You know, for clients!

hudsucker

I like to think of myself as an embracer of change.

For me, the zing and zest of the new and the now are merely a part of what makes this crazy business of ours fun (most of the time).

Nevertheless, as someone who’s been around the sun a few times, I can’t help but pine for the occasional discipline that may have fallen out of practice or been made redundant by technology, particularly when I believe that what it afforded us is needed now more than ever.

One such discipline is the marker comp.

The marker comp was essentially a scribble on a piece of paper, a doodle with hand-bashed headlines, stick figures, and squiggly lines for body copy. It wasn’t about draughtsmanship, it was about the idea. The intent was to communicate a thought so succinctly you could hold it up from across a room and say, “What do you think?”

“Love it.”

“Hate it.”

Move on. 

The simplicity of the form meant that ideas were generated at rapier speed. Nothing was too dumb, too ridiculous or too precious. You could dig deeper, faster and burn past the usual and clichéd early. As a consequence, you were more apt to alight on something original.

For years, the marker comp was the paper currency by which we created, shared, discussed, argued, fought, laughed, and generally got excited about ideas. Walls would be literally plastered with these things. After directions, tangents and permutations had been properly explored, one or two would be deemed worthy to present to the client. Here the marker comp would get a subtle upgrade in the form of a more considered rendering and the introduction of color courtesy of that other art director mainstay, the Magic Marker. 

Yet no matter how elaborate or finished they finally became, the boards created for the client presentation where still essentially platforms for judging an idea. 

Which is exactly what the clients were asked to do. Moreover, that’s all they were asked to do.

Does it work? 

Do you like it?

The client never got side-tracked by the use of stock photography or a choice of font. Those conversations would come later once an idea had been picked. And that was the other great thing about the marker comp: stripped of any form of artifice, it was easy to spot a good idea from a bad one. 

You seldom see walls plastered with paper concepts these days. Just as you never see a creative team batting scribbles across a table. Our first thought is to seek the answer on the computer, a quick fix that seldom forks any lightning.

It’s why I can’t help but think that a return to marker comps for concepting and presentations might be a good thing. It would undoubtedly help us refocus our attention on the essentials of effective communication:

Does it have impact?

Does it communicate something simply?

Does it do so persuasively?

Does it get you unconditionally excited or make you snort with laughter?

Because if it doesn’t, you’re doing something wrong.

If I could borrow a Delorean fitted out with a flux capacitor, I’d set coordinates for 1994 and head straight to the art supplies shop that used to sit opposite Covent Garden tube station on the Long Acre and bring back a box of N50s, a set of magic markers and a dozen A3 layout pads.

Then I’d invite my art directors and copywriters to go analog for a couple of days. In no time, the walls would be filled with possibilities, the floors strewn with the detritus of the wayward and, amongst it all, the seeds of a couple great ideas will be evident. 

Computers have been great for a thousand-and-one things over the last twenty-five years.

But they killed the marker comp.

It’s time we brought it back.

50 Thoughts on Copywriting

If you write ads for a living, chances are you have an opinion or two on how best to create them. These are mine. 50 notes, notions, truths and truisms gleaned from over 25 years as a fully paid-up member of the wordsmith community. Whether you’re a fresh-faced young gun, a rising star or a grizzled old vet like me, I’m confident there’s something here for everyone.  Adopt or discard, agree or disagree, as you see fit.

Your job is to… marry an essential brand truth to a universal human want, need or desire, and do so in a way that’s clear, persuasive and impactful. Every. Single. Time. No biggie.

Free Beer If you’ve got something great to say, go ahead and say it. If you mess about trying to be cute, you’ll end up burying the lead. Free beer is free frickin’ beer.

People will read a long copy ad If every single word contained therein commands their interest. Conversely, 15 words of turgid dross will have them charging the exits.

Don’t get fancy Never use a flowery word when a plain one will do. This thought was first coined by George Orwell. I’ll leave it at that.

Oxford Comma? Yes.

My friend, the reader The best copy reads like a reasoned argument between friends. Getting the reader to consider you as such is the first step in convincing them to take what you’re saying seriously.

Your briefs are showing Beware of copy that too closely replicates the support points on the brief. One of the skills of a copywriter is to be a master of disguise.

People don’t hate ads, they just hate crap ads No one likes a dull, long-winded, predictable bore. Your job is to be the opposite.

Know your history Advertising does a lamentable job of honoring its past masters. If you aspire to be a copywriter of any note, acquaint yourself with the greats who have come before you: David Abbott, Julian Koenig, Paula Green, Dave Trott, Mary Wells, Carl Ally, Tom McElligott, Bob Levinson, and a host more.

A single-minded proposition should never contain the word “and.” The first sign of a wooly brief is a wordy proposition. Demand clarity before you put pen to paper or digit to keyboard.

Bells and Whistles are no substitute for Ideas and Impact You’re not in the entertainment business, you’re in the business of selling products, brands, and services that benefit from being entertaining. There’s a difference.

Department of Redundancy Department Scan your copy for unnecessary repetition.

Pun and Done Lots of headlines involve some sort of play on words. But the outright pun is a creature unto itself. If you opt-in, go all in. Like Gray Jolliffe’s ‘Out of the flying plane into the foyer’ for Swissair. So bad, it’s brilliant.

Note to Self A great headline or turn of phrase WILL come to you just as you’re drifting off to sleep and, no, you WILL NOT remember it in the morning. Keep a notebook by your bedside table.

Advertising is nothing but an opinion We work in a very subjective, flawed industry that’s susceptible to the whims of caprice, bias, and ego. It was ever thus. 

Campaigns that don’t get noticed aren’t campaigns They’re a waste of money.

Rewrite until it’s right Draft, scrap, do-over, re-word, re-write, finesse, fiddle, futz, trim, edit, and hone. Wordsmith that sucker until you’re only left with what’s absolutely necessary. 

Write the opening and closing line first Okay, so this is a personal preference, but to my mind, if you know where you’re starting from and where you’d like to end up, the journey in-between becomes a lot more manageable.

Here’s to the new ad, same as the old ad Web, games, interactive, social – the writer’s lot has changed a hell of a lot over the last 20 years, but it still boils down to the same thing: well-made arguments, concisely written and persuasively told.

Be skeptical Beware of anything that is supposedly about to “change everything.” It’s almost certainly not.

Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda It doesn’t matter how badass the concept is – if it hasn’t run, it isn’t an ad.

An ad is only as good as the client who buys it It’s a crap-shoot, really. We live for the client who “gets it” and appreciate those smart enough to be sold. But occasionally you’re handed a complete half-wit. In which case, you’re screwed. 

Hunt for Truffles To unearth a great idea, you first have to determine an area worth exploring. Once you find a patch you believe will bear fruit, start to dig. Don’t just scratch away at the topsoil, really excavate the possibilities. Burrow down deep enough, and you may hit gold.

Run to the sound of gunfire If people need help, raise a hand, jump in and don’t wait to be asked. You’ll find the favor returned when you need it.

Never grow up Maintain an infantile streak and childish sense of humor at all times. Disregard those who tell you otherwise.

Ad nauseum Let poorly written ads be a constant reminder of what happens when you phone it in.

Harper Lee was right There’s no better way to understand a person or audience than to spend a little time walking around in their shoes. When you know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of your prose, you can tailor your language and tone accordingly.

Put yourself in the suit’s shoes While on the same subject, spare a thought for the poor soul who patrols the no-man’s land between client and creative department. They get flak from the former, friendly fire from the latter and all-out shelling from both sides.

Tell people what they need to know Not what they want to hear.

Ads … can invariably be broken down into two distinct types, the ones that Make The Every Day Extraordinary and those that Make The Extraordinary Every Day. Try it, you’ll see.

There are no bad clients. A client’s reputation may go before them but if you treat every job as an opportunity and deliver something great – Kapow! – suddenly it’s the business everyone wants to work on.

Proof, proof, and proof again Your proofreader is your best friend. They circle your typos, tweak your grammar, and ensure your syntax is sound. Keep ‘em close and get them something nice for Christmas.

Only 4% of ads are ever remembered favorably Make sure yours is one of them. 

Learn to sell A good ad is always hard to sell but no one should be able to sell it better than you. Watch how the best suits operate, then learn, steal and modify as needed.

The Copy Book The one book every writer needs to read from cover to cover. A wisdom laden tome for wanna-be writers, rising stars and senior pros who are having a bad day.

Expect the Unexpected You’re chosen one of the most volatile businesses to forge a career in. Always have a folio site that’s ready to share at a moments notice. 

Raise the dead Don’t be afraid to re-pitch a killer idea to a different client. Having said that, if it remains unsold after three attempts it may not be as great as you think it is. 

You’re only as good as our last ad Enjoy the occasions when you clean up at the Award Show. Come Monday, it’ll be back to an empty screen and a blinking cursor.

Ode to a Jingle The humble jingle is a little passé these days. Sure, they can be cheesy but when they work they stick like glue for years, decades even. “A million housewives every day open a can of beans and say ‘Beanz Meanz Heinz.’ See.

Congratulations, you’re a Behavioral Scientist Okay, so maybe not a scientist but you’re definitely in the business of changing behavior. To that end, a small mental investment in the field of social psychology is no bad idea.

The Mighty Mnemonic A mnemonic is an aid to memory, a visual trick or verbal device that helps the customer remember that this ad is for your brand and not that of a competitor. Another old-school trick that is needed now more than ever.

Go above and beyond Don’t stop at the brief, aim beyond it. Give everyone – the CD, Account Director and client – something extra to think about, an additional thought, a new media opportunity, or a one-off execution that no one’s considered. Never do “just enough.” 

Written a great headline? Good. Keep going. It’s the first step to penning one that’s truly exceptional.

Tune into radio When you’re starting out, radio is often the first opportunity to land on your desk. Grab it. It’s a 60-second playground of the mind, an excellent medium for framing an argument, and one seriously overlooked discipline. 

It’s grammar init? Observing the rules of grammar is to be commended, but then so is the ability to write in the vernacular of the reader. When the two square off against each other, back the latter.

The “Fuck Me” Factor There’s nothing better than an idea that’s so outrageously out-there and scarily unorthodox that it has even the most collected of account people peeing their pants just a little. Just make sure it’s tethered to a solid brand truth.

Ruffle feathers Don’t be afraid to be a maverick. Write from the heart and stand up for your work. Just don’t be an ass. It’s a fine line.

Mentor others Remember all those lovely people who helped you when you were first getting started? Exactly. Now it’s your turn to pass on the favor to the next generation.

It’s the most fun you can have with your clothes on At its best, being a writer is the most rewarding profession there is, a dizzying hybrid of salesman, storyteller, psychologist, and poet. Better yet, unlike Art DIrectors, you don’t have to spend hours futzing around in photoshop or endlessly agonizing over fonts and colors and whatnot. You are, of course, free to stand behind them and offer up suggestions. They love that.

Write “50 things” Now it’s your turn.

56 Years Young

Well, wouldn’t you just know it.

I return from the Holidays to find we’re finally having a debate about ageism in advertising. And a damn serious one, too, by the looks of it.

It’s about bloody time. 

Naturally, in the two-cent saloon of public opinion I’ve got a dollar fifty to spend, so here’s my take on the various whys, whats, and wherefores. 

The concerted eradication of the lesser-spotted senior creative has been going unchallenged for more than a decade now. Aside from the glib cliché that “Advertising is a young person’s game,” the boilerplate excuse for this sorry state of affairs has been the digital revolution and the pernicious notion that anyone over 40 or, God forbid, 50, must be flummoxed by it all. The whole shebang is just too much for our ageing analog minds to grasp.

A handy piece of nonsense that I hope to bury over the next few paragraphs.

To be clear:

There is not a single thing about digital, social, mobile, or content that scares me, worries me, frightens me or otherwise gives me the heebie-jeebies.

I have a clear understanding of how it works and, unlike most of its acolytes, know with absolute certainty why it doesn’t most of the time.

And I’m pretty sure a vast slew of ad people of a certain vintage would agree with me.

The only thing that bewilders me about the digital circus is the wholesale acceptance of its supposed magical properties and the outright refusal to countenance anything that might gainsay it. That being said, here’s what’s really driving our ongoing preference for young over old.

First, there’s the optics. A creative department filled with young guns supporting beards, tats, and Bluetooth headsets, looks a whole lot more on-it and of-the-moment than one stacked to the rafters with receding hairlines, expanding girths and mandatory reading glasses. For those of us getting up in years, this is undoubtedly the cruelest consequence of the passage of time. 

Then there’s the money. Younger means cheaper. Why pay top dollar oldie prices when you can hire raw talent with bags of potential for half and get away with it? If the client doesn’t notice, who cares?

This double whammy has resulted in the gutting of an entire stratum of our business – the senior pro with 25+ years of experience under his or her belt.

There are so many reasons why this is a terrible idea.

Let’s start with the nature of the advertising audience: It’s getting older, more affluent and more influential. The oldies have disposable income out the wazoo. Might it not be a good idea to have some of their peers creating the ads for them?

Then there’s the obvious hypocrisy of creating diversity and inclusion campaigns for our clients while simultaneously turning a blind eye to ageist practices in our own back yard. An excellent opportunity to lead by example that’s, naturally, been missed.   

The third is the effect an absence of senior people has on the quality of the work we ultimately create. I’m sorry, folks, but it’s increasingly taking a nose-dive into the dirt.

Today’s twenty-somethings are sorely missing what I had when I was their age – namely, the presence of a couple of old farts who had seen most everything before and weren’t afraid to share a few secrets. Occasionally, this would manifest itself as an open piece of advice (“Yeah, I wouldn’t do that if I were you”); more often though it was learning through proximity: You can learn a lot from merely observing someone who knows what they’re doing,

No one doubts that times change and that the younger generation must inevitably replace the one that came before it. 

But experience never gets old, and we jettison those steeped in the ways of the business too readily at our peril.

Do so if you must, but don’t say it’s because the old guard is out of its depth, or doesn’t grasp the latest leaps forward.

We know all too well how the game works.

And better than you might think.

Nevertheless, I’m glad we’re at last having a meaningful conversation.

Long may it rage.

Let the change in attitudes begin.

Crap Ad Syndrome: 10 Tell-Tale Signs

Your new campaign/ad/video is ready. 

Dollars have been spent, media has been placed, and expectations are high. 

But will it work? 

Ah, the multi-million dollar question.

Who knows? Advertising is an unquantifiable beast at the best of times and a wholly subjective one to boot,

What I can tell you is that if your heroic effort has succumbed to any of the ten suck points listed below, it hasn’t got a hope in hell.

Ok, get your pencils out and let’s see how you fair.

There was never any buy-in on the brief This is a biggie from the get-go. The brief is the tablet of stone by which all is judged. It should set the direction of the communication, guide the creative process and be the touchstone for whether the work is strategically sound, creatively impactful and ready to go to market. It needs to be kept to a single page, and both agency and client need to be on it.

The client has given the agency “direction” Yeah, I wouldn’t do that if I were you. Client direction is, after all, code for “do my idea” and that rarely works. All you’re doing is putting the brakes on minds trained to take base elements and turn them in gold. Best let the agency do what agencies do best: come up with great ideas. 

The work has gone through more than 3 rounds of revisions Anything more than 3 and there’s a substantive flaw in the brief. (See #1) It usually means there was never a consensus on what needs to be accomplished, and the vagueness and woolliness of the original brief are starting to show through in the ideas. No good can come from pushing on regardless and hoping for the best – best step back, re-focus, re-write the brief and start over.

More than 3 people are approving it One point to contact with ultimate say-so on either side of the client-agency relationship. That’s all you need. Anything more leads to mixed, diluted messaging that tries to accommodate too many opinions and points of view. An ad or initiative that seeks to say too many things fails to say anything at all.

The Creative Director doesn’t have the final say There’s a reason he or she is called the Creative Director – they’re the person best able to direct the creative and assume the role of guide and touchstone. In the best relationships, the client has absolute faith in their agency CD’s judgment. In its absence, client seniority usually takes precedence – again resulting in a mixed bag of potential outcomes. Take away: If you don’t believe in your Creative Director, replace them with someone you do. Failing that, let them do what they’ve been hired to do.

It’s been focus-grouped Never a good sign. A crutch for the marketing director who’s unsure of themselves, focus groups essentially cede the position of Creative Director to the loudest, most persuasive voice in the room. They usually hog the M&Ms, too. Not good. If you look for nuances rather than definitive analysis, then they maybe hold a modicum of value. But I’m not convinced. Bad idea.

 It lacks impact So much for the politics of the ad, now let’s get to the nitty-gritty of what it looks like. Impact is the first rule of advertising regardless of media. TV, social, print,  radio, if it lacks impact, it means that one thing: No one’s going to see it. And if no one sees it, everything else is a complete waste of time.

It doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable Impactful work signals its presence by generating a feeling of uncertainty in the pit of your stomach. This is because the work is fresh and unfamiliar and, as a consequence, you have no compass with which to pre-judge it. Conversely, a feeling of quiet satisfaction means your ad is a homogenous glob of same-old, sameness and you’re in big trouble.

It’s trying to say to many things at once Is your ad predicted on a single-minded thought provocatively executed? Or is a bloated amalgam of mixed messages, each desperately trying to shout over each other? If it’s the latter, save your money, your ad’s dead on arrival.

It looks like everything else in its category Uh-oh, sounds like you may have created a piece of safe advertising – an ad that desperately wants to look, feel and act like all its competitors when, in truth, what it needs to do is the exact opposite. Safe advertising is predicated on fear. And fear is a guarantee of failure.

So how did we get on?

If it’s any consolation, most ads exhibit some, if not all, of these tenets.

It’s why only 4% of ads are ever remembered favorably.

On a positive note, think of the ads that are memorable, command attention, talk persuasively and stay in the memory?

How many of those fall foul of the no-nos cited above?

Exactly.

It’s junk mail, Jim, but not as we know it

Kirk.jpg

It’s always been a topic of some debate as to which of the traditional advertising media today’s data-driven content most resembles.

Most opt for outdoor.

For one thing, it’s immediate. Static or moving, simplicity is mandatory. Headers can’t be more than 7 words long. Less, if possible. 

That’s because, like outdoor, time is short. You’ve only got a couple of seconds to grab your audience – about the time it takes to pass an outdoor board in a car.

I’m not buying it.

I think social is essentially direct response advertising.

Take the creative.

It’s almost always built around a call to action and its sole and only purpose is to generate a click-through. 

Much like a tear-off coupon, reply card or 1-800 number.

Its primary directive also informs its tone and manner, which is almost always of a shrill, hectoring, “act now” nature – another sure sign that the tropes of direct response gurgle around in its DNA.

It’s also riddled with rules – prescriptive dos and don’t, imperatives on how to frame a message, generate a response (that word again), what language to use, etc.

A social campaign will “drop,” too.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, you’re talking to one individual at a time. An individual, moreover, who is, thanks to data, highly targeted, from the who and the why, to the what, when and where.

You’re not broadcasting to everyone.

You’re narrowcasting to a very specific demographic.

There are no shared perceptions, peer agreement or opting in.

Whenever the desired action, it’s an action taken in isolation.

One-on-one.

Just you and the snake oil salesman. 

Like junk mail.

And like junk mail, it’s all incredibly dull.

But that’s a post for another day.

The Delivery System That Fails To Deliver

For the last ten years, data-driven content has been heralded as the universal panacea for all marketing ills.

You can’t throw an iPhone X in New York without hitting at least ten data agencies promising millions of impressions.

They’re in the business of delivering eyeballs. Lots and lots of them.

Propelled by analytics, sales history, viewing preferences, and a truckload of huckster jargon, they’ve sold the ad world on the numbers, the programmatic buys, and the reach.

If you want to target a grumpy, male, ex-pat adman with a wet cappuccino habit and a passion for the kind of football where you actually use your feet to propel the ball around the field, well, these guys and gals know where he lives and precisely how to reach him.

The problem with this perfect delivery scenario is that once it gets its target in its sites and exactly where it wants it, the whole shebang manifestly fails to deliver.

How else to explain the universally acknowledged fact that the average click rate for an online banner ad is about .07% or 7 clicks for every 10,000 ads.

And that’s before we take into account bots, click fraud, the vagaries targeting, and what the hell actually constitutes an impression.

Part of the problem seems to be an assumption that success depends solely on being able to drop the right message in the right place at the right time.

Quite how this fallacy ever gained currency, I’ll never know.

The truth is that delivery is only half the job. 

The real task begins the second the ad is seen, in other words, when it’s transformed from a bunch of 1s and 0s into a communications message. 

It’s here that the purveyors of data-driven content fail to ask themselves the most fundamental of questions:

Why on earth would anyone want to stop what they’re doing to read this?

What’s in it for them? 

Does it in engage, shock, cajole, or seduce?

Does it pique their interest in any way? 

Does it compel them to react, or, the multi-million-dollar question- click?

This new task isn’t about data, it’s about selling and its best practitioners, mostly senior and ergo expensive, have been dumped out of the industry in recent years, the chief victims of our endless mania for mergers and consolidations.

Put out to pasture far too early, they’re now needed more than ever.

True, these folks don’t look the part. They look ancient – many are actually in their 40s and 50s. They like to go to their kids’ soccer games and dance recitals, don’t sport beards or tats, and more than likely don’t have an earthly clue who Childish Gamino is.

But they do know how to put a provocative ad message together, and how to do so with the wit, charm, persuasion, and impact.

Bring them in from the cold, listen to what they have to say, trust that they know what they’re doing and, who knows, you might just get a banner ad that actually works.

Because without impact an online campaign will never be seen.

And a campaign that’s never seen isn’t a campaign.

It’s a waste of money.

Scotland the Brave

Scotalnd The Brave

In the spring of 1997, Britain was in the throes of a general election.

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown had re-invented Labour, and the party was insurgent.

The incumbent Conservative Party, on the other hand, were in a mess and up against it.

The country had grown weary of its failed promise of trickle-down prosperity, principally because it was all a sham.

Never more so than in Scotland where Labour had always polled well.

So it was an either brave or deluded Conservative campaign chairman that had decided that the line for its 48 sheet poster campaign north of the border should be thus:

Your Best Bet For A Better Scotland – Vote Conservative.

It was a type-only affair, modestly laid out, boasting a small box with a blue tick in it.

Crucially, there was a lot of white space. And this was to be its downfall.

It was late one Saturday night when I saw the posting.

It sat on a small rise above a well-known pub in the west of the city. The pub’s clients, worse for wear from a night of drinking, were falling out on to the streets.

Here my imagination takes over and attempts to join the dots on what had latterly happened prior to my arrival on the scene. 

A punter is taking a moment to get his bearings, clear his head, and is maybe looking to hail a cab when he spies the poster.

It doesn’t exactly chime with his polictical views.

What happened next to again subject to conjecture. My best guess is that our hero ran home and was back in a thrice with a can of red spray paint. I say this because when I happened upon the board that fateful night it read:

Your Best Bet For A Better Scotland: Vote Conservative MY ARSE!

An early example of guerrilla marketing perhaps?

Brand takeover?

Possibly.

What I do know is that the size, position, and general air of anarchic chaos of the daubed addition had transformed the world dullest poster into a potential award-winner.

And that I laughed my socks off.

Especially as the cad who had applied the amendment had had to scamper up a pretty steep incline to do so.

But as we all know, getting great creative to run is never a walk in the park.