intimacy of the words is made even more poignant by seeing them.

Not too long ago, in my previous agency, we proposed a concept featuring an Italian mother speaking to her child before sitting down to a bowl of our client’s pasta, which was a huge Italian brand. While the commercial was intended for an American audience, we wanted to highlight the client’s authentic Italian heritage by filming the dialog in Italian and using sub titles. We were filming in Italy with an Italian cast for that very reason: to be authentic.

The client vetoed the idea. In fact, they were vehemently opposed to it. The reason cited was that American audiences would be frustrated by having to read. Instead they preferred we find an Italian cast that spoke English well enough to deliver the lines.

What a fail that was.

In my opinion it is the use of sub titles that drew me in to the Beats’ commercial. Hearing the men speak in a very personal way, in their native tongue, is what establishes the films high level of integrity and authenticity. The filmmakers could have chosen another way to open the spot making it “easier” on foreign audiences. But they didn’t. They could have tried getting the two men to recite their lines in English. But they didn’t.

Conversely, what my provincial client failed to grasp is that we live in a global world. Hearing other languages is a part of our everyday lives, regardless of where we live. Why should commercials be any different?

To this argument, our client said their Middle-American target was not sophisticated enough to appreciate a commercial in another language. Bullshit. While I partially agree the average American may not have patience for a movie with sub-titles they certainly could tolerate a 30 second commercial. Plus, and this is key, the fact that the characters were speaking Italian would say a lot more about the pasta’s authenticity than the inane lines we had scripted. Our pleas fell on deaf ears, pun intended.

In 2014, l like to think most advertiser’s are “progressive” enough to get that American audiences can handle a foreign language being spoken in a TV commercial as well as the sub-titles (if necessary). Ironically, in other countries other languages (particularly English) are a part of modern advertising. Granted, English is the default language of the world.

Whatever. Are we still asking if “it’ll play in Peoria?” Are we that provincial? Are we that stupid?

Special update: super similar story via AdAge:http://adage.com/article/cmo-strategy/world-cup-marketers-air-subtitled-spots/293973/?utm_source=daily_email&utm_medium=newsletter&utm_campaign=adage&ttl=1404854361

images4
From this…
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To this…

I first wrote this draft while I was between jobs, reflecting on some things that had challenged me most when it came to true integration and moving our agency from good to great. Revisiting them now, the following observations are still seldom discussed, let alone acted upon. I’m not sure why. They’re true, more or less, for all advertising agencies. Solving for them strikes me as critical in terms of which agencies compete and win. Let me know what you think.

1. The myth of good work at all costs. Unfortunately, that simply is not possible. First of all, “good” is entirely subjective. The agency’s most successful campaign may be a dog at award shows and vice versa. In addition, as we all know, some clients are less willing to take risks with creative than others. Forcing them to drink from the well never works. You might get one “good” piece of creative but the client will most likely hold a resentment and eventually move their business elsewhere. Few agencies are flush enough to call their own shots, especially now, during times of economic instability and seismic changes in media. None of this is new. But when agencies rhapsodize about doing brilliant work and then don’t the disconnect hurts inside the agency as much as out. For example, an account that does so-so work but generates good revenue fosters a dysfunctional personality within the agency.

2. The myth of 360 campaigns. Rare is the client that wants all its marketing from one agency. Despite our much pimped credentials to do it, we have precious few clients that want 360 marketing campaigns from us and us alone. This is a bigger deal than one might first think, impacting the people, the place and the work. For example, if an agency has a sizable client that only does work below the line, say direct marketing, catalogue and digital, then the agency has to staff accordingly. Those employees tend to be specialists, whether they like it or not. I say that because though the employees may be virtuosos at creating direct mail campaigns chances are they want to expand their skill sets, doing TVC’s for example. Because the agency has allocated them primarily for doing this work on that client, these individuals can feel pigeonholed, which frankly they are. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had my hand slapped trying to use some of these people on other projects. “They are not paid by that client. You have to look elsewhere for help.” Your staff becomes resentful and demoralized. “I thought this was an integrated shop,” one might say. “But this is all I ever work on.” In the long run nobody is happy with this arrangement. Employees complain and/or defect. If they stay their work becomes rote.

3. The myth of digital nirvana. The proverbial elephant in the room, so-called digital shops have begun to recognize that even their best and brightest people want to do something other than online campaigns. If these staffers perceive their shop to be digital-only they get antsy. This is why so many of those shops are exploring ways to build out their advertising capability. They want to make fabled 360 marketing campaigns just like everyone else, and not just because of increasing revenue streams but because their people want it, too. The creative staff craves the permanence of print and the notoriety of TV. Ask any headhunter. Despite all the talk of digital platforms killing TV, TV is precisely what many so-called digital specialists want to be making!

I’m reminded of the Dr. Seuss fable, The Sneetches, whereby the plain-bellied Sneetches (traditional creative) desperately want stars on their bellies like the star-bellied Sneetches (digital creative). Midway through the story the tables turn and, well, everyone feels slighted.

Many people, including me, have written about future creative departments containing mostly hybrid personnel, capable of working in all channels. However, we won’t get there if agencies keep holding onto old ideas about who works on what. Caste systems have always existed in agencies. Breaking down barriers in creative, production, and media is the only way to establish true integration. And not just for our beloved, bloated agency credentials but in our cliquey hallways as well.

morale
“Our new campaign rocks and so do we!”

I am delighted to report (with a bit of an eye roll) that one of the themes at this year’s B2B marketing conference in Chicago (BMA14), was the supreme value of internal stakeholders and employees when it comes to branding.

I’m happy because the internal audience is likely the most under-appreciated target market of them all. I roll my eyes because I’ve been singing this psalm for almost as long as I’ve been in advertising. Whenever a company produces a piece of marketing, particularly in the realm of branding, it simply must consider its employees. And not just a little. I’d argue first and foremost.

As many of my colleagues will tell you, I have a short list of marketing truths I hold to be self-evident (aka “Steffan-isms”) and my absolute favorite is this idea that a branding campaign is the company’s jersey. Ergo every employee should feel comfortable putting it on. Better yet, the wearer should be fired up, ready to represent the firm. Every morning, when an employee enters the parking lot, he or she should be made proud (at least somewhat) by the company’s colors, theme and logo.

The same way your university has a poetic uniform, your place of business has one too. Or it should. If you agree with me on this point then the key question is do you like your jersey? Are you the Fighting Irish or Stanford Cardinal or are you the Peoria Piss Ants?

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Does your brand look like this poor bastard’s uniform?

Answer affirmatively and your brand is probably in a good place or has a reasonable chance at getting to one. If a jersey is meh how can anyone expect the people wearing it to do a good –let alone great job?

I like using the above argument when trying to sell new campaigns to clients because it reframes the branding discussion into one that is more humanly relevant than a marketing funnel or other left brain algebra. It also forces the decision maker(s) to look at his or her brand from an insider point of view.

Granted, this does not always work. Fear of rocking the boat exists inside every company. Hence the old cliché “running it up the flagpole.” Yet, when we exalt the CMO as a quarterback or coach, and relay to him a new and improved uniform (or flag for that matter), it takes particular cowardice for him to demand blandness in the face of a bolder choice. Doesn’t mean it won’t happen. But I like to give my creative ideas every chance at succeeding. Rallying employees is a powerful way to do it.

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