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.

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