Thursday, April 4, 2024

How to Manifestly Manifesto. (A Guest Post by Jeff O'Keefe.)

I've known Jeff O'Keefe for over two decades now, though to be honest, we haven't spoken-spoken for 21 of those approximately 25 years. Back in the 1990s and the "oughts" we toiled together--in different groups--at Ogilvy and we shared at least one very special mutual friend.

While I was playing the wandering Jew, moving from Shmogilbee to San Francisco to Boston to half a dozen different agency Houses of Usher, Jeff has been ensconced--if ensconcement is possible these days, if you're not an actual sconce--at TBWA\Chiat\Day and Media Arts Lab in LA for the better part of 15 years.

What's more, we have over 150 connections in common, so you might say Jeff and I are a bit like a proton and a neutron circulating around the same nucleus. 

All that to say, as much as I'm not sure I could pick Jeff out of a lineup, we've stayed connected. And when he posts work he's doing, I always admire, enjoy and, trump biblical imprecations not withstanding, actually covet it. 

I have a standing offer to friends and connections to write an entry for my blog. Most people respond by getting wide-eyed and then their fear of ligaturial commitment keeps them from sending anything. 

Not Jeff.

He mailed me the post that follows late last week, and I loved it. Rarely for me, ocd control freak that I am, I didn't alter a phoneme. It's Jeff's piece on being good. I've type set it in Courier, because it feels more "writerly." From one writer to another, that's a compliment.

A big one.

Jeff clarifies a foundational belief of mine. That words matter. And that good writing is a business advantage. Which I TM'd for my own company, GeorgeCo., LLC, a Delaware Company.

Thanks, Jeff.

PS. If I had art-direction skills, I put a heavily dotted like and this visual around Jeff's piece. The smart people among my readers will, literally, clip-'n-save.

By Jeff O'Keefe:

“Brand manifesto.” If you’re in advertising, chances are those two words conjure up mixed emotions. Primarily negative. Okay maybe all negative.


At their worst, brand manifestos are ponderous, clunky and cliché-ridden. At their best, they can be stirring pieces of writing that remind us of art and simultaneously depress us for not being art but instead transparent tools of capitalism. It’s that logo at the end. It tends to be a bit of a spell-breaker.


I think we secretly believe in manifestos, though. We want them to work. We believe in the power of language. We know that a set of words – carefully chosen and arranged – can muscle past people’s defenses and make them feel and think. And that logo? It’s obviously our job to give it resonance and meaning. It’s our job is help brands articulate what they stand for and, subsequently, inspire them to embody it in their behavior. Words are the obvious place to start.


Not long ago I was asked to jump in on a pitch and write some manifestos. I hadn’t done it in a while, but I got into a groove pretty quickly. Some of this can be attributed to a tight deadline and the expert deployment of caffeine. But, more than that, I realized that I was pulling from something like an internal toolkit that I’d assembled over time. Turns out I have strong opinions about what makes a manifesto work and land. I’ve groaned at the bad ones. I’ve been inspired by the good ones. Subconsciously, I’ve been taking notes.


I thought I’d share a few. Because brand manifestos aren’t going anywhere just yet. They’re too useful. And writers – or anyone, in any department – who can write them with care and intention will find that this skill instantly makes them more valued by those they work for. It’s a rare skill, growing rarer. And who doesn’t like being even moderately more employable?




Right out of the gate, things get a bit squishy. Is “manifesto” even the right word here?


In 2018, I had the honor of writing a manifesto for Lee Clow that served as his parting rallying cry to Chiat Day and the industry, on the eve of his retirement. The piece spawned what is still Chiat’s tagline, “Do the Brave Thing.” As soon as I posted it on LinkedIn, I got a note from George Tannenbaum saying he didn’t think it was a manifesto: “Manifestos as they're rendered today are w/o force and attitude. Yours has both--clear marching orders that upset the dominant complacency.” I wrote back and conceded that it more like a locker room speech – which, in all fairness, was how it was briefed in.


We’ve muddied the waters with loose and overlapping terminology. People use the word “anthem” and “manifesto” interchangeably, but “anthem” veers into film as the final product, for me. There are “walk-ups” to taglines – a few sentences that ground a tagline in an insight and serve as a drumroll. There are “mission statements,” which are useful as touchstones but are literally missives from the boardroom and meant to feel that way – sweated over by committee. There’s “mini-festo,” too, which is ridiculous and should be put to bed. (We get it. We’ll try to keep our manifestos short.)


I think a decent working definition for “brand manifesto” borrows from the dictionary definitions of both “manifesto” and “anthem,” and adds the idea of brevity: a brand’s values, beliefs and intentions (aka, its soul) distilled to its most succinct and rousing form.


A brand’s soul. Rendered in words on a page that give goosebumps.




These days, it’s probably going to be in a new business pitch, when a brand is in search of a re-articulation of its identity. It’s typical that even the most successful manifesto presented in this setting never leaves the room to become public facing, which doesn’t diminish its power or usefulness. Done right, a manifesto proves to a potential client that an agency understands them – sometimes at a deeper level than they even understand themselves – and tees up great work to come.  


When else might the ask come your way? When launching a new brand platform. Nike’s “Find Your Greatness,” for example, lived under “Just Do It.” When launching a new initiative. Think: a car company looking to grab their piece of the electric pie. Brand anniversaries. Image management mid-PR crisis. When responding to wider societal events. Even as a “break-glass-in-case-of-emergency” marketing move. “Here’s to the Crazy Ones” from Apple, came out when Apple was hemorrhaging money and had no new products to tout.


During a pitch, you might be handed a platform line or you might be writing in search of one. Either way, your job is to give that line powerful resonance by taking the strategy and moving it closer to art. 




The best writers have distinct voices. They make unique choices, and follow very personal muses, as they should. Brands have voices, too. Think Dove, Oatly, Coke and Liquid Death, to name a few. The challenge when writing a brand manifesto is to resist the temptation to let your own voice take center stage, yet not repress it so deeply that you’re writing generically. Just remember who you’re talking for. Think of yourself as inhabiting the brand the way you would a character in a story – do that, and, by degrees, your cadence changes, your word choice changes. If the brand you’re writing for doesn’t yet have a distinct voice, what you’re doing with a manifesto is helping them find it.




Manifesto writing is as real as writing gets. Pure language. Precise intention. Naked ambition. And a dash of some unidentifiable ingredient that only you can bring to the table, and that keeps the powers that be coming back for more.




I’ve mentioned “Find Your Greatness” and “Here’s to the Crazy Ones.” Certainly Google them if you don’t know them. “You Love Me,” from Beats by Dre, written, I discovered later, by screenwriter Lena Waithe, and released in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, still blows my mind. “Live There” for AirBnb, astounds with its simplicity. Granted, all of these came my way in the form of films, but I mention them because I think their words stand on their own and meet the definition above, no matter how they originated. Look them up. There are doubtless many other great examples. And we can learn a lot by looking closely at bad ones, too, and pinpointing just when and how they lost us. Give it a try. It’s super fun and will leave you feeling, even for a moment, unjustifiably superior.




This is the part where I tell you, with annoying conviction, some things I think you should do and some other things you shouldn’t to arrive at a successful manifesto. I’m imagining you missing dinner with your family, or sitting up late at night, big meeting in the morning, that cursor blinking. And I want you to kill it. 




Your manifesto should look like a poem on the page. Because it is a poem. Embrace this. Don’t get all self-conscious on us now. Poets present their work visually in this way not because they’re pretentious but because they’re guiding you surely and steadily through word and every pause. (Also maybe they’re a little pretentious). The presentation alone says I’ve given this a ton of thought. A manifesto is not an occasion to appear casual and half-invested. Save that affectation for social post copy (where, honestly, it can work wonders).




Don’t lose your audience out of the gate. Even if your audience is eight people in a conference room. The stark reality is that they don’t expect your manifesto to be any good. If you don’t relieve them of that opinion immediately, you risk losing them completely. So, surprise them. Seed some intrigue. Avoid the expected ways in.




When you provoke someone, you have their attention. Consider the openings to the examples above: Don’t go to Paris; Here’s to the crazy ones; You love me, you love me not; Greatness, it’s just something we made up. Each line, in a different way, contains some implicit drama. Something about them feels a bit dangerous, unsafe. Rare is the reader who can look away at this point. 




This may be the most important point of all. Many manifestos fail because they don’t naturally flow from one line to the next. Readers feel the cobbled together nature of the whole venture and check out. Flow, when it’s respected, is a process of discovery for both the writer and the reader. Fiction writers talk about it all the time: the story just sort of wrote itself. As scary as it can be, you have to commit to the idea you just put down, even if you sense you might be following it off of a cliff. Maybe you are. Who cares? If so, you can start again, somewhere new.


When I wrote that rallying cry for Lee Clow, I opened with, “Don’t do the right thing,” using the word “right” to mean responsible and safe, and hit a wall after 8 or 10 lines exploring this idea. I didn’t know how to turn it. I gave up on it, then returned to it hours later and wrote down the only thing in my head: “So what are you supposed to do? The wrong thing?” Only after putting that line down did I know how to answer it: “Of course not. Do the brave thing.” Which unlocked the rest of the piece. A process of discovery, one sentence to the next.




Colloquialisms and familiar, conversational language are great in a manifesto when used sparingly, as pivot points, and go a long way towards saving the whole piece from feeling too self-important. They’re disarming, they’re grounding. In “Find your Greatness,” we see the following:


Somehow we’ve come to believe that greatness is a gift,

reserved for a chosen few.

For prodigies.

For superstars.

And the rest of us can only stand by watching.


You can forget that.


When you get to the line, “You can forget that,” it lands with uncommon personal force. It pulls further you in. This is how friends talk to each other. But fill your manifesto with colloquialisms and you’ll be sunk – it’s all about juxtaposing those moments with precise, original language and never letting the reader get too comfortable.




Use writerly tricks to seduce your audience. It simply feels good to encounter rhyme and rhythm and alliteration in a piece of writing. I think it’s because we recognize these things from childhood stories and songs and poems, and so we soften. In “Here’s to the Crazy Ones,” we get the line, “You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them.” That pairing of “glorify” and “vilify” was designed to surprise and delight in the way that only language can, and it does, and in that way it keeps us invested.




Just like with music, when you write a manifesto, you’re finding rhythmic pockets and then using them to entrance and manipulate your audience. Just don’t overstay your welcome in a pocket. Get in, get out, pivot to something new. A 3-4 sentence duration seems about right. It’s very tempting to stay too long in a pocket, especially when you see it as a convenient place to drop in those extra ideas or buzzwords handed to you by a colleague in strategy.




Which is exactly how you end up with lists. A list is not intriguing or engaging. A list is a buzzkill. It’s a dumping ground. Nothing screams “this was written by a boardroom” like a list.

“Around here, courage means something different.

It means…

It means…

It means…

It means…”

You’ve seen it before. And you stop caring. Stay away from lists.




Your colleagues who asked you to write the manifesto – they know the client, they know the strategy. What they’re looking for is that artful flow. When you show it to them, they’ll get excited. And then they’ll ask you to add 5 other ideas. Here’s the thing: your job is to try. But your job is also to make sure you don’t ruin something beautiful and incisive. See if you can find spots for those ideas that don’t disrupt the flow, or perhaps lead to new ways of expression. If you can only accommodate 1 or 2, show them that, show them the power of that. This is the area where you, the writer, are the expert, but you’re also part of a team. 




A classic for a reason. Sometimes you’ll fall in love with a word or phrase that is, in fact, disrupting everything – it’s too conclusive, too flashy, too something, but you can’t see it because it came from your brain and you love it. Kill it and watch your piece open up before you. You can always try to cram it back in there, but you probably won’t want to.




Just don’t.




Keep coming back to that tagline to get oriented. All the meaning you need is contained in it. If there’s no line yet, look at the strategy.




Why not? There’s a time a place for quick, disposable copy in our business. Not everything is supposed to be profound. Hey, I’m a CD on Jack in the Box, home of curly fries and tiny tacos. I know. But brand manifestos are supposed to evoke emotion. They’re supposed to delight and challenge and inspire. And they’re supposed to do all that while somehow circumnavigating every living human’s entrenched, sophisticated defenses against brand manifestos. It’s no small feat.

Maybe that’s why the ones that work, work so well. We never see them coming. 

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