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Scott McKay is a Toronto strategist, writer, recovering creative director, formerly patient manager, half-baked photographer and forcibly retired playwright.

This little site is designed to introduce him and his thoughts to the world. (Whether the world appreciates the intro is another matter.) If you'd like to chat, then you can guess what the boxes below are for.

 

 

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    "They had their cynical code worked out. The public are swine; advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill-bucket."

          – George Orwell

     

     

     

     

     

    "Advertising – a judicious mix of flattery and threats."

          – Northrop Frye

     

     

     

     

     

    "Chess is as an elaborate a waste of time as has ever been devised outside an advertising agency."

          – Raymond Chandler

     

    Tuesday
    Jan262016

    what to do on #BellLetsTalk day

    Look, I hate criticizing the work of a large group of concerned people who are trying to confront an issue that our society would prefer to ignore. @Bell_LetsTalk is an important campaign that has been a beacon for the millions of Canadians who have faced mental health concerns. Depression and anxiety are out in the open now. It's not an easy conversation to have yet, but at least we can talk about it. I've started talking about it, and I have earlier versions of this campaign to thank.

    There is not a day that's gone by that I haven't second guessed my negative post about the #BellLetsTalk campaign. Isn't acknowledgement of mental health enough for me? The money that's fundraised, the attention that's drawn, how can this be a bad thing? All the public figures sharing their stories, revealing real pain and suffering? It all helps. 

    But then I think about how many Canadians are seeing all those billboards and OOH ads, and the hundreds of thousands of people who are being encouraged to think of depression as sadness, thanks to those brutal emojis. All the people who will continue to think that if someone is depressed, they just need to cheer up or get over it. The cliché that's being reinforced of people just needing to smile, and think of all that's good in their lives. The stupidly facile solution to a deeply troubling and troubled medical condition.

    To see it as a part of this campaign is simply devastating and astonishingly wrong-headed.

    Because as I said in that previous post, I simply don't understand how such an important campaign can go so wrong. 

    So that's why I'll be tweeting #BellLetsTalk tomorrow. But that's why I'll be linking to this post every time I do it.

    Wednesday
    Jan132016

    it's time we talked about #BellLetsTalk

    I’ve wanted to write about the Bell Let’s Talk campaign for a couple of years. I’ve tweeted about it in the past, knowing I wanted to say more, but then the campaign ended, and life got in the way, as it does.

    Then life got in the way again this year, in an ugly way. And as the 2016 version of the campaign began to appear, I knew I had to finally articulate what I was feeling about #BellLetsTalk, and why.

    First, let’s celebrate the existence of a campaign about mental health, and how strong much of the campaign content is

    I write this being aware that we urgently needed the campaign. Our society has done an outstanding job of keeping depression, anxiety and mental health out of public discourse, so instead of being understanding or compassionate, we’ve slapped people with destructive labels like “can’t handle it” or “sensitive.” People suffering from depression knew that they couldn’t possibly be open about how they felt. 

    So having a company like Bell stand up for mental health and encourage Canadians to participate in talking about the issue and the stigma was an enormous step forward. I can’t express my gratitude enough to the people at Bell for their initial vision and bravery.

    And in many ways the campaign delivers what we needed. When you visit the site or see a lot of the content in social media, there are strong and real voices talking about depression and anxiety. Both Clara Hughes and Michael Landsberg are brave and articulate in talking about what depression is and isn’t, and the expanding roster of pubic figures who have been willing to lend their images and stories to the campaign is really encouraging – Serena Ryder, Mary Walsh, Kendra Fisher, Howie Mandel and many other people. 

    The videos are open and honest. (Some of them are a bit strangely art directed, but that’s beside the point.) It’s easy to share the content through social channels. There are tools and resources available on the site that have been developed in partnership with CAMH, and they’re full of good advice about how to talk about mental health. 

    All of this to say, once you click into it, once you’re engaged with the issues of mental health and depression, it’s a strong campaign.

    So why is the awareness part of Bell Let’s Talk so terrible?

    As I write this, I’m aware of billboards and out of home (OOH), some radio spots and a TV/cinema spot. 

     

    Let’s start with the cinema/TV spot. It’s about a worker and boss having an awkward conversation about the worker’s absence. The boss is alternately (and confusingly) sympathetic and judgemental, until finally the worker asks for “a break.” The boss finally appears to have some sort of transformational understanding of an unspoken condition. 

    The spot isn’t written or edited very clearly. The apparent outer/inner dialogue of the boss is confusing, with only a slight jump in the edit and a loss of background noise to let you know it’s her inner voice. The first time I saw the spot I didn’t understand what was going on at all. Only on the third viewing did I get it. (At least I think I get it.) And if it takes me that much effort to understand, after over 20 years in this business, I can’t see John and Jane Q. Public, the ostensible “real” people of Canada and the spot’s target audience, bothering to spend a lot of time winnowing out the spot’s message.

    Because it does make me work really hard to understand that the boss’s attitudes have changed. Or that there are two kinds of attitude about mental health. Or that this is what the worker expects from the boss. Or something. 

    And I don’t understand what triggers the boss’s apparent transformation. Based on everything that’s come before in the script, the worker saying she needs a break is more likely to trigger a response from her boss of, “Yeah right, we all need a holiday, get back to work.”

    I have heard a radio spot with a similar scenario to the cinema/TV, but I’ve only heard it once, so I can’t comment on it. (I did hear a different radio spot for the campaign today, with Clara Hughes talking openly about mental health and mercifully it was much more straightforward.)

    So it’s puzzling, and it’s a missed opportunity to change awareness, but it’s merely bad execution. I can see that the people creating the campaign knew that negative attitudes about mental health are actually part of the problem we as a society have with our mental health. They were trying to support the campaign message that we need to be able to talk more openly about conditions like depression and anxiety – because they are medical conditions, not moral failings. 

    When simplifying the issue distorts the message

    You’ve seen the billboards and other out-of-home executions. They’re everywhere. Simple but not stark, branded consistently with the microsite and the rest of the campaign – an image of one of the celebrity spokespeople on white, and a headline that’s about talking.

    So what’s my problem?  

    The billboard headlines are about how we can all turn sad face emojis into happy face emojis (or go from thumbs down emojis to thumbs up emojis) on #BellLetsTalk day. 

    I find this stunning. Because it’s a betrayal of everything the campaign is trying to do.

    It’s the opposite of the message that the campaign was created to spread. It’s the opposite of what we want Canadians to think when it comes to depression and anxiety.  

    People who are depressed will often have smiles on their faces. They’ll do whatever it takes to get through the day – smiling, laughing, joking, trying desperately not to betray their internal turmoil, their sense of inadequacy, their emotional distance from what’s going on around them. 

    You may look sad when you’re depressed. Or you may look happy. Whether the edges of your mouth are curled down or up has nothing to do with the emotional tidal waves that are drowning you inside. 

    Let’s talk about me for a second 

    I know this because I’ve lived it. To my coworkers and friends, I was fine and happy this summer – until suddenly I wasn’t. 

    For months I’d been grappling with what I thought was low-grade depression, thinking that I could handle it. I knew the signs, after all; I’d suffered before, and was aware of the range of pressures that was triggering how I felt. If I kept going, kept on exercising regularly and gobbling vitamin D, trying to deal with the pressures, I’d eventually be fine. So I kept smiling and kept going.

    Until one day I couldn’t. I had an incident that demonstrated that my mental health was clearly not under my control. 

    I am more fortunate than most, in that my boss and my agency were supportive of me and enabled me to take a break from work. I’m also fortunate in being able to afford a therapist, and in the fact that my health plan covered my medication. 

    I know most people aren’t that fortunate. That’s why we so urgently need the #BellLetsTalk campaign, after all.

    My own path took a renewed focus on exercise, vitamin D, meditation and yes medication – all different ways of healing and (in the way I visualized it) reconnecting my brain to my body, feeling whole.

    Above all it took accepting my condition, instead of trying to deny it. As my therapist only half-jokingly put it, “Given all the stuff you’ve been facing, not being depressed would be crazy.”

    I tell you all this because if there’s one thing I want you to take away from this post, is that depression is not about feeling sad.

    I’m going to repeat that because people who haven’t suffered make this mistake all the time, and they need to stop. And this is what enrages me about the 2016 version of the #BellLetsTalk campaign.

    Depression is not about feeling sad. It doesn’t mean you need cheering up. It’s not something that the people in your life should ever think is about you somehow not feeling happy enough. And it’s definitely not something that can be boiled down to a smiley face or a thumbs down emoji.

    Depression is often about feeling nothing at all. It’s about feeling worthless and pointless. It’s about feeling like your bones are made of lead, so heavy that you literally can’t lift yourself out of bed. It’s about the fact that going to work takes all the energy you have, and so does coming home, each and every day. It’s about the constant drain of not showing any of this to anyone, because you can’t leave any hint to your spouse or boss or friend that you’re so fundamentally unsure of your existence. Because you’re sure that no one will understand if you do start to talk – you’ve heard “cheer up” or “pull yourself together” or “don’t be such a baby” before. And hearing that makes you feel even more isolated because you’re sure they’re right, but you can’t and you don’t know how, and suddenly it’s all even more difficult to bear. 

    So why would Bell and their agency get it so wrong?

    I don’t want this to be about some agency weasel criticizing another agency’s work. I don’t particularly care which agency did this; I do find it interesting that no agency is easily identified with the past couple of years of the campaign. (An agency called lg2 out of Quebec created the original campaign several years ago, which I had no problem with.)

    Based on my experience, I can only offer a few tentative thoughts about why the awareness work might have turned out the way it did:

    “We need to get people to participate in #BellLetsTalk day to have conversations about mental health in social media, so we’ll use emojis because they’re so common in mobile and social.” Assuming that you have to dumb down the issue you’re fighting by misrepresenting it and reinforcing negative stereotypes seems a little self defeating, no?

    “Who cares? It’s only a starting point – once people engage with the content they’ll see the deeper issues.” But everyone in this business knows that most people don’t engage with the deeper content of any campaign; only a relatively small percentage of people click links or watch the landing page videos. Those few precious initial seconds of audience attention must be used to change attitudes, not reinforce stereotypes.

    “Talking too much about depression turns people off. We want people to engage and help, so we need to keep the message positive.” Much as the donations from the #BellLetsTalk campaign are helpful, they aren’t the solution. Changing people’s attitudes about depression and anxiety is the solution – as several of the celebrity videos point out.

    Three possible scenarios, none of them valid reasons for misrepresenting what depression is. That’s what pisses me off. 

    The people running the campaign failed to understand that their message can’t misrepresent the disease 

    By filling their ads with smiley face emojis and thumbs down emojis that obviously stand for depression and whatever its opposite is supposed to be, #BellLetsTalk makes the fundamental mistake of trivializing depression by saying that it is about being sad – one of the societal attitudes that the rest of the campaign is trying to change. Confusing depression with feeling sad is one of the things that makes people not take depression or anxiety seriously in the first place. 

    As the standard bearer for mental health in Canada, #BellLetsTalk can’t repeat the misunderstandings we’re all trying to change. There’s no excuse.

    That’s how the campaign needs to be better. Because people I know and love need it to be better. Hell, because I need it to be better.

    And the public figures involved who have been so fearless and vocal about sharing their stories deserve better.

    Because it could so easily have been better.

    There are lots of stats about how much mental health issues cost us as a society. But the real cost is personal and human. Depression and anxiety make us less than we can be, by robbing us of our emotions and our relationships and our passions. They can steal the best parts of our lives. 

    But we don’t have to let that happen, not if we acknowledge the insidious truths about mental health.

    I wish Bell knew that.


    Saturday
    Jun012013

    building muscular copy

    Direct writing is in a bad way these days. Most of the emails and packages I get are mere lists of product features, usually bulleted, with some vague sense that it will benefit me as a human – and not much more personal than that.

    Why is this happening? The canard about people not reading any more is one reason, a trusim that clients and agency types are both guilty of repeating all too often when judging letter or email copy. Our audience doesn't have a lot of time, they say, so cut all this stuff about them and focus on the product. Bullets would make it really easy to scan. (Yes, they'll say "scan" instead of "skim.") And why is it two pages? Make it single sided.

    And this, my friends, is how we get lovely looking things that allegedly want our attention but which actually contain little or no reason to engage. 

    But it doesn't have to be this way. While the classic formats may be having a hard time, the endeavour of engaging an audience to get them to respond – the purpose of direct marketing – is alive and well in other forms. For instance, take a look at this page selling a book called Anabolic Cooking. The art direction seems to be a mess, it seems to be several feet long, and it wouldn't pass muster at any agency internal. And yet the writing is classic. It's actually persuasive, with the writer going through misconceptions and issues and knocking them down so you have no reason to say "no" – like any great salesperson. That's strong (if formulaic) writing.

    I've recently seen a bunch of examples of this kind of site, and it seems to be where direct is heading for product-focused sales. It is a formula, and it's easy to see how people would be turned off by the high pressure. But, being classic DM folk, these marketers don't care about the fact that their page may turn some people off, and that it's not the coolest advertising ever done, or that it takes time to engage with it.

    It sells to people who are interested. And it works. 

    As creatives, I think we laugh and ignore this as "garbage" at our peril. There's always something to be learned from something that works, something we can apply no matter what we're writing.

    Wednesday
    Jan092013

    a hockey debacle offers two lessons for agency leaders

    Leafland is all agog over today’s firing of Leafs General Manager Brian Burke, who looked all but inviolate until the announcement was made. Whatever the real story turns out to be, the discussion has been fascinating, especially because it’s uncovered some similarities between the hockey word and the marketing world.

    1) When you hire, don’t hire based on perception.

    As friend of the blog mf37 wrote well before Burke was hired, when you actually looked at his track record, it was nowhere near as great as most people (including me) believed. Look at the candidates without the rose-coloured glasses. Sure, their personality matters, but it’s no substitute for their decisions and their results. You’d think this was common sense, but the continuing popularity in Toronto of Burke’s “big personality” and “energy” shows that it’s not so common. Saviours rarely turn out to actually save you.

    The situation reminded me that marketing people, like hockey people, like to rely on deciding factors like perception and “cool” when hiring, especially creatives. They have a vague idea that a candidate comes from a hot shop (like Burke from Stanley Cup-winning Anaheim) and want to grab them. Few of us have the patience to try to discover the reality of the work. It never ends well.

    2) If you’re the boss and you have to fire someone, stand up and take the crap.

    At today’s presser, the board of MLSE, the ultimate decision makers in all this, were completely absent, preferring to hide behind their CEO and new GM – neither of whom were terribly convincing. (For instance, the CEO sighed continually during the radio interviews I heard.)

    Sports franchises feed on energy and hope – the energy of the players, as well as that of the fans and media. Unanswered questions about teams tend to fester, and lead to negativity. It’s completely foreseeable that media and fan negativity about the Leafs and their ownership will only grow during the season ahead – especially if the team loses a few games early on. The board’s lack of accountability will be an ongoing story.

    Agencies also feed on energy and hope. And when the decision maker doesn’t take responsibility, doesn’t stand up and say why a move has happened, people at an agency notice and remember. Yes, unanswered questions lead to speculation and rumour. But worse than that, you’re draining the reservoir of trust you have with staff. If you stand up and take the hostility toward your decision, you show people that you respect their feelings. That way, you’ve got a fighting chance of keeping some trust, or at least being able to restore it.

    MLSE reminds me of a senior agency person many years ago who didn’t stand up and tell his staff that a firing had happened. Instead, for whatever reason, he left it to the replacement person to make the announcement. The result was a permanent weakening of the senior person’s leadership, and how staff would work for him. When he himself left a year later, there was no mourning.

    Respect for your people is a sign of how much you respect yourself. 

    Monday
    Sep242012

    a letter to Phillip Crawley, publisher of the Globe and Mail, and John Stackhouse, editor-in-chief

    "The subject who is truly loyal to the Chief Magistrate will neither advise nor submit to arbitrary measures." – JuniusDear Mr. Stackhouse and Mr. Crawley,

    This is an open letter to you from someone who's been a Globe and Mail subscriber for most of the past 20 years. 

    I'm writing because of the Globe's response to the recent situation regarding Margaret Wente and an alleged case of plagiarism.  

    I can't judge the truth of the allegations made by Carol Wainio, or as your Public Editor called her on Friday, the "anonymous blogger." (Although having read Professor Wainio's post, the allegations seem to be extremely serious.)

    But I can expect your Public Editor to take those allegations seriously. And I expect the both of you to take them seriously as well. 

    Unfortunately, Ms. Stead did not seem very interested in going through the allegations in any detail. Her response to Professor Wainio was not only patronizing and dismissive, it was laughably unthorough. She says that she "asked" Ms. Wente if she'd read an article by Dan Gardner of the Ottawa Citizen, where at least one of the quotes Ms. Wente had used originated. Ms. Wente denied it. Case closed for Ms. Stead.

    Perhaps even more unfortunately, now that the Globe has apparently investigated further and "taken action" in this case, the action is nowhere near enough. Ms. Stead now reports to someone else, and Ms. Wente continues to write her column. Everything else is being handled "privately." 

    This is not good enough. I expect more from both of you, and from the Globe.

    The dismissive and and contemptuous attitude continued after whatever "appropriate action" had been taken. Ms. Wente's column as posted at 10:10 Monday night seems less contrite about her own mistakes than it is bitter about the current digital culture that held her work up to examination. Having read her latest column, I can only assume that she'll try harder not to take work from other people and call it her own, but can't really promise anything. I'm not even sure that I heard the sound of her wrist being slapped.

    This arbitrary decision to not punish plagiarism is not acceptable.

    Ms. Wente and Ms. Stead need to be dismissed for cause, as neither has lived up to the expectations of their positions.

    As neither of you has seen fit to do what is needed, please cancel my subscription, effective immediately.

    Wednesday
    May232012

    is attention a valuable resource?

    A couple of items today converged with some vague recent thoughts of my own.

    First, I'm not knowledgeable enough about business ins and outs to know how accurate this Michael Wolff article about Facebook is. But it does raise interesting questions about Facebook, both as a business, and as a social space for actual people. Wolff highlights some of the key challenges facing advertisers in this space; for being such a measurable and targeted environment, results ain't anywhere near what we'd like them to be. Users aren't clicking on ads that are apparently highly targeted and highly relevant. They've learned to tune them out.

    Given Facebook's need to grow out of its apparently dropping per-user value, Wolff sees this as a looming disaster for the entire digital paid advertising space. Now, I'm not so pessimistic, but as a marketer I sure would like to see Facebook figure out a model that's sustainable that doesn't simply entail various enthusiasts yelling, "But it's got a billion users!" (Or one that, as one of Wolff's commenters says, entails charging $9.99 a month to see an ad-less Facebook. Users would abandon it in droves.)

    So, the space that did the most to disrupt the old model may not be the juggernaut we thought. But then this Seth post about signal to noise ratio talks about email spam, and the fact that Twitter clickthroughs are dropping. People can't find the stuff they want in all the clutter, even in media that we can't make fun of simply because of their latest week on Wall Street.

    Attention is critical. Every medium wants it from users/viewers/readers. Every marketer's job depends on getting it.

    But the promises of new media to deliver attention don't seem to be panning out, even as the old media can't live up to their past track record at doing the same thing. Which leaves me with a question.

    Is attention a finite resource that needs to be as carefully managed as a forest, or fresh water? Can attention be used sustainably? Or must it be strip mined in an attempt to get what little is left as fast as possible?

    One of the most common complaints in this Game Of Weasels is that our audiences don't have time any more. In every brief in every agency in every city on the planet, we say that our target audiences don't read, they don't watch network TV, don't listen to the radio, don't spend enough time with their kids, don't have enough leisure time, and don't (somehow) spend enough time on their jobs. When people are this stressed, this pressed for time, this conscious of the next things to get to on their list, how they hell do they pay attention to you and your ad, wherever it is – Facebook, TV, radio, Google, whatever?

    More importantly, why would they pay attention?

    Today a consumer can't get away from us. We market to – no, at – her or him constantly. And yet, is that really the best way to reach them? Yelling at them constantly? When she or he has more control over media than ever before, and can and does turn us off or click away? 

    Howard Gossage wondered much the same thing half a century ago. He thought that, in the early 1960s, advertisers were already bombarding consumers with too many messages. In fact, he was pretty hard core about it:

    "I like outdoor advertising. I just think it has no right to be outdoors." 

    While that's extreme, I agree that at some point, as marketers, we have to think about the audience. We have to think about the impact of everything we do as an industry. We have to think about the fact that people can and are tuning us out.

    Is the attention of our audience – our friends, family, neighbours and fellow citizens – a precious resource? Yes. 

    Is it one we're using wisely? I'm not sure.

    Not that I have any answers. But agree or disagree with him, another of Gossage's aphorims is ALWAYS worth bearing in mind, for every marketer, every client, every agency weasel:

    "Nobody reads ads. People read what interests them, and sometimes it's an ad."

    Monday
    May072012

    the result of this chicken-and-egg dilemma?

    I know I've posted about this before, but the fractured reality of all things marketing was really brought to life in a recent chat I had with a senior leader at a not-for-profit organization.

    This group is relatively established and successful; they've had growth, and some success in getting funding for interesting and effective programs. That said, their funding continued to be unpredictable, and they'd also had some layoffs. 

    Being a curious marketing weasel, I was interested in her marketing plans. Turns out they had a social media manager working internally, which was encouraging, and an agency doing a pro-bono awareness TV spot once a year.

    What about individual fundraising? I asked. Awareness and engagement are great, but at some point you have to translate those things into real cash money. 

    We can't afford an individual donor program, she said.

    Her group accepted individual donations, of course, and whipped up a newsletter which encouraged giving, but there was no systematic outreach to people who'd raised their hands. (Which I already knew, being one of those occasional donors.) Other than that, they relied on large corporate and government grants, a few individual major donors, and asks at their events. 

    The reality is that building an individual fundraising program using email and direct mail is just too expensive for many organizations, since they'd have to build the infrastructure to do it, and it would take too long to pay off. Her hope was that they could continue to grow in their typical two-steps-forward, one-back way until one day such a program would be possible.

    And, while I want to write that this is slightly unbelievable, when I think about it, most companies in Canada these days (whatever their relationship to profit) are having a problem building relationships that pay off. It is a big cost, and there so many media channels to cover off, let alone understand; the relatively small economies of scale in this country can't support that kind of investment for long enough before seeing real ROI. It's understandable that many managers look at that chicken-and-egg scenario and decide it's not worth it.

    For me, however, the problem with neglecting CRM (which is of course what we've been talking about) is that those emails and DMs help keep people feeling involved, and keep dollars coming in. Awareness and engagement are pointless if something like CRM isn't keeping those one-on-one relationships (forgive the pun) solid and fresh.

    Sunday
    Feb262012

    the red carpet model of social media hype

     

    It's funny how, a couple of years back, Facebook was going to be the way that we all enjoyed mass content together – things like, say, the Oscars or election nights. Think of it. Facebook was already all about hanging out with your friends online, gave you a newsfeed that let you share your thoughts with them pretty much immediately (as well as sharing links, pictures and so on), and then ultimately offered us Facebook Connect, which meant that you could be on specific sites relating to that mass event and still be sharing your witticisms and deeply felt emotions. 

    Mr. Zuckerberg and his pals made it so easy for us. We were already signing up by the millions, and they were so eager to be the engine of community, so giving, so encouraging.

    And we all chose 140 characters instead.

    In spite of their quest for universal love (and total market domination), social media platforms have become pretty specific. (Sample size of one, but anyway...) After a couple of years thinking that it was how I'd eventually communicate with everyone I know, for me Facebook instead became a place where I'd connected with a whole bunch of people from earlier in my life, it turned out merely for the sake of connecting. Some I stay in touch with, most not. The burden of going back years later and trying to slot them into manageable groups seems a little too much like, well, work. Unsurprisingly, I don't use Facebook much today. LinkedIn became my engine for work-related relationships and information, Myspace is a place I go only when a new band I'm trying to find out about posts tracks there, and Twitter became a place to broadcast my half-formed wit and enthusiasms.

    Yet Facebook is a mind-numbingly large company, followed closely by thousands of financial analysts, and will be, when public, one of the largest concentrations of capital on earth. Maybe. Well, for a while, anyway

    Today, after a night of watching so many smart and clever people tweet about the Oscars – a terrible TV show that celebrates movies shockingly few people have actually seen – my Twitter feed continues to remind me that Pinterest is all the rage. Everyone wants to be first, everyone wants to look smart, everyone wants to seem knowledgeable. Everyone has stats about how much traffic it drives, and how fast it's growing.

    We've been here before, several times. It will be years before people decide what they will actually use Pinterest for, if anything. 

    Sadly, at times like this, social media cognoscenti remind me of little more than the flacks hyping stars on the red carpet before the Oscars; gushing about whomever they're with, but always scanning the area for the newest hottest new thing. There's no reflection, only reflex.

    Friday
    Feb102012

    can your voice be better? you sure as hell better try

    A long, long time ago, playing with a cassette tape player in my friend Mike's suburban basement, I figured out that I can't stand the sound of my own voice. 

    I think we were recording ourselves doing half-remembered Monty Python sketches (I remember the Spanish Inquisition as a particular favourite), and needless to say as we recorded we assumed we were breathtakingly funny. We were strange teenagers, after all, and we understood these strange and weird bits so well. How could it not be amazing?

    Well, I won't debate the comedic worth of what we did. (Mercifully, that magnetic tape has no hope of being found in listenable condition.) What really hit me, as we played the tape back, was the fact that my voice was so unexpectedly nasal and awful. I couldn't stop thinking about it, analyzing it, trying to hear the sound in my own head the way it had come out of the tape player so I could stop it sounding that way.

    That's exactly how you should feel about your past work.

    Especially the work in your book.

    I'm not talking about excuses – blaming various imperfections on client, account or production interference, budgetary woes, or the failure of the satellite to deploy. (Yes, my partner and I had a great idea killed because a telecommunications satellite didn't reach orbit and crashed.) Anything that's been so dreadfully affected by such things probably shouldn't be in your book anyway. 

    I'm talking about the work that you've put in the front of your book thinking it was the best thing you'd ever done. The work that got you jobs. The work that got you awards.

    How could you have made that work better?

    If you're any good at this creative thing we do, and sure as hell if you want to get better, you have to face that question. 

    Me? I cringe at almost everything I've done – stuff that's been at the front of my book, done really well for clients, even won awards. I can't look at it without thinking about what I'd change, what if I'd tried harder at that headline, how could I have looked at it from a different point of view. And I try like hell to apply those lessons to what I'm doing today. That's the only way I know for my work to get better.

    Yes, as that great creative director Crash Davis once said, you have to play this game with fear and arrogance. That's just as true when standing in front of the client or your account team, as it is in front of a nasty fastball pitcher who likes to throw inside. That's for the show. 

    Inside your head, as you stand in the batting cage or hunched over your keyboard, you think about all the people who can do it better, and you analyze and try different things and make tons of mistakes and, slowly but surely, you learn.

    You get better.

    Friday
    Jan272012

    schadenfreude for Ozymandias, king of kings

    As much as I'm reluctant to comment on other agencies, this article by Seth Stevenson in Slate about the decline of Crispin Porter + Bogusky is worth your time, if only to remind you of the Golden Age of advertising – Subservient Chicken, The King, Peter Stormare acting weird around Volkswagens – that will soon only be a distant memory on Youtube, alas... sniff...

    Ahem.

    Pointing at the mighty as they lay fallen is the whole point of this, I suppose. (Hell, I was impressed that I was able to spell "schadenfreude" without looking it up.) Now that Burger King is on its way to number three in the market, VW has moved on, and Mr. Bogusky is doing special projects in his backyard, it feel very much like it's time to point out that the emperor's suit was remarkably skintight and transparent...

    But let's be fair. It's possible that BK's sales *may* have been affected by a little thing known as the Economic Situation, as we so euphemistically call it for our clients. And they've had some leadership changes. Can you blame everything on their marketing?

    Now, I was never a fan of their "weird for the sake of being weird" approach. Admittedly it was ground-breaking stuff when it launched, but to me it felt like work done to impress other ad weasels and show judges. If that was all CP+B had been capable of, then I'd be applauding with Mr. Kane myself.

    But there was another side to Ozymandias, one that actually made me believe the hype. 

    The Whopper Freakout campaign showed real brilliance. To persuade a client to address a perceived weakness by coming at it head on at a hundred miles an hour truly was remarkably brave, innovative and absolutely turned weakness into strength. It's simple stuff, but powerful.

    Can you think of a better way to honestly show how passionate people are about your product? (I'm aware that the honesty came at the cost of a lie. That's how we roll.)

    These guys had something magic. I'm sorry they seem to have frittered it away. 

    One more thing: the Deutsch VW Passat ad with the Darth Vader kid and the remote ignition that the Slate writer likes so much? I don't get it. Isn't it a better ad for remote ignition, or George Lucas, than it is for Passat? Has our advertising really not progressed past the point where having your audience think, "Aw, that brand seems to vaguely understand me by exploiting the fact that I have kids" is counted as success? 

    At least CP+B tried.

    Maybe Ozymandias was the wrong literary reference. Maybe I should have written about Icarus.