Those of us in the creative department have asked the question so many times it has become rote. The best answer is not an answer. Clients are difficult. Period. Especially when it comes to approving work. Therefore, we expect our work to be criticized. Revisions and changes are baked into the scope. It is assumed there will be rounds of creative. We are told that if we were in our client’s shoes we’d do the same thing.

But you know what? That’s bullshit. I am far from perfect but I am usually an accepting, flexible and even grateful client. When I hire someone to do a creative job –say an architect- I never give him or her the kind of scrutiny that is always given to new marketing campaigns. For example, a contractor shows me some designs for a room addition. I tell him which one I like, we discuss time and money, and I pay the man. Once in a while I have questions or a change is required. We address it in real time, during construction. We move forward. Even when it’s my money and my house I am seldom a hard ass.

Chances are you’re the same way.

So, why are advertising clients so freaking difficult? Why all the concerns, tweaks and rejections? I think the answer is fear. CMO’s and their get are terrified (sometimes understandably) of losing their jobs. Often my counterparts at the agency feel the same way. Every tree we plant must bear fruit. Or else!

Yet, endlessly hacking at the unplanted tree virtually guarantees a fruitless outcome. Death by a thousand cuts is no different than doing nothing at all. After months of revisions, the concept either dies in a meeting or, produced, it has been so severely compromised as to be ineffective in the marketplace. Everyone gets fired anyway. Another CMO comes in. Another agency. The process begins all over again. This is the definition of insanity.

Creating campaigns is thrilling. Yet, their yield potential is and always will be unknown. Hence the thrill. ROI is as possible as it is not. No one can be sure how an audience will react to an idea until the thing is out there. What makes a client nervous might very well be what makes the idea truly great. We all know the story behind the world’s greatest advertisement, Apple’s 1984. When it was screened to dealers everyone except its creators hated it. The agency, Chiat Day was told to fire-sell the media, which happened to be two slots on the Super Bowl. One insertion never sold. So the spot ran. The rest is history. The follow-up commercial, Lemmings was a failure. Still, was Apple really hurt by it? No. Being reckless and cavalier has never hurt the brand. Frankly, Apple could stand more bravery.

It’s 2018. Why is everyone still afraid of new creative? If a concept doesn’t work merely try something else. The “brand” will be fine. Belaboring over the blueprint is an old idea. And a bad one. The digital age is about iterating. Swipe right. These days, fear and inertia are scarier than any new idea.

Author’s Note: A version of this article ran last week in Reel Chicago On that note, I am available for select writing projects.  Love to help. Let’s talk.

Even the stars are dim.

In the absence of new briefs most ad agencies flounder. Having not planned for drought (we never do), the lack of organic growth or new business is almost always painful. Unfortunately, we are seemingly incapable of healing our own wounds. And bullish to a fault, we never see them coming. It’s not a good formula. But we’re smart, right? We can sell sand in the desert. So why is it we only know what we’re doing when we have something to do?

I’ll start by looking in the mirror.

For all our advertising awards, and the big salaries that go with them, most hotshot creatives have no clue how to help the agency out. Suddenly, the idea people are bereft of ideas. We bitch and point fingers. Our humor grows dark. Instead of working (on what?) we surf the net forwarding racy videos to one another. When that grows old, we update our portfolios.

And account people sans accounts are just as clueless. Fred has been milking the same cow so long he doesn’t know how to do anything else. He’s frustrated at Betsey when her milk runs dry. Dumb fucking animal! But just below the surface he blames his agency. They didn’t give him what he needed to take care of the cow. And it’s not like he didn’t ask them and warn them. Deeper down Fred blames himself. It’s his account for Christ’s sake. He could have done more or done differently. And now it’s too late. Instead of thinking what he might do for the agency to make up for the shortfall, Fred runs to his office and updates his Linkedin account. After all, he thinks, “they don’t pay me to make rain.” Wonder why?

Who’s “they” and “them” anyway? It’s your agency. Here’s an idea: Why not get together and try to figure out ways to help out the firm? In over 20 years working in numerous creative departments, I’ve never seen that happen. Not once. Which makes me just as culpable. What excuses did I make? That they didn’t pay me enough? That they wouldn’t listen to me anyway?

And so it goes during dry spells. From top to bottom, agencies fall apart. There are many reasons for this. One big one might be that ad agencies are not built for anything but growth. Holding companies demand profits that might otherwise be allocated to prudent reserves. Somewhat irresponsible for agencies during good times, it can be downright fatal during bad. When the hallway chatter turns to ‘cuts’ everyone becomes a headless chicken, both in courage and intelligence. Yet, even if privately owned companies endure hard times longer and/or plan for them better, I can’t help feeling there’s more we all could do to mitigate the problem.

I’m in my own little dry spell right now, but if/when I get my next job I’m vowing to initiate planning for tough times. Maybe it’s a think tank wherein the agency’s best and brightest brainstorm ideas. Maybe it’s a redo on the website. Unfortunately, fear cripples planning right when one needs it the most. Management tends to hunker down, invariably settling on cuts. And why weren’t contingency plans created during flush periods anyway? It’s a cyclical industry; tough times befall all agencies. There has to be a better way for us to handle them.

“I just know your red nose will help me navigate social media.”

Last weekend I read yet another article featuring a chief marketing officer bemoaning his advertising agency for being out of touch with new media. Here is Part II of my response…

For the entire twentieth century brands endeavored to grow by alleging they bring people together. Indeed, connectivity has long been the uber-strategy of so many of our biggest clients: CPG, QSR, Telco, beverages and spirits, the list goes on; you name a brand and I’ll show you a connectivity strategy. The Holy Grail was to create an obsession around brands. A cult. Nike, Coke, McDonalds, Apple and so many others claim –often rightfully- to have done just that. And they’ve done so with our help.

But client’s now bellow (sometimes at us): “We need to be part of the conversation. We need to engage people!” Clueless about these new paradigms, the much-educated CMO is frustrated. He clamors for relevance like a drowning man over a life preserver. He wants “likes” and “fans” and “followers.” In some respects advertisers are dogs chasing their tails. The faster they run the more frustrating things get. Agencies become their scapegoats. But isn’t that like blaming the pusher because the drugs don’t work?

“Make me relevant!”

Besides, whenever we created something new and different you called it “edgy” and “hard core.” We’re not selling skateboards to skinheads, you said. Guess what? We cut our shit with vanilla because you make us. But now the world is upside down. Everyone is praying to new and different Gods. Indeed, the new, new thing is the only thing. And guess what? Your best chance at getting religion is with us misfits in the creative department.

While we’ve all got a lot to learn, the ad industry began digging into new media before most industries. Likely including yours. That makes us the closest thing to experts your money can buy. Welcome to the Island of Misfit Toys. I suggest you stop making fun of the red nose.

“Make me relevant!”

Over the weekend I read yet another article featuring a chief marketing officer bemoaning his advertising agency for (among other things) being out of touch with new media. This is for him, recompense in two parts. It’s all in good fun…

We all know the last few years have seen advertising agencies universally scrambling to figure out and monetize social media. Some are doing it better than others but all of us are feeling the heat. Adland wants to master social networks so we can sell that mastery to our clients. No big secret, right? The diminishing role of mass media, as a source of revenue needs to be replaced and social media is that new well. Maybe I’m overstating the issue or understating it. Either way, we agency folks are feeling the heat.

Yet, what if it’s actually advertisers who are most threatened by social media? What if clients are the ones truly freaking out? Not us. Them. Think about it. Clients are the ones who got advanced degrees in marketing, learning a ton of stuff that no longer has value. (Did it ever?) I don’t know about you but I got a liberal arts education. I took writing and psychology courses. Wrote a screenplay for credits. Hell, I only took one ad class and it was pass/fail.

The average CMO spent 8 years in college(s) learning stuff that seemingly no longer applies. No wonder they’re scared of new media. They didn’t take that class or anything like it. Maybe now they do but not then. If anything, such courses evolved out of communication arts, not business or marketing curriculum. Chances are, then, we artists and writers got the leg up. We were already learning how to communicate via film, design, poetry and prose. New media was merely an extension of that, albeit a significant one.

And they, with their popped collars and backward baseball caps, laughed at us. “What kind of job do you expect to get with that,” they sneered.

“One day you’ll be working for us!”

And what about the kids who studied computers, anthropology and psychology, all those courses no self-respecting Master of the Universe would ever enroll in? Those wimps, as much as anyone, understand human behavior and therefore the true promise of social media. They know it’s not a tool with an instruction book. They know you don’t need a master’s degree to master social media.

According to Wikipedia, Mark Zuckerberg studied Latin and enjoyed dicking around on the computer. In other words he was an odd duck who didn’t quite fit in, especially at Harvard. That is until he invented Facebook. I haven’t seen the new film, The Social Network but I’m guessing it’s a lot like Revenge of the Nerds. How sweet it is to think, nay know, that it is we, the curious legions of liberal arts majors and rogue bohemians, who understand social media and intuitively grasp its mechanism. For us it is just more of what we already know and like.

Zuckerberg: Revenge of the nerd!

So why do clients belittle us, decrying our ineptitude at bringing them solutions, even when we do? Next up, a closer look at social media in Adland, before and after.

I attended my first RACIE AWARDS, as part of the Retail Advertising and Marketing Association (RAMA) conference in San Francisco.

For those unawares, here’s the dope on RAMA:

The Retail Advertising Marketing Association (RAMA), a division of the National Retail Federation, provides unique networking opportunities, industry research and educational programming for retail advertising and marketing professionals.

The RACIES take place amidst two days of presentations and round-tables, featuring key players in the marketing world. I attended several sessions and, not surprisingly, the buzz was all about social media. But this post is about the awards show.

In many ways, the RACIES are like every other advertising awards show. It celebrates creative excellence and effectiveness in all marketing channels: TV, print, outdoor, digital, etc. But here’s the kicker, and it’s what I want to focus on: The vast majority of my peers in the creative community could care less. The RACIES are considered a tier 3 awards show, if they are considered at all. Even the EFFIES get more play. In fact, I was one of the few agency creative directors in attendance.

Why? For one thing, there are plenty of award shows. Perhaps the RACIES are viewed as an interloper. The name sure sucks. But I’m suggesting there’s more to it than that. Like a lot of biases, ours is probably based on certain preconceived notions developed over time. The creative community has their pets. We worship at the altar of Cannes Gold Lions, Andy Heads and One Show Pencils, to name a few. Specialty shows like the Obies (outdoor) and Kelly Awards (print) also hold serve. And rightly so. All controversies aside, these shows generally feature the best work being done in our industry. They are counted in the infamous Gunn Report.

The RACIES aren’t there yet. From what I saw, the winning work was a mixed bag of genius and not so much, and it appeared to come from only a handful of agencies. For example, all the radio finalists were from DeVito Verdi in New York. A fine shop, to be sure, but I got the impression the only one of consequence entering work in this difficult category.

If the RACIES are dubiously viewed and attended by the creative community the opposite is true regarding attendance from heavy breathers on the client side. By their own admission, “RAMA’s Board of Directors is comprised of more than 50 industry CMOs, partners and supporters.” And guess what? They were all there, along with brand managers and account directors, too many to name.

Forgive the cliché, but finding CMO’s at the RACIES was like shooting fish in a barrel. I was giddy at the prospect of meeting and greeting so many potential “patrons.” And with nary a creative director in the room, it was like I had them to myself. In fact, I managed several terrific conversations with men and woman who, if the Gods of Advertising be willing, might some day be my clients. Contrast that with the other more “popular” award shows; where everyone I meet is just like me: a copywriter, art director and/or creative director. Nothing wrong with those, but I can’t deny the thrill of talking with potential clients versus my competition.

Creative people bitch about being insulated from client contact and kept away from decision makers. Yet, here’s a venue where all that existed, replete with an awards show, and only a smattering of advertising creative people anywhere to be found.

We’re missing out, folks. And part of the reason is our own hubris. We –the advertising creative community- think we’re too good for shows like the RACIES. (Yes, I am speaking for all of us.) Perhaps we need to let go of some old, snobby ideas. The One Show is great for finding inspiration and talent. But clients don’t go, nor do they read the annual. Given a choice, wouldn’t you like to compete and win in front of over 50 CMO’s as opposed to just your peers?

I know I would.

Yes, Cannes is finally attracting key players from the client side. But not the other award shows. Not really. Besides, for most agencies, North America is our prime hunting grounds. Don’t take this wrong, but maybe we should be in front of the fish and not crawling up our own asses.

For the record, my agency, Euro RSCG Chicago won three awards at the RACIES: a bronze for Valspar paint, a silver for Pivot Boutique, and a Gold for Potbelly. For all the winners and more information, click on the following links:


RAMA Website

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