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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 

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Copywriting is not about the print ad anymore and hasn’t been for some time. But that doesn’t make the skill set any less important. You don’t have a website without words; try building a wire without them.

Providing clever, provocative and powerful copy to web designers and the like is critical. For many copywriters, feeding them content that inspires their work is the job. Just as art directors and designers have had to evolve so have writers. When the dust cleared from these early transitions both writers and art directors realized that what they do is essentially the same. New media still uses words and pictures. Creating a “look and feel” for this website or that social campaign has new obligations but the fundamentals are the same.

For example, I’m asked to help create a website for a B2B start up. The first thing we need is an “organizing principle” or key idea that drives the whole thing. This means a strategy line and a creative line – just like it does for any mass media campaign. Without it, you’re flying blind.

In a sense then the landing page functions as your “anthem” or “mantra.” Clients need, want and demand this asset the same as they did 25 years ago. So we write it. I present these to my clients much like I did in the beginning, when I was creating brand campaigns at Leo Burnett. Poetry and power had better be there.

Subsequently, each page of a website operates like a print ad, with a killer headline and precise and compelling copy. Every vertical needs an “ad” that wholly demonstrates its unique offering while at the same time adhering to the covenants of the organizing principle.

The email campaign directing targeted customers to the website is not much different than your classic teaser campaign. When we make advertising it is still advertising, be it online or off. And it damn well better be magical.

The lesson for clients and agencies alike is not to forsake the core skills of writing and designing in a chase for so-called digital natives. If they are mediocre designers or write like they text the output will suck. Don’t go there. Look for brilliant writers and art directors. The modern world is not an excuse for creating superficial tactics.

For magical copywriting and creative direction, no matter what: https://steffanwork.wordpress.com/

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Good boy!

Sigh. One of the tough things about working at a relatively young agency with a B2B/technology pedigree is the persistent opinion that such a group is not capable of creating big ideas at the brand level. It has been a fairly high hurdle in our quest for new business. Recently we did not make the cut with a client we coveted because they felt we were experts in a different part of the “funnel.”

We are that… but we are so much more. My company is filled with expert thinkers and creators from the general side who’ve migrated into B2B precisely because we know businesses (big and small) need and want to communicate and sell to each other as human beings. Our mission is not only accommodating them, by creating “humanly relevant” work, but to excel at it.

Once the big idea is hatched we know how to deliver campaigns up and down the funnel, including digital and demand gen. I think that makes us, and other like-minded agencies, perfectly poised to address the needs of any and all comers in the modern world.

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Thar she blows…

Like many of you reading this, and certainly the majority of my colleagues, I was trained to find the “organizing principle” or “creative business idea” for each and every entity clamoring for one. Not only is our process for doing so honed in best practices I believe it to be as good as any I’ve ever divined upon. Most who experience it come away with the same opinion.

If only we are given the chance.

I “grew up” at Leo Burnett as well as worked at DDB and Havas. In my long career I’ve been a part of creating countless ‘big’ ideas for many clients, including Altoids, Heinz, McDonalds and Anheuser Busch, to name a few. I had two spots run on the Superbowl. Won four Lions at Cannes, two of them Gold. I learned from the best. For my second act I began developing campaigns for ecommerce, software manufacturers, electronics and data driven organizations. In fact, I helped Leo Burnett develop its B2B/Technology capability, co-founding an agency within that venerable agency, called LBWorks.

At gyro, many clients appreciate our hybrid approach and other agencies are definitely on to it. They know the future is more about software and data than, say, selling canned peaches on television. That is one reason why holding companies have been buying and merging with digital agencies, social media specialists and, yes, hybrid shops like ours. But teaching old dogs new tricks is tough. Holding company agencies hold on to old ideas.

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Be careful what you wish for…

Though few big agencies will admit it, even today they struggle. Caste systems form internally, struggling for ownership of the client relationship as well as where the ideas come from. Sometimes even what those ideas look like are a puzzle. I’ve seen it. And so have many of you.

My agency began in the new economy. Many of us acclimated to this new way of thinking along with it. The only old idea I/we hold onto is that the big idea is paramount. That we have a history of executing tactics in tricky spaces should be seen as a bonus.

Time will tell, right? But it can be frustrating when you fervently believe, as I do, that now is our time!

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Been there, doing that!

In 2001, I became Chief Creative Office of an agency within Leo Burnett, which we called LBWorks. Our emphasis was on B2B and technology clients. At the time I had trepidations about leaving the world of consumer advertising for the new and intimidating frontiers of high tech marketing. I worried that I wouldn’t understand the client’s businesses let alone their communications. But I had been part of Burnett’s new business machine in the late 90’s and pitched a bunch of dot coms. Therefore, willing or not, I was the right guy for helping my famous agency build out their B2B and technology capabilities.

My biggest fear, however, was about doing good work in a space dominated by technical jargon and business cliché’s. Selfishly, I was afraid of becoming irrelevant, especially in the context of my consumer-focused advertising peers.

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Vintage swag from LBWorks…

I soon discovered most of my fears unfounded. To this day, what we accomplished at LBWorks remains among my proudest achievements, surpassing even that of helping create the “Curiously Strong Mints” campaign for Altoids. For all its potential creative limitations, working with truly contemporary clients was a rush, and is one that still has not abated.

Currently, I am the Executive Creative director at gyro (the “g” is small) in San Francisco. Here, we specialize in technology clients that market to information architects, developers and CIO’s, most of them in Silicon Valley.

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Just last week my job took me to Cisco’s sprawling campus in San Jose, where we showed them a new campaign. In the last year I’ve visited Twitter, Google, PayPal and CA technologies (formerly Computer Associates). Those are pretty big names. I’ve also created and presented work to myriad smaller but no less interesting companies like Cloudera and Turn. These businesses merchandise in Big Data, the Cloud, software and algorithmic solutions.

Gyro’s vision is to create marketing for these future forward companies free from engineering-speak and tired tropes; to do work that, as we like to say, is more “humanly relevant.” It’s not an easy sell but it is possible. Moreover, it is becoming deeply necessary. The world has feverishly embraced technology. It is no longer just scientists talking to engineers. People at these companies are people we know. They need to be marketed to as such. At gyro, we feel we are ahead of the curve.

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Or you can sell this crap…

it’s amusing (though not surprising) how many of my peers still consider consumer advertising the zenith. The companies I work for are changing the world. Right here. Right now. Consumer products like fast food, cars and packaged goods haven’t changed much in a century. If anything, they are old-fashioned, even out of touch with our changing world. I’m not denying that it’s easier to do great work for many of these clients. But they are hardly the end-all-be-all when it comes to relevance. In some respects, they are anything but.

Apples to apples…

Though it can sometimes be frustrating, one of the interesting things about working on technology companies (especially those that advertise to other companies) is the relative interchangeability of creative solutions. Since so many tech clients offer similar services and products it stands to reason they share marketing strategies as well. An offshoot to all this is that our ideas for them can have another audition, even if not chosen by the intended client. When I tell a creative person (jilted because his or her concept wasn’t chosen) not to worry we’ll use the idea sooner or later I’m not bullshitting. We likely will.

So many of these million and billion dollar companies handle “Big Data,” providing analytics, storage and protection software. It’s stuff you can’t see. It’s hard to explain. That’s why so many agencies specializing in B2B treat these clients to the same old clichés and incomprehensible jargon. Everything is a “solution.”

Um, I’ll get my “solution” somewhere else…

It’s like robots talking to robots. Thankfully, humanly relevant ideas do exist for such entities and it’s my pleasure to go after them. With necessary tweaking, good ideas can translate from client to client.

When I worked on consumer products at Leo Burnett, the possibility of repurposing unused creative ideas was not unknown. Certain categories necessarily had shared strategies. Take breakfast cereal, a segment I worked on for several years. So many brands went after consumers with the same bait. There was “nutritious but delicious” and it’s fraternal twin, “delicious but nutritious.” What’s the difference? Not much. It was a question of nuance. One campaign might feature dieters astounded by a good-for-you cereal’s great taste. The other strategy had folks devouring a cereal unaware of its nutritional value, which the voice over then delightfully whispered to us. While not a creative treasure trove, we were at least able to take what good ideas we had and try them over and over again.

The great difference with B2B/tech clients is that they haven’t been treated to good ideas before. The creative mine is largely untapped. With an open mind and practiced skill, truly great work is easily discovered. That’s been my experience anyway, first at LBWorks (a B2B/technology agency I helped create at Leo Burnett) and now at gyro, San Francisco.

For every new brief at gyro we develop at least five excellent campaigns. That means four concepts remain for the next lucky customer, plus the new ones we invariably develop. It’s another gold rush in San Francisco! If one prefers a more timely reference, think of it as recycling. We are a “green” agency. I like that.