Ad = Baby

We were previewing numerous campaign ideas today at the agency, perhaps a dozen of them tacked up in the wall, comprised of the usual bits: potential tag lines, assorted copy, found images and various “ad-like objects.” Because this was the first internal round of discussion the work was still quite primitive. This meant the usual caveats (it’s not ready, it’s not right, we’re still working on it, etc.) had to be given to those seeing the work for the very first time. After all, we did not want anyone judging our earliest efforts as finished product. Though everyone in attendance was aware of the calendar, we were nevertheless compelled to stress that THIS WAS ONLY THE BEGINNING. Why? Because it is human nature to react to what you see in front of you. One would think it goes without saying but it never does. Regardless, invariably someone criticizes an ad like object as if it were an ad. Like I said: human nature. It can’t be helped.

This got me thinking about another old saw: that for creative people ideas are like babies. Painful to endure, the comparison is particularly apt when looking at incomplete work.

To avoid using clichés, a while back I prefaced another presentation of early ideas by telling my colleagues that the work was in it’s first trimester, barely more than a nucleus of an idea. The work = baby notion stuck. Think about it. A parent viewing a sonogram of his or her unborn baby isn’t going to comment on how handsome or pretty the thing is. It isn’t. The “creators” are only going to be concerned about the embryo’s validity. Is it legitimate? Is it growing properly? Will it soon turn into a normal human being? These criteria are what we want viewers of our work to consider when it, too, is in the first trimester.

“But I can’t see the logo.”

The next time parents view a sonogram they begin to see the child for what it will become, it’s vital organs, the sex, and perhaps certain features. The same applies for the second round of creative. Though today’s compressed deadlines often require having more completed “babies” than in the second go around of a nine-month gestation process, it’s still a fair comparison. Here is when we can see if there are any abnormalities that require serious intervention or, forgive my frankness, termination.

If we are fortunate enough to have a third internal viewing, this is where our babies better be in good shape and ready for delivery. Like prepping a child’s room, now is when we begin building the presentation in earnest. All the accouterments are constructed and set up to best “show off” our proud creation.

The client presentation is where we deliver the babies. God willing, they adore them as much as we do. But even then we caveat our ideas. “Remember, it’s not the real ad yet. It still has to be shot.” What’s that other cliché? Oh yeah, it’ll be beautifully lit.

Stealing from the best…

Recently, I was able to use a modest but working knowledge of art history in the formation of a creative marketing idea. How about that? Apparently, those “vanity” classes I took at the University of Wisconsin actually did come in handy. As a matter of fact, we not only used examples from the Renaissance and other important periods to inform the execution of our idea but also to help sell it. It isn’t everyday you see a Raphael or Tintoretto in a PowerPoint presentation. But you did in ours. We even used the word chiaroscuro…correctly!

Saying this was gratifying is an understatement. Especially considering the extent everyone in marketing (including me) obsesses about new media. We get so amped up on chasing or creating the “new new thing” we utterly lose sight on just how vital certain old things can be.

For centuries, paintings and illustrations were humankind’s primary visual media. Instead of clicking through myriad links and cable channels, man sought inspiration or entertainment from still images, the best of which were generally paintings. Earlier generations gazed upon frescoes in their church and if they were lucky got to see masterworks at a salon or museum. Granted, lewd and crude drawing have always pervaded popular culture but the high road was pretty damn high for those electing to take it.

Shifting gears…

What we make is so ephemeral, isn’t it? The best marketing campaigns in the world quickly fade and die, perhaps lingering as a bit of trivia. The winner at Cannes this summer will be entirely forgotten in five years. Probably sooner. Our masterpieces might be game changers within our industry, and even in popular culture, but most have no lasting value or meaning beyond selling. Few things are more irrelevant than last year’s Gunn Report.

Yet, this isn’t about the dumbing down of society. Or a hate on advertising. For one thing I’d be a hypocrite. I haven’t been to an art museum in years and the SFMOMA is ten minutes from my office. I stay up late to watch horror movies. I blog about advertising! In other words, one finds me on the low road often enough.

How fine knowing the old masters could still be relevant to the creative process, especially mine.

All righty then, let’s make ads!

A while back a guest writer on AdAge, Lauren Warner took some heat for an essay she wrote about the briefing process. Among other things, she claimed one should address “creatives on your shop’s team like they’re in kindergarten.”

Others may have been offended but the story made me smile. I recall an evening spent at my children’s school, meeting their teachers, discussing the upcoming year. During this visit, I became aware of how “creative” so much of my daughters’ curriculum really is. Colette’s science teacher explained how “experimenting and taking chances” shapes her powers of intuition. Lily’s drama teacher rhapsodized about “connecting to the inner fantastic.” She used the word “connecting” over and over again. “At this age,” she said, “the creative gene is ready to explode!”

I couldn’t help but think of all the “connecting” strategies I’ve puzzled over as a copywriter and creative director. “Connecting people” is the default strategy for all telecommunications, personal technology, and, frankly, just about everything people use in their waking lives. Connecting folks is Coca Cola’s uber-strategy. “I’d like to buy the world a coke.”

Even more interesting was this business about creativity “exploding.” I believe the teacher was saying that our creative muse is born in these opening years of life. That stimulated and nurtured, we begin to understand and respect our intuitions. Kindergarten is a creative department. Experimenting with ideas on the stage, colors on paper, sounds in music class… That’s what I do!

Or that’s what I prefer doing. Much of my day, however, is spent lawyering on behalf of ideas. Defending them. Subjecting them to all manner of worries and concerns, making them more appropriate, more coherent, more on strategy. It’s inevitable. It’s my job. But it’s also like killing the butterfly in order to appreciate it.

“Use you imagination!”

The older I get the more I realize how important it is to stay “connected” to my “inner child.” The best creative people do not grow out of it when they grow up. We remain inquisitive like children. Lovers of fun. You see it in our bicycles in the hallway. Our dubious wardrobes. Our playlists. Our silly snapshots on Facebook. Alas, you also see it in meetings, where we become pouting and defensive, wilting under criticism, frustrated by the grown-ups ruining our fun. I know we can be insufferable. Imposing MBA logic in Romper Room is bound to create problems.

But our muses shouldn’t be stymied: the ability to ideate, to find that “inner fantastic” is necessarily petulant. What’s regrettable is marketing’s obsession with guaranteeing results…or else! Research. Testing. Groups. I say Bleh! Intuition, if cultivated and nurtured, is the most important tool the creative department. The old saw is wrong. Ideas are not children. We are.

Author’s note: I reworked this post from a previous one. Please don’t send me to the principal’s office.

Arty and provocative film for Smart Cars.

“We make ads not art.” When I began my career the debate whether advertising was (or should be) considered art was a big one. Creative ad schools were few and the craft typically was taught out of a university’s journalism school, a department that is now largely defunct. Many of us came to the profession out of other portals not specifically tied to advertising, such as Creative Writing, Media Studies or the Art school. Perhaps we only saw the word “art” in art director and “writer” in copywriter. Regardless, we were drawn to the possibility of making art-like objects for a living.

At the same time future account people were coming from a more traditional background: business, finance and economics. These folks took art as an elective. Maybe they audited a journalism class. Regardless, they had few notions about advertising being art. Among other things, this created a storm front between creative and accounts; one, that in my opinion, is just beginning to dissipate.

Advertising, art or both?

With the advent of the Web many of these firewalls have collapsed. Advertising and art have blurred in the face of one mandate: Get noticed! We see countless examples of films and posters posing as advertising. And visa versa.* Creating cool art-like objects is now considered the legitimate craft of advertising more than ever before. Whereas in 1984 only a commercial like Apple’s “1984” ever transcended commerce in 2012 countless propaganda for brands do just that. Granted, few are as seminal as Chiat Day’s epic manifesto but not for lack of trying.

Social media demands that advertising function as art (or entertainment) in order for it to be shared and go viral. If an advertiser chooses to merely block and tackle, lacking human relevance, his message will die a quick death.

Within moments I found examples of advertising that fit an art-like definition. Like them or not, they make you think about the world differently. They make us wonder about the role of brands in art. They challenge us. Historically speaking, few argue that being challenged was ever a good thing for an ad. But it is now.

Big winner at Cannes. Tell me it’s not art…

*Andy Warhol made a career out of mashing advertising into art. He was a rogue. Now he would just be an art director.

Would be Technology logos…

San Francisco is the land of tech. This is where all those companies that advertise in airports live. You know whom I’m talking about. But do you know what they’re talking about? Sometimes it’s hard to tell from their ads. Even their names are an enigma. With all those “Q’s” and “X’s” and “Z’s.” And what funny logos they have, those swishes and swirls and crazy colors!

Many are important, big companies. Billion dollar companies. Fact is the modern world could not exist without them. We recognize a few, especially the ones that make hardware and, of course, that one with the cute Apple.

But the other ones.

Mostly makers of software, they represent the lion’s share of companies in Silicon Valley. No surprise some of them are my clients. Or will be, God willing. Hi guys. What’s up?

Do these creators of the hidden wow intimidate me? A little. I did not take computer science in college. The only code I know is the one I punch in the alarm system at home. But it’s not the technology that worries me. It’s the jargon. Especially when it comes to advertising messages. I do not use the word “solution” in every sentence. Or “optimize.” Or “data.” Must they?

A man and his server…

In terms of tired imagery, technology has its pets, in particular the ‘Man and his Server.’ Like every cliché this one might have been cool the first 100 times. Now, it’s practically invisible.

I realize these businesses are not “consumer facing.” (Eek, there’s a phrase.) But that does not mean they have to talk to one another in code. It’s an ad for cool-ass software not a service manual.