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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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The face of criticism. it ain’t always pretty.

It dawns on me I haven’t critiqued an ad campaign in quite a while. I could tell you that’s because nothing out there strikes my fancy. And there are periods of time when it does feel that way. Yet, I write about countless subjects that do not require a witness. You’d think if I’m going to host a blog about advertising that I’d write about it. Often.

So, why my ambivalence?

Truth be told I think most criticism is folly. Let me tell you a story. In college, I aspired to be a music journalist for Rolling Stone magazine. (Back then it was still a relevant publication.) In pursuit of this goal, I reviewed albums and concerts for both school newspapers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Highlights from this period include the resounding thumbs up I gave to the Replacements and Violent Femmes. (If not for me who knows where these two bands would have wound up?) Anyway, I also reviewed plenty of local talent, including a hair band called Whiz Kid. Whiz Kid played Lover Boy and Head East covers for drunken sorority girls (and the men who loved them) at various venues around town. For 2 bucks a head one got 3 sets of music.

Like almost every novice critic I rejoiced in ripping no-talent outfits to shreds. Whiz Kid was no exception. I might not be up on that stage but I had my pen, which was mightier than any guitar. So, I wrote a story, making fun of their lame music, silly matching outfits and ridiculous big hair. I used every bit of my marginal writing skills to tear them a new one. And then I promptly forgot about it.

Not Whiz Kid. A couple weeks later I ran into the lead singer at an after-bar party. He asked me why I’d so cruelly laid into his band. I said, no disrespect, brother but you sucked. I mean Lover Boy… Give me a break!

The vocalist did not punch me. Instead he hit me with something far more lasting. He told me the reason Whiz Kid played shit music was to get gigs, which he needed in order to pay rent and put food on the table for his wife and new baby. He told me none of the bars in town hired original talent unless they were famous. Whiz kid was not. He had to sing Working for the Weekend because that’s what 19-year-old girls (and the men who loved them) paid money to see.

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They actually did an original tune… sort of.

From that night on, I abandoned my ambition to write criticism. I had been stifled by the truth. Whiz Kid was literally working for the weekend, every weekend, in order to survive. I felt I had no right to criticize them for doing so. I was not aiding culture in any way. I was merely hurting this band.

And so to this day it takes an especially notable campaign for me to write about it, in particular if I’m considering a negative opinion. Obviously, I still do criticism. But only after giving the matter serious consideration. And I always remember Whiz Kid.

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Who doesn’t love a good debate?

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.

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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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