Friday, July 13, 2018

Starbucks and straws.

I realize I am an ignoramus about a lot of things. For instance, while some of my job demands an understanding of business, I'd be a fraud if I said I really know how things work when you get deep inside something more complicated than an advertising agency.

On Tuesday a lot of my friends were chirping with ecstasy about Starbucks' decision to eliminate using plastic straws by the year 2020. (Right now, Starbucks is distributing over one-billion plastic straws a year--that's 2.7 million a day. And the US throws out an estimated 500 million straws a day.)

Here's my issue. 

How hard is it to replace plastic straws with some kind of more sensible alternative? Why will this simple act take two years? Is Starbucks as an organization so slow and bloated that effecting a change in straws takes forever?

Seriously, Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks has a net-worth of almost $3 billion. Couldn't he afford the financial hit of wasted straws and eliminate them tomorrow?

My two cents is that during our current Trumpocalypse we are so starved for anything that smacks of progress that we're literally grasping at straws.

My further two cents says that the entities that will return us from the bring of the dark-age we are speeding toward will be the giant companies that dominate our lives. 

They can, and should, do a lot more than they are. We should demand more of them.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Two pretty good bosses.

As checkered as my career has been, along the way I've been lucky enough to have been taught by some pretty good bosses.

My first "professional" boss was a guy called Pat Patrichuk. He was a grizzled old guy--and I was just 22 at the time--so he looked to me as ancient as thPleistocene.

I was writing catalog pages back then, hundreds and hundreds of them. If you screwed up the SKU codes of a pair of boots or something, if you forgot to include the right color choices, it would foul up the whole system, and you were in a fair amount of trouble. If you made three mistakes in a year, you were out on your not inconsiderable.

One time I tiptoed into Mr. Patrichuk's office and started hemming and hawing about a mistake that made it almost into print--I think they had to stop the presses to correct it. I was going on and on, not lying, but prevaricating as I went.

I'll remember forever what Patrichuk said to me: "Hit me, but don't shit me." In other words, tell me what happened flat out, don't try to hide it. 

Another boss I had was in my next job when I was writing print ads in-house for Bloomingdale's. Chris Rockmore was his name and he was a very brainy guy who knew how to solve any problem and would almost always be on your side.

I remember having issues with a piece of copy. Maybe it was the buyer's fault, maybe it was mine. Doesn't really matter. The simple fact was, it had gone through so many rounds of revisions that it was no longer intelligible. Dogged, as I am, however, I kept trying to fix it.

Chris came into my tiny office and looked at what I was going through. He tore up the offending copy and all my previous drafts. (We had typewriters in those days, so nothing was "saved.")

"Start fresh," he said to me. "Stop correcting corrections."

Today, we go through so many revisions to even the simplest, shortest pieces of copy. And we sit through meeting after meeting where people do a soft-shoe to soft-peddle the destruction.

That's when I think about Mr. Patrichuk. Hit me but don't shit me. 

And when I get to my desk to rewrite, I think about Chris.  And I start fresh. 

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Scientific marketing.

Not written by a computer.

This makes no sense to an algorithm.

Flahoolick. A word not organized, tagged and scored. 

Soul. Unavailable from software.
One of the most disheartening things about our business today is seeing, before my very eyes, the English language being stabbed, shot at, folded, spindled and mutilated by so many of the so-called leaders in our trade. And so many people who welcome that mutilation as if it is inevitable, and why stand in the way of progress.

I just read some blather somewhere—it’s everywhere—about AI copywriting and how it will change everything.

You hear it from technologists. You hear it from the financial technocrats in charge of the big holding companies. You hear it from  f u t u r i s t s. You even hear it from creative people.

I’ll be the first to admit, a lot of copywriting by humans sucks. It could be because it’s been so sullied by the 37-rounds of revisions even a simple tweet is subject to so that it touches 19 different copy points and alludes to 16 different potential audiences that it is all but incomprehensible.

In fact, most copy is judged not by what and how it communicates but by some invisible checklist that is meant to ensure that in saying everything, nothing is really said, and in the blandest way possible.

And now, it’s getting worse.

The same sorts of things that foul-up human copy will now be taught to machines. So they can do the same, instantly and ubiquitously.

In other words, people who don’t understand the basics of clear communication are right now rolling out “Marketing Language Clouds” in which AI generates “language that resonates with most any audience, segment or individual.”

They go on with copy explaining it that doesn’t, frankly, inspire confidence. I found this copy on the site of an AI from Goldman Sachs called "Persado." “Imagine having a copywriter and data scientist for each person in your audience, revealing the precise language that performs along with analytics to explain why. Comprised of the world’s largest marketing language database, with over a million organized, tagged and scored words, phrases and images [we] enable brands to increase acquisition and retention while building long-term consumer relationships.”

Fuck me with a wooden spoon.

I don’t even know where to begin.

I don’t know if a human wrote that or a bot. I do know it’s a veritable crock.

There’s no such thing as “precise language that performs…” If writing were that simple, that formulaic, that precise, every song would be a #1 hit, every Broadway show would be SRO and every novel a best-seller.

I can just imagine a client meeting way in the future—like two weeks from now, or maybe tomorrow. 

“George, I love this copy. But did you use ‘precise copy that performs?’”  

"No, I just used the words I thought were simple and right."

"Will your copy resonate most [with] any audience, segment or individual.’ And ‘have you used tagged and scored words and phrases that enable brands to increase acquisition and retention while building long-term consumer relationships."

"Well, er...."

In 1923, a guy called Claude C. Hopkins wrote a book called “Scientific Marketing.” So, in other words, for almost a century scientific-types have been asserting that we can take “chance” out of creativity, and so make creativity an “if-then” proposition. In other words, if you do or say x, then y will happen.

Life, I believe, is not that simple.

And creativity is not that codifiable.


By the way, and this might be apocryphal, I heard somewhere that when the Navajo made a blanket or a rug, they always make it imperfect. 

Their line of imperfection--their deliberate mistakes--is what makes their rugs human. They call their imperfection the rug's spirit path. When they die, that path allows their spirit to escape their work.

What I mean by this is simple. Human-ness, imperfections, vigor and even sweat is what makes work work. Maybe I'm a Luddite. But I don't think machines will ever get there.

Some thoughts on a handwritten note.

Dave Dye—a famous English art-director—keeps a really great blog on advertising. He calls it “Stuff from the Loft” and you can find it here. 

In contrast to so many of us in the blogging game, Dave does not write short, ephemeral posts. He interviews luminaries from the past and he goes deep. For instance, his latest post, an interview with Jay Maisel, includes nearly 200 photographs.

Dave's are posts you should copy and save for your files. They contain the wisdom of the ages. I copy them then save them as pdfs for future reference.

Back in early June, Dave interviewed himself. You can enjoy the piece here. There's a lot of great stuff in it--a lot of great stuff--but the thing that really struck me was a handwritten note Dave had saved from Tim Delaney of Leagas Delaney in which Delaney offered him a job

That prompted me to send Dave a note:


Hi, Dave,

I read your latest on Jay Maisel and, with even more interest, your profile of yourself and your work.

I was thinking of writing a blog post about drawing and handwriting--as symbols of what's gone wrong as we've overly-professionalized our business. We are precise, legalistic and tight-assed now.

I was particularly moved by your "offer letter" from Leagas Delaney. It was human and spoke volumes about the man, and about the agency he was trying to create. At least to my eyes.

OK if I use some of your work in a post?

Here's Dave's reply:


Be my guest, take what you want.

It's why I show roughs, keep scribbles and bits of ephemera, like that letter from Tim.

I like seeing humanity at work, the rough edges, the bits that are only a few steps away from those old drawings on cave walls.

Here's the letter from Delaney:

It reads:

Dear David,

Following our meeting, I confirm that I would like you to join us. Salary, 45K. Begin as soon as you can get away.


Today, of course, there's no such thing as a simple offer letter. Life is way too tortured for that. 

They have to be "vetted." Go through HR. And my guess is if you make more than $12.50/hour, they have to go to a finance person who sits way up in a holding company. That person will probably issue you a barcode requiring that you report on such and such a date at such and such a time and bring a stack of official documents as long as your arm.

We have, in short, removed almost all the humanity from what used to be a very human business. I miss, like Dave Dye does, "seeing humanity at work, the rough edges, the bits that are only a few steps away from those old drawings on cave walls."

I don't know why we've gotten so professionalized and inhuman. I don't know how--or why--the business transmuted this way--how we went from humans to technocrats. I suppose it has something to do with our society being litigious and giant communications conglomerates covering their EBITDA-asses.


Monday, July 9, 2018

Five Minutes with Our CBCO.

AD AGED:       
So you’re a CBCO? That title sounds like a Canadian Bank—how about telling us what it stands for?

CBCO:     Oh, it’s simple really. While my title today is a rarity, it’s only a matter of months or years before every agency has a CBCO.

AD AGED:       CBCO—what is it?

CBCO:             I’m our agency’s Chief Block Chain Officer.

AD AGED:       I see, and how au courant. You can’t swing a dead cat these days without reading something about block chain.

                         But tell me, what is it that Chief Block Chain Officers do?

CBCO:            I apply block chain to every aspect of our business and bring our many global clients the benefits of block chain.

AD AGED:       Please elaborate.

CBCO:            Well, take the typical internal pitch meeting. After we go through strategy and creative and everyone is feeling pretty good about the work, I chime in.

AD AGED:       Yes…

CBCO:              I say, what about block chain?

AD AGED:       And what about it?

CBCO:             That’s the beauty of my job. Since no one understands quite what block chain is, and no one is willing to admit that, the deck is re-written and block chain is incorporated.

AD AGED:       Please give me an example.

CBCO:            Well, take the sentence “Build _________’s leadership in PVHD before the introduction of competitor’s PVHD introductions in Q3.”

AD AGED:       How thoroughly incomprehensible.

CBCO:             But wait, how’s this: “Use block chain to enhance _________’s leadership position in PVHD while accessing block chain capabilities to obviate competitor’s PVHD introductions in Q3.”

AD AGED:       Simply brilliant. Thank you for clarifying.

CBCO:              No. That's the job of our CSBO.

AD AGED:       I don’t understand.

CBCO:            Our Chief Simply Brilliant Officer.


Friday, July 6, 2018

OOOOXOOOO. Wisdom by way of Dave Trott.

99% of you will take a glance at what follows and dismiss it as "too long." Maybe .75% will read it. .25% will read it, think about it and apply it to their work. 

It will make a difference in their careers.

It comes from the great Dave Trott. 

Look him up if you don't know him, because you should.

I ran across this note earlier this week and sent Dave a note asking if I can use it for this blog, and if there's any backstory I should know about.

Here's what Dave wrote to me, only slightly edited:

"That memo must have been written about 30 years ago on a typewriter, and copied on a Xerox machine…

As far as any backstory goes -

My advertising thinking was always pretty simple and basic, as follows:


Advertising types may sit and argue over which is the better O but consumers don't do that.
They just see the one that's different.
Not better, different.

So we need to ensure whatever we do is different at the fundamental stage - media, strategy, brief, etc.
Before we get anywhere near execution.

I thought it was the job of the creative dept to do this, we can't just leave it to planners and account people."

And here, for my readers' convenience, is the text of Dave's memo:

TO:  All creative Teams                       FROM: D. Trott


What’s worrying me at present is that the work all of us are doing is getting increasingly conventional.

Instead of trying to be totally different to what’s around, we’re more often nowadays concerned with trying to do the same thing,
but better.

Consequently, our TV and Radio is usually 30 seconds of dialogue or VO with a (slightly better than standard) strapline and packshot. Our press is a (better than average) arrangement of picture, headline, body-copy, packshot.

And it’s the same with our posters.

All our thinking starts from ‘Right we’ve read the brief, now, how can we do a good ad?’

Not enough thinking goes into ‘How can we do it totally different.’ before we start, during and after we’ve done it.

With the workload, and four groups of you working hard, I haven’t got time to think each problem through with you in order to encourage you to do it different.

It’s hard enough trying to do it on my own work.

Because of time-pressures all I can usually do is look at the work you’ve done and help you select the best.

By the time it gets to me, it’s usually too late to start worrying about whether we should have done it differently.

So what I’d like from now each of us to question the media and the brief more, and earlier.

I’d like to see the accent on everything we do being controversial of course.

But much more than that I’d like to see, from now on, the most important accent on everything we do being unconventional.

Let’s look at what’s being done, and do something different.

When it comes to talking, or theorizing, about our business, the fertilizer is often spread pretty thick. Off the top of my head, I can think of a couple of poseurs--prominent bloggers--who basically spout a truism or two and act it as if they're proferring wisdom.

I can also think of half-a-dozen or more award-show-aficionados who are heralded in our business for their trophies. Many times you'll find these people at the ready with advertising advice.

That's fine and good, and maybe you'll learn something from them. I hope you do.

But I'll bet dollars to donuts it won't be as good, or as simple, as this from Dave Trott:

Let’s look at what’s being done, and do something different.


By the way, if you want to spend a little more time with Dave, check out this video.