Not in front of the kids!

Have you seen this latest TV commercial from the Clinton campaign deriding Donald Trump? As far as political advertisements go, it’s pretty tight. Well produced anyway. The execution unfolds with scenes of Donald Trump laying some of his most well-known verbal turds: mocking the handicapped. Disparaging Mexicans. Et-cetera.

However, showing the world DT’s gross behavior is nothing new. And, oh by the way, it doesn’t work. At least it hasn’t so far. After all, the DNC tried such tactics during the primaries and it only seemed to strengthen his position as the potential Republican nominee. He, of course, would later win the bid in a landslide.

So, what’s different about this particular salvo? Well, now there are children watching Donald Trump say all these crude and stupid things. The theory being, obviously, that if we weren’t ashamed of Donald Trump before we should reconsider knowing that “our children are watching us” and waiting to see which candidate we choose to be President. Will it be the racist buffoon or (shown here in the least screeching way possible) an almost matriarchal Hillary Clinton?

Does the ad work? Well, first of all, it need only do so on the undecided. Getting the previously shameless to feel otherwise for the sake of “the children” is a wobbly argument. Plus, children have always been used as pawns during political debate. In its own way the tactic is shameful.

That all said, the spot works on me. It reinforces my belief that the devil I know (Clinton) is better than someone incapable of making it through a speech, interview or conversation without shitting on himself and countless others. The possibility of a Trump Presidency makes the otherwise depressing scenario of “business as usual” seem like the only sane option.

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“You’re in the great game now…”

Adweek published a story asking the big winners at Cannes 2016 what their “secrets to success” were. You could read the article here or just stay with me and I’ll tell you how to win at Cannes. Forget analysis and trendspotting. Don’t be mystified by all the never-ending categories either. Winning at Cannes has more or less relied on the same formula for years.

First and foremost, do great work. Then get it seen and talked about. This one-two punch, by the way, is the same formula for ANY awards show.

Ideally, at least some of your great work should be real. Real means it went through the gauntlet known as your client (not to mention your agency’s often debilitating process) was brilliantly produced, ran in genuine media, and received boffo results.

Enter the shit out of it.

But, dear friends, you know as well as I do, that it doesn’t end there.

Long ago intrepid creatives learned how to game the system. At first simple cheating, what this looks like now is far more, shall we say, ornate. Boiled down it means mimicking the legitimate. Something like this: Create gorgeous work, share it with select others internally, maybe have a friendly client smile at it wistfully, then run it on your own dime somewhere cost efficient or, even free, like posters at the local coffee shop or via some innocuous website. Take a bunch of pictures of it “in situation,” make a case study video and voila: you have award show bait!

Enter the shit out of it.

Professional winners have huge budgets for entering shows and a complicit team doing it. Mixing in fake campaigns with real creates a juggernaut that is hard to untangle. A few real pieces win; a few scams. Who knows which is which? Who cares – the agency clearly does good work.

Be part of a network that knows all the ins and outs. Networks have a regular, sustained presence and they will massage the process to help you win. Networks know people in high places. Networks get judges into shows. Networks have wags who do interviews, predictions and the like i.e. Global Creative Directors. Networks do PR. Networks spend money.

Gaming the system has become the system. Varying degrees of corruption are tolerated for the greater good. A few unfortunates get caught and thrown to the –ahem- lions. The rest is the rest. If it looks like a winner and comes from a winner then, by golly, it is a winner!

The agencies that won the most at Cannes do all of the above, legitimately and otherwise. Been this way for years.

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A few 24 hours ago, I had the pleasure of conversing with Alex Bogusky before he became a demi-God of Advertising. We were at a vendor-sponsored pool party in Cannes. However unlikely as it seems, both of us were not really digging the scene. He seemed to prefer a quiet discussion versus living it up in the shallow end. I was perhaps more torn on the issue but also more than happy to oblige him.

For the record, later that week, Alex and his namesake agency would win handfuls of Lions, including the Grand Prix for a charming spot from Ikea called “Lamp.” Crispin Porter & Bogusky were in the middle of an epic run making them perhaps the most famous ad agency on earth.

But Alex wasn’t interested in talking about prizes.

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Alex Bogusky, from that period…

Like a lot of executive creative directors (myself included), he’d come to Cannes simply because he could. However, he now admitted to being unsettled by the attention he and his agency were getting. He confessed that this would likely being his last time at Cannes. “Steff,” he said, “we’ve got plenty of swimming pools in Miami.” (This was before CP&B moved its home office to Boulder, CO.) Then he added, “I find that I like doing work more than celebrating it.”

I’m paraphrasing from memory but this was my favorite bit. Ironic commentary coming from the man who would later write “Hoopla” (a book about fame in marketing), not to mention win more Lions than probably any other person or agency in the United States.

Yet, to me, Bogusky’s ambivalence about all of it seemed indicative of a higher power beginning to work in his life: that making work, really good work, was more important than drinking champagne and toasting about it. Bigger picture Alex was also discovering the persistent headache and clash of conscience that hedonism invoked.Lessons I would learn the hard way.

Later that year, Alex resigned from his agency to pursue other interests.

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 27:  (L-R) Guest, internet influencers Brittenelle Fredericks, Sara Dinkin, and musician Garrett Borns of BORNS attend Discover Los Angeles' "Get Lost" Pop-Up Concert at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA on April 27, 2016 in West Hollywood, California.  (Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board )

LOS ANGELES, CA – APRIL 27: (L-R) Guest, internet influencers Brittenelle Fredericks, Sara Dinkin, and musician Garrett Borns of BORNS attend Discover Los Angeles’ “Get Lost” Pop-Up Concert at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA on April 27, 2016 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board )

Buh-Bye, your services are no longer required.

Part of the reason I dig this story from Gawker is that it did NOT appear in a marketing trade publication. Not that Gawker has more integrity than Adweek or AdAge (it has less, frankly) but it IS a consumer-facing property and a popular one at that. Therefore, the story has more cultural currency.

What I really love about this story is that it calls bullshit on the idea that anyone with a few thousand followers on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter can be considered an “influencer” and worth paying money to. The practice of paying slews of d-bags thousands of dollars to “interact” with one product or another to “influence” buyers (in lieu of actually using creative ideas) has finally jumped its own self-made shark of stupidity. (In my opinion, it happened several years ago, when some fashion brand paid a Kardashian six figures for one God-forsaken Tweet.)

Paying celebs to endorse products is hardly a new concept. On the contrary, it may be the oldest trick in marketing. But the frenzy of chasing fabulous nobodies to capture the culture just reeks of laziness and stupidity. Why pay for creativity or thinking of any kind? Let’s just book a handful of Whoevers.

Read this quote from a social media strategist:

“I remember I once did a speaking thing to a school of young social media people, and they asked, “How do I become an influencer?” So I asked them what they were good at. And they said, “Nothing.”

As a father of young teenage girls, I am aghast by such vapidity and entitlement. Moreover, I want my kids to be as well. We’ll see. With scores of somewhat attractive, nominally talented young people appearing on too many reality shows to count, it’s easy to see how the easy way to fame and fortune took root. So, I’m delighted a controversial and popular site like Gawker is calling bullshit on one aspect of it. Having big boobs and tattoos is not a talent. So-called “influencers” should be skilled at whatever it is they’re fronting for.

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Looking for my next gig, I have visited a fair number of agencies. Typically, I meet with people representing the management team. It’s a bit of a gauntlet. In that context, one expects a positive attitude throughout, from both the interviewee and the interviewer(s). However, that is not always the case. At one agency, a number of the folks I’d met were pretty down on their company and told me so. There were politics. There was unfairness. Dead weight permeated the company. One interviewer asked: “Steffan, do you know what you’re getting yourself into?”

Sadly. Yes.

Despite the awkward frankness (exceptional in those circumstances), complaining is common in Adland. Granted, usually not as part of a first impression but typical nevertheless. It’s not a good look. Seldom is it useful. Startled, I told one of my complainers a parable, the best thing I could think of to say at the time. Here is part of it:

Every day a group of men set out to forage in the desert by their village. They ventured far in order to get to the forest and its abundance of resources. At the half way point of their journey was a lone, large tree in which they took a break to rest and eat lunch. “A shame this tree,” one man said. “It has no fruit for eating.” The others agreed. “And its wood isn’t suitable for building either…”

And so on they complained. What the complainers failed to realize was the great benefit the tree provided. In fact, the old tree was a refuge. Seemingly barren, it provided shelter from the noonday sun without which their journey would have been infinitely more treacherous. This critical benefit was lost on the men. As was the unity this resting place fostered among the travelers. All was taken for granted to spite the obvious.

I recall a company meeting at a previous place of employment, a long time ago. We’d had a tough year. Morale was low. The employees were skeptical about their agency’s future. Many used the setting as a forum to voice their complaints: Management was inept, they cried. Our clients are bound to mediocrity. Woe is us!

During my turn to speak I told the story about the old tree. Our agency was beleaguered but I wanted us to appreciate all that we had: jobs, community and a place to voice our grievances freely and without fear of reparations.

In some respect I was talking to myself. Though I harbored many of my fellow’s misgivings I wanted healing words. Not apathetic ones. We’d had plenty of those already. Change was needed. And change would come. But on that day I needed gratitude. We all did. I worked for one of the greatest advertising agencies in the world. It had been hobbled but it was still there. Despite our weakened position, so were we.

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