No longer hiding behind corporate spin, company leaders open their yaps, unafraid of the consequences.
September 9, 2014
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.
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.
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.
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?”
August 7, 2014
I’m not sure what spurred the memory but the other night I got to thinking about a sophomore debating class I took at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Perhaps it was the latest flare up in the un-ending battle between Israel and some faction of the Arab world –this time Hamas. After all, here are two “sides” that have been warring (and subsequently debated on) for decades (seems a lot longer, doesn’t it?), with no apparent victor. Like “gun control” and “abortion” the “Middle East” is one of those debating class teeter-totters.
As I reflected on this class, it dawned on me how important it was in shaping my development as an advertising copywriter. The ability to create a compelling and fresh argument from tired tropes is paramount to good copywriting. For most clients, the benefits and solutions within their respective categories are extremely similar, if not identical. Therefore, practicing our skills on classic debating topics is very worthwhile. (By the way, most of this very paragraph has been constructed in the form of a syllogism (if/ then/ therefore), a term and concept I learned in debating class!)
I recall one assignment in particular, because it forced all of us out of our comfort zones: We had to compose an argument for the opposite side of an issue we believed in. So, for example, if you were Pro-Choice you had to write an argument for the “Right to Life.”
It was an infuriating exercise, inflaming our young passions in all the wrong ways. Which is also why it was such a valuable lesson. Forcing me to argue on behalf of something I was ignorant of or ardently opposed to was great preparation for a career in Adland!
After all, in my career I’ve had to write persuasively about countless products I know nothing about and will never use –everything from enterprise software to feminine protection. At Leo Burnett, I had to create numerous campaigns selling cigarettes, in my case Benson & Hedges. At another agency I worked on a pitch for an online gambling entity. I don’t drink alcohol because it nearly killed me but I’ve written national campaigns for Johnnie Walker and Anheuser Busch.
Scenarios like these are not uncommon. For many of us they represent just another tricky day in Adland. Putting aside one’s moral compass may be harder for some than others but either way the value of classic debating skills is obvious.