Fries in the Skies…

Outdoor advertising, when it’s done well, is perhaps my most favorite advertising of all. I’ve long rhapsodized about the power of posters and how the making of signs is wrapped up in our collected DNA. There’s just something about a cool billboard that really turns me on.

Forgive the ham-fisted segue but speaking of “turn on,” feast your eyes on the latest outdoor board for McDonald’s, courtesy of my alma mater, Leo Burnett. It’s stunning. Mimicking the cut and color of McDonald’s signature side dish yellow lights shoot up to the sky from behind a vivid red box. So very modern. Yet so timeless. Just a beautiful job.

Although this might be one of the best, McDonald’s and Leo Burnett have been creating exceptional outdoor boards for decades, especially the “spectaculars.” Those, in particular, rise above the crowd, figuratively and literally.

Thick on a Stick…

Truly Golden Arches…

Typically, the best outdoor advertising comes from smaller clients, brands that have no budget for other forms of mass communication. When blue-chippers like McDonald’s interrupt our landscape in such a surprising and delightful way the Gods of Advertising smile brightly.

“I need a rubber soul.”

While I was hosting the Obies in Arizona I had a moment of downtime by the pool. Sans reading material, I asked a young hostess if she had any magazines. Instead the girl offered me a worn copy of a book she claimed to have read three times: The Paradox of Choice (Why More is Less) by Barry Schwartz. She said I could keep it.

While I only had time to read the first few pages, Schwartz’ premise that the “culture of abundance robs us of satisfaction” captivated me. Deep down I’ve always felt –in spite of being a capitalist and an ad man- that having too many choices makes life chaotic. Mine anyway. Here was a book espousing the same idea!

I will read it… But only after I finish Ian McEwan’s riveting new novel, Solar. McEwan is among our greatest living authors. His novel, Saturday is one of the best stories I’ve ever read. Then again, I’ve been meaning to begin Blake Bailey’s biography of John Cheever, whom I consider to be one of the best dead authors of the 20th century. After all, I’d just re-read an anthology of his short stories. On the other hand, my brother recently sent me a terrific sounding zombie novel, The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan. He knows all too well my penchant for such ghoulish delights. In addition, I have three more books, which I clicked to own via Amazon. They are sitting on top of a pile of magazines: Details, GQ, Esquire and Dwell; all of which I fully intend to read. If only I’d get off the damn computer…

To be able to access all these titles is surely a blessing. But the pressure to keep up is real. In high school and college we were given a syllabus, in it a defined and finite list of books we had to read. For most of us that was all we could handle.

Upon graduation, we create our own reading list –presuming we still read. I do. However, I also love movies. Who doesn’t? I make it a point to see every best picture nominee in the Academy Awards. This year Oscar expanded that list to what, nine? How am I supposed to see all these films (not to mention the genre pictures I adore) when I only have Saturday nights to do it?

If I’d only get off the damn computer…

The computer. Like many of us, I’m hopelessly addicted to the Internet. The trade blogs, the film blogs, the book blogs, and all those I-can’t-believe they’ve-got-a-site sites. Nothing says choice like the Information Superhighway. Damn you Al Gore for enriching my life! Damn you too, Apple computers, for creating such glorious shiny, silver hardware. I love my laptop. Should I buy the Ipad, too? Or wait another year to let them get the bugs out? I don’t even have an Iphone. Yet.

I already mentioned the great digital river known as Amazon. I can and do get anything I want -fast, cheap, easy and with unmatched quality assurance. Do you like Ebay, Craig’s List and Zappos? Or is there another site, one that really knows you…and what you like?

Am I missing anything? Wait a minute! That’s the big question, isn’t it? Are we missing anything? The answer is of course we are. And that makes us nervous. Restless. Irritable. Discontent. Every day is like New Year’s Eve. No matter which party we choose we end up missing the other one. The better one. Even if not invited we know it’s there. And we’re not. Sheer agony!

But, you say, I prefer choice to the alternative. Really? Versus a menu with eighty-bazillion selections, don’t you find it a pleasure when a restaurant has only a few dishes to choose from? The chef has chosen for you. Picking one from three is a no-lose situation. It’s even relaxing and enjoyable, which I think is the whole point to going out for dinner.

Schwartz opens his book by recounting a visit to the Gap to buy blue jeans. Instead of just having to find his size, which is daunting enough, he is faced with myriad styles to choose from: boot cut, relaxed fit, skinny, distressed, button fly or zipper. Black, brown, white or blue. And so on.

He wanted jeans. Not choices. What should have been a simple task became complicated, even fraught with peril.

Yes, freedom of choice is the American Dream. But is it turning into a nightmare?

Choices I never made: The Twilight Saga, Lost, American Idol, Real Housewives, Desperate Housewives, How I Met Your Mother, Three and a half Men, Harry Potter, Cruise ships, Disneyland, peanut butter, tattoos, boys.

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The semi-great American novel!

I attended my first RACIE AWARDS, as part of the Retail Advertising and Marketing Association (RAMA) conference in San Francisco.

For those unawares, here’s the dope on RAMA:

The Retail Advertising Marketing Association (RAMA), a division of the National Retail Federation, provides unique networking opportunities, industry research and educational programming for retail advertising and marketing professionals.

The RACIES take place amidst two days of presentations and round-tables, featuring key players in the marketing world. I attended several sessions and, not surprisingly, the buzz was all about social media. But this post is about the awards show.

In many ways, the RACIES are like every other advertising awards show. It celebrates creative excellence and effectiveness in all marketing channels: TV, print, outdoor, digital, etc. But here’s the kicker, and it’s what I want to focus on: The vast majority of my peers in the creative community could care less. The RACIES are considered a tier 3 awards show, if they are considered at all. Even the EFFIES get more play. In fact, I was one of the few agency creative directors in attendance.

Why? For one thing, there are plenty of award shows. Perhaps the RACIES are viewed as an interloper. The name sure sucks. But I’m suggesting there’s more to it than that. Like a lot of biases, ours is probably based on certain preconceived notions developed over time. The creative community has their pets. We worship at the altar of Cannes Gold Lions, Andy Heads and One Show Pencils, to name a few. Specialty shows like the Obies (outdoor) and Kelly Awards (print) also hold serve. And rightly so. All controversies aside, these shows generally feature the best work being done in our industry. They are counted in the infamous Gunn Report.

The RACIES aren’t there yet. From what I saw, the winning work was a mixed bag of genius and not so much, and it appeared to come from only a handful of agencies. For example, all the radio finalists were from DeVito Verdi in New York. A fine shop, to be sure, but I got the impression the only one of consequence entering work in this difficult category.

If the RACIES are dubiously viewed and attended by the creative community the opposite is true regarding attendance from heavy breathers on the client side. By their own admission, “RAMA’s Board of Directors is comprised of more than 50 industry CMOs, partners and supporters.” And guess what? They were all there, along with brand managers and account directors, too many to name.

Forgive the cliché, but finding CMO’s at the RACIES was like shooting fish in a barrel. I was giddy at the prospect of meeting and greeting so many potential “patrons.” And with nary a creative director in the room, it was like I had them to myself. In fact, I managed several terrific conversations with men and woman who, if the Gods of Advertising be willing, might some day be my clients. Contrast that with the other more “popular” award shows; where everyone I meet is just like me: a copywriter, art director and/or creative director. Nothing wrong with those, but I can’t deny the thrill of talking with potential clients versus my competition.

Creative people bitch about being insulated from client contact and kept away from decision makers. Yet, here’s a venue where all that existed, replete with an awards show, and only a smattering of advertising creative people anywhere to be found.

We’re missing out, folks. And part of the reason is our own hubris. We –the advertising creative community- think we’re too good for shows like the RACIES. (Yes, I am speaking for all of us.) Perhaps we need to let go of some old, snobby ideas. The One Show is great for finding inspiration and talent. But clients don’t go, nor do they read the annual. Given a choice, wouldn’t you like to compete and win in front of over 50 CMO’s as opposed to just your peers?

I know I would.

Yes, Cannes is finally attracting key players from the client side. But not the other award shows. Not really. Besides, for most agencies, North America is our prime hunting grounds. Don’t take this wrong, but maybe we should be in front of the fish and not crawling up our own asses.

For the record, my agency, Euro RSCG Chicago won three awards at the RACIES: a bronze for Valspar paint, a silver for Pivot Boutique, and a Gold for Potbelly. For all the winners and more information, click on the following links:


RAMA Website

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Sign, sign, everywhere a sign…

We finished judging the 2010 Obie Awards yesterday, on time and, for the most part, in agreement. For those unawares, the Obies celebrate the best outdoor advertising in North America and abroad.

Among my co-judges were old friend, John Butler (Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners) and living legend, Stan Richards (The Richards Group). Rounding out the team were Scott Boswell, John Marson, Joe Zubizaretta and Tony Calcoa of Crispin Porter & Bogusky. Definitely a good panel.

OAAA Chief Marketing Officer, Stephen Freitas and Company run a tight ship, from judging process to final gala. The awards ceremony (which, by the way, I will be hosting) takes place May 4th at the Desert Ridge Marriott in Phoenix, AZ. In addition to the parsing of awards, the exemplary MINI Cooper campaign will be inducted into the Obie Hall of Fame.

Since my wonder years on Altoids, I’ve long appreciated the out-of-home (OOH) medium and know what it can do for a brand as well as a career. ;-) As other mass media fades in its importance to advertisers, OOH continues to stay relevant, if not downright indispensable. Social media is all about establishing personal connections and, ironically, so is good outdoor. Yes, a billboard seems about as mass as mass media gets, randomly targeting every Tom, Dick and Harry driving along the highway. But look at it this way (and you really should): many drivers see the same boards every day during their commute, establishing a bond of sorts with the message. Each day the person rethinks his or her position on the message, even if subconsciously. Either way, these boards become icons on their trip. Signposts. Familiar.

The connectivity between OOH and consumer only increases, as the messaging gets closer to the street -to where a person works and plays. Guerilla marketing, street theater, wild posters (all categories in the Obies) are, if done well, nothing less than propaganda and among the strongest weapons in the marketing arsenal.

Back to the judging… Usually, there are a couple front running campaigns that dominate the field as they did in market. In years past, campaigns from Apple, Altoids and (obviously) MINI Cooper have shown well here. This time around the heir apparent was the ubiquitous and iconic campaign from Snickers. Surely, you’ve seen these oversized brown wrappers in your neck of the woods. In addition, with its colorful and controversial packaging re-design, Pepsi also had a significant presence in the show.

Did either campaign win an Obie, let alone the grand prize? Not so fast. I only said they were poised to. Frankly, my favorite campaigns came elsewhere. Besides, Best of Show voting was done by secret ballot so any number of gems could win, even a one-off, of which there were several remarkable pieces.

Enough teasing! I made a vow of secrecy to the Obies and I’m already feeling dubiously Biden-like in my chattiness! Good luck to all the entrants and I’ll see you in Arizona.

Obies website

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The Happy Soul Industry website

What? You didn’t think I would advertise?

The Happy Soul Industry is out and, to my relief, getting good reviews. While I have sold a few hundred copies so far, I am eternally grateful for having sold any at all. To those “early adaptors” of my book: God bless you all! As for the rest of you, well, Amazon is selling the paperback for only $10.20, undercutting the publisher’s price by several dollars. Such a deal.

Either way, the second part of this novel’s life begins now. The image above is one of three 14’ X 48’ billboards going up in L.A this month and next. There’s also a digital board in Westwood. The Outdoor Association of America (OAAA) provided me space as barter for work I am doing on their behalf. The poster below is looming over Wabash Avenue in Chicago.

Since my life on Altoids, I know how powerful good outdoor can be. In my opinion, nothing delivers for the money like out-of-home. Whether it can help sell a novel remains to be seen but, in some respects, that’s not even the strategy.

Let me explain.

Writing Happy Soul, I always imagined it as a major motion picture. I even wrote the screenplay. As part of our strategy to reach the Hollywood film community, we are querying production companies, looking for producer advocates. Meantime, we put the billboards in LA. That effort, coupled with articles in the advertising trade press, hopefully leads to a movie deal. And why shouldn’t it? It almost did for my previous book, The Last Generation. At one point Mike Medavoy and Touchstone TV were attached. That deal ultimately fell apart, but not before some very exciting moments and a bit of option money for yours truly.

However, It ain’t about the money. (I’ve always wanted to say that.) Happy Soul is my Great White Whale. I’ve spent years working on this novel. I’m sure as Hell not going to abandon it during its time of need. Besides, I’m a salesman and a copywriter. Of course I’m going to write about it –here and on a billboard. Whatever it takes.

I’m blessed to have relationships and resources that make doing these things easier, same as I’m blessed to have you, Gentle Reader. And for that I am eternally grateful.


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