800px-Debate_Logo.svg_.png

The other night I got to thinking about a debating class I once took at the University of Wisconsin. An article on the ages-old conflict between the Arab nations and Israel spurned the memory. Like gun control and abortion, the Middle East is a debating class chestnut.

It dawned on me how important that debating course was in shaping my career 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 highly worthwhile. (By the way, most of this 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 of how it forced me out of my comfort zone. I was asked to compose an argument for the opposite side on an issue I felt strongly about. Though I believed in a woman’s right to choose I had to argue on behalf of pro-life.

It was an infuriating exercise, inflaming my youthful passion in so many ways. Which is also why it was such a valuable lesson. Forcing me to argue on behalf of something I was ardently opposed to was and is great preparation for a career in advertising.

Since then, I’ve had to write persuasively about countless products I know nothing about or will never use –everything from enterprise software to feminine protection. At Leo Burnett, I created numerous campaigns for Phillip Morris, selling cigarettes. 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.

Final aside: Now more than ever I think the above debating exercise would benefit everyone who took it, teaching empathy. Sadly, I’m guessing many would refuse to partake calling it emotional terrorism or some such.

Author’s note: a version of this article ran last week in Reel Chicago – If you have a writing project you’d like to discuss, by all means hit me up!

Advertisements

download.jpg

Those of us in the creative department have asked the question so many times it has become rote. The best answer is not an answer. Clients are difficult. Period. Especially when it comes to approving work. Therefore, we expect our work to be criticized. Revisions and changes are baked into the scope. It is assumed there will be rounds of creative. We are told that if we were in our client’s shoes we’d do the same thing.

But you know what? That’s bullshit. I am far from perfect but I am usually an accepting, flexible and even grateful client. When I hire someone to do a creative job –say an architect- I never give him or her the kind of scrutiny that is always given to new marketing campaigns. For example, a contractor shows me some designs for a room addition. I tell him which one I like, we discuss time and money, and I pay the man. Once in a while I have questions or a change is required. We address it in real time, during construction. We move forward. Even when it’s my money and my house I am seldom a hard ass.

Chances are you’re the same way.

So, why are advertising clients so freaking difficult? Why all the concerns, tweaks and rejections? I think the answer is fear. CMO’s and their get are terrified (sometimes understandably) of losing their jobs. Often my counterparts at the agency feel the same way. Every tree we plant must bear fruit. Or else!

Yet, endlessly hacking at the unplanted tree virtually guarantees a fruitless outcome. Death by a thousand cuts is no different than doing nothing at all. After months of revisions, the concept either dies in a meeting or, produced, it has been so severely compromised as to be ineffective in the marketplace. Everyone gets fired anyway. Another CMO comes in. Another agency. The process begins all over again. This is the definition of insanity.

Creating campaigns is thrilling. Yet, their yield potential is and always will be unknown. Hence the thrill. ROI is as possible as it is not. No one can be sure how an audience will react to an idea until the thing is out there. What makes a client nervous might very well be what makes the idea 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 hated it. The agency, Chiat Day was told to fire-sell the media, which happened to be two slots on the Super Bowl. One insertion never sold. So the spot ran. The rest is history. The follow-up commercial, Lemmings was a failure. Still, was Apple really hurt by it? No. Being reckless and cavalier has never hurt the brand. Frankly, Apple could stand more bravery.

It’s 2018. Why is everyone still afraid of new creative? If a concept doesn’t work merely try something else. The “brand” will be fine. Belaboring over the blueprint is an old idea. And a bad one. The digital age is about iterating. Swipe right. These days, fear and inertia are scarier than any new idea.

Author’s Note: A version of this article ran last week in Reel Chicago On that note, I am available for select writing projects.  Love to help. Let’s talk.

download.png

Recently, I read an essay from an anonymous copywriter that struck a chord. I did not save the link (my bad) but the gist of his/her argument was that within marketing services companies far too many big talkers are achieving way more success than they deserve and, moreover, they are effectively degrading the profession (even more so). The author observed how smooth talking, jargon-dropping, critical thinkers have become so prevalent and dominant in our industry that we’ve become a business of talkers not doers, endlessly revising briefs and tweaking PPT’s instead of producing actual work. We are making many meetings but few campaigns. This, of course, suits the talkers who, by endlessly analyzing and criticizing, continue to bake in more process.

Are we having fun yet?

It goes without saying that these machinations are antithetical to the flow of any decent agency and the creative department in particular. Yet, before we go off and blame the strategists for all this hot air, it’s only fair to point out slick talkers and their myriad sins have plagued Adland since before the Mad Men era. Then, it was the evil account guy. Only interested in pleasing clients, he made lives miserable for countless sensitive creatives. “It ain’t right yet. We need another round.”

That said, at least back then agencies produced work. And lots of it. So much so there were actual production departments. Now many agencies don’t even have a producer on payroll, let alone a department, opting instead to bring in the occasional freelancer for the role or, more typically, relegating the job to hardscrabble project managers. So much is hypothetical. Recycling stock. Fodder.

According to Anonymous it is indeed “strategy gone wild.” The pandemic of verbal diarrhea is especially acute in the technology and B2B arenas, where strategists often define the marketing department. As new platforms and complicated algorithms take over Adland, the talking will only get louder.

Sadly, it seems many clients would rather pay for barbless strategery versus actually fishing. And so we keep tying and retying flies. Red feather. Yellow feather. No feathers. Two. Maybe try spinning gear? For Christ’s sake put a line in the water! This vicious cycle hurts everyone caught in its sucking funnel. Except for the big talkers. Under guise of “getting it right” they have become manifest, perpetuating their self-made roles as agency gatekeepers.

This piece originally ran week prior in Reel Chicago I am available for writing projects 

images-1images
Two peas in a pod?

“Much of the Simpsons’ success can be traced to two main sources: an independence from network interference and a complete dedication to the writing…”

                                       -John Ortved, The Unauthorized History of the Simpsons

 

The Simpsons TV show is the creative standard by which all comedy writing (perhaps all script writing) is measured. Few ever meet those standards. Many duck them all together. The Simpsons is also one of the most successful things ever created. Period. No part of popular culture (ours or anyone’s) is unaffected by this quirky cartoon. How and why can be summed up in the above quote.

As you might imagine, the above quote is sweet music to any creative person’s ears, especially if you’re a copywriter. Unfortunately, it is a song we seldom get to play or hear in the creative department. We get “network interference” all the time, so much so it is considered part of the “process.” And while we may have a complete dedication to the writing, few others in a typical agency do. And why should they? Writing is not their skill set. They are executives, strategists and managers. Their skill set, if you get right down to it, is to affect the writing, generally via “comments.” Comments can be good. Comments can be bad. My point is we don’t work in a vacuum.

The “curiously strong mints” campaign is my Simpsons. In my own unauthorized untold true story of Altoids, I make a similar statement to Ortved’s. A great campaign for many reasons but, in the early going, its meteoric success comes down to the same two things: autonomy and an obsession for writing. I obsessed over those headlines as my partner, Mark Faulkner obsessed over images, color scheme and typography.

In that first year we answered to no one, save for our creative director, who was only appreciative and supportive. Obviously, the client had to sign off (they were a joy by the way) but “network interference” was negligible. Why? No one in the agency cared. The budget was tiny and TV never an option. (Remember this was 1995 and this was Leo Burnett. TV was king.) Anyway, the rest is history: Wrigley bought Altoids and Lifesavers for $1.5 billion dollars.

Ultimately, many would contribute in the case study of Altoids (I’ve named them in previous posts as well as in an Adweek story) but year one it was just a creative team and an assignment.

So, what do we make of “network interference” aka the age-old battle between suit and creative? We are both on the same team, working for the same “network.” But the partnership is strained. Necessarily perhaps. And maybe that’s healthy. But for those once-in-a-lifetime campaigns –“Think Different” “Just do it.” “Curiously Strong Mints”- I’m guessing it’s the creative lonely man who called the tune.

Author’s Notes: This article first ran last week in Reel Chicago – If you would like a creative lonely man as cipher hit me up Portfolio

ROMPER01-01-768x553.jpg

A while back a guest writer on AdAge, Lauren Warner took some heat for an essay she wrote about the briefing process. Among other things, she claimed one should address “creatives on your shop’s team like they’re in kindergarten.”

Others may have been offended but the story made me smile. I recall an evening spent at my children’s school, meeting their teachers, discussing the upcoming year. During this visit, I became aware of how “creative” so much of my daughters’ curriculum really was. Colette’s science teacher explained how “experimenting and taking chances” shapes her powers of intuition. Lily’s drama teacher rhapsodized about “connecting to the inner fantastic.” She used the word “connecting” over and over again. “At this age,” she said, “the creative gene is ready to explode!”

I couldn’t help but think of all the “connecting” strategies I’ve puzzled over as a copywriter and creative director. “Connecting people” is the default strategy for all telecommunications, personal technology, and, frankly, just about everything people use in their waking lives. Connecting folks is Coca Cola’s uber-strategy. “I’d like to buy the world a coke.”

Even more interesting was this business about creativity “exploding.” I believe the teacher was saying that our creative muse is born in these opening years of life. That stimulated and nurtured, we begin to understand and respect our intuitions. Kindergarten is a creative department. Experimenting with ideas on the stage, colors on paper, sounds in music class… That’s what I do!

Or that’s what I prefer doing. Much of my day, however, is spent lawyering on behalf of ideas. Defending them. Subjecting them to all manner of worries and concerns, making them more appropriate, more coherent, more on strategy. It’s inevitable. It’s my job. But it’s also like killing the butterfly in order to appreciate it.

The older I get the more I realize how important it is to stay “connected” to my “inner child.” The best creative people do not grow out of it when they grow up. We remain inquisitive like children. Lovers of fun. You see it in our bicycles in the hallway. Our dubious wardrobes. Our playlists. Our silly photos online. Alas, you also see it in meetings, where we become pouting and defensive, wilting under criticism, frustrated by the grown-ups ruining our fun. I know we can be insufferable. Imposing MBA logic in Romper Room is bound to create problems.

But our muses shouldn’t be stymied: the ability to ideate, to find that “inner fantastic” is necessarily petulant. What’s regrettable is marketing’s obsession with guaranteeing results…or else! Research. Testing. Groups. I say Bleh! There are no guarantees. Never were. Never will be. Intuition, if cultivated and nurtured, is the most important tool the creative department has. The old saw is wrong. Ideas are not our “babies.” That job belongs to us.

Author’s note: This post originally ran as guest commentary on Reel Chicago

I am available for copywriting and creative direction and I will behave like an adult: Steffanwork/CV