A gal walks into an H&R Block store and informs the accountant she hasn’t filed her taxes in years, dumping boxes of paperwork on his desk. At which point, the H&R Block Rep tells her to “bring it on!” He claims her unpaid taxes are “like a puzzle.” He is downright giddy at the prospect of getting this woman “the biggest tax refund possible.”

Hmmm. I should think the strategy is keeping her out of jail.

Regardless, H&R Block’s new ad campaign from Fallon seems hell bent on promising a super positive outcome to any would-be taxpayers who traipse through their doors.

In a second spot, another exuberant H&R Block professional informs us that many people don’t know the “Affordable Health Care Act and Taxes are connected.” Not to worry, the woman says. She read the entire 900 pages. “It literally took me weeks.” She knows the law. She has a solution. “We’re going to see this through together.” All smiles this one.

Crisply shot in arresting black and white, these presumably real accountants are explosively happy. Imagine Match.com trying to hook up taxpayers and accountants. That’s the vibe of these spots.

It’s a good myth. If I were in (or potentially in) deep shit with the IRS I would cry tears of joy knowing my salvation is so easily available and happily provided. I’m genuinely surprised that H&R Block can legally make claims like these about filing claims like those. Let alone be so happy about it.

But I’m not the Better Business Bureau. Like I said, this is a good myth for the brand. Maybe even a grand one. Not only does the campaign mitigate the fear and loathing wrapped up in taxes it does a similar job on H&R Block’s arguably tired and crummy image. Rightly or wrongly, I still think of them as being a pop up store in a strip mall, between the currency exchange and Pita Hut. The protagonists in these TVC’s do not look like they work at a place like that. Along those same lines, it seems like H&R Block aspires to do far more complicated tax work than ever before. I recall going there a year into my first job, before marriage, children, homeownership and a zillion other things made filing my taxes a complicated nightmare. Perhaps this new H&R Block wants me back.


Recently, the Wall Street Journal began a new multimedia advertising campaign, courtesy of their agency of record, McgarryBowen. The theme line reads, “Live in the know.”

This interests me on many levels:

1) It’s a new ad campaign
2) It’s for a famous media entity
3) It’s another salvo by newspapers to try and stave off irrelevancy
4) My father was a subject in “Creative Leaders,” the WSJ’s famous trade campaign!
5) I’ve always wanted to create a campaign for a magazine or newspaper

But first here’s the newspaper ad featuring my Pops.
I’ve also included the Advertising Educational Foundation’s site containing all of the creative leaders in this long-running trade campaign. Everyone who is anyone in our business is in it. Most, if not all, hail from the creative department of their respective agencies. The subjects wrote the copy themselves. Pretty cool considering what kind of copywriters many were. If you’re not familiar with “Creative Leaders,” have a look in the above website. It is a small but fascinating piece of our industry’s fun history.

Okay, but what about Live in the Know?

Well, I like the strategy, which suggests some news –a lot of news- is just too important to get via sound bites and tweets. This to me is the best argument periodicals have against the relentless jaws of the Internet. I won’t belabor the obvious. Vanity Fair’s editor, Graydon Carter argues the point beautifully in Adweek: Carter story

As for the creative executions, they certainly are in keeping with the WSJ’s no-nonsense, classical approach to, well, everything. In print, we get frank, mildly clever headlines up top with key argument and supporting data below. However, the photos feel like stock. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, per se, but I would have liked a wittier visual solution.

The TV commercial –if it is a commercial- troubles me more. I question it’s veracity because it plays like a “brand essence video,” which is, as most of you know, a short film made by ad agencies to sell an idea to their clients. By definition these films are not for air. If that’s what this is, fine. I get the strategy and, like I said, I like the strategy. But if it’s a TV spot, an anthem, it feels pedantic. Too much show and tell for my tastes. Have a look: TV Spot or simply a rip?

For years, I’ve coveted a top tier magazine as a client. Like my peers, I envied the beautiful work Fallon had done for Time magazine. And all copywriters are fans of the erudite work being done for the Economist. Both these remarkable campaigns are coffee table book quality.

Brilliant copy for the Economist

At Leo Burnett, my partner and I pitched Glamour magazine. We had a lot of fun doing it. And won…sort of. Within days, publishing magnate, Sy Newhouse put the kybosh on our campaign. And that was the end of that. Jerk. I still remember one of the headlines, for a billboard: “Read and repeat.”

Final note: Not too long ago it was considered a conflict of interest for agencies to create advertising for media providers. With all the issues surrounding mass media, it’s almost a non-issue now.

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My last post was about U2’s 360 Tour, which I generally liked despite having serious issues with Soldier Field. Among numerous comments I received, one stood out for its indictments. Migrane66 wrote the following:

…I suddenly understood why Kurt Cobain put a shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. He looked at his future and saw something like soldier field this weekend: banners reading “Blackberry loves Nirvana”, a huge, dumb stage that was there to take to the focus off the average musicianship emanating from said stage, and a group of musicians who have become mere props in a corporate money grab…

Though I disagree with the writer’s bleak positions, his or her letter got me thinking. (No small feat!) Are not fan disappointment and the band’s success codependent? U2 became hugely popular and now the population holds it against them.

This ironic phenomenon is not limited to bands. Frankly, it applies to many people, places and things. Because of their success the New England Patriots went from unexpected darlings to annoying juggernaut. Now that everyone loves your favorite restaurant you hate going there.

Advertisers should pay special attention. All brands want to get big. But the smart ones worry about it as well. When I worked on Altoids, we rightfully worried that our success would ultimately come back to haunt us. Whenever someone suggested we “merchandise the brand” my spider sense began tingling. New flavors I could accept but Altoids mouth wash? Not on my watch. The key to maintaining Altoids’ cult-like status relied on keeping things under the radar –in brand management and advertising. That was one of the reasons we never did TV.

Has Altoids gone too far? What about Starbucks, Apple or Nike?

Everyone lusts for growth, especially in business. If one isn’t growing their business, one is considered failing. Yet, all around us are age-old examples of people, places and things growing too big or jumping the shark. Hence the above emailer’s brutal review of U2.

Our own industry is hardly immune. Pat Fallon and Jay Chiat both asked, “how big can we get before we get bad?” They got big. One can debate whether they got bad.

The great irony remains. When David slays Goliath we cheer. When David becomes Goliath we jeer. Word of warning to challenger brands: be careful what you wish for.

Finally, GROWTH is not always synonymous with EXCELLENCE. Take cancer for instance.

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