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“I’m going to tell you a true story, okay?” Colette is looking at her phone but you know she is listening. You are driving her to rehearsal. She has a big part in Les Miserables. She plays the grown-up version of Cosette. (Colette playing Cosette. How’s that for kismet?) Though you saw the movie a while ago you don’t really remember the story. Victor Hugo is not your thing. Being a musical and being a lead, Colette must sing and she has been practicing a lot. You’ve heard her belting out lyrics from her room, in the shower, on the trampoline in the backyard, which she pretended was a stage. You can’t tell if she’s good or merely loud but her enthusiasm is amazing. Many members from your family are coming in to see her perform. There will be hundreds of other people as well. The tickets cost money and this is a real show. Up until yesterday Colette has been psyched. Then one of her “friends” disrespected her online, insulting her skills and some other shit you’re not sure. Usually a brick, Colette was wounded by it. Your wife told you this much. And you can see it now in your daughter’s sullen demeanor. So you have a story…

“Before you were born,” you begin. “Back when I was coming up at Leo Burnett in Chicago I was preparing for a huge presentation. It was my idea. I wrote all the copy. And I had the show to go with it. I’d been practicing for weeks. What I was going to say. How I was going to say it. I had the shit down.” Colette looks up when you curse. Good. “Anyway, the night before I’m rehearsing my presentation in front of the team. And when I’m done the head account person –the guy who deals with the client- he shits all over my work. All of a sudden he doesn’t like the creative. He’s not happy with it… or me. I’m dumbfounded. Like where’d this shit come from?” Traffic on the 101 is heavy but that’s fine. It allows you to look at your daughter. “The guy says to me, in front of everybody, if you present that work tomorrow it will be Armageddon.”

“The end of the world?” Colette asks. “What did you do?” One of Colette’s most beautiful features her eyes, big and blue, and they are wide open staring at you.

You laugh. “I told him I would make some changes. That I’d do a bunch of things he wanted and not do a bunch of things he didn’t.”

“That really sucks,” your daughter says.

“It would,” you say. “Had I listened to him. “The next day I delivered my presentation just as I’d planned it. My work. My way. And I fucking killed it. When I was done the clients actually applauded.”

“Really?” She’s serious, you can tell. You have her full attention. And something more.

“Story’s not over,” you say. “The meeting ends. My campaign’s a huge hit, right? Everybody’s shaking hands, patting each other on the back. So, I walk over to the account guy who’d dissed my work the night before. He thinks I’m going to shake his hand. I look him right in the eyes, and I say, ‘Welcome to Armageddon, asshole.’ And walk away.” You change lanes swiftly, almost missing the exit.

“Wow, that’s a great story, dad,” Colette says. “It’s all true?”

“Every bit, sweetheart.” At the red light, you look at Colette full on. She is the sassy one. The middle child. The daughter that gives your wife the most trouble. You choose your words. “If people are disrespecting you or your work, you don’t have to change.” The light turns green and you move the car forward. “All you have to be is… devastating. Redemption like that, there’s no sweeter feeling.”

In the parking lot, Colette thanks you again for driving her to practice. You’re not a hugging family but you can see it in her eyes. The fierceness is back. You watch her march toward the theater. The entire world’s a stage and you’ve given an important player some badass direction.

Author’s note: This is an excerpt from a book I’m writing, my fourth. If you like it let me know. Available for freelance as well: https://steffanwork.wordpress.com

And by the way, Colette was devastating.

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Colette et Cosette

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Even this is better…

How Hillary Clinton and the Democrats lost to the man-thing we now have in office is a case study on screwing up. The reasons vary depending on whom you ask and how honest they wish to be. Regardless, the DNC must get their marketing right the next time. And at the tip of that spear will be a bold tagline. Like it or not, “Make America Great Again” resonated with a lot of people. The Dems need something simple and catchy that captures what they stand for. With so much access to creative talent predisposed to your party’s positions, this should be an easy fix.

Early returns suggest otherwise. Way otherwise. Take a gander at the DNC’s new slogan:

A Better Deal: Better Skills, Better Jobs, Better Wages.

While some joked it sounds just like Papa John’s tagline, Better Ingredients, Better Pizza I’m afraid that’s the least of this slogan’s problems. At best, it reads like a line from a trade ad, a dismal piece of copy in a paragraph no one will ever read. At worst, bullet points from a strategy statement.

How can the Democrats be so tone deaf? Especially given their failure in November for essentially the same thing. Did Nancy Pelosi write this? “Better wages.” Who even uses the word wages anymore? No one under eighty, that’s who. The word is an artifact from New Deal era politics. Speaking of deals, it that the best way Democrats can assert their new platform –a better deal? Yes, we have a joker in the office but you’re not going to beat him or anyone else with a pair of 2’s.

Here’s what probably happened. They started with a valid insight: that Dems need to better reach out to the working class. Then too many people got in a room and processed too much data – a fatal flaw, I might add, of the Democrats themselves. A committee wrote this line and we can tell. Obama won two terms with “Hope & Change” not “Deals & Wages.” We can only “hope” the DNC “changes” this inept tagline or we’re all singing Hail to the Chief for President Pence.

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The slogan generator, a silly App created by bored creatives, could do better. Or better yet, give me a call. I’ll write you a theme line with Curious Strength.

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One develops habits as a copywriter. For instance, I need to see what words look like in a layout to truly assess them properly. The art directors were right: a block of copy is a visual. It needs to look right. Losing a word or two in order to accommodate the visual is not compromise; it’s part of creating good copy. Seeing your words in a layout provides concrete proof that what you’ve written is right. The perfect paragraph on Word is almost never correct in situation.

This habit did not change with new technology. If anything it became more pronounced. Now I can see finished looking ads before they are produced. Ancient history, I know. It’s been years since anyone relied on marker comps to sell an ad. We all want to see the baby before its born.

Where it gets interesting for me is in other forms of writing, like this blog. While I write these words in Word, and edit the hell out of them in Word, I’ve really only created a first draft. The true test comes when I create a “new post.” Then I see the paragraphs as you would see them. Suddenly their flaws become manifest, almost like an allergic reaction. Lose this sentence. Change that word. Move the photograph down a peg. Why these things were never apparent on a white screen is a mystery to me.

Perhaps it is also a curse. Many bloggers crank out content because new content is the key to new readers. Like in a MASH unit, they sow up stories and send them to the front. The sentences bleed adverbs and are pockmarked with dot-dot-dots, suggesting the writer had no time to tie up the paragraph or suture a proper segue.

I can’t work that way. Whether it reflects in my writing or not (and it may not), I treat each story as if it will be graded by a writing professor. It’s a habit I got into a long time ago.

See what my writing can do for you: https://steffanwork.wordpress.com/

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Last week the acclaimed actress, Emma Stone made headlines with her revelation that certain male co-stars had taken significant pay cuts in order to achieve parity with her own salary. It’s a nice story. And one that readily feeds into the red-hot narrative regarding “fearless” women “leaning in” and breaking barriers into male-dominated fields. While the feminist aspect is important, the idea of taking a pay cut for the greater good is also a trending topic. Witness what NBA Finals MVP, Kevin Durant did in order for his championship Warriors to stay intact.

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Specifically, a thread on Linkedin caught my eye. Above a link to the Emma Stone story a female advertising executive commented, “I wonder how many of my male peers would do the same?” The implication was not many. My guess is few women would either.

But guess what? I did, willingly and without hesitation. hell, it was my idea! And that’s what I thought about when I’d first read the Stone story. Without getting into names and places, a few years back I took approximately 25% off my compensation in order to significantly bump the salaries of two of my top lieutenants. I had reason to believe one was being courted by another agency. Moreover, I also felt strongly that both individuals deserved bigger raises than the company was budgeted to give. For me, reducing my bottom line to increase theirs felt like a no-brainer. In a weird way I was almost happy to do it. It felt like right sizing. Though he later came around, I recall the CEO first balking at my suggestion. “Nice gesture, Steffan but business just doesn’t work that way.”

Why is that, I wonder? Seems to me such redistribution and/or diminution would help remedy the need for layoffs during hard times as well as mitigate the blade being used on older more expensive workers. My guess is that self-induced pay cuts somehow feel communistic and is antithetical to capitalism. This is bullshit of course. But then why is retrenchment so rare?

I’ll work for numbers that work for you: https://steffanwork.wordpress.com/

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A story of Lions and Excess…

The Cannes International Festival of Advertising is finis. All over Adland people are back at their shops tweaking layouts, creating and debating Power Points and churning out banners. The business of marketing continues. Yet the hangover persists. Not from the overpriced rose’ in Cannes but from its overwrought festival. In the wake of Publicis’ controversial decree to forgo one year of entering work into Cannes or any other awards show, a hazy doubt remains, wafting in it lingering questions about the role of award shows, the cost to participate, and the value they provide.

No doubt award shows had their place, back when work was difficult to share and people harder to connect. But in the age of social media, nothing could be farther from the truth. Everyone sees everything. Shit is condemned. Cream rises to the top. By the time an ad wins an award it has been praised or vilified ad nauseam. Awards have become anti-climactic. Gilding the Lily if you will. Of course recognition is critical for agencies and their people. But claiming prizes well after the fact is antiquated.

But there’s another mitigating fact. Award shows cost a ton of time and money for agencies to participate. I think more than an App named Marcel, this is the real reason Publicis CEO, Arthur Sadoun pulled the plug. In these increasingly difficult times, he saw millions of dollars in savings. The bottom line is the bottom line.

And for this, we cannot blame him. I believe it costs around a thousand dollars to enter a piece of work at Cannes into a sole category. And there are thousands of categories with more every year. Nearly 1,500 Lions were given out this year. Out of God knows how many entries. You do the math. Agencies desperation to win coupled with outright greed by award show executives created a perfect storm. One must pay to play. The gross is gross.

I don’t think award shows should go away –necessarily- but clearly they need to be brought down to earth. There are too many shows with too many categories. Period.

Forget the many losers at Cannes. Let’s look at two of the biggest winners.

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“Meet Graham”

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“Fearless Girl”

Clemenger BBDO Melbourne was awarded 29 Lions & 2 Grand Prix for their “Meet Graham” campaign. McCaan New York received 18 Lions and 4 Grand Prix for their “Fearless Girl” statue on Wall Street. No question these are wonderful and deserving ideas. But 18 and 29 Lions? That’s icing on the icing on the icing. We may crave the sugar but it’s not good for anyone. Except, of course, the executives at Cannes. They’ll gladly exchange statues for cash.

If only a handful of Lions were given out they would mean so much more. But the current system demand quantity. The solution: Make the show a salon for great work and only give the most brilliant a prize. More like the film festival, which takes place a month before. Hell, if they can do it so can we. I know it’s a tough pill for the many profiteers to swallow. But it’s the right thing to do.

For copy, content and creative direction: https://steffanwork.wordpress.com/