My old agency in Chicago (EuroRSCG then, Havas now) made some noise this week by using their entrance on Grand & Wabash as a mock peep show in support of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Basically, the agency “dolled up” the façade to look like a seedy strip joint. When passersby looked into the “peephole” in the window they saw a trio of black mannequins tattooed with copy about breast cancer and the agency’s pledge to donate a buck to the cause every time someone uploaded content with the hashtag #HavasPeepShow.

Conceptually, I get it. What’s not to get? It’s a bait and switch, linking breast cancer awareness with a lurid tableaux dramatizing, ahem, breast awareness. On that level I will concede it’s a clever ruse.

However, when I posted the story on Twitter and Facebook, a number of my peers derided the effort calling the stunt “cheap and facile…like a fart joke.” Another wrote: “Tone deaf hipster drivel that disrespects the intended audience – the energy would be better spent on winning clients.”


Important to note these comments came from people in the industry so they know, as well as I, that Havas Chicago did this to generate publicity for itself now and hopefully win some awards later. The self-serving nature is not lost on us.

“Us” is the key word. We in advertising know too much about ourselves and are beyond cynical when it comes to self promotion – except when we are the ones doing it. It’s like the matter of scam ads. We all bitch about other agencies creating them but somehow it’s okay when we do it.

Back to the peep show. What about pedestrians? Would they take umbrage at an ad agency doing something like this or would they just think it’s a cool idea in support of a good cause? I don’t know. Probably both and everything in between. In the above photo a mother is seen walking by the display with her young daughter. As a father of three daughters how does that make me feel? Tough call. I’m pretty liberal when it comes to my kids. How about you?

Like one of the upset commenters on Facebook, my mother had breast cancer. Fought it successfully. He thought his mom would be pissed. If I’m being honest, my mom might get a kick out of this. Mom- if you’re reading let us know.

Yet another Facebook friend said this was an “ad about women done by men.” If true, that still doesn’t make it wrong. Unless it’s sexist, which is what I think the person was suggesting. So is it? Lord knows peep shows are. But does the misdirection here make it okay? Does the end justify the means?

Is your agency like this…

Colorful coral reef.jpg.824x0_q71_crop-scale

Or this…


Creative boutique. Process driven. Sweatshop. These are some of the terms we use to describe one advertising agency or another. And while they are often accurate descriptors –delightfully or painfully so- what is less true is that the agency chose to be defined that way.

Allow me a metaphor. In the fish keeping hobby, of which I am a passionate member, we are all familiar with how corals get their beautiful colors.  They do so via a symbiotic relationship with algae called zooxanthellae, which provide nutrients to the host animal. (Yes, corals are animals not plants.) One square inch of coral may contain millions of these microorganisms, which transmit their iconic gorgeous colors. Or they may be drab brown, depending on the zooanthellae.

For better or worse, an agency becomes the clients they work with. If an agency has one dominating and difficult client it will become a dominating and difficult place – a sweatshop. It matters little if the agency’s beloved mantra extolls a different and virtuous path: “The Power of One” “The Truth Well Told” “Human Relevance” If its clients demand, for example, an endless slew of cheap “how to” videos and “creative wrappers” for their email campaigns and tool kits then that is what the agency will be. Conversely, an agency that is hired to make sexy brand campaigns, and actually produces them, will be known for doing that kind of work. Everyone wants to be the latter. Many become the former.

The coral reef is a fragile ecosystem. Without the right nourishment it bleaches and can die. With fewer and fewer bright corals, it loses its ability to attract. Usually what happens is the reef becomes an ever uglier place, even hostile, with its beleaguered inhabitants struggling to survive, using all their resources just to maintain.

Large reefs can tolerate a fair amount of blah corals and still be healthy. The ugly stuff is swept under a carpet of jewels. Smaller agencies do not have this luxury. Many of those succumb to the prevailing currents. “This is what we do,” they say, about making Power Point for example. And they survive, albeit one dimensionally.

Improving the reef (agency) is rarely just about chasing after better fish (talent). Desirable species would come if the reef were healthy. Management isn’t the solution either, although predation at the top is often an outcome. Above all, the solution is not about redoing the agency website. The mission statement is always aspirational. Who doesn’t want a creative culture? But it matters not if clients don’t adhere to it.

The solution, obviously, is to find those clients –even just one- that arrive with creative zooanthellae alive in their DNA. Even a small “zoo” culture will inspire the host and all those considering residing there. If a small agency cultivates one of these it quickly becomes a “creative boutique.” Big agencies on the cusp of bleaching need to make room for these delicate corals, even if it means expending valuable resources. The smart ones do. The puzzle is how do you attract them if your current culture is meh? It can be done. Back in the day, Fallon McEelligott became synonymous with awesome creative by committing to myriad tiny clients, fanning gorgeousness out of them. Much later Crispin, Porter & Bogusky did the same, using burgeoning social media as their live rock. The corals grew fast and furious. Grey in New York was a big gray slab that hit it big with E-Trade babies. Leo Burnett in Chicago rose above its bedrock of CPG coral with its “curiously strong” campaign for Altoids, which was a tiny speck when it arrived. Later, they achieved amazing results in unexpected places by creating Mayhem for Allstate. Transformation happens. But not without catalytic clients.

Though few like to admit it, luck plays a big role.  Without the right clients, a talented crew and a good leader is a meeting you don’t want to be in.


The heroin is in the charms…

Ah, Lucky Charms. Like a lot of us, I grew up with ‘always after them.’ Like a lot of us, I adored the ritual of spooning out as many of the “pink hearts, yellow moons and green clovers” as I could then devour them first ahead of the actual cereal. For me, this was an integral part of enjoying the product. Not unlike twisting apart an Oreo cookie and eating the white frosting first. By the way, both rituals I learned from TV commercials, most if not all, observed on Saturday mornings in front of the TV set watching my favorite cartoons.

Alas, like a lot of us, I grew out of Lucky Charms and Oreo Cookies – albeit reluctantly. I have kids now but they don’t watch cartoons on Saturday morning, preferring the content on their phones. They also don’t eat Lucky Charms, preferring pancakes on the weekends and grab and go on school days. Oreo cookies still happen, but not often, given the upscale cookies my wife brings home from one specialty shop or another.

But I remember. I will tell you with absolute certainty that if Lucky Charms were in my pantry I would eat them. Furthermore, I would still remove the marshmallow pieces first. Such is the powerful memory of these childhood rituals. I have a latent craving. Perhaps you do, too?

General Mills is counting on it. Which is why they launched this contest, whereby those who upload a photograph of themselves holding an imaginary box of Lucky Charms have a chance at winning a box of just the delectable charms. Imagine that: thousands and thousands of only marshmallow treats!

100% uncut pure Charms…

It’s a sweet promotion, if an insidious one. One that plays (preys) obviously on a simple but powerful obsession. (Makes me wonder why Oreo doesn’t just sell the frosting. Do they?) Everywhere dentists are cheering.

Of course the contest is all about social. Upload a photo to your favorite platform, tag it, and dream. If you’re lucky you win. So simple. But so dead on. After all, the product is called Lucky Charms. Will I enter the contest? No. But I am thinking about Lucky Charms. And I am drooling.


“I just lost my daughter’s college fund on Fan Duel!”

Lot of hullabaloo over the legality/morality of online fantasy league sites, Fan Duel and Draft Kings…

In 2011, the FBI shut down two of the most popular online gambling sites, Poker Stars and Full Tilt Poker, accusing their owners of money laundering and other nefarious activities. According to the Chicago Tribune, eleven people were arrested and indicted by the Feds. And they’re gunning for more. Online visitors were greeted with a message saying, “This domain name has been seized by the F.B.I. pursuant to an Arrest Warrant,” and an enumeration of federal anti-gambling statutes and penalties.” Talk about a buzz kill.

While I’m not a gambler, the fantasy league story interests me because several years ago a popular gaming site approached my agency to pitch for its marketing. We could have used the business but I’m happy to say we begged off, mostly for fear of being accomplice to criminal activity. But not before attending a briefing session with the client. Like I said, we needed the revenue; it was hard walking away.

I’ll never forget their presentation to us and, in particular, what the CMO called the advertising for his business: “dark marketing.” Dark marketing, he said, was advertising something that in “certain contexts” was illegal. He likened it to selling alcohol and cigarettes. Yet, in a very real way the term implied heavier baggage and bigger risks, more akin to prostitution and gun running. Honestly, any company that has to run its business “off shore” clearly has issues.

It was a creepy presentation but a titillating one. I felt dirty for having participated and yet also provoked. I knew gambling was considered a vice and a sin. But I also knew the opportunity for doing brilliant creative was high. Edginess equals awards. In the end, the inherent sleaziness of the brand, coupled with a stern caution from our legal department, caused us to bail.

Yet, this notion of dark marketing stuck with me. When it came to making a buck, or winning awards, just how far were agencies willing to go? One wonders what, if anything, will happen to these sites marketing partners. Beyond morality issues, are there consequence to dark marketing? With marijuana rapidly becoming legal and establishing brands, it seems Pandora’s Box is opening ever wider. Recently, Fan Duel and Draft Kings hired big time agencies. We’ll see the fruits of their “dark marketing” soon enough.

More controversy is sure to follow. Wanna bet?


My 50 years in Advertising, Larry Postaer

I first wrote this post when dad’s book came out a few years ago. Happy to publish it again – the least I can do for a man who’s inspired me so much…

In my father’s memoir on his career in advertising, Pickett, Plunkett & Puckett he mentions a test he had to take in order to qualify for a job as copywriter on the Sears’s catalog. In the early sixties Sear’s Roebuck (and its iconic catalog) was literally the textbook for retailing in the United States. Called the “Wish book,” anything and everything could be found in the Sear’s catalog (even houses!) and it was a staple in every home, kind of the Amazon of its day.

Yet, the job was hardly glamorous and wasn’t supposed to be. Sears Roebuck was about as old school as it got: dress codes, pneumatic tubes, and a cafeteria.

All his pages detailing the inner workings of Sear’s marketing department are fascinating but, for me, it was the test he took to get hired that stands out. Anachronistic now, back in the day, psychological profiling was used at companies all over America to determine whether an applicant was the “right fit” for the job and company. Back then folks entered into a career hoping –nay expecting- to work at a given firm the rest of their lives. The companies’ wanted that too and so standardized tests, however futile, were developed to insure its likelihood.

The “Wish Book.” You know you want it!

My father singles out one question from the test: Would you rather write the play, star in the play, or sell tickets to the play? My father rightly guesses they are not looking for big creative egos at Sears and answers “sell the tickets.” However, like any writer, what he really would like to do is write the play. These days, I’m guessing that’s what every aspiring writer would like to do. Honestly, the way things are now, I’m betting quite a few young creatives would just assume star in at as well.

It’s easy making fun of this archaic test, so corny and out of touch. But the question is pretty damn interesting when you think about it, as I have. From day one copywriters have wrestled with their urges to be creative versus their mandate to sell. Even now the challenge is still a major aspect of the job. Whether one works at a conservative shop or some rogue boutique, all on staff struggle with it. The lame rejoinder “Well, you gotta do both” is generally where everyone nets out. Sears had no such dilemma, which makes my father’s anecdote provocative nostalgia.

My father writes he faired poorly on the test but got the job anyway. As I said, the stories around this are fascinating and, like many others in the book, well worth reading. It’s available in paperback or on kindle, via Amazon.

The Sears Catalog stopped printing in 1993. Today, the company struggles to remain relevant.


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