Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Right. And wrong.

I’m not sure if it’s apocryphal or not, but legend has it that the Father, Mother, Progenitor, God, Goddess and Guiding Light of the Advertising Industry, Bill Bernbach, kept a small business-sized card in his wallet.

There were three words printed on it.

“Maybe he’s right.”

Put aside the gendered nature of those words, and think about them for a while. Or for as long as it takes you to get to the end of this post.

"Maybe he’s right."

OK. Maybe he or she, they or them are right. If we must, Maybe they’re right.

Think about those words in any gendered form you want. But think about them.

Our world today suffers from a glut of confidence. It seems today everyone, regardless of their accomplishments or track record or anything else, has the temerity to be confident and absolute.

Donald Trump, for instance, is a six-time bankrupt pretending he knows more about the economy than the Fed.

But in our business, and most others, there are no absolutes. 

No one knows what works and why.

The best coaching advice I ever heard came from my manager, Hector Quesadilla, back so many years ago when I played for the Seraperos de Saltillo: "Hit a double."

We’re all just taking our gut, our experience, our intelligence, our listening skills, the wisdom of our colleagues and using all that to make the best, most effective work we can.

But none of us know to hit that double every time.

I have a set of biases that lead me to believe a certain kind of work works. First, it must be attention getting. Because if no one sees it, it can’t possibly work. Misantrope that I am, I also like humanity. And people like brands that act like the people they like. Also, people like to laugh, cry, be surpised, learn.

I also believe in a lot of Ogilvyisms and Bernbachisms and Lee Clow’s beard-isms. There’s this one that I hold to by David: “If you’re trying to persuade people to do something, or buy something, it seems to me you should use their language, the language they use every day, the language in which they think.” And this from Mr. Clow’s faux stubble: “Remember, advertising is supposed to be a service industry, not a servile one.”

That’s just me.

Others have different povs.

It seems people who sell cars today and mobile phones believe in shouting. They believe people don’t mind a mile or a minute of legal disclaimers. And they have an odd affinity for balloons. They could be right. Last year, 213 million cellphones were purchased in the US and almost 18 million cars.

Others of course believe in the absolutes of data and targeting and algorithms and doohickey-izing their communications. They sell a lot of stuff too. So who am I to say.

If you’re selling a $7 knife that’s sharper than a $300 knife, you probably believe that the best way to sell it is to repeat your incredible offer about six times in a :60 and then give-away a second knife free if viewers act now. Act now! you'll shout, because there are those who actually do.

My point in all this folderol is not to convince you of one posture or another.

My point is simpler. It’s that there are no “if-then propositions” in advertising or in life. No causality between doing x and getting y. Nothing is guaranteed.

Anyone who enters a room like the cock of the walk and crows that he or she or they or them know “how,” is a scoundrel.

We can only do what we believe in. Do it well, based on our knowledge of what’s worked for us in the past, and hope for the best. 

But we can't be absolute about anything. Because that leads to something incredibly dangerous: "that's-the-way-we've-always-done-it-ism."

If what you do doesn’t work, try something different. And keep trying. Like for 40 years.

Try with openness, humor, dedication, teamwork, hard work, more hard work, listening, more hard work, and more.

Then, as a wise person once said, remember this: “It’s only advertising.” And hope for the best.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Humans of Madison Avenue.

It happens fairly often. Someone, often a department head, will ask little ol’ lowly me if I’d talk to some people, or a whole department, about what makes a good ________
(planner, creative, client, intern, account person.)

One of the many things that underscore my out-of-step-ness with today’s dominant complacency, that is the unquestioning acceptance of how we do things, is that I don’t do powerpoint, or keynote. Often, I scribble on a piece of paper or a stickie note a few points I want to make, and I find that’s enough.

If you have a 30 minute talk and it’s all planned and scripted, it’s really no longer a discussion. It’s all you and it’s zero audience. What you want, I think, is give and take. You want a certain level of spontaneity and the candor that comes from not having every moment planned and choreographed. You want to be able to follow your audience’s interests and concerns. Not simply tell them your point of view.

In our industry, we’ve talked for about 20 years about interactivity. But we’re usually so over-programmed that when we speak to groups there’s little time or propensity to actually listen—there’s no time to actually, heaven forfend, interact.

So, usually when I am in these situations, I keep things simple, maybe even a little stupid.

You know what it takes to be good in the ad jobs I  mentioned above?

You have to be a human. A human.

Most successful work is predicated on an understanding of people and what they need or want. What frightens them? What makes them laugh? What are they missing?

It involves that most-human of human attributes—the attribute no machine can replicate, copy, algorithm-ize, digitize, pixelate or codify. It involves empathy.

To be blunt, just about every commercial I see today, whether it’s on TV or presented to me is laden with things no human really cares about, in language no human ever speaks.

I get briefs that call people “targets.” Don’t call people targets. Ever again.

Also don’t say they’re “proactive go-getters.” Or “heavy sufferers.” They’re people. It might be good while we’re being persnickety to not call people consumers, customers or a slightly female skew, 25-34.

How about leading with, positing, always remembering the humanity of who we are trying to speak to and trying to speak to them as humans.

I often think of a couple of things I’ve read through the years.

One comes from Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Big Daddy berating his son, Brick: “The truth is pain and sweat and payin’ bills and makin’ love to a woman that you don’t love anymore. Truth is dreams that don’t come true, and nobody prints your name in the paper ‘til you die.”

I know that’s pretty dark. But it may encapsulate the state of many people in our country. It’s way more real, truthful and human than about 107% of everything that’s on television today.

The second comes from Bob Levenson’s “New York Times” obituary. “When he was asked how he wrote the copy for all those Volkswagen ads, he said: ‘I always started by writing Dear Charlie, like writing to a friend. And then I would say what I had to say, and at the end I would cross out Dear Charlie, and I was all right.’” Levenson was writing one-to-one to a friend.

Finally, there’s this old ad for Volvo, which I assume was written by the unsurpassed Ed McCabe. McCabe might not have been sensitive to those who worked for him—but he made sure their writing was sensitive, real and human.

Today, we don't even acknowledge that people finance cars. And might not enjoy the car after car after car hamster wheel so many are on.

No, today, 98% of people in car commercials are smiling. 71% are leaping for joy. 54% are singing in their car to the radio. 29% are hugging the pert, blonde dealer. And 11% are high-fiving their spouses.

How about honesty. Humanity. Realism.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Collective nouns and agency life.

Not too long ago I ran across a funny piece in “The New Yorker” called “A Compiled List of Collective Nouns,” by Mia Mercado. I’ve excerpted it here:

A group of ants is called a colony.
A group of aunts is called a book club.

A group of sparrows is called a host.
A group of men named James is called late-night hosts.

A group of millennials who look different is called a marketing campaign.
A group of millennials who look the same is called a brunch.
A group of millennials who have laptops is called a co-working space.

A group of buzzards is called a wake.
A group of liberals calls itself woke.

A gathering of cows is called a herd.
A gathering of random strangers is called Hell.

Then I decided to add a few for agency life in our modern era.

A prolix of copywriters
A panic of account people
A grid of designers
An eight-point of art directors
An overthink of strategists
A pixel of digital marketers
A jargon of clients
A venn of planners
A brazilian of interns
An edict of CEO spouses
A wagefreeze of holding company execs
A shrill of time-sheet police
A collaboration of working all weekend
A tone-deaf of corporate emails
A lavish of award shows
An inscrutable of powerpoints
A reduction of benefits
A lunch of producers
An ecoli of sandwiches
A framefuck of editors
A grin of stock photos
A wfh of ECDs
A fired of bloggers