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

Until recently, I didn’t even know what 5/3 meant.

Fifth Third Bank has a new mantra/tagline courtesy of Leo Burnett and it’s a puzzler. To paraphrase another slogan near and dear to my heart (and Leo Burnett’s for that matter), this is definitely not your father’s banking slogan. Fifth/Third is now “the curious Bank.”

Ironically, I’ve always wondered what Fifth Third (5/3) stood for in the first place. Researching it, I found a less than poetic answer. In 1908, Fifth National Bank and Third National Bank merged. So much for my theory the name was derived from some exotic economic concept. Nope. Just a couple financial institutions combining interests. Yawn. Happens all the time.

On that note, we should applaud Fifth Third and LBCO for utterly avoiding category clichés. Like, for example, the bank’s previous drippy tagline: “The things we do for dreams.”

“Curious people ask better questions… and find better answers,” said Larry Magnesen, the bank’s senior vice president and chief marketing officer, in a release. “Curiosity surfaced as an important value we wanted to affirm with our own employees: be curious about our customers’ needs, be curious about the way things could be made easier, and be curious about how we can innovate our products and services.”

I suppose…

But something bothers me about a bank introducing itself as curious. For one thing, it’s vaguely negative. Sort of like when you describe someone as “interesting.” Red flag. Is that the best you can say about yourself?

Curiosity worked for Altoids. But a bank?

On another level, the line seems more strategic than creative. Overtly stating we are “the curious bank” is like saying you’re cool. If you were you wouldn’t have to say it. However, if one is going to put “curious” in the tagline maybe it should have been qualified -somehow acknowledging the acute challenges facing banks and their customers. I’m worried that all by itself curious comes off as naïve or even annoying, like a precocious child.

Admittedly, I have not seen the broadcast yet, nor could I find any film online. But I did hear a radio spot. Its oddness is why I wrote this story. So it did catch my attention. I am curious. I also went to the bank’s website where they attempt to explain curious. Are they on to something? I’m just not there yet.

Ah, the moment of creation… has a 3-minute video featuring Dan Wieden discussing the creation of one of the world’s most famous tag lines: Just Do It. I don’t even have to name the agency or client. We know this, and so much more, from only those three words. My personal favorite tag line: “Nothing runs like a Deere.” However, I fully recognize the transformative, culture-changing power of Nike’s call to action versus the quieter declaration of performance by John Deere.

Unlike a lot of creative directors, I adore taglines. Like to think of them. Like seeing them on the page. The two most famous examples associated with me are polar opposites. They are the “Curiously Strong” mints for Altoids and “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile.”

What’s interesting about Dan’s story is how isolated the moment of creation really was. The night before his agency’s first big creative presentation to Nike, Wieden feared none of the commercials they’d prepared hung together. He wanted a thought that spoke to novice and pro athletes alike. In 20 minutes, he crafted a tagline to unify the campaigns. Unbelievably, Wieden credits convicted killer, Gary Gilmore’s infamous last words to his executioner as inspiration: “Let’s do it,” he’d said before being shot by the firing squad.

I’m willing to bet there’s a robust case study supporting “Just do It” crediting planning, research, insights and a raft of other people, places and things behind that famous mantra. Altoids had a doozy even though it was for the most part retrofitted.

Fact is some of the most inspired creations are made in a vacuum. This holds true for all arts, including persuasive communication. Dan doesn’t mention cohorts or proprietary tools during his moment of creation. We gather it was a birth based on necessity (tie up a campaign), fear (big meeting) and intuition (speak to novice and pro).

One could argue the latter point was based on a collaboratively gleaned insight, perhaps from the agency’s planners. Only problem back then planning was not part of American advertising.

Just like Nike’s rogue founder, Phil Knight, who sold prototype running shoes from the back of his car, Dan Wieden acted alone. For that matter, so did Gilmore but I digress.

I’m not against teamwork. Far from it. I’m proud of the camaraderie at our agency. But I do have to call bullshit on agencies that take credit for one person’s intuition. It happens all the time and it has always bugged me. When the creative muse comes to us in the shower, we are likely alone.

Leo Burnett rhapsodized about the “lonely man,” working late, pen to paper, inhaling one Marlborough after another, until he’d gotten something. That figure still exists, though he or she is probably smoke-free!

Adweek videos -Dan Weiden

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images-11The Gods of Advertising are stingy!

I recently guest lectured at Depaul University about myth making in advertising. I’ve been captivated by the topic for years, ever since I experienced, first hand, a “curiously strong” myth of my own. With the Altoids campaign, we created a brand story far more powerful than any rational messaging ever could. After that, mere copywriting was no longer enough. Trying to find the “curious strength” for every client became my job. It’s difficult but that was the mandate.

People are no longer moved by a product’s “unique selling proposition” or USP. And they haven’t been for years. Facts alone don’t move products like they used to. Probably because facts don’t move people like they used to. We’ve wizened up to the come-ons and bullet points. We’re either bored by them or cynical. And the more saturated the marketplace the more indifferent we become. If people want facts about something they Google it.

In my view, to be truly great, advertising must inspire belief. More than just get people to buy something, advertising must get people to buy into something: a belief about the goods or services that transcend its practical use.

This is hardly a new theory. Most of my peers have been extolling similar notions for years. Remember when ad folk tossed around the word “branding?” A bad word now (sort of like “awareness”), agencies used to flaunt their amazing ability to build brands. They weren’t wrong. Unfortunately, it was and is easier said than done. Especially when clients are impatient for results.

Still, it’s amazing how few advertisers get it right. Apple. Nike. Name five others. At my agency Potbelly Sandwich Works has a cult-like following, albeit mostly regional. And if we’re lucky and wise, Effen Vodka could get there. They have magic in their DNA. I’ve gone on about Canadian Club’s marvelous print campaign from Energy BBDO. Can their “Damn right” myth grab a hold of America’s men? The Minicooper campaign was on its way, though lately it seems to have driven off course. Regardless, these are tiny, tiny examples. And highly debatable.

Where are the Zeus-like creations of modern marketing? Not just the big ones. The mythic!