Memos from the Department of Common Sense

I thought I’d kick the week off with a short refresher course in the bleeding obvious. 

Drawn squarely from the well of personal opinion, none of what I’m about to impart will come as a surprise to anyone with an ounce of gumption.

For others, principally those in the thrall of our industry’s latest fads, gimmicks, and bright shiny objects, I live in the hope that these simple maxims might serve as a gentle corrective. 

Yeah, I know, fat chance.

So, anyway, here we go.


 

Memos from the Department of Common Sense

If your Creative Brief won’t fit on one page, it isn’t brief enough.

How long does it take for a creative to come up with a great idea? 5 seconds? 5 minutes? 5 hours? 5 days? Exactly. No one knows. So please stop obsessing over timesheets.

Clear direction and a little space to think is still the best way to get great work out of a creative team.

You will never hear of Blockchain again. 

There is not a single ad person over 50 who doesn’t “get” social.

A banner ad is just an outdoor board at the top of a web page. 

Let’s use radio more, damn it!

One day we’ll look back on the Influencer Marketing fad and have a good chuckle to ourselves.

Dig deep. It increases your chances of creating work that no one’s seen before by 100%.

Experiential is like VAR in football: Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

If you don’t have the talent to put something back together again, please refrain from tearing it down.

The quality of an ad is inversely proportionate to the number of people needed to approve it.

“Cheap, good and fast – pick two” isn’t dead. It’s not even unwell.

Instead of letting legal find reasons why something can’t be said or done, how about we ask them to find reasons why it can?

No one ever saved themselves to success.

Brand Purpose will be dead in the water as soon as the adults get back from lunch.

If the client rejects the work 3 times, the problem’s not the work. It’s the brief.

The appeal of Gary Vaynerchuk is one of the great mysteries of modern marketing. 

There is strong evidence to suggest that there just as many good creatives on outside looking in as there are on the inside looking out. 

Agile training teaches managers how to run a project from start to finish. Shouldn’t they know this already?

No good ever came of focus groups. 

Data may be able to deliver an ad in the right place at the right time, but without a good idea, it’s worth diddly squat.

An inclusive company culture goes wide and deep. Sadly, most are narrow and shallow.

In any downsizing or layoff, the people who really need to be canned are seldom the ones that are.

Car ads will start getting better any day now.

 


 

That’s it. 

Stay tuned for another exciting installment soon.

What The Hell Happened To Car Advertising? Vol: 2

Social Car 1 AM

Honda has some cars for sale.

Anyone want one?

This miserable effort pretty much sums up the state of car advertising on social platforms:

Phoned-in copy. Dull layout. Zero wit. The whole sorry business built on the assumption that if you can drop something into someone’s field of vision, you don’t have to worry about the concept or the quality of the idea.

Here are some more heinous examples.

Social Car 2

Social Car 3

Bland.

Generic.

Lazy.

Embarrassing.

This kind of work is all the more baffling when you consider the current state of the automotive market place.

Statista

Source: Statista

There’s no real market leader, it’s a battle for market share. 

A battle where a 1% or 2% gain could rake in millions.

The question these automakers should be asking themselves is:

“How can we differentiate ourselves from our competitors?”

Instead, the intent seems to be the exact opposite.

More “How can we blend in?” than “How can we stand out?”

As I said, baffling.

There are 101 reasons for this, but the principal one is that no one seems to care.

No one wants to put in the hard yards to unearth a genuine point of difference.

To outthink, outsmart, and outsell.

Not the agencies who should be challenging their clients.

And not the clients who should expect more from their agencies.

Yes, cars and trucks today are pretty much of a muchness, but whoever said the business of advertising was supposed to be easy?

I can think of many a creative who’d kill for a chance to work on an automotive account, to think big, find an edge, and cream the competition.

And I bet you could, too.

But that doesn’t seem to be what’s required anymore.

Perhaps everyone is comfortable with the share they have?

Perhaps they make enough money as it is?

Perhaps they don’t want to upset the applecart by getting into the nasty business of “selling”?

Perhaps all the marketing directors are pals and go off on skiing holidays to Telluride twice a year?

Perhaps.

All I know is that automotive advertising used to be the gold standard for our industry.

It was one of the main reasons why many of us were attracted to the business in the first place.

Today it’s a shadow of its former self.

Of the countless ads from the past I could have used to illustrate what we seem to have lost, I’ve chosen this one for the American Motor Company by Wells Rich Greene.

AMC-Mustang

In 1968, AMC was about to go into Chapter 11.

Its market share was negligible and what it had was slipping through its fingers.

It didn’t have time to fool around.

It needed to sell some cars and damn quick.

When that’s your brief, you don’t mess about with “relationships” or “experiences.”

You go for the jugular.

You talk about the car, its features, its benefits, and why it’s better than the market leader.

That’s the way you save a business.

That’s the way you sell a car.

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.

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.