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Why are client’s so difficult?

Those of us in the creative department have asked the question so many times it has become rote. Clients are difficult. Period. Especially when it comes to buying and approving work. We expect them to demand changes to the concepts, to the script, to the voiceover, to the scene, to the CTA, to the size of the logo and so on.

We have become uncomfortably numb. We expect our work to be criticized. So much so the creation process has “revisions and changes” baked right into it. Furthermore, we are told –indeed, I’ve said it myself- if we were in our client’s shoes we’d do the same thing. To use the ultimate cliché “it is what it is.”

But you know what? That’s bullshit. I am far from perfect but I am usually an accepting and grateful client. When I hire someone to do a creative job –be it a director or an architect or whomever- I never give him or her the kind of scrutiny that is typically given to me and/or my team. At home an interior designer shows me some designs I tell him which one I like, we discuss time and money, and I pay the man. This even when things are late and over budget, which they invariably are. Once in a while I have a question or an honest mistake has been made. We address it. Done. On to the next. Even though it’s my money I am seldom a dick.

Chances are you’re the same way.

So, why are advertising clients so difficult? Why all the concerns, tweaks and rejections? I think the answer is fear based. CMO’s and their get are terrified (sometimes understandably) of losing their jobs. Often their counterparts at the agency feel the same way. Every tree we plant better bear fruit. Or else! With all that pressure (much of it self-imposed) it makes me wonder how they (or we) even get up in the morning.

Yet the resulting behavior –hacking at the tree- absolutely guarantees the tree will be barren. Or its yield will be paltry. In the end death by a thousand cuts is no different than doing nothing at all. Either way, the very thing one fears happening… happens. The team is blown up. Another CMO is brought in and in turn another agency. The process begins all over again.

Creating campaigns is thrilling. Yet, their potential is and always will be unknown. Hence the thrill. No one can be sure how an audience will react to a thing until the thing is out there. What makes a client nervous might be what makes the thing truly great. We all know the story behind the world’s greatest advertisement, Apple’s “1984.” When it was screened to dealers everyone except its creators and Steve Jobs hated it. The agency, Chiat Day was asked to fire-sell the media, which happened to be two slots on the Super Bowl. One insertion was not sold. The spot ran. And the rest is history. Granted the follow-up commercial, “Lemmings” was an abject failure. Still, was Apple really hurt by it? No. Being reckless and cavalier has never hurt the brand. Frankly, Apple could stand to be more brave. Again.

So put it out there. Instead of ‘why are we so afraid?’ let’s ask ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’ If it doesn’t work as planned we try something else.

Were it that simple, right?

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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.

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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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