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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

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Altoids, circa 1997

I wrote the above copy for Altoids in 1997. A year or so before, Mark Faulkner (art director) and I created the “Curiously Strong Mints” campaign for Altoids. The two of us would run this creatively driven account for about 7 years, producing myriad posters, print, ambient and digital pieces.

The campaign exploded into popular culture. Sales boomed. Within a couple years, Altoids became the number one selling mint in North America. Later, in a parlay with Life Savers candy, Kraft sold the brand to Wrigley for over 1.5 billion dollars. Pretty sweet, especially for a confection that wallowed in obscurity for over a century.

Those ads were game changers: for the client, for the agency, and thankfully for yours truly. Mark and I (plus a growing and talented team) would go on to win tons of creative awards for our work, including, in 1997, the $100,000 Grand Kelly Award for best print campaign in North America. Which, fortuitously, brings us back to the above execution: “Makes Other Mints Feel Inadequate.”

Imagine my surprise discovering it in the latest issue of People magazine! Holy crap. After all these years and all that history, they’re rerunning our ad. The headline. The typography. The color scheme. Save for a different (and in my opinion) crappier looking tin, it’s the same exact ad.

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I’m baaaaaack… as seen in People, May 2013

Big deal? Well, sort of. For whatever reasons, rerunning old advertising is unprecedented. Creative has a super short lifespan. Like cicadas, campaigns appear, create buzz, and then die. Precious few last longer than their first flight. Once gone, even the most successful ad campaigns stay that way. Yes, taglines or other assets get resurrected all the time. But never the ad itself.

Until this one.

What can I say? Of course I’m flattered. But seeing my ad after all these years is also discombobulating. Like running into your ex and her new beau. Altoids was and is so personal to me. I still remember pitching the above headline to my client. In fact, I recall telling them Altoids’ smart and cynical audience would appreciate a quirky word like “inadequate.” The subtle innuendo was highly intended. (As the brand grew, its widening audience would appreciate much sillier copy. But my favorite pieces always remained true to that “smart and cynical” core.)

So, having perhaps lost its way, is Altoids’ advertising returning to its base? Literally. Look, I don’t blame agency and client for rerunning our copy. There’s a whole new generation of “smart and cynical” out there. It’ll be new to them.

Special note: I discovered a website devoted entirely to Altoids advertising. In it, you’ll find “Inadequate” along with all the others, far as I can tell, pretty much in the order we produced them. I have no idea who hosts this site or why. Pretty cool, though.

Putting my ego in its place…

In preparation for my family’s move from Chicago to San Francisco, I threw out six boxes of advertising awards I’d amassed during my 20+ years in the business. Among the discards were countless certificates of merit and honorable mentions. Basically booby prizes. I was tempted to keep my first place trophies and Best-in-Shows but for the most part even those I chucked. Made of metal, they lasted ten minutes in the alley before the garbage pickers got them. They took the framed certificates, too, no doubt for the generic black frames. Zero chance some local picker will have use for a 1997 merit award from the Chicago Addy’s. On the other hand those bronze and silver One Show Pencils weigh a ton. Scrap prices are sky high these days. I wonder how many cents each of them netted at the smelter, or wherever it is metal gets bought.

A pair of old-school, badass Lions

I did keep my first two Cannes Lions, a gold and bronze awarded for a TV campaign I wrote on behalf of Heinz Ketchup. The gold was for a spot featuring a teen-aged Matt LeBlanc (Joey from Friends). It’s shown from time to time on nostalgic TV specials. A grainy version can be seen HERE. Back then there were far less categories at Cannes. And broadcast was the king. Ergo, I’m keeping my kitties.

I also kept three Andy Awards and two Clio statues, mostly because they look cool, as well as the Kelly Award given to me by the Magazine Publishers of America for best print campaign in North America: for Altoids. With only one winner, the Kelly was once highly coveted. I should mention it came with a check for $100,000 dollars. Ah, the days when magazine publishers were flush! Win a Kelly now you get a handshake and a photo in Adweek.

Whatever.

Advertising awards seemed so important then. I kept every certificate of merit, every clipping in AdAge. Oh, how I coveted those accolades! I was like a Roman conqueror collecting statues. I was a God of Advertising! Now, as I look upon the heap of paper, plastic and metal in my alley I feel anything but.

Author’s note: I realize this post probably qualifies as a humblebrag, which, according to the Urban Dictionary is where “one, usually consciously, tries to get away with bragging by couching it in a phony show of humility.” I’m pleading ‘No Contest.’

Last week, I had the pleasure and privilege of addressing the Federation of European Publicity Exterior (FEPE) on out of home (OOH) marketing. In case you couldn’t tell from their name, FEPE is the association for outdoor advertising in Europe. It is because of my lengthy experience with Altoids, and the resulting affiliation with the Outdoor Advertising Association of America (OAAA), that I found myself in Spain. I am passionate about outdoor advertising. Unlike the other mass media, I feel OOH is becoming more relevant in the 21st century, not less. And not just because of the obvious reasons, i.e. innovative technology and synergies with mobile. Below is a bit from my discussion, which I hope you find interesting. Bear in mind it was excerpted from an oral presentation. I was pointing to pictures while I spoke and I can’t include all of them here.

Along with social media, the new, new thing in outdoor advertising has been the explosion of digital technology. DOOH media spending will increase almost 60% from 2009 projections to 2013. We’ve all seen creative examples, tons of them already at this convention. Digital innovation has reinvented the medium. Yet, rather than feature more of these in my presentation, let’s look instead at some seemingly low-tech executions that, in my view, are as modern as anything out there.


Live roaches in plexi-glass!


Making the Chicago river Shamrock Shake green…

With these example we see the real power of outdoor advertising: an ages-old ability to generate ideas without QR codes, new technology or even electricity. Because of its old-fashioned pedigree, I think many of us try way too hard to prove how contemporary outdoor advertising is. We hasten to pimp the newest technology, arguing that it makes OOH competitive with all the other screens out there.

In the 70’s, digital watches were all the rage. So sleek, modern and cool, we all had to have one! And then we didn’t. We quickly rediscovered the timeless beauty of time. Now digital watches are just a curiosity. The ultimate irony: they are nostalgic!


Digital: far out and groovy!

I’m not suggesting digital formats are trite. Far from it. Its possibilities are endless and evolving. I’m just suggesting there’s something to be said for the old school as well. after all, the first sign one sees driving into Las Vegas says what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas as well as anything in the 21st century, maybe even more so.

I bracketed the above portion of my presentation with sections about signage, propaganda and popular culture. Signs comprised the very first ads on earth and will never become obsolete. I’ve shared some of these ideas on Gods of advertising before. If you are interested in my entire presentation to FEPE, please feel free to contact me.


Outdoor ads are old as man…


Caveat Emptor, baby!

I think I was about five years into my first job as copywriter when I became self-conscious that I was manipulating the truth to better serve my clients. It didn’t stop me from doing it but at least I was aware.

Up until then, I’d been learning how. Sometimes the trick was one of omission: removing a word like it was the “wrenched ankle” in Operation! Other instances required fancier solutions. Lots fancier. That warhorse of Ad land, McCann Erickson had a great expression for the art, calling it the “Truth Well Told.”

Using words to enhance a product’s attributes is an accurate definition of copywriting. It is also a pretty good description of lying. Skilled copywriters write with motive.

There are as many examples as there are stars in the sky. The sentence you just read; that’s one. Since there is no way to quantify the amount of stars in the sky there is no way to disprove my statement. If, by chance, someone from legal were to question it, I could do any number things to keep the exaggeration intact. For example, adding the word “likely” creating the softer “likely as many.” Still too strong? Then try “probably.” And so on. Copywriters treat adverbs like fabric softener. Serious authors tend to disfavor adverbs because they mitigate a sentence’s integrity. We like them for the very same reason.

Or we can play the percentages. Let’s say you have a bullet point about a product stating it cleans up to 52% of all stains tested. That doesn’t sound so good does it? How about saying, Product X cleans over half of every stain on earth. “Over half” sounds more impressive. “On earth” evokes magnitude. It’s the same mediocre truth but now it’s just well told.

Skilled copywriters know how to create myths about products so that they enthrall consumers. Altoids aren’t just strong; they’re “curiously strong.” Mythmaking is how we help create cult like status for brands. Yet, mythos depends on an inherent strength about a product as opposed to a weakness. Therefore, it is truth-based. In most cases a good story sells a good brand: Nike, Apple, Levis, etc…

As a longtime copywriter and even longer-time human being I certainly have given this topic a lot of thought. In some respects it is the driving force of this blog. Yet, for the most part, I don’t fault advertisers or their agencies for mastering the “truth well told.” After all, I believe in caveat emptor. I don’t think the market place should be impeded from selling with motive in order to protect the naïve.

Where it can go sideways is when we take our sharpened capacity to create myths into real life. Adroitly manipulating the truth to satisfy one’s agenda at home or at work is far more controversial than putting goods and services on an unearned pedestal. When Bill Clinton told the world he “did not have sexual relations with that woman” he was technically telling the truth (they never had intercourse) but he, of course, was lying.

If we continue to tell the truth our way it becomes our truth. We lose objective reality, becoming self-serving to the extreme. That’s okay if you’re a stick of gum. Not so much if you’re a husband, father or son.