What's wrong with this ad?

I posed this question to my students on the first day of class. I’d been thinking about how advertising came about. The history of it, in a nutshell, is that way back when, folks who provided services put signs out in front of their shops to let other folks know what they offered. Cobbler. Miller. Marmot boarding. That sort of thing.

Then towns became more crowded and, before you know it, some other wise guy decides to open a second marmot boarding service. Now you’ve got competition. Businesses started putting signs out further away from their shops, hoping to grab more of the business and, poof, now you’ve got advertising.

But back to corn.

Start with what’s right about this ad. It tells me what. It tells me where. It tells me how much. Arguably, that’s all I need to know, right? I want corn, I know how to get it.

Sure there are all kinds of ways to improve this ad aesthetically. Color. Mouth-watering picture of corn (client suggestion). Some really edgy distressed type. Or you could go all alt-media and tattoo the message on a dead cow by the side of the road and clear some shelf space for your One Show pencil.

Here’s my point: this ad isn’t clever, or funny, or anything. But it does the job. Your task won’t always be as simple as telling me where the corn is, but if you don’t accomplish at least that much with your ad, you’ve failed. It’s surprising how often an ad fails. Ads we put on the wall in class, ads in magazines, even ads in the books.

It’s a basic point, but one we all forget sometimes. We’re in the business of communication. So pack your ads with humor, wit, emotion, kick-ass design and some wordsmithing that’ll knock a creative director out of her chair. But don’t forget your first job. Clear communication.

So what’s wrong with the corn ad? And can you do better?

Meet Jim

Makin' Ads is moving to dual authorship. Now you'll have two points of view that may be entirely wrong.

Jim Bosiljevac is a friend of mine. In fact, he was the first person I met when I went to the VCU AdCenter. He's done some award-winning work for Leo Burnett, and currently works at DDB San Francisco.

Jim's also an instructor at the Miami Ad School, SF. Since he'll be teaching a class this term, I've invited him to post as frequently as he wants. He's a smart guy. I'm looking forward to reading what he has to say. Even though it's probably wrong.

The Death of the 30-Second Commercial (And What It Means for Students)

All the noise about the death of the 30-second commercial is just chatter. For the 30-second commercial to die you have to have more in place than just TiVo. You have to have clients who are willing to shift millions and millions of dollars from a proven and measurable medium to something that is still a little scary. Most companies (not to mention the Blue Chips that spend the most on broadcast production) are incredibly risk-averse. Even if a single huge media spender (say, WalMart or GM) decided they were going to completely eliminate their TV budget and dump all their advertising money into on-line media, that wouldn’t begin to shake the foundations of the TV commercial establishment. 30-second spots are going to be around for a long, long time. And someone’s going to have to make them. Hopefully, you.

When it was first introduced, radio was going to kill newspapers because it offered sound. Then TV came along and was going to kill radio because it offered picture. The internet was going to kill TV because it was selective and interactive and gave the viewer more control. Before we’re dead, we’re going to see something that will supposedly kill the internet. And we’ll likely read about it in the newspaper. Wedged in between a couple of small space print ads that someone will enter into the One Show.

So, in my opinion, traditional media aren’t about to die. But the way we approach ads is changing. Anyone who really studies brands and advertising knows that a brand is nothing more or less than a great story. (I highly recommend Seth Godin’s All Marketers Are Liars. It will help you understand your job a little more.) Sometimes you tell this story in a 30-second spot. Sometimes it’s best told in a string of short :15s. Sometimes it’s better told as a print ad. And sometimes it’s better as a publicity stunt that spreads by word of mouth. If we approach advertising as storytelling, and not as scriptwriting, or layout making, we’ll be in a much better place.

Look at the Gamekillers campaign. Yeah, there are some fun :30 spots that are a part of that story. There are also some fun print pieces, too. The website is my favorite component, but it also became a TV show.

Look at Bernbach’s original Lemon ad. It’s a print piece. But it told more of a story than most campaigns tell. Would it work as well today? Hard to say. Probably not. It was disruptive for its time, and we’ve because calloused to that kind of disruption. But it still told a very human story. So while it might not work as well, I believe it would still definitely work. Clients would measure its success, and drivers would give the client money and the client would give the agency money.

So, as a student, remember that when a creative director is looking at your portfolio, he or she will be wanting to see what truths you’ve come up with. They’ll be wanting to find a human connection. They’ll want to be surprised. A slick layout and a punchy headline won’t be enough. If you’ve got a book full of print campaigns that really resonate with me, and make me think, and surprise me a little, I’ll understand that you get what it means not just to make ads, but to communicate. And I’ll assume you’ll be able to communicate in any media.


Seth Godin is getting glasses. And he makes some interesting and pertinent analogies to typefaces.

(I wonder what typeface these are.)

Every agency* can do a good campaign, but show me your last five campaigns. The challenge is to do it consistently.
– Paul Lavoie, Taxi

* The word "student" may also be used here.

What Portfolio School Didn't Teach Me About Radio

Radio wasn't emphasized when I was a student. Judging from the dearth of radio in student books, I assume nothing's changed. In a way that's fine, because I don't think anyone's going to hire you based on a student radio reel.

2007 was the year online spending surpassed radio. It might be easy to write off its importance as a medium. But as students who will hopefully have jobs within a year, it's something you can't afford to ignore. Because radio may be your first big shot at doing great work.

At most agencies, radio is the unsexy medium. The creative directors and senior teams will snatch up all the great TV opportunities. You'll get your shot at some print. But if you're a writer (and if you're not), there's no better place to shine than radio. You'll have more control over a radio spot than a TV commercial (no directors, no film crews, no teams of clients scrutinizing every frame of a story board). Usually, it's just you, your laptop, some creative direction, a client who approves it as the last item on the agenda of a meeting that's already running long.

Because it's very unlikely that you'll have the time and resources to create great radio as a student (print and ambient media are still the things that will get you a good first job), I don't recommend jumping into a study of radio just yet. But since it will likely be a big part of your career early on, here are a few things I wish I had known as a junior creative:

1. Listen to a lot of NPR. This is a great way to train your ear.
2. Pick up Jim Aitchison's book Cutting Edge Radio. It's the Hey, Whipple for radio writers.
3. Rule of thumb: A :30 spot should have a word count of about 80. You can go to 155 for a :60.
4. If it's not interesting in the first 5 seconds, you've failed.
5. Buy yourself a good stopwatch. Radio needs to be timed to the second.
6. Silly voices are a poor excuse for creative radio.
7. Some of my best radio ideas have come from my art directors.
8. It's still about telling a story.
9. The Radio Mercury Awards are the Cannes, One Show, and CA of radio. Grand prize is $100,000, but it's an honor just to be included on the reel. (SORRY, THE FOLLOWING OFFER HAS EXPIRED.) If you'd like to download several Mercury reels (for educational purposes, of course), feel free. It's the zip file called "RADIOPALOZA." Also included in the downloads is a reel from Pirate Radio in Toronto, a great company that hosts an annual radio workshop. Something you might ask your future employer to send you to.

Portfolio school is not the beginning.

When you look back on a career, the first year isn’t the beginning; the first couple of years are the beginning. Three, four, five years of success are – if a career spans twenty-five or thirty years – the early days.

- Paul Simon (from the book Live From New York)

What Happens at Portfolio School Stays in Vegas

Glen Scott and Tony Marin are a creative team at R&R Partners in Las Vegas. If you watch TV, you've already seen some of there work. Here's their latest spot:

They also have a microsite that goes with it.

I bring Glen and Tony to your attention because they were students at the Chicago Portfolio School just a few years ago. It's really amazing to see people go from students putting their book together to being mentioned in Adweek as the team on a Spot of the Week.

Three things to remember:
  1. Glen and Tony were in a portfolio school, doing what you're doing about four or five years ago.
  2. When they were doing what you're doing, they were working extraordinarily hard.
  3. Be like Glen and Tony.

Indra Sinha and 3 Questions

“What idiot says that because it’s a paid for space, it has to be written in a paid for way, with a potato in the mouth, talking down to ‘you’? You can put absolutely anything you like in that space. You can write journalism. Neil Godfrey and I did a campaign for the Metropolitan Police. One of those was a skinhead spitting at a policeman. It won a lot of awards, but it wouldn’t have, had it been left to one of the people on the jury who is a very famous English art director, well known for being a dumb blonde, who said, this isn’t advertising, this is journalism. To which I say, thank you very much, that’s the best compliment that you could have paid me, it’s far better than that Pencil you gave me.”
Indra Sinha

1. If this ad were yours, would you put it in your book? Why or why not?
2. Do you think this ad would win awards today? Why or why not?
3. Can you explain what "a potato in the mouth" means? Why or why not?

What You Have To Look Forward To

The Hatch Awards is the regional ad show in Boston. The following is was this year's opening video. Painful. True. And what you'll all get to experience someday. Advertising is awesome.

Craft, Part III

"The more I judge shows, the more I realize that people do come up with similar ideas. That's why the presentation of an idea can make such a difference. Because people are thinking in similar ways, it's more and more incumbent on you to execute everything to the finest detail."
-Bruce Bildsten

(As a creative director at Fallon, Bruce Bildsten came up with the idea for for BMW Films. He now runs Brew in Minneapolis. He wrote a really great article for Fast Company you should read.)

The Big 5 For Radio Success

A few of you have asked about radio. While I put together a few words on that, take a look at Doug Zanger's series of essays on "The Big 5 For Radio Success."

Lies and Logos

"It's a lie that you must have a logo in the ad. If you write a letter to someone and the most interesting thing in the letter is your signature, you've wasted your time. You ought to be able to write a letter, not sign it, and everybody ought to know who it comes from because it's written in your tone of voice, your handwriting, and about the things in which you're interested. Most people could write a letter without signing it and the recipient would know who it came from. If nobody knows you, then you need to sign it." - Neil French

Craft, Part II

You cannot afford to have a B+ book. Not if you want to get into the agency of your choice. Not if you expect to be doing work that gets into the One Show. Not if you expect to beat 90% of the books you’ll be competing with.

I see B+ books all the time and they come from some of the best portfolio schools around. (It's rarely the school's fault.) Since B+ is the average, a B+ book should get you a job in an average agency. But since average agencies don’t want to be average, sometimes a B+ book isn’t enough to get you a job there either.

One of the key differences between a B+ book and an A book is in its craft. Don’t confuse that with slickness. With polish or a beautifully photoshopped layout. It’s hard for me to explain what craft is. So I’ll let Jim Aitchison do it:

“Craft really means judgment. Craft can mean subtraction as well as addition. Craft means being appropriate. Craft means knowing when an extra detail can be added, when an extra layer of technique cannot. Craft is the watchdog of clarity.”

How would you define craft?