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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

     

    Tuesday
    Dec202011

    slow down, you're not dancing fast enough

    Don't know about you, but lately I've been feeling like two diametrically opposed forces are taking over my work life. 

    The first is the overwhelming sensation that we all need to slow the hell down and do a lot more thinking. Our clients are under more pressure than ever to get results faster. Our campaigns, which must now reach across more media than ever before, have less and less time to get planned and built. And there's so much more information coming at us before we make those decisions – and yet so little time to analyze that information. We're making decisions and acting while dancing under a fire hose of data.

    The second is the knowledge that we're too damned slow. In our clients' eyes, we don't react fast enough to their needs. Why can't we be more nimble, more Internet-y? Agencies take too long and need too many people touching campaigns before they ever see the light of day. After all, are your clients in love with your process? Didn't think so. And this isn't just about agencies, since clients don't seem to be happy with the speed of their own internal processes, either.

    Too fast. Not fast enough. What do we do?

    Well, a bonus nagging feeling I have is that these two forces are two facets of the same issue – our general lack of focus. (Again, that's the royal "our.") The only way to survive is to use what time we have to decide on the right purpose, on a focused strategy that drives business objectives, then dive in and make it happen as fast as possible. And no matter what, no matter how eager we are to please and expand scope or react to changing circumstances, we have to stay on purpose. In a world where we're bombarded by cool tactics every day, strategy is more urgent than ever. 

    Whenever I'm feeling all Roy Scheider-y about being pulled in opposite directions, I know I have to stop, look in the proverbial mirror and focus. And yes, sometimes that entails telling myself, "It's showtime."

    Tuesday
    Nov152011

    believing is seeing

    Just came back from spending a week away, with little to do but splash in water, dig in the sand, and read – all things I was eager to do. So with no issues or distractions, other than the question of how many towers a sandcastle should have, I was able to finish two books.

    One, Ian Kershaw's The End, a look at the final year of the Nazi regime and how it was able to hold out for so long against such overwhelming external forces, is typically fascinating and detailed, with a clear argument. My only problem with it is that it clearly needed another round of copy editing; within the first three pages I found several errors or confusing usages that seemed obtuse, and there are oddities throughout. (For instance, it would never occur to me to say that a Nazi leader had "skedaddled" unless I were, say, writing an episode of Hogan's Heroes.)

    The other book I was able to finish was Charles Mann's 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. It offers repeated lessons on the reality that what we see is in large part determined by what we choose to see. 

    Mann's goal is to cut through all the "noble savage" crap our society is so eager to believe and perpetrate, and actually try to see how natives of the Americas (or, as he calls them, "Indians," based on the persuasive argument that virtually all North American native groups call themselves that) interacted with their environments and each other. The answers are unexpected – from the Great Lakes to the Andes, he demonstrates that Indians had an enormous impact on their physical surroundings, harnessing their landscapes for sustainable food production. Even a sizeable chunk of the Amazon rain forests, full of fruit trees that were bred for production, is likely the result of human efforts from before Columbus. Far from being "hands off" people living at the mercy of nature, they literally created the vast landscapes that the Europeans found at the beginning of the sixteenth century – landscapes that, thanks to diseases like smallpox, were in the years following 1492 quickly emptied of the people who had created them.

    The book makes a strong case, and at the same time, it's a powerful indictment of centuries of white blindness to Indian realities. He shows how biological and geographic features are explained away through increasingly bizarre excuses, and archeological finds go unexamined or only half explained for decades; resistance to accepting Indians as being fully human, with the same kinds of motivations and aspirations as Europeans, is systemic and yet deeply inculcated, even when unintentional on an individual level.  

    Oddly enough, Errol Morris has just come out with a book about photography that shares the title of this post, and has a lot to do with this very topic.

    With the Occupy movement seemingly winding down, and political goofiness of all sorts continuing its upswing, it seems an apt time to think about preconceptions, how we see only what we want to see, and how we choose symbols to talk and fight about those things we think everybody sees. 

    Monday
    Aug292011

    just ask this marketing scientician

    This study out of the University of Oregon, about information recall rates between online and print readers, got a lot of attention over the past week. And rightly so. We need to know more about how and why people interact with advertising. (I mean, I want to know how all communications work, but since an ad agency supports my mortgage and food habits, I feel a particular dedication to knowing more about ads.)

    I encourage you to read the PDF. (Ahem, print it out if you must, like me.) One of the nuggets is that online readers are more like to read headlines alone (and, after I changed my mindyou know how I feel about that) while paper readers are more likely to read body copy and recall it. While I'm sure that's not the final answer and I'd love to see a bigger survey sample, this work is trying to do something important – get at the reality of how we communicate.

    We need to know what works under what circumstances. That knowledge could vastly improve media decisions, let alone creative decisions. And we already bring a lot of discipline to direct media, burrowing into all kinds of metrics and spitting out all kinds of analysis. Our media team's efforts and thinking on the results of, say, this campaign were considerable and impressive.

    So what to make of the collision of science (or at least observation) and creative? Most creatives (and a still surprising number of clients) assume that the idea trumps all. Package your concept up into whatever media you've bought and, bam, there's your campaign. Which is heartwarming and hopeful, and may have once been true, but it's becoming less true and less useful. People in our business can hear about the Oregon study, or similar work, and still not absorb it or understand it, thanks to the fact that we humans are surprisingly bad listeners. (That's thanks to the invention of writing, but that's a whole other story.)

    Direct marketing, for all its limitations, begins with the idea that marketing is measurable. And we have a toolkit of attitudes and techniques with which we approach our work. But it's all based on knowledge derived from response – what's worked? – and not on knowledge of the rest of the interaction. Right now we get back a yes/no, but not why or how. And that would be really valuable knowledge.

    Think of it as the complete takeover of the world by direct marketing if you must, but applying some sort of scientific or at least measurable discipline to consumer interaction with marketing is essential. 

    We need to get better.

    Wednesday
    Aug242011

    the joy

    As someone who gets sucked into a lot of meetings, it's easy to forget the simple joy of a good brainstorm. I carved out a couple of hours last week to sit with a team and just play and, damn, it was fun. It's a challenging category, but this is an opportunity to show the client not only that we get it, but that we can knock it out of the proverbial.

    Seeing the way forward was hard; the team and I frankly had a block, not being able to see past what everyone else in the category is doing. (And, um, that's not a compliment to the category.)

    But we just kept at it, saying bad things, goofy things, anything. We had to trust each other, not judge each other's goofiness. Suddenly, what seemed like a bad idea was revealed as something interesting, something that no one else in the category has done. And slowly, other possibilities opened up, too. 

    Sure, it's work to keep pushing when there's no clear answer, when everything you say is wrong. But that's how new things happen.

    And there's nothing more fun than that, "Holy crap, what about this?" moment.

    It's why we do what we do.

    (Well, me anyway.)

    Sunday
    Aug142011

    concentrated evil

    As a creative, you have to know what you need. You have to be sure about how you work. And you have to be ready to call bullshit on those who do not respect that process.

    The most basic of those needs is the brief. However, this need is not always recognized.

    I was once in a somewhat charged meeting with an account director, debating perceived flaws in some work.

    I asserted that good work didn't happen without a good brief. This account director disagreed loudly, saying pretty much literally that "you don't need a good brief to do good work." There were, um, some heated words on my part, because that was the dumbest thing I'd ever heard.

    Her attitude manifested itself in every job on her account. Projects would get briefed in, concepted, then presented internally, where it turned out that the creative was all wrong, because the brief was all wrong. And the brief was all wrong because none of the information in her head had been communicated to her team, and she hadn't really looked at the brief before allowing her team to present it to the creatives.

    Oddly enough, we were told that the clients were frustrated with the work. But it wasn't the work the clients were having trouble with.

    Needless to say, her and I didn't work together that well. Frankly, I can't name a single creative who has worked with her that well.

    And I don't know many clients who have, either.

    Tuesday
    Aug022011

    "but I had that idea *years* ago!"

    I said this to myself tonight, watching some TV and seeing yet another advertiser pick up a direction that I'd proposed for one of my clients several years ago – and had ignored.

    In fact, virtually the entire category with the exception of this company has moved in this direction.

    And part of me feels vindicated, oh so superior. I was out front of the curve, both with the idea and the execution: not just an advertising positioning, but also a multi-year content plan across digital media.

    But mostly I feel that I need to be a better salesman. If it was such a good idea, why the hell didn't they buy it? What didn't I communicate? How could I have been more persuasive?

    The philosophical part of me thinks that, apart from the personal lesson, there's no value in this kind of looking back. There's only value in continuing to offer clients innovative thinking, taking them new places, trying to anticipate not where their customers are, but where they're going to be.

    Besides, the only thing more boring than old ad people boasting about their great campaigns is old ad people boasting about their great campaigns that never saw the light of day.

    These are the people to avoid when you're sitting at the Pilot.

    Thursday
    Jul212011

    we have something to fear, and that's fear itself

    We agency weasels pretty regularly forget what the stakes are.

    Some recent conversations have reminded of the fact that most of our clients are running scared. Even the successful ones, the market leaders, are for the most part acting out of fear. Fear of not meeting their numbers, fear of getting crap from their bosses, fear of losing market share, fear of losing their jobs, fear of ruining their companies. This is just how business is. And if you don't think that the folks at Apple act out of fear – scared of their own success, scared about what they do next to sustain their market valuation, scared of Steve Jobs – you don't understand business.

    A lot us agency types wonder why our clients can't just *see* why every funky innovation we put in front of them is better than what they're doing now. We get frustrated, we call our clients stupid, we stop bringing them interesting ideas. Hell, I'm guilty of this.

    What we forget is that our clients don't just decide that they feel like doing things. They don't need reasons, they don't need to know what's cool or what's a surefire bet to become the FWA's site of the day.

    If they're going to rationally overcome that inevitable corporate fear, they need business reasons. They need numbers. They need proof.

    My colleague Dave Stubbs has an interesting take on this. He advocates starting small, prototyping things quickly and putting them into market in a small way; it's testing and proof of concept at the same time. If it works, great, it works; if it doesn't, you haven't risked much and you have something valuable: actual hard knowledge about your consumer. You haven't guessed wrong, or relied on the opinions of the eleven most vocal people in your department, or done nothing.

    That's a great way to help your clients decide to do what they need to do. Because it's our job to put our clients in a position to succeed. We have to give them the tools to make the right decisions. We have to help them overcome that fear.

    And you know, we ad weasels should be cultivating a little of that fear ourselves. But that's another post.

    Monday
    Jul182011

    ignore what I said – read the damn body copy

    Far too long ago I wrote about the fact that no one reads body copy in advertising. And I still think it's excellent advice for us working ad weasels to remember as we toil away in our underground sugar caves of persuasion. If you can suck someone in your target audience down to paragraph seven, you're doing a pretty damned good job.

    That said, it doesn't happen. As our old friend Howard Gossage said, "People don't read ads. They read what interests them. And sometimes, it's an ad." Something that, with that quote now being more relevant than the day it was uttered, far too many of us continue to forget.

    So, people don't read body copy. But you know what?

    They should.

    Okay, I don't mean marketing body copy. (Although, if you do, I'd really appreciate it.) I'm talking about news and information.

    This spring has brought an abundance of events that required understanding: Fukushima, our recent federal election, and our city's current budget crisis, the Vancouver riots... Most TV and radio news turned it all into mere headlines. Harper wins! Ignatieff's a stiff! Ford builds subways! City's labour costs 4X too high! Then they move on to another brief, meaningless headline, or celebrity news – gosh, too bad about JLo and Marc Anthony! – and they never get actually get to what's interesting about the story: the why. And as much as I love Twitter, it has probably exacerbated this trend – instant knowledge, instant reaction. (Ever notice that, when a name or topic is trending, the bulk of the tweets about it are of the "OMG, why is this trending?" variety?)

    Increasingly I feel that it's our duty as citizens of this city, this country and this planet to go deeper than the headline or the tweet. It's our duty to read the body copy, to click on the link and read the article, to seek out the complexities and try to understand them. Body copy is where the facts are, where the nuance is. When you understand that any event has multiple causes and can be seen many different ways, you may be confused, but you're also getting closer to how things really are. By relying on headlines, you're just being fed someone else's version of the story.

    Is this unrealistic? Elitist? Just plain goofy? Of course it's all of the above. But continued attention to the facts buried in the body copy is how the Guardian kept the phone hacking scandal alive in the U.K., and why one of the world's most powerful men is now acting a little like King Lear.

    Without that understanding, it's hard to run a democracy.

    Friday
    Jun032011

    I can think of one thing that's not useful

    Journalism about marketing is at best an oxymoron; for some strange reason it's hard to get honest "behind the scenes" facts or real analysis out of marketers who are extremely good at telling a smooth single story that they totally control.

    So if I read industry mags at all, I'm skimming to find anything I might think is relevant. And I tend not to bother with mainstream press reportage, unless I want to become all hot and bothered, because their lack of basic knowledge makes their writing by and large useless. (This isn't a trait that's limited to their analysis of marketing; Salon's Patrick Smith, a working pilot, regularly talks about just how awful press coverage is of almost any given airline story.)

    But as I cruised this morning's Globe, I got sucked into an article, Simon Houpt's Adhocracy column, about the new Toronto Trending site. I thought the site itself had some interesting ideas, but maybe wasn't all it could be. But toward the end of his story, Simon Houpt talks about a new "wave" of marketing that focused on being useful to consumers, and he mentions some current examples.

    Lovely. Only a few years late.

    Utility is a paradigm we've been working at our shop with for three or four years, and one which we've already evolved internally a couple of times. We didn't invent the idea, either. And I really think that Simon Houpt should know that utility has been around for a while in this business that he writes about regularly.

    For some quaint reason, I expect a journalist who's writing a column about marketing to know something about it beyond the press releases he gets in his inbox.

    Monday
    Apr182011

    do you appreciate how interesting we are?

    The thing about new business pitches is that it's awfully easy to talk about yourself and your amazing processes and how many proprietary tools you've got and generally how great you are.

    Did you start shopping at Loblaws because they've got a really good inventory management system? (I have no idea if they do, just go with my hypotheticals please.) Did you buy an iPad because of Apple's great employee retention and development philosophy? Did you rent your apartment because of the special care with which the plumbing and electrical systems were installed? Do I have to ask any more rhetorical questions?

    No one gives a shit about the how. Everyone has a how. Everyone has specially insightful proprietary tools with special sauce or magic powers. Everyone has awards. Everyone has a commitment to excellence.

    People – shoppers, prospective clients – want to know how it applies to them. They've got to see that your great inventory management means that the product they want is actually there on the shelves when they want it. You have to make the connections about what your proprietary tools will do for them.

    You have to create meaning.

    Over the past few months we've become much better at creating meaning. We focus on telling stories, and drawing out the parallels for our audience. Instead of "pitching" we're having some great conversations about the folks who have approached us. And we're making some interesting connections.

    All it took was getting away from the mirror.