What the hell happened to car advertising?

Car advertising was once the benchmark for all that was good in our industry.

Decades of brilliant creative work for the likes of VW, Volvo, BMW, Porsche, and others had established a gold standard that everyone sought to uphold and emulate.

Not any more.

This is what passes for automotive advertising today.

Conceptually, it’s dead on arrival.

But, let’s face it, it’s the dialogue that really challenges the will to live here.

If you can bear it, here it is in full:

Do
Do your thing
Flee that nest
Find your inspiration
Seize that moment
Be extraordinary
Spread your wings
Mazda
Feel Alive

If someone told me that an AI algorithm had spat out this dross after ingesting a billion glib car clichés, I frankly wouldn’t be surprised. Nor was I surprised to learn that the same copy had been used on almost identical spots for the CX-3, 6 and 9. Four ads for the price of one. Result!

Contrast this lazy thinking with work for the same brand from Gold Greenlees Trott in the 1980s.

Mazda 1

Mazda 2

Tough, no-nonsense reasons to buy augmented by an arresting visual.

Would that today’s stuff was as well put together.

So what happened? How did this sorry state of affairs come to pass? And, more to the point, how can we get back to doing great work for, let’s face it, great brands?

As a refresher, and entirely chosen at random, here are more examples from a time when joined-up thinking and smart ideas were the norms.

VW 1 Price

Volvo 3

Porche 1

VW Van 1

2CV 1

Each one is built on a single-minded thought.

Each one demands our attention.

Each one communicates persuasively with economy, wit, and confidence.

And, of course, each one has a look, an attitude and a personality that’s theirs and theirs alone – you’d be hard-pressed to mistake a VW ad for a Volvo or Citroen for a Porsche.

These ads built on one another. They accumulated value and incrementally raised expectations and properties around the brand over time. Today’s ads do none of these things. Bereft of any conceptual merit or sense of longevity, they merely piss away a tidy budget down a hole of invisibility.

Where the responsibility lies for the whole Mazda CX-5 debacle is anyone’s guess. Who knows, maybe everyone’s chuffed with it, and sales are through the roof.

Somehow I doubt it.

The whole thing smacks of a subjugated creative team. Of countless valiant attempts to get better work approved to no avail. Just one look at the script tells you it was micro-mandated by committee and crippled by fear.

Yes, never forget fear.

Fear of being different.

Fear of standing out.

Fear of being provocative.

There’s absolutely no reason why today’s car ads shouldn’t be as good as those of yesteryear. The creative talent is out there. It’s ready, willing and more than able. But for it to shine, we first need to rid ourselves of all the managers, planners, researchers, experience gurus, cultural anthropologists, and other schmucks who get in the way.

Throw them in the back seat and tell ‘em to be quiet. Give the keys back to the creatives, turn off the GPS, and let them take us places we’ve never been before. Down roads unfamiliar and avenues unusual. The further off the beaten track the better.

The work will improve, brands will be built, and sales will rise.

But best of all:

Car advertising will be back.

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.

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.

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.

How badly do you want it?

When I was first getting started in advertising back in the mid-1980s, I participated in the D&AD student workshops.

For six weeks you’d be set six briefs by six different agencies. 

One week you’d be answering a print brief for Saatchi’s, the next a TV brief for DDB. 

Best of all, you got to present your work to the person who set it – typically, this meant getting one-on-one advice from the likes of Dave Trott, Nick Wray, Paul Grubb, Neil Patterson, Adrian Kemsley, and Charles Hendley – the smartest minds in the biz at the time.

On one particular night, the host agency was Collet Dickenson Pearce, and true to form, we had a badass tutor: John O’Donnell.

The brief was for an imaginary product called Mathews Thermal Underwear, and the medium was posters. As was the norm, every student pinned their work up on the wall and awaited their fate. 

Few got off lightly. 

O’Donnell cited the usual flaws: weak ideas, ambiguous executions, crap headlines, etc.

Halfway around the room he stopped and paused. In front of him were three neatly drawn up layouts. They were thematically linked visually with the headlines that were subtle variations of a single thought.

One featured a young man clambering up the side of a two-story house to reach his girlfriend’s bedroom window on a bitterly cold night. The line read: “Matthews Thermal Underwear: For Adventurers.”

Another read, “Matthews Thermal Underwear: For Explorers” but its visual and the entire third concept have slipped the realms of my memory. 

Without looking away from the work, O’Donnell said, “Who did this?”

A tentative hand went up at the back of the room.

He turned and eyed the speaker.

“These are great. I wouldn’t change a thing. Put them in your book.”

And that was it: A first-hand example of what would cut it, what it looked like, and how it worked. In the pub afterward, we all congratulated the campaign’s creator and silently resolved to come back with better stuff the following week.

Which leads to me to the other remarkable thing from that night.

At the end of the workshop, as everyone was packing up, O’Donnell addressed a question to the entire room.

“How many of you really want a job in advertising?”

I’m not sure what prompted the inquiry, but to a man and woman, everyone replied that, Yes, they did.

He took a moment to collect a thought and then said:

“Well, if you want it badly enough, you will.”

A gauntlet had been thrown down in front of us, a tacit challenge issued.

O’Donnell knew there would be casualties. That, whether through attrition, hardship, bad luck or disinterest, many would fall by the wayside.

For one, it was tough.

In those days, getting a job hinged on your folio of spec ideas. Developing your “book” from a half-formed mush of dubious thoughts into a job worthy tome of advertising goodness required a pathological degree of single-mindedness – a willingness to scrap, re-do, revisit, revise, refine and revise again, until you had twenty or so ads that any Creative Director could flick through in sixty seconds or less without ever having to stop and say “I don’t get it.” 

So, yeah, it was tough, but that’s what it took to get into a shop like CDP.

O’Donnell would have been right to assume that not all would go the distance – of the 20 or so assembled before him that night, perhaps six ended up in the business.  

It’s why I think the gist of O’Donnell’s statement should be posted in the reception of every ad agency, design shop, and client office in the land.

How badly do you want it?

If you’re a creative, how badly do you want to create great work?

How many with a good, even great idea, will keep going and make it exceptional? When a client rejects a beloved campaign, how many will roll up their sleeves and vow to double down and come back with something even better?

How badly will the account director want to champion it before a client?

How many clients will go to bat for it against an intransient superior? Or take the time to argue, rationalize, defend and support what they know works?

Simply put, how many will support the right way when the path of least resistance gets a quick result and a chance to beat the 5:00 traffic?

Like those students in the workshop all those years ago, some will stay the course. 

Others will bail out early. 

It’s easy to get jaded.

Bored even. 

To just say “It is what it is” and be done with it.

But sometime soon there’s going to be a moment when a great piece of work is on the line, and it’s down to you to fight for it.

That’s when this post will come back to haunt you.

Because that’s when a little voice in your head is going to ask:

How badly do you want it?

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

George Tannenbaum, author of the blog Ad Aged, wrote a great piece on Content Marketing recently.

Do yourself a favor and give it a read: https://bit.ly/2q3eWRs

It covers a lot of bases but what I particularly liked was his assertion that in our rush to take advantage of every social opportunity, we’re losing the capacity to properly marshall the work and exercise brand oversight.

This shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise. As we devolve the powers of content creation to more and more people, it is perhaps inevitable that the quality of the work wavers.

Here are a couple of factors.

The cost of entry for potential content makers has never been lower. A couple thousand bucks will get you a professional standard camera, a mic kit, and a passable lighting package. Editing, sound, and FX can be executed from a laptop. 

The result is that soup-to-nuts production options are everywhere. The vast majority are good, many flat-out great, but let’s not pretend the bad and the downright ugly aren’t out there, too.

The other contributing factor is the experience levels of those entrusted with the stewardship of the brand.

There is an enormous gulf in nuance and understanding between the Head of Marketing with 5-10 years’ tenure on a brand and a new account coordinator who, out of necessity, is immediately charged with overseeing the brand’s smaller, less attractive projects.

This is not to apportion blame, only to point out a simple truth. 

The result is that the average Joe and Josephine Schmo are receiving mixed messages.

To take automotive as an example. One moment they’re being presented with a luxury TV spot that looks like a million dollars and probably cost as much. It boasts high production values, is voiced by a movie star, and utilizes the very latest FX to support its claims of styling, performance, and advanced engineering.

Later the same day, they are subjected to a poorly made piece of content in their social feed. 

Same brand; two totally different brand perceptions. 

The recipient may not be able to articulate what’s wrong with all this but they will feel it. The feeling is one of confusion and an overwhelming sense of being short-changed.

The real question is what can we do about it?

I have a couple of suggestion, take them as you will. 

I would start by embracing the idea of “Less is More.”

Rein things in so that fewer people have the authority to act on the brand’s behalf.

Ensure that those that do are senior, knowledgeable and proven.

Next, try and instigate a policy of 360 quality. Allocate a reasonable budget and swear off the falsehood that the need to turn things around quickly makes cheap and shoddy work okay.

It doesn’t.

Either make a pitch for larger resources (easy to say, I know) or cut back on the number of executions in order to maintain consistency. 

If we all hold to the belief that everything is branding at some level or another, then the poorest execution will lower and stain a brand far more egregiously than a slick production will lift it up.

It’s a tough nettle to grasp but grasped it must.

The brand that lives in the heart and minds of its audience must be the best possible iteration of itself. It can’t waver or be subject to whim, circumstance or parsimony.

Our industries brightest and best already know this. It’s why they earn the big bucks.

They might need to earn a few of them right now.