Craft, Part I

I have a friend who is a teacher in California. She emailed to share the following piece that was presented in a training seminar:

I thought this was pretty interesting information. It made a good point. But it was a little hard to sit through. Text for six minutes? Some people just think PowerPoint is more interesting than it really is.

Now take a look at this video that was featured on the same YouTube page:

It's the same information. Not a lot of variance. But significantly more memorable and engaging.

The art directors will immediately say it's because it's more visual. But that's only partly right.

The second is much, much better because it's been crafted. Someone took the time to make this information aesthetically appealing. Someone realized that as interesting as the original facts are, the presentation could have been more compelling. And they took the time to improve it.

Everyone's striving for the Big Idea. But when your portfolio is sitting alongside another on a creative director's desk, when they both have strong concepts, when they both show that you can think and communicate in fresh, innovative ways, the tie-breaker is going to be in the craft.

Copywriters who believe you can learn Photoshop and art direct your own ads, beware. Art directors, think twice before editing the copy of your writers without consulting them.

Never forget that concept is king. But never underestimate the importance of your craft.

Ideas vs. Tactics

Something to consider when rounding out your book with alternative/ambient/guerilla/environmental media.

How We Work

I was on production in New York last week. My partner and I had one of our mornings off, so we decided to go to a diner and work on a pro bono client we’ve picked up.

We’d been working in this place for a little over an hour when we heard someone at a table a few feet away mention “Bill Bernbach” and “Butler Shine & Stern.” We thought it was kind of funny to realize we weren’t the only ad guys in the place. We wondered which agency they were from.

They were directly behind me, so I didn’t get a good look at them until they got up to leave. When they left, they walked right by our table and I realized who they were:

So after years of success, reels of innovative ads, shelves and shelves of awards, and a term as the president of the One Show, Bob Barrie still goes to coffee shops to come up with ideas with his partners.

I wish I had known it was them before they left. I would have at least wished them the best of luck.

Mike Hughes said it best: “Advertising is not a sprint. It’s a marathon.” And Bob Barrie’s still running.

Avoiding Vagaries

I just read your anonymous evaluations on last quarter's class. Thank you. I’m glad so many of you enjoyed it.

Overwhelmingly, the biggest criticism was the occasional (chronic?) vagueness of my direction. More than a few of you dinged me for the all-too-familiar comment, “You’re in a good area. Keep working.” You all deserve better direction than this, so I apologize for the fuzziness. Usually what I mean by this is, “You’ve got a great insight. You’ve really hit on a truth about the product/category/consumer. You just haven’t done enough good ads to fully realize it.” I probably presumed that that was enough direction, and I can see why it wouldn’t be.

Vague direction is something you’ll face in your career. So it’s worth addressing here. What do you do when you hear the following?

“This is interesting. I wonder where it can go.”

“That’s not a bad idea. Seems like it could be a little stronger, though.”

“I’m not really sure about this. Maybe. Why don’t you play with it a bit?”

It’s a bit like playing “What’s in my pocket?” It can be a no-win situation. So how do you deal with this? Here are a few recommendations:
  1. When you’re interviewing for a job, ask the creative director what he or she thinks of some of their past work. Ask them what the agency’s best and weakest work is. Ask them why they think so. A creative director who can articulate those things will probably be able to give you very good direction.

  2. When you’re interviewing, ask the art directors and writers about their creative director. You’ll never hear them say, “He’s a dork. He couldn’t art direct himself out of a paper bag.” But a comment like “He’s amazing,” will be better than, “He’s pretty cool.” (You know all this. It’s just like dating.)

  3. When you’re receiving direction - in class or in a job - ask questions. When I (or any other CD) tells you to keep working, and you’re not sure how, ask. Make it less of a presentation with feedback, and more of a conversation. You may both come up with some pretty cool ideas on the spot.

  4. Keep studying the annuals. Know what makes a great ad. Discuss them with your classmates and co-workers. Be able to articulate it yourself. Knowing what makes a great ad will help you make more of them.
What ideas do you have? How can you avoid receiving vague direction from a creative director? Please post your comments.

Thank you, Makin' Ads readers / Google Analytics

In addition to the posted comments, I've received several emails encouraging me to continue the Makin' Ads blog. I also attached Google Analytics to the page so I could see how many people were actually viewing it. That was a flattering eye-opener, and I'd like to give a special shout-out to the readers in Virginia, New York and Texas. Bless your hearts.

I've really enjoyed the last few months of posts. Sorting some of these thoughts has made me a better creative, and if you're getting something from them, too, we're all better off. Advertising's supposed to be fun. If I can contribute a little to the joyride, I'm honored.

So bookmark the site. Share it with your friends. Email me or post comments, questions or requests. And thanks again for your support and interest. New posts are on their way.


Final Post...?

You've completed our first quarter of the program. Congratulations. Most of you have multiple campaigns and the beginnings of a solid book. Double congratulations on that.

I've really enjoyed teaching this quarter. Again, I will say that there are more talented people in this class than I have ever seen in a single course at the Chicago Portfolio School. There's still a bell curve to this industry, but it looks like more of you are fighting your way to the winning end. Keep that up, because the competition (in Richmond, Miami, Atlanta, and even your own school) is not going to let up.

Please remember to send Troy your comments by this Thursday (9/20) so he can forward them to me. I'd like to know what you think I do well and what I can do better. While I welcome comments on class structure, I'm especially interested in how I can be a better creative director.

I've enjoyed keeping this blog. I'm willing to keep it up, provided there are sufficient numbers interested in it. If you'd like to continue to see posts, please drop me your comments. (Even if you're not in the Chicago Portfolio School.)

Lastly, if you haven't already, please check out my other blog, Archimedes' Tub. The basic premise is every month or so I interview an interesting person who's solved an unusual problem and see how we can apply that to our everyday lives. Bookmark it. Subscribe to it. Post comments on it. Tell you friends and family about it.

All the best. Enjoy the work. And work hard.


You Want to Win Awards...Right?

To be a success in this industry, you have to win awards. You have to win Pencils and Lions. You have to appear in CA and Archive and the One Show and (as a student) in CMYK. It's how you get noticed. It's your press agent.

I know you've all spent the weekend trying to win your Royal Rumble. Someone "won." The rest of you "lost." But you've all created some ads.

With this in mind, consider this quote from the man who's won the Academy Award for best director and best picture:

"The whole concept of awards is silly. I cannot abide by the judgment of other people, because if you accept it when they say you deserve an award, then you have to accept it when they say you don’t."

- Woody Allen


A quote on copy revisions from the life of Thomas Jefferson:

“Congress took up the wording of the Declaration; it made several major changes and excised about one-quarter of the text. During the debate Jefferson sat silently and sullenly, regarding each proposed revision as another defacement. Franklin sat next to him and tried to soothe his obvious pain with the story of a sign painter commissioned by a hatter, who kept requesting more concise language for his sign until nothing was left on the sign but a picture of a hat.”

- from The American Sphinx by Joseph J. Ellis

Words of Ernie, Part III: Juggling

Since you've got your assignment from my class, a handful of campaigns to be fleshed out and comped up, plus your Royal Rumble for this weekend, you might be feeling a bit overwhelmed. If you honestly, sincerely, whole-heartedly want to get a job in advertising, get used to the feeling. Learn to thrive on it.

Here's another email from Ernie Schenck. When I received this, I was were you are, juggling so many assignments I didn't know which ones to pursue and which to drop. Here's what he had to say:


I think you're absolutely doing the right thing taking on as many projects as you can. There is no question that the more shots you give yourself, the better your chances of some of them making it through into daylight. Great work is really a study in survival. There are so many pitfalls. Agency bureaucracy. Small minded clients. Hundreds. Terrible analogy I suppose but it's a bit like sperm. There's millions of these guys swimming up stream, you know, but only a few have a shot in hell if making it all the way. That's why it's so important that every opportunity you get, you make it great, you make it fantastic.

As for myself, I used to handle 6 maybe 8 clients at a time. That was a long time ago. Now, I prefer to focus on no more than two or three projects at once. But you should absolutely be doing what you're doing. And have a great Thanksgiving yourself.

Ernie Schenck

By the way, if you haven't read Luke Sullivan's "Hey, Whipple! Squeeze This!" you've got a nice little break coming up. Don't let yourself enter the second quarter not having read it.

If you have read it, I'd recommend Ernie's book "The Houdini Solution." I'd pay particular attention to Chapter 10.

What's Your Tipping Point?

I hope you had a great Labor Day weekend. It’s always good to recharge your batteries. With that in mind, I’d like you to seriously consider an exchange between Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point and Blink, and Bill Simmons, a sports writer from The following was part of a feature called Curious Guy, which is a correspondence with famous people through e-mail. I’ve highlighted the parts that really stood out to me, and I’d like you to weigh them against your current work ethic.

Gladwell when asked by Bill why he writes so well responds:

"As for your (very kind) question about my writing, I'm not sure I can answer that either, except to say that I really love writing, in a totally uncomplicated way. When I was in high school, I ran track and in the beginning I thought of training as a kind of necessary evil on the way to racing. But then, the more I ran, the more I realized that what I loved was running, and it didn't much matter to me whether it came in the training form or the racing form. I feel the same way about writing. I'm happy writing anywhere and under any circumstances and in fact I'm now to the point where I'm suspicious of people who don't love what they do in the same way. I was watching golf, before Christmas, and the announcer said of Phil Mickelson that the tournament was the first time he'd picked up a golf club in five weeks. Assuming that's true, isn't that profoundly weird? How can you be one of the top two or three golfers of your generation and go five weeks without doing the thing you love? Did Mickelson also not have sex with his wife for five weeks? Did he give up chocolate for five weeks? Is this some weird golfer's version of Lent that I'm unaware of? They say that Wayne Gretzky, as a 2-year-old, would cry when the Saturday night hockey game on TV was over, because it seemed to him at that age unbearably sad that something he loved so much had to come to end, and I've always thought that was the simplest explanation for why Gretzky was Gretzky. And surely it's the explanation as well for why Mickelson will never be Tiger Woods."

Bill in response:

"On Mickelson and Sports Lent, I remember watching one of those 20/20-Dateline-type pieces about him once, and he was adamant about remaining a family man, taking breaks from golf and never letting the sport consume him ... and I remember thinking to myself, "Right now Tiger is watching this and thinking, 'I got him. Cross Phil off the list. This guy will never pass me.'" The great ones aren't just great, they enjoy what they're doing -- that's why MJ's first retirement always seemed genuine to me. He had pretty much mastered his craft, and the media was wearing him down, and then his father was murdered, and for the first time in his life, basketball was looming as a chore for him. And he was smart enough to get away and recharge his batteries. I always respected him for that. Well, unless the real reason he "retired" was because of his gambling problems and an ominous "You screwed up, you're gonna walk away for 18 months, and we're gonna pretend this entire discussion never happened" ultimatum from commissioner Stern.

But I think there's a certain amount of professionalism that needs to be there, as well, because there will always be days when you don't feel like doing your job, and those are always the true tests. Halberstam has a great quote about this: "Being a professional is doing your job on the days you don't feel like doing it." I love that quote and mutter it to myself every time I don't feel like writing because my allergies are bothering me, or my back hurts, or my head hurts, or there's some random dog barking, or any of the other excuses I use when I'm procrastinating from pumping out something."

Gladwell again:

"This is actually a question I'm obsessed with: Why don't people work hard when it's in their best interest to do so? Why does Eddy Curry come to camp every year overweight? The (short) answer is that it's really risky to work hard, because then if you fail you can no longer say that you failed because you didn't work hard. It's a form of self-protection. I swear that's why Mickelson has that almost absurdly calm demeanor. If he loses, he can always say: Well, I could have practiced more, and maybe next year I will and I'll win then. When Tiger loses, what does he tell himself? He worked as hard as he possibly could. He prepared like no one else in the game and he still lost. That has to be devastating, and dealing with that kind of conclusion takes a very special and rare kind of resilience. Most of the psychological research on this is focused on why some kids don't study for tests -- which is a much more serious version of the same problem. If you get drunk the night before an exam instead of studying and you fail, then the problem is that you got drunk. If you do study and you fail, the problem is that you're stupid -- and stupid, for a student, is a death sentence. The point is that it is far more psychologically dangerous and difficult to prepare for a task than not to prepare. People think that Tiger is tougher than Mickelson because he works harder. Wrong: Tiger is tougher than Mickelson and because of that he works harder."