Thursday, May 31, 2012

Ads for the great outdoors.

         Advertising is, ultimately, persuasion. It's not information, it's not news, it's not entertainment. Although all of those can be put to use if they help persuade.

         One of the biggest challenges, literally and figuratively, is the category called "outdoor". The big billboards we see on the highways and boulevards, the painted walls on the sides of buildings, and the smaller boards we see near supermarkets and on city streets.

         There used to be two types: paints and posters. Now most are actually huge computer print-outs, stretched between the frames.

          The first thing to keep in mind is that most billboards are see from cars driving by at 50 miles an hours or so. They have to be very simple. The Outdoor Advertising Bureau suggests using seven or eight words. The good news is that most people drive the same route every day, so they see your board often.

          Outdoor is often called the "reminder medium", because it's hard to introduce a new product so simply. The car companies use outdoor to show their new models, but use TV and magazines for the heavy lifting.

          The best outdoor advertising, like all print advertising, relies on how the words combine with the visuals. One of the all-time greats was a board for the VW "bus". It showed seven or eight nuns, in their habits, getting out. The headline: "Mass transit". When you put the words and picture together in your head, it was a delightful discovery.

          As a young copywriter in Detroit, I was called to a meeting about our client Chevrolet. It seems President Lyndon Johnson's wife felt that outdoor boards were spoiling the vistas of the great outdoors. Chevy was the biggest user of outdoor ads at the time, and wanted a response. What should we do?

         We had to create boards that didn't spoil the scenery, and maybe even contributed to it. We did beautiful designs that saluted the wide open spaces in words and pictures. My own contribution was a board that hat only the word Chevrolet atop the frame --- and everything inside cut out and removed. You would look right through it and enjoy the scenery.

         Somehow, the problem soon dissolved, but it was fun to try to solve it.

         Try writing some outdoor boards for a product you like, with no more than eight words. See what a good exercise it is.

         And it better be persuasive!

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Creative directors aren't people.

          What I finally learned about putting my portfolio together was that my cereal ad wasn't there to sell cereal, my airline ad wasn't there to sell seats, and my whiskey ad wasn't there to help people socialize at the end of the day.

           They were all in my book to sell the same thing: me.

           Creative directors aren't going to read your portfolio the way your friends read a magazine. They look at it mainly because they have to. At the end of a long day making and critiquing ads for their clients, their job description says they have to look at more. They have a position to fill, have to help a young person start her career, or simply take the temperature of the available talent out there.

            Keep all that in mind. The creative director or recruiter is daring you to make them smile and even laugh. Your job has to impress. Break the ice. Demonstrate that you can land running. Your job is to convince them they need you. Not because you knew how to sell cereal, but because you can come up with ideas for them, to make the creative director rich and famous.

             Your work has to be the kind the creative director doesn't want to slip away.

             It doesn't always work the way you want it to, though. When I was in my 20s and in New York on a photo shoot, a headhunter made an appointment for me to show my reel at one of the top ad agencies. The creative director went nuts over one of my commercials for Hush Puppies shoes. He called all his art directors and writers into the conference room to "show you the kind of commercials we should be doing".

             After his department saw it and filed out, I asked to hear more about the job. "No", he said,"I don't think you're right for our agency".

             Two weeks later, that same commercial got me a job at another agency. It also sold a lot of shoes.

             Today your samples have to be online, and it's even easier for the creative director to push the delete button. You may not be there to explain the problem and what a nifty solution you came up with and how the client gushed over it.

              Your work will be there, all alone, with a creative director who has seen everything.

               And is about to look you over.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Is creativity a joke?

         This morning, I heard on the radio the results of a study involving Robin Williams. After listening to five minutes of his comedy, the survey participants suddenly became 20% more creative in solving problems. Speaking was Jonah Lehrer, author of "Imagine: How Creativity Works".

        I never would've suspected that humor leads to creativity. I've always thought it worked the other way around.  That creative people would be 20% funnier than non-creative people.

       The link between comedy and creativity has interested me for some time. In high school, I became a scholarly observer of comedians, comparing their techniques, their timing, their facial and body motions, and so on. I took copious notes. I thought that, somehow, that interest (and my long-lost ability to mimic them) contributed to my ability in advertising.

        Most of the advertising that we call creative tends to be funny. We love humorous commercials, quoting them to our friends and posting them on YouTube. It's the unemotional straight ones that we call boring.

        Like ad people, comedians have to be quick on their feet. They have to think fast and respond fast, lest the humor be lost. Or they get hit with tomatoes. I believe this speed facility is related to intelligence, another ingredient of creativity.Yes, the Three Stooges were smart.

         Steve Jobs said creativity was the ability to connect things. To connect existing ideas in a way that creates something new. That, of course, is what creative people do. So do comedians, when you think about it. Creativity always seems like more than a connection, but Jobs certainly was a creative connector --- of people, of ideas and knowledge --- and the results were incredible products.

        This connection business can be misleading. I don't think you can just sit back and wait for your brain to connect things. It's probably more productive to try to solve a problem, and let the connections seep in.

        In advertising, we're charged with connecting people with products and services. I suggest starting with people, and working the connection to products. Starting with products is where all the uncreative advertising comes from.

        Come to think of it, maybe we all should start by listening to Robin Williams.



Monday, May 28, 2012

Is your client your real client?

          In many advertising agencies, there's the attitude that it's the client's money we're spending, so the clients should be whom we please. That kind of thinking can lead to disaster.

           Clients are often right, but not always. If they're wrong, they should be told. Or you're wasting their money.

           As marketing and advertising people, our job is to know the customer.  We're paid to know what she desires, fears, hopes for and dreams of. We're paid to put that understanding to work in helping people choose things and ideas and services.

           What a client does or doesn't like is irrelevant. "I don't like purple" is not a valid reason for changing an ad. "Our customers don't like purple" probably is.

           One of our clients was a chain of pet supply stores. We went through months of recommending they go on the Internet. They said no, their customers don't go on the Internet. Their customers were too busy playing with their dogs and cats.

           Finally, they admitted they were wrong, and decided to go on the Web. They insisted on doing it entirely by themselves. The day they launched, they thought they would go broke. They offered $25 worth of treats to everyone who registered. By 10:30 that morning, 8,500 people had registered. By 3 o'clock, 25,000 had registered. Packing and shipping the boxes would break them.

           We suggested they email coupons, instead. Had they listened to us earlier, we could've saved them a lot of grief.

           An art director who had worked for me became creative director of Doyle Dane Bernbach in Toronto. Their policy about likes and dislikes by clients was very clear. There are only three reasons a client could reject an ad: if it was factually incorrect; if it was against company policy; if it was a legal problem.  That's it.

           I asked him what happens if a client doesn't like it. He said it was the account manager's job to sell it. He said it should stay in the trunk of the account person's car until he finds a way.

           I'm not really as tough as I may sound. If a client doesn't like purple, I'll tell him why we used it. If he still hates it, there are plenty of other colors in the world.

           But ultimately, the only client is the ultimate customer. If she isn't sold, we can argue till we're purple.


Sunday, May 27, 2012

Let's meet to decide on the meeting.

          With one exception, the most creative people I know in advertising love the work but hate the meetings. They see meetings as stressful, unproductive get-togethers where participants dance on their tongues.

           I once made a deal with one of the country's top art directors. He agreed to work for us at a greatly reduced rate if I would promise him he wouldn't have to go to meetings. I agreed and paid the price: I had to go to every meeting.

          Over the years I think I've mellowed and become more of a meeting person. I never used to talk very much (and not at all if somebody else from the agency would). Then I realized that it could actually be fun to present ads and commercials, and I became good at it. I remember a 9 a.m. meeting in Indianapolis where I had to present 18 television commercials to the executive committee of Gatorade. I didn't faint once.

           After presenting the work at a meeting, I want to leave the room. All the discussions, vacillating, bantering and posturing aren't for me. I'm not Judge Judy.

           But because I had to defend the work when nobody around could do it well, I became very lawyerly about it. I listened carefully and marshalled all my arguments.

           The better I became at meetings the more meetings I was invited to, and the more I bristled at them. I always wished I had a twin, separated at birth, who could go in my place and fill me in later.

           I did learn a lot, though. I learned how to yawn with my mouth closed. How to read upside-down when presenting an ad or a storyboard.

          And I learned at exactly what instant you had to say something or forever be known as a non-contributor.

           Ultimately, meetings are a part of business, so we have to get used to them. I certainly intend to.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The beautiful people.

          Why is it some people are perfectly dressed every day in every way for every occasion, and others look like they forgot to turn the lights on in their closets?

           I guess I can say I'm perfectly dressed for every occasion, too. If every occasion calls for a blue shirt, black pants, and black socks.

           But these other people, wow! Where do they learn all the subtleties? I can't believe it's instinctive.

           To answer my own question, most of our own fashion students are into fashion scholarship. You can fool some of the people with Forever 21 some of the time, but our students read and watch everything and see every movie on Netflix. Soon, I guess, it becomes second nature to them, and they know what Dolce is going to say even before he tells Gabbana.

          Why else would so many blondes pull their ponytails through khaki baseball hats and wear white shirts and khaki pants? I'm always looking around for a stray polo mallet.

          Other women wear only black. They look like they're in mourning for the Free People tops they wore in high school. They're always in black. If you go out for popcorn during the movie, you'll never find your date when you come back.

          Whenever there's a war on, military-inspired clothes come back into fashion. Epaulettes everywhere.  Last Wednesday on United Nations Plaza outside our school, it looked like the gourmet food trucks were circling in preparation for an ambush.

          The preppies hang out in the suburbs, I guess. Not too many in the city. It's the Laurens versus the Hilfigers, and may the best plaid win. Boat shoes but no boat.

          Personally, I'm not sure the clothes make the man these days. I think that today, the best iPhone case wins.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Don't settle for doing your best.

         Winston Churchill said, "Sometimes doing your best isn't good enough. Sometimes you need to do what's required."

          Good marketing never ends. There's no finish line. There are always changes, if not from the competition, then from the target market.

           The iPhone changed cellphones forever. But it also changed us --- our expectations of cellphone technology, our appreciation of design, our relationships with friends, family, and business associates. Now that Motorola has reintroduced the Razr as a thin smartphone, do we care about slimness anymore, or do we have a better, newer list of priorities? And how will Motorola change now that it's been sold?

           Economists are constantly being asked when things will get back to normal. Maybe they won't go back. Maybe there's a new normal, bifurcating between the highs and the lows. We in marketing can't keep doing the same old thing even if it's new.

          We've all been taken by social media. At the same time, new information is emerging about the limits of technology and the capacity of human nature to conquer all. We use social media and we love it, because it puts us more in control and keeps us more informed. Yet it may not be as persuasive in the ways we marketers had hoped. General Motors just pulled its $10-milliomn out of Facebook advertising, but kept its free pages.

          As marketers, we have to stay several steps ahead, and there's only one way to do it. Keeping up with your customers.

           Ford made a crucial mistake --- a classic marketing error --- in the 1950s. Research had told them they needed another full-size make to compete with Buick. But in the five years it took Ford to come out with the Edsel, the market had changed to smaller cars. The Edsel was dead on arrival. And today, Buick
barely has a pulse.

          It seems that doing your best isn't always the best you can do.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Do you need a time manager?

          I'm always interested in other creative people's work habits. They're usually so different from my own.

          One art director I know gets his best work done at home late at night, after his family's gone to sleep. He comes in to to office around ten the next morning with layouts that most people can't do from nine till five. He says he lives at least two lives, calls himself "the last of the speed livers".

         There are also the wee early morning geniuses. By the time most people stagger in to work, their day is about done. I'd get to my office and find the layouts or copy on my desk, with a note that says "Got in early, went home to sleep". Only thing was, they were never around when others needed to talk to them.

         Then there are the people I wrote about for Adweek. The ones who fool around all day because they're going to stay down tonight and work late at the office. I used to feel guilty for not staying and working with them, until I realized they were always too tired to come up with anything useful anyway.

         I'm your get-it-done-right-away kind of guy. As soon as I get an assignment, I tackle it. I could come back to it later and make it better, but at least it's done. Good to know that if I got hit by a bus, at least the ad for Gatorade in college football programs was written.

         We all develop our own styles of time management, and some styles must be designed to drive the boss crazy, because they do. Including the creative people who come in to meetings empty-handed, only to have a great idea four minutes after the client leaves the building.

         I knew one writer who must've been addicted to adrenalin. He could never start work till the night before the client meeting. The next day he'd be there, cool as a cucumber, with the tissues rolled up under his arm. But these things aren't fair to anybody, and why ad people get ulcers.

        I sleep better when I've got some ideas under my pillow.



the price of things to come.

         How important is price in marketing? Some people think it's everything. They're watching their competitors' every move so they're not underpriced. Others feel the price is the last thing their customers worry about. The product and the brand are everything. Who's right?

         The answer, of course, is that they both may be right. Or both may be wrong. It depends.

          We have to realize that setting the price is about the only place a company can make money. The product itself, the distribution, the advertising, the P.R. don't make money. They cost money. Price is where you can get it back, at a profit.

           Even in businesses where price may not seem important, it is. What if Chanel cut the price of Chanel No. 5 in half, overnight. What would you think?

            Maybe you'd be happy. But wouldn't you wonder why? Is No. 5 not selling? Is Chanel in trouble? Did they cheapen the product? Have I been ripped off all these years?

            Price is especially important where we have few ways to know what's good and what's better. For most of us, price is a main determinant of quality. Cheap wine versus good wine. The name, the price, the label --- what else is there? Most of us don't read wine reviews. Or at least, didn't.

            At this point, it's worth noting the role social media now play in this. Now we can get instant reviews from friends and experts. We can dig deeper and get more product information. We can check the ratings on Yelp before we spend our money.

           Still there's no denying the importance of price in our decisions. Companies that base their entire futures on being the "low price brand" always put their fates in somebody else's hands. A competitor can drastically lower their price, and your position is gone.

           Right now, JC Penney is fighting the price battle in customers' minds. They lowered all their prices about 40%, and eliminated their thrice-weekly sales. Will their customers be grateful or turned off? People like bargains, and the thrill of the hunt. Penney is taking the fun away.

           How you market your product will make it or break it. Your pricing decisions are critical. But that's the price you pay for being in business.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Put this in your pipe and smoke it.

         The other morning I had coffee at the Starbucks across from the University of California Berkeley campus. At the next table four policemen were talking about smoking. One said he believed cigars were better to smoke than cigarettes. The others weren't so sure. My work with the U.S.Department of Health & Human Services made me sure all smoking is bad.

         The DHHS Office on Smoking and Health in Washington, D.C., was a wonderful client. The head, Bob Hutchison, was very astute psychologically. For one thing, he only wanted smokers on the account. In his experience, non-smokers were always too preachy, shaking invisible fingers at the viewer. It didn't work.

         For another thing, the DHHS knew the job was formidable. Smoking isn't rational. People who smoke aren't rational about it. So the advertising couldn't simply be rational. The whole task was the answer to a creative person's prayers.

         Bob Hutchison and his people filled us in thoroughly. We spent a good deal of time with the people studying smoking and addiction at the Maryland State Hospital. We learned about the parallels between tobacco smoking and heroin, the rituals and the withdrawal symptoms. When we were convinced, we returned to our smoke-filled conference rooms in Chicago to create the commercials.

          The first pool of commercials was directed to teen-age boys. We engaged Brooke Shields to talk to them. Then teen-age girls. We used peer pressure. Then middle-age men. The story of smoking and the heart.

          The second pool was even more challenging. We wanted to feature the Surgeon General of the United States, a pediatric cardiologist named C. Everett Koop. We thought smokers should get to know this dedicated, learned man, and get some tips from him.

           When we went over the commercial ideas in his office, he asked if he should wear his Surgeon General's Marine uniform. We said no, we wanted him to been seen as "America's family doctor". Please just bring three of your favorite suits to the studio in Chicago. But when he came out of the dressing room, he was wearing his uniform, with the brush epaulettes on the shoulder. It took the wardrobe mistress to talk him out of it, and the rest of the day went quite well.

          By the end of the year, the commercials were having terrific results, and all of us working on the account had given up smoking. The DHHS had to find another smoking agency to work with!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Putting the Tivo in reverse.

         Joe Queenan has a terrific idea in his WSJ column: a DVR that keeps the commercials and skips some of the idiotic TV programs.

        Queenan explains how he loves some of the commercials on TV these days. He includes the Dos Equis' "Most Interesting Man in the World" and the E*Trade talking baby.

         "If I could only fast-forward cliche-spouting actors, lying politicos, Wolf Blitzer, and college softball", he moans.

          I'm not sure I agree with him about what to skip (I like Wolf Blitzer), but I do agree that there seems to be a lot more thinking in some 30-second TV commercials than in some 30-minute programs.

          It's an important concern for us in advertising. As the TV shows go, so go our media plans and our work. If there's little worthwhile to turn on the TV set for, advertising will suffer. Just as the television networks can't produce programs without advertising to pay for them, so too our advertising can't produce results without audiences.

          And another thing. Why can't a network like NBC boost itself out of last place? My hunch is that it keeps trying to do what it did last year, only better, instead of trying to do something nobody did last year, only great.

          Is the greatest amount of creativity in television in the commercials these days? That's pretty sad. Then maybe we should go back to the way it used to be, where sponsors would buy the time on TV and ad agencies would produce the shows. (That's how I got to meet Groucho Marx. He was hired to do a Christmas show for a cosmetics client.)

          Maybe all the creativity in the media business has been siphoned into social media. People are really good at cellphone apps and a little sluggish on the sit-coms.

          What if a TV network biggie said, "No sit-coms next year. And that goes for you hospital dramas, reality shows, and courtroom shows as well!" Would we get whole new genres of shows --- or would NBC simply rack up the reruns and go on vacation?

           I've got an idea. Why don't we just take a TV commercial like "The Most Interesting Man in the World" and turn it into a new television series. By definition it can't be boring.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Truth in advertising? True.

         Students always seem to look askance at me when I tell them you can't lie in advertising. So do my friends. I guess everyone refuses to believe there are laws and government agencies that keep us on the straight and narrow.

         For example, the Campbell's Soup case. To make the veggies in vegetable soup visible to the camera for a commercial, someone suggested that before they put the soup in, they line the bottom of the bowl with marbles, for the vegetables to stand on. The government said no, that looked like far more vegetables than in a can of the soup. Campbell was heavily fined.

        A couple of days ago, thanks to the Federal Trade Commission again, Sketchers agreed to pay $40-million after the FTC and 45 state attorneys general accused the company of falsely advertising their line of "toning" shoes. It seems the weight loss and health benefits weren't true. The only thing that got toned were the customers' wallets.

         Sketchers made close to a billion dollars in sales from these fitness shoes, at about $100 a pair. Celebrities were hired to sell the shoes, including Kim Kardashian, Joe Montana, and Brooke Burke. The message from the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection? "Shape up your substantiation or tone down your claims." That's a quote from an official.

         I'm not even sure this will satisfy people who don't believe there are consequences for false advertising. When they're not happy they tend to say "that was sold to me" rather than "I bought that."

         I believe lying in advertising simply doesn't pay. Creative people I know tend to be scrupulously honest. Besides, they understand the penalties can mean the end of their careers. Not worth it.

         Advertising campaigns based on untruths ultimately fail. People are smart. Those ads that do survive for a while will pay the consequences eventually.

         The good people in advertising know they don't have to resort to trickery to sell things. The rest shouldn't be in advertising.

The ad writer's 25-word vocabulary.

            Yesterday I read an essay about movie trailers. It was talking about how all movies are classified into genres. Those are their types. The romantic comedy, the spy thriller, the cowboy movie, and so on.

             From there, there are certain kinds of scenes the movie preview has to contain to be true to form in that genre. For cowboy flicks, that includes the riding in the hills, the goodbye to the girlfriend, the gun fight, and the ambush.

             The essay reminded me that in advertising we have our genres as well, both visually and verbally. In fact, it seems that each kind of advertising has its own 25-word vocabulary.

             The beer vocabulary would include "robust", "refreshing", "flavorful", "thirst-slaking", "full-bodied", "quenching", "cold", "limestone water", "real beer taste", and even "hearty" --- as in "the hearty part of the party". There's cosmetics ("age-defying" and "luscious") , soft drinks ("refreshes you through and through"), and cigars ("satisfying") ---  well, you get the idea.

             Beginners rely on these vocabularies, even silent ones. Fashion tries not to use any words --- they would defile the art. The 25-word vocabulary for fashion includes places (the Amalfi Coast),  climatic conditions (Moon over the mountains), and models at least 16 years old.

             JC Penney, trying desperately to be different from the others in the mass retail space, now runs ads without mentioning its name. Isn't that a breakthrough! Being the first to make customers wonder whatever happened to JC Penney.

            So while new advertising people are breaking their picks trying to fit in, the real pros are trying to stand out in meaningful ways. They're always striving to go against the grain.

            I know, I know. It's hard to write a space age genre commercial without using the words "galaxy" and "far, far away", or Latin-sounding planet names. But try. I know you can do it if you put your mind to it!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The "unfair advantage" of Apple.

         In studying business, we learn that there are two basic types of competitive advantages a company can have: (a) lower cost and (b) differentiation.

         Lower cost has its risks, of course. Somebody, somewhere, can decide to price their products even lower, and your advantage is wiped out.

         Differentiation can take many forms, trying for distinction in the areas the customer cares most about. That could be design, accessibility, convenience, quality, style, and so on.

         Venture capitalists want a company to go even further. They look for companies with an "unfair advantage". That is, a patent or copyright , an exclusive contract with a vendor --- something that can hopefully protect and enhance their investments.

         Where does advertising fit into all this? Can advertising do more than communicate and persuade? Can advertising actually become part of the product, and be part of its distinction and even part of what consumers are buying?

          I believe it can. Coca-Cola is similar to other cola drinks. In some taste tests, consumers aren't sure which is which. But Coca-Cola is selling more than cola. It's selling happiness. Joy is part of what you're buying --- and its commercials with Santa, Polar Bears, and fantastic stories make it so.

          Chanel ads don't say much about the clothes or even the makeup, but they say a lot about the Chanel lifestyle. The genius and individuality of Coco Chanel live in the ads, helping the products become part of it.

          Would you buy a car if you thought their advertising was stupid? Maybe hamsters are cute to you, but do you really want to own a Kia, "the ultimate hamster machine"?

           Advertising is part of the brand. It's part of what you're buying when you buy an iPod or an iPad.
Part of the experience of eating Kellogg's Frosted Flakes, the achievement of owning a Mercedes.

           By the way, these products are definitely not the lower cost brands. And the advertising is part of the value.


Wednesday, May 16, 2012

What if?

         Those are the two most important words in marketing. "What if?" Once those slip out of your vocabulary, all is probably lost.

         Someone, somewhere, asked the question, "What if cereal came in a bar like candy, so people could take it with them to eat any time?"

         Someone in Ypsilanti, Michigan, once asked, "What if I could deliver pizza in half an hour to all those college kids who don't have cars?"

         Someone in Chicago (an ad exec, actually) asked about 90 years ago, "What if cars could have four doors, instead of just two?"

         We're living in a time when many of the things we enjoy most were only "What-ifs" not too long ago.

          The other day, an advertising student told me he didn't get very far on his assignment because he had "a kind of a writer's block". I think the writer simply stopped asking "what if?"

          It makes me think of some of the peculiar ads and commercials I've worked on over the years. They all began with that question.

          What if Bonnie and Clyde stole a GTO because their car wouldn't start after a bank heist?

          What if Brooke Shield broke up with a boy because he smoked and got that smell in her hair?

          What if the emissary from the Prince asked Cinderella if the glass slipper was hers and she said no, I only wear Hush Puppies.

          What if a 40-year-old man could peek inside his own heart to see what his smoking had done?

          What if a machine could turn words into pictures, for NBC television stations?

          What if a woman pours Wish-Bone salad dressing into her own server, and is accused of lying to her friends?

          The truth is, without "What if?" you're left with "What was?" and "What now?" You'll never get anywhere that way.

          So as long as you're in marketing and advertising, there's something I want you to do every morning when you look in the bathroom mirror. Look yourself straight in the eye and ask, "What if?"



Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Living the rich inner life.

         My friend Noemi in Detroit tells me I have a rich inner life. She was born in Hungary during World War II, and her insights are always worth listening to.

         "What's a rich inner life?" I asked her. "All those thoughts and worries and conversations you have in your head", she would say. "You're always either amusing yourself or arguing with yourself."

          I think Noemi was talking about the same thing my lawyer-friend Sy was when he told me one day over spaghetti, "You'd make a great attorney. You think of every contingency".

          Deep down I'm sure this came from a pretty screwed up childhood, which really got me thinking. I also think this "rich inner life" stuff made me a better advertising agency creative director. For TV commercials, I can hear the voices and dialects before I write them down. For print ads, I can sense the humor in situations, with different tones of voice.

          That's why I tell my students to tune in on every conversation they hear. It's all input for advertising. So are the comedians at the comedy clubs, the announcers doing baseball games, waitresses, bartenders, hairstylists, grumpy bank tellers, overworked cops, and psychiatrists on TV shows or in person. Try to replay the conversations in your head, and when you do, exaggerate them. Make them funnier. Add a fictitious person to the mix --- a private eye, a circus clown, a shy math teacher, an obedience trainer for dogs.

          All this will give you new material for advertising. Imagine finding yourself seated next to George Washington at Starbucks. What would you guys talk about?

          I guess what I'm saying is let your subconscious get a little closer to the surface. Let yourself go. Do an outrageous ad now and then...before you come back to reality.

         That's why advertising can be so much fun. Every assignment is a puzzle that can be solved a hundred different ways.

          Put your rich inner life on paper.

Monday, May 14, 2012

If the shoe fits...

         Walking down Piedmont Avenue in Oakland after lunch one afternoon, I noticed something out of place in the window of a store called "My Home Sweet Country Home". This almost-antique store had three pairs of brand-new running shoes there, along with a camera, books about the movies, and some china.

          The little sign by the shoes said "size 10- 1/2 only". They were my size and my favorite brand, New Balance. I did not go in.

           That is, until a week later when curiosity got the best of me and I went back. The owner, an older gentleman who told me he was the cousin of President Obama's press secretary, told me the story of the shoes.

          He said a friend of his ordered a pair a month --- but never wore them. When there got to be too many, he put them in the store for sale. I bought a black pair for 25 bucks. Then I went back a month later and bought a grey pair.

          There's something odd about finding something where you least expect it. I was skeptical at first. Were they forgeries? Factory seconds? Defective in some crucial way that I'll find out when I'm crossing a boulevard? I really don't know. They seem fine.

           The transaction made me think of all the ads we see in all the wrong places. Ads for kitchen ranges in airline magazines. Travel ads in fashion magazines. Ads for face-lifts in city magazines. Are these where they should be?

           From a demographic and psychographic point of view, they're probably right on target. But is teeth-whitening in our thoughts as we read about improving our golf game? I'd much rather follow the Willie Sutton strategy. Sutton was a notorious bank robber, and when he was asked why he robs banks, he said "Because that's where the money is".

           Simple, but sensible. The money for golf clubs is in golf magazines. Sell a boat when they're thinking boats. Sell clothes when they're thinking fashion. Sell a hotel package when they're contemplating vacations.

           Those New Balance shoes would've moved much faster for $15 more in a shoe store.

           Media, like everything else in marketing, involves big helpings of common sense. Standing out can sometimes make things invisible.


Bending the clock every once in a while.

        Salvador Dali wrote that "to gaze is to think". He would've made a great advertising art director. We need all the thinkers we can get.

        With thoughtful art direction, an ad is easier to read than pass up. Without good art direction, an ad is easier to forget, not take seriously, and it's easier to mis-judge the quality of the product.

         Just compare an Apple ad to any ad for HP. Which one reeks of confidence and timeliness? Which one makes you either crave to own the product or proud you already do?

         Some ad agencies are better at this than most. Chiat/Day, Apple's agency, rarely fails to captivate. The art direction reflects the passion in the product. Anything extraneous is thrown overboard.

         Doyle Dane Bernbach turned the little VW Beetle into a gem of engineering (and attitude). The same agency's work for Sony made us sit up and respect Japanese ingenuity.

         I've always sought out art directors who knew how to go for the heart or the throat. You can love a person into reading your ad or you can scare her. But if the art direction is wishy-washy, the reader will be too.

         We go through life uttering phrases that are born of our dependence on what we see. "Seeing is believing." "Out of sight, out of mind." "Oh, I can see your point of view."

         If we aren't grabbed by an ad or a commercial, we won't engage with it --- no matter how beautiful the words. Anything less than great art direction is invisible.

         My motto is "think visually first". I've learned that the hard way. Which is why Dali is a master.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Will these TV shows hurt advertising?

         With the popularity of "Mad Men", it seems everybody is interested in advertising again. I'm constantly asked questions about ad agency life --- smoking, drinking, the treatment of women, and the games people play.

          Now there's a new TV show on AMC called "The Pitch". It's a reality show. Two agency finalists make their creative proposals for a big client.

           I find them both fun to watch. "Mad Men" for the behavior, "The Pitch" for the tension. Both hit a little too close to home. My questions are, how do these shows (and more to probably follow) affect the advertising business? Do they make us professionals look superficial and manipulative? Or the industrious, creative people most of us are? Will these shows attract bright people to advertising, or turn them off?

            I'm not sure. The only thing that comes close to a parallel is "Project Runway", which does seem to be interesting more young people in the fashion field.

            Right now, there seems to be a paradox in advertising. The recession hit hard, and yet in New York and Chicago, the good agencies are worried about the shortage of good creative people.

            The answer lies in what the applicant brings to the party. If it's the soap-opera drama of "Mad Men", you're at the wrong place at the wrong time. Advertising isn't like that. In fact, it never was.

             But if the thing that attracts you is the problem-solving nature of the business --- applying your creative skills against tough, constantly changing marketing problems --- you've got the potential for a rewarding future.

             I used to work for an ad agency president who loved to tell people that "a good ad doesn't care where it comes from".  That's just word-play. It's really a question of batting averages. Creative people are simply more likely to have idea after idea, day in and day out. It's a matter of talent, not a matter of being cute now and then.

             When I've watched "The Pitch", my stomach hurts. I've been there, done that, and know how much is at stake emotionally and how little can sway a client. You're tired, overwrought, and yet have to be at your best.

             My advice? Work hard, study up, and if you play your cards right, your stomach can hurt, too.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The historian looks at advertising.

         Through a former client, himself an historian, I became acquainted with Daniel J. Boorstin. Dr. Boorstin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, most noted for his three volume intellectual history, "The Americans". He also served, until recently, as the Librarian of Congress.

         In his third volume,  "The Democratic Experience", Dr. Boorstin discusses the emergence of advertising. He called it "the omnipresent, most characteristic, and most remunerative form of American literature".

        He went on: "This new subliterature was destined to have a popular appeal and a gross national influence without parallel in the history of sacred or profane letters. In Mid-Twentieth-Century America the force of advertising word and image would dwarf the power of other literature."

        Then he added, "Nothing loosened up the world of the word quite so much as advertising."

        Boorstin quotes John E. Powers, one of the leading early American advertising writers. "The commonplace is the proper level of writing in business, where the first virtue is plainness. Fine writing is not only intellectual, it is offensive", Powers wrote.

       Boorstin also quotes ad pioneer George P. Rowell: "You must write your advertisements to catch damned fools --- not college professors --- and you'll catch just as many college professors as you will any other sort."

       Today the standard of advertising writing has changed. It's good, contemporary English, with no attempt to hide wit or wisdom.  I tell my students to read the "Talk of the Town" column  in the New Yorker every week. That's the style for every ad writer to emulate.

       You can let your own personality intrude from time to time as well. If an ad doesn't have a personality, it probably won't sell anyone anything.

       Keep in mind the thoughts of Dr. Boorstin. Advertising can be powerful. If your ideas are.

Friday, May 11, 2012

How to write a radio commercial that sings.

         Want to see a grown advertising writer cringe? Ask him to write a radio commercial. It's the one part of advertising that's the hardest to love.

         For one thing, it can be a lonely job. While everyone else is having the fun of working in teams, the radio writer is all by herself in her office, staring at the glow from the computer screen.

         For another, there's no glory in it. The Clios and Lions make heroes out of TV commercial creators. While there are awards for radio, too, nobody seems to know who wins, or why.

         Several years ago a want-ad in Advertising Age said, "Doyle Dane is looking for a radio writer". I called Judy Wald, the titan of New York advertising recruiters, and asked why. "Nobody wants to do radio," Judy said. "Do you want the job?" I said no, thank you.

         I've learned to love radio. I've made it my best friend. You can do things you just can't do on television --- for under a million dollars. Want to throw a frisbee from New York to New Delhi? Want to take a "fantastic voyage" through the bloodstream to show how an aspirin relieves a headache? Want to take a ride on a flying subway car to get a bird's eye view of traffic in Manhattan?

        Do it on the radio.

        Radio has long been called "the theater of the mind". It's a visual medium, with the pictures created in the listeners' heads.

       Soon after Doyle Dane ran that ad, they started assigning radio to teams of writers and art directors. The art directors to help create those situations and images in people's minds.

      Today there are radio production houses in New York and L.A. that create fabulous radio spots that some agencies still just can't do. I love radio. I have twice as long (60 seconds) to tell my story and can produce the spots economically from anywhere.

     The principles remain pretty much the same as TV. Keep it simple. Make one point and make it well. Help listeners "see" the benefit. And except perhaps in a crisis, don't do any wall-to-wall copy commercials. Tell a story based on emotion, but back it up with a fact.

     Mainly, remember it's the theater of the mind, and I've got a great seat up front, and I'm rooting for you.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Why this blog won't teach you to be a writer.

         There's really only one way to learn writing, and you can't get around it. The way to learn writing is by writing.

         It's not an easy point to get across. Everyone who wrote a valentine in fourth grade is convinced he knows how to write. So does everyone who's written a letter to her mother, a note to the gas company, or a business letter to a vendor. They're writers, right?

         They've written, but they're not writers.

          I remember a discussion I had with Don David, the copy director of the Detroit advertising agency I interned with the summer between my junior and senior years. Another intern had asked Don if he could now call himself a copywriter.

          Don told him the story of the yacht owner who called himself "The Captain". One of the crew members said "I can call you a captain, and you can call yourself a captain. But the real question is, does a captain call you a captain?"

         A writer has to write. Not want to write, or often writes, but has to write. Every day. Or he'll suffer the withdrawal symptom of becoming very irritable.

         If you want to be a writer, you have to read. You have to know about everything. Psychology, philosophy, war and peace, popular culture. That's right, if you want to be a writer you have to read People magazine, the New Yorker, the Atlantic, and Scientific American.

         You have to write constantly. If you want to be an advertising writer, you have to read ads and study commercials, movies, TV shows, plays, videos, and real life. Mostly real life. You have to listen to  people; how they talk, and what they talk about.

         Then you have to write ads and commercials even for clients you don't have. Tear an ad out of a magazine and rewrite it. Make it better; funnier, more human, more relevant, more sensitive, more insightful. More useful. Look at TV commercials with paper and pen in hand. Rewrite them, then and there.

         I can teach you how to write, but I can't make you a writer. That part's up to you.


Wednesday, May 9, 2012

When the Internet becomes a mirror.

         This week, the Wall Street Journal answered a question I keep forgetting to ask: why do we brag so much?

         According to the paper, a study at Harvard revealed that talking about ourselves "triggers the same sensation of pleasure in the brain as food or money". And we don't seem able to put ourselves on a talking budget.

          "Self-disclosure is extra rewarding" said Harvard neuroscientist Diana Tamir. "People were even willing to forgo money in order to talk about themselves."

          In several tests, the researchers offered people money to talk about people other than themselves. People preferred to talk about themselves anyway, and gave up between 17% and 25% of their potential earnings to do so.

         The scientists also used an image scanner which tracks blood flow to see which parts of the brain were responding. "Generally, acts of self-disclosure were accompanied by spurts of heightened activity in brain regions belonging to the meso-limbic dopamine system, which is associated with the same sense of reward and satisfaction from food, money, and sex," the WSJ reported.

         I guess that explains a lot about Facebook. We seem to be getting something out of telling everybody how good the dessert was at that party, and about how we loved the frosting that Melody put on that birthday cake for Daniel. Probably more than we got out of the dessert and the frosting.

         Are we really making friends on Facebook or are we simply adding to our audience?

         When we write advertising or anything else, there's always the temptation to make it more about ourselves than the reader. We find it easy to generalize from our own feelings and experiences, and elucidate on them in what and how we write.  That's a danger. Everybody isn't like you or me. We'd better know whom we're writing for.

          The WSJ also quoted psychologist James Pennebaker of the University of Texas at Austin, who studies how people handle secrets and self-disclosure: "We love it if other people listen to us. Why else would you tweet?"

          Or blog, for that matter.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

That car dealer is a real lady.

         When sociologists use the term "social structure", it has a very specific meaning. It means the social organization that underlies your relationship with others.

          Helen Lawson's study, "Attacking Nicely: Women Selling Cars", describes how socialization into a new setting changes behaviors and even feelings.

          Lawson did in-depth interviews with 35 car saleswomen and 15 car salesmen in the Chicago area.

         She found that most of the women had traditional "women's" careers before selling cars: teaching, retail, secretarial, and waitressing.

         In the car dealership setting, there are long hours and a lot of downtime. But whenever the women wanted to talk about problems on the job, the men harassed them. They were rejected. If they went drinking with the men, they got bad reputations. Intimidated at first, women changed to succeed.

         Some women continued in the role of "innocent". They made sure they didn't pose a threat to the men. They "dummied up".

        Some went on to become "ladies". They took on exaggerated feminine characteristics. They used what Lawson called "the maternal approach", taking customers under their wing --- they became non-threatening to male customers and co-workers.

        Other women became "tough guys" --- using the male model of car salespeople. They said they had to block their feelings and be comfortable with profanity and innuendoes. They harassed other salespeople.

        The rest became "reformers". They believed that women were better salespeople than men, and were motivated to change the way the work was structured.  They stopped mothering, nurturing, and being tough. They worked to build trust in potential customers.

        It's fascinating to see how our social groups can change us. One way or another, we're going to find a way to fit in.

        Keep that in mind when you're determined to market to a certain group or segment of the marketplace.

        It's not only demographics or psychographics we have to be concerned with, but their social context as well.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Another use for Baye's Theorum

          Ever hear of Baye's Theorum? It's a scientific way of assigning probability to a hypothesis based on some evidence. It's often used to describe what our minds do when we see something we might have seen before.

         Without going into the details (mainly because I can't), it multiplies the prior probability of what you've experienced before, with the likelihood of its being the same this time.

         Which, for my money, seems like it applies to all the ordinary commercials we see on our TV sets and computers. The endless parade of spokespeople, celebrities, models with lustrous hair, diagrams of headache relief, serious announcers, and other silliness.

         In a second or two, your brain knows what's coming, knows it's seen this kind of stuff before, holds its nose, and tells your mind to wander off.

         Our brains are wonderful things. Do you think they want us to spend a moment on things that have nothing to do with us? Do you think they want to be cluttered with names and facts and ditties and memories that can't help us or even entertain us?

         Fortunately, our brains protect us from absorbing all but maybe 15 or 16 of the thousands of commercial messages we are bombarded with everywhere every day. Good thing. If it didn't, we'd go bonkers.

         In elementary school you undoubtedly learned who Americus Vespucci was. America was named after him. But why? And who cares? We don't remember him because he has little to do with our lives. The same principle goes for advertising.

         We in advertising should probably write this over our computers: "Remember Americus".  Hopefully it will help us keep in mind that our ads have to be important and relevant to people, or they're lost. Our commercials have to help people, or equip them with believable information, or let them in on something worth knowing. Even if it's just a good joke.

          If they don't, Mr. Baye's Theorum will instantly materialize and your audience will disappear. One day, perhaps for good.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Something to watch along with television.

           Here's a piece of research for you, thanks to the Wall Street Journal: a Nielsen study showed that 70% of tablet owners and 68% of smart phone operators said they used these devices while watching television.

           Now we're about to enjoy new apps to interact in even more ways. IntoNow, Showtime Social, and Shazam let you interact with what's on TV. Showtime Social polls viewers during the show, Shazam displays behind-the-scenes footage, and IntoNow features live discussions and social network updates.

          Each has different applications and limitations, but the idea is always the same. To help you get more involved in the television content, share it with others, ad enjoy the experience in a whole new way.

          How do you feel when you watch the show? Showtime Social lets you choose happy, shocked, sad, or angry. Shazam lets you know things about the content; the music, for example. IntoNow can give you football statistics.

          One question is how does this affect marketing, and more specifically, advertising?

          Do these apps really help you get more involved in the content, or do they pull you away from the content? I suppose in a football game, you can get your stats any time, between plays. Or would you access them during the break, when you could be watching the commercials? And to complicate things more, what happens to the commercials on the apps themselves? Will we watch them because we made an effort to get there, or will that be the time we go back to our TV sets?

         Is TV less personal than an app? Probably. If "the medium is the message", which will influence us more?

         With so many boring ads on television, I can understand reaching for your cellphone. Television is trying to become more personal, with so many channels and programs to choose from. But the commercials aren't. So when we try to reach people on their cellphones, they go to Facebook.

          When will we learn?



Saturday, May 5, 2012

I need what I want.

          I was recently browsing in a psychology book, and the author asked this question: "Did you every buy an advertised product you really didn't need because of the persuasive appeal of the ad?"

          All of us could probably answer yes, because there are very few things we need. Marketing people say a need is a felt deprivation. We don't need clothes; we're not cold. We don't need food, and if we're hungry, we know exactly where to go for more calories. We most likely have shelter, even though we may not get along with our roommate.

         So first off, let's put aside needs and talk about wants. That reframes the question: "Did you ever buy an advertised product you really didn't want because of the persuasive appeal of the ad?"

         I doubt that any of us in advertising are that powerful. Maybe we can convince you that something is useful, and you then decide you want it. But we can't go from product to want directly --- we're not hypnotists.

         It's funny. That's the one thing advertising is accused of most often, and we're never that good. We have to tell you a story, or hire a celebrity to talk to you, or draw a cartoon, or dig up a testimonial or some arresting facts and figures. And then you still wouldn't buy it unless you wanted it. We have to charm you, tickle you, entrance you, promise you, scare you, warn you,  guarantee you, write a song for you, and whisper sweet nothings in your ear. And still the odds are against us.

         I'll give you a strange fact. Researchers have learned never to ask someone if they've been persuaded  by advertising to buy a certain product. People always say no, they're not pushovers.

         But ask them if other people are persuaded by advertising, and they invariably say yes, they are.

         Maybe we should all get a little deeper into a book on motivation.


Friday, May 4, 2012

Happy birthday, stinker.

         If you're a guy, how would you feel if someone gave you a holiday gift of Axe deodorant, a disposable razor, body wash and shampoo?

         If you're a woman, how about a Fabreze odor-eliminating candle, body wash, lotion, and a shower pouf? Excited, honored, awestruck?

         These are the kinds of products that were offered in December in gift sets --- assortments that sell for less than the total retail value of the products included. As a marketer, I really wonder about the idea. We're accustomed to offering what people really want. Why would they want gifts like these?

          I can't speak for the recipients, but apparently some shoppers like the idea.  It makes life a little easier for them. They can grab these, wrap them up, and have everything ready for the paper carrier, the letter carrier, and Uncle Harold from Cleveland.

          Some shoppers are very cagey about these assortments. They take the cellophane off, add some Christmas stickers or confetti, and re-wrap them in festive paper. Looks like a lot of thought went into these.

         Personally, I wouldn't mind an assortment of after shaves, but not the other stuff. It is a great way for manufacturers to sample their merchandise, but I'm still doubtful about how they're received.

        You're giving me deodorant, with all these companion products in exactly the same scent? Really, how sentimental. How come you didn't just get me room deodorizer and call it a day? Oh, you're saving that for my birthday. Thanks!

         We're trying to recover from a recession, and I'd like to reciprocate. How about a decanter of Head and Shoulders Dandruff Shampoo?


Thursday, May 3, 2012

Are you worth it?

         Forty years ago, L'Oreal launched its tagline,"Because you're worth it". It seemed perfect for the feminist revolution, a self-esteem boosting cheer.

          The line was created by a copywriter at McCann-Erickson, part of the Interpublic Group of agencies, and it had an important secondary usefulness as well. L'Oreal cosmetics were priced higher than most of its competitors. The tagline helped women rationalize the purchase.

          Forty years have seen a few revolutions in marketing and advertising. Back then, taglines and slogans, mnemonic devices and jingles were everywhere. Today, not so much. Few copywriters even remember what taglines are for.

          The marketers at Procter & Gamble, the world's largest consumer products company, have a very precise definition: a tagline is a provocative, memorable set of words about an idea of substance about the product. Breaking it down, it has to be pokey enough to provoke attention. Memorable, which is why so many taglines are catchy, or use wordplay. It has to convey an important, believable idea about the product or company.

          Here's another way to look at it. A tagline is the conclusion you want the viewer to come to after she sees the commercial. It's useful because it helps position the product in the customer's mind.

          Think about "Just do it". How it means competition and success to so many people, each in their own personal lives.

          But then someone not nearly as good an ad thinker comes up with a boring non-tagline such as "I'm lovin' it" and everyone says "who needs taglines?"

          McDonald's, by the way, calls their line "journalistic". They say that means it can go with any kind of ad or commercial or video. That's exactly what's wrong with it. It has no strategy behind it.

          If you're trying to create a tagline, don't sweat it if you can't think of one right away. They're not easy. Most likely, it'll come to you as you do the advertising.  Or maybe even in a meeting, the way"Got Milk?" did.

         But don't do an advertising campaign without one. It's a valuable communications tool, and your work is worth it.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Fall into the Gap.

         The New York Times recently called the Gap "one of the great hot-to-not stories" of American retailing. In her article, Stephanie Clifford called it "a remarkable comedown for a chain that once seemed to dictate how America dressed".

         I've been intrigued by Gap's rise and fall and maybe inching-up again. I could never understand how they let Mickey Drexler leave. He's one of the great merchants of our time, and now c.e.o. of J. Crew and doing fabulously. Mickey was replaced at Gap by Glenn Murphy, former head of Canada's Shoppers Drug Mart.

        According to Ms. Clifford's article, Gap is on the verge of a renewal. Their store at the Grove, the outdoor upscale mall in Los Angeles, is a lab for renewing the brand and doing quite well.

       The article mentioned that Gap also replaced their advertising agency. That kind of surprised me. Their ads weren't all that great, but neither are their new ads. In my experience, the difference between good ads and ordinary ads is the client. A restrictive, conventional client will get restrictive, conventional work. The saying in the advertising business is that every client gets the ads they deserve.

       For Gap to start changing minds about the store, the ads will have to be edgier, provocative, and actually speak to people. Not just look like stills from "Glee". That will take guts. The kind of guts Levi's had when  it introduced the "501 Blues" and went from cowboys to the streets of New York. Levi's has since slipped back a bit in young people's consciousness, and Gap will, too, unless they shift into contemporary gear.

       Commenting on the L.A. store at the Grove, Ms. Clifford wrote, "This can't be a Gap. The mannequins look kind of happy."

       Hopefully, soon their financials will look kind of happy, too.


Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Read this before you recommend again.

         I ran into what I think is a fascinating fact. If you are asked to recommend something, you'll probably give it the best possible review. But if the recommendation is going to your friends, you're likely to be much more conservative. This is probably because you don't want to be responsible for a friend's entertainment.

         Recommendations, of course, are at the heart and soul of social media. You might have one group you trust for movie reviews, another for restaurants.

         Amazon is perfectly happy to recommend books on your previous choices, and to go one step further. Based on the thousands of people who bought the book you're buying, they'll recommend another book you might like. This is called "affinity marketing", surely a gift to marketers who knew the value of increasing purchases but didn't always know how to make it happen.

         The big question is what gets people to buy the original product in the first place. It might be a recommendation on social media, but that can't always be counted on.

         For example, did you ever get a social media site to recommend breath mints or a soft drink? Probably not. Movies can't wait a few weeks to get people to attend and a new age-defying makeup may never make it to baby boomers if the only media are online.

        That's why even though advertisers are using social media more and more heavily, and in more innovative ways, they still aren't giving up on traditional media budgets.

        Here's how I look at it. Social media offer amazing additions to the marketer's toolbox. They're additions, not substitutes. The astute marketer knows how to use each medium well, for its unique strengths. Good advertising is more than "messaging". It build brands that make products more valuable, just as social media can hasten the purchase and make it more immediate.

        Just do me a favor. Don't look this blog up on Yelp.