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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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Are you ready for some ads!

Now that the Superbowl is over (one can argue it was over after 12 seconds), Adland has already begun planning for the Mongolian Cluster F**k that is Cannes. Festival officials have started naming its 2014 jury presidents. The list contains the usual high profile suspects, a collection of CEO’s and Chief Creative Officers from the world’s largest holding company agencies: David Sable (Y&R), Susan Credle (Leo Burnett) and Amir Kassaei (DDB).

Obvious, elitist and conspicuous… Like a surgically enhanced, rich socialite traipsing along the Croisette, Cannes has always been top heavy. I’ve been to my share so I know of what I speak. Of course, by comparison, I was but a sand fly caught upon the sticky, oily boob of any one these big shots. But so what? I was in the South of France. Whether one is A-list or D-list the pink rose is the same.

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“Wanna go look at some ads?”

Over the years, I’ve attended a bunch of these fetes and I’d do so again, if invited. Which I won’t be. My whistle-blowing hijinks at the Dubai Lynx a while back probably ended those dreams. More on that here.

Or did it? The fellow selected as head juror of film (still the penultimate category at Cannes, Cyber Titanium be damned!), only last year called out the festival (see above linked post) for rampant corruption at the highest levels. And yet there he is. Back for more.

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“How much for ze bronze?”

More what, I wonder? Methinks it has a lot to do with prestige and big agency politics. You gotta represent! That, and spend another lost week with one’s peers in the French Mediterranean!

For the record, I’ve actually won Gold at Cannes. And ze bronze. Corruption aside, it’s not an easy thing to do. I’ve also given speeches there. Made presentations. Met all manner of marketing legends. Lee Clow. Steve Zuckerberg. One time I literally bumped into Nike’s Phil Knight while jogging! I even had a chance to visit the street address where my grandmother lived after World War II. Goes without saying, it’s a beautiful place. Even when full of people like us.

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“Why the long face?”

I would have preferred a snowstorm. Seriously.

Watching the Superbowl was like watching the proverbial car crash. I gaped for a while and then moved on. Honestly, did the Denver Broncos forget what day it was? They were awful.

However, so was most everything else. Including the commercials I happened to catch, which, given I’d stopped paying attention to the TV, were not all of them. I’ll get back to this.

But first the game. Let’s start with Peyton Manning. As good as he has been this season, from the very first botched play, Peyton Manning looked like a confused and terrified little boy. To my chagrin, he made loudmouth Seahawk, Richard Sherman seem prescient. Peyton did “throw a lot of ducks.” Some right into the hands of players from the opposing team. So bad was the “best player on the field” that it will likely eliminate him from the same conversation as Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana and even the man he helped defeat two weeks prior, Tom Brady.

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“I pooped my big boy pants.”

Manning received no help whatever from his teammates. The O-line was pathetic. The coaches made no adjustments. At times it was odd and eerie watching this season’s record-breaking offense play so poorly.

Fox was mediocre at best. Granted, they were scrambling with the last minute scratch of veteran broadcaster, Terry Bradshaw, whose father had died the day before. I believe they substituted Michael Strahan, who was game but ill prepared. Beyond that I found the entire broadcast rote. The Superbowl has become a series of sponsored moments, from the coin toss to Halftime to the insipid “How does it feel?” questions at the end.

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“At least I didn’t suck.”

As for the Halftime show, I will give credit to Bruno Mars for delivering a slick and competent performance. I respect the dude for showing up prepared for such a big stage. The Red Hot Chile Peppers were completely unnecessary. Is there anyone on earth who still listens to this band, even nostalgically? They are like Fallout Boy; only imagine Fallout Boy ten years from now. Ouch.

Rote is a good description for the commercials. Few of them rose above the calculated goofiness of animals behaving badly, celebrity cameos and other super tired super tropes. Sure, I liked a few well enough. The Kia “Matrix” spot was big, fun and it actually sold something, which means it did at least two things better than most of the others. T-Mobile had it’s moments. Couple others.

For controversy we got Coke’s multi-cultural singing of “America the Beautiful.” I’m told the blogosphere lit up with haters and defenders. Meh.

For pre-meditated “shocker” there was the face-lifted Bob Dylan shilling Chrysler. What color do you want, Bob? How about tangled-up-in-blue? When Clint Eastwood and Eminem made similar appearances for Detroit and Chrysler and America everything clicked. Bob Dylan laid an egg.

Frankly, the whole f—king thing laid an egg. #Superfail.

To paraphrase the opening line from Radio Shack’s barrel of retro celebrities commercial: “The eighties called. They want their Superbowl back.”

Poetry is a dying vine clinging to the stinking roadhouse of pop culture. Verse and beat and alliteration are now 140 characters, the new haiku. On steroids.

On advertising!

Brand after brand after brand like boxcars moving their freight using the rhyming words of dead men: Walt Whitman. Allen Ginsberg. In the ultimate Meta even the poetic rant of Robin Williams from a film called, of all things, Dead Poet’s Society is the new message for all of Apple’s new, new things. “What will your verse be?” As if Mac needed the incantation.

It is the ultimate irony the demon gatekeeper of popular culture has commandeered poetry. We are hearing it everywhere. Levis gave us the scratchy live recording of a dead poet in their propulsive and romantic “Go Forth” campaign. Johnnie Walker tells us to “Keep Walking.”

And so we do. Mashing words and music and imagery into myriad beats. We iterate. We aggregate. Co-opt and curate. We celebrate the stuff of life.

Copywriters are nothing if not failed poets turning out catch phrases “Just do it” and puns “Nothing runs like a Deere” and those are the good ones! The dusty classics. How many now don’t even compare? It doesn’t matter. We sing the body electric for toiletries and blue jeans. And when our great words are not great enough we simply commandeer someone else’s, someone who came before us, someone who died drunk and broke and likely unhappy but maybe not.

Who cares? Using old poems make advertising feel new and improved!

We wrote poems before copy. We read poetry before streaming horror movies and Old Spice commercials on You Tube. We wanted to be heard. And because the rejections from the New Yorker piled up like delivery menus in the hallway, spam in the inbox, we turned to advertising.

I mean I. Did that.

But We sounds so much cooler. More like poetry. Manifestos begin with “We.” Mantras and mission statements. Let’s motor!

In Adland, our lines mean a little something to all kinds of big nobodies. There we find recognition, awards and a paycheck. There I found an audience. There I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked…

No, I will not go there. But someone will. And soon. I guarantee it.

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A couple advertising men passed away last week. Jim Schmidt was a copywriter by trade and co-founder of Downtown Partners, a creative boutique within the DDB matrix in Chicago. Mike Hughes was also a creative director and, in addition, a founding member of the Martin Agency in Richmond, Virginia. I wasn’t a friend to either of these fine gentlemen but I most certainly knew who they were, having judged awards shows with Jim and attended AAAA functions in which Mike was a key player.

Moreover, I was a fan of their work. Both Jim and Mike were advertising craftsmen in the best sense of the word. They cared about words. They sweated the details. More than anything, they liked to work on the work. I could be wrong but I don’t think either man identified with being bosses and politicians. They liked to make stellar copy for clients who appreciated it. I think of the Martin Agency’s work for Saab. I think of Jim’s fable-like commercials for Walgreens. Frankly, there are more and better examples but I don’t want to write specifically about advertising copy.

Two very decent men died. Two husbands. Two fathers. They weren’t old men either. Cancer took them both before their time. The say no one is promised tomorrow but Jim and Mike got robbed.

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Jim Schmidt, gone too soon.

Being a Chicago native I had more in common with Jim. When Jim left Euro RSCG (now Havas) to begin Downtown Partners in 2004 I had the dubious job of replacing him. Fortunately, we had other things in common besides that particular challenge. Both of us copywriters, we were more or less from the same advertising class, lived and worked in the same city, even competed. I adored Jim’s candor and piercing wit. Loved it when he took me to task for something I’d written or said. He followed this blog and was free with his comments and, as I’ve said, not all of them were flattering! His biting Facebook posts were legendary. Jim adored the Beatles with a teenager’s passion. He loved music. He had heart. We weren’t buddies by most definitions but I will miss you. (AdAge Story)

Mr. Hughes was more like my father (who also started his own agency, RPA) than me. Judging from the loving tribute his agency made for him, Mike was considerably more than just a hard worker and popular guy. He was a patriarch: stable, warm and special. I imagine he was an exemplary mentor to countless lucky writers and budding advertising professionals. I bet he was a father figure to many.

Clearly, both men had above average talent. Well above. Whether one considers either a “legend” I will leave alone. I doubt either man would have cared for the distinction let alone aspired to it. I know Jim loathed sizzle and self-promotion, banking his career primarily on substance, even as our business grew more hyperbolic and social. Similarly, Mike cared more about others than himself. His consistent involvement with the VCU Brandcenter is but a tiny proof point.

This isn’t a suitable eulogy for Jim or Mike. These are just impressions of two lives. But here’s the thing. Upon hearing of the sad news I could not stop thinking about these two guys. Nor could I write about anything else until I wrote about them.

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