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Scott McKay is a Toronto writer, creative director, brand response specialist, relatively 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

     

    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.

    Wednesday
    Jan182012

    talking to the people we really work for

    I recently had the opportunity to present work to clients.

    Um, no, not the usual suspects – not the client's marketing people, the ones who we present work to day in and day out.

    I mean all the other people who make up this client. A couple of hundred of customer-facing people who work in non-headquarters roles – the folks who never see silly things like creative strategies, and who never hear suits talking about "leveraging" things – stared down at me from the seats of a rented theatre. They were a true cross section of the thousands of people who work for and with this organization.

    These were the real clients. These were the people who actually do what this client is in business to do. Also in the audience were several board members, and the entire executive team.

    And despite a sudden attack of dry mouth, it was an incredible experience. Let's say it focused my mind on what our campaign was really about, and forced me to boil all the thinking we'd done about it down to its bare essentials. (For instance, at the last minute I cut a bunch of stuff about our planning lingo; I realized it was irrelevant to them.) But it also made me think about our work not just as "creative" but as part of the organization itself. After all, the creative is something every employee will see, and publicly wear; if it sucked, I wasn't the one who'd have to literally stand in front of the target audience every day.

    On a deeper level, I knew that I had to relate the campaign back to them. The creative couldn't just be a clever idea that would float out there in the world, and perhaps be vaguely to them by bringing in a logo and URL at the end. (Saw a spot this morning for Raising the Roof that did exactly that; hope they got it produced pro bono.) I had to prove to all these people that the work and its message all came from the reality they experience every day. That was the only way they'd feel a part of the campaign, be proud to talk about it with the people they serve.

    And while we won't know how it alll turns out for a few months, the vibe was very positive.

    Well, at least they didn't throw anything.

    And I learned something crucial about what we do, and why we do it.

    Monday
    Jan162012

    keep your fork, Duke, there's pie

    Recently I saw this short article in the Atlantic about a study (sadly, not actually from Duke University) proving that "humble" leaders are "better liked" by their employees. 

    Ahem. As you know being liked isn't exactly in anyone's list of useful characteristics of a good creative, or a good suit, or a good client. As much as I want to find value in such well meaning nonsense, I think the best thing you can call it is misleading.  

    The conclusion doesn't exactly help:

    Leaders who are open with their feelings and keen to learn and grow are better liked and perceived as more effective.

    Being perceived as being more effective sounds a little Machiavellian, doesn't it?

    A closer read reveals that the original study was based on only about 50 interviews with people of various levels of a wide range of organizations. Hardly scientific, not much more rigour than a high school social studies essay. Then, at the very end, the article mentions that a follow-up study being done with 900 employees and managers has validated the earlier results:

    They found that leader humility is associated with more learning-oriented teams, more engaged employees, and lower voluntary employee turnover

    Okay, that sounds like actual information. (Huzzah!) And that feels right, too, based on folks I've worked with and for. When you're working for someone who lets you have some of the answers, someone who lets you feel some sense of control over your work, you spend a lot less time trolling Linkedin for headhunters. And you spend less time buying coffee for similarly disenfranchised coworkers so, for once, they'll listen to you complain.

    Under the opposite, negativity becomes an atmosphere that you swim through all the time. It takes so much extra effort to get anything done. (Ever tried running in a swinning pool?) And I think significantly, that last point about lower turnover is the real value of "humble" leadership. More than the time and money expended on hiring, the real killer is the lost knowledge that walks out the door every time another employee leaves. Clients value people who know their business. Pushing green fodder into client meetings to replace losses reeks of that mild unpleasantness at the beginning of the last century.

    As I've said before (hell, it was my first post) being a manager or leader isn't and can't be about bossing people around – not for anyone in any industry, let alone creatives. It's about getting them to buy in; listening to their objections and issues, then dealing with them; it's about not denying the truth of their feelings and opinions, and accepting that you will not bully them into submission. To me this David Cooper quote means that, as a good leader, you won't even realize you're eating humble pie:

    "Perhaps the most central characteristic of authentic leadership is the relinquishing of the impulse to dominate others."