People don't read ads...

“People don’t read ads—they read what interests them, and sometimes it is an ad.”
-Howard Gossage

This is one of my favorite advertising quotes because it puts what we do into perspective. We're not just competing with other brands in the category, or other ads, we're competing for mind space. If your ad isn't provocative, not just as an ad, but as a thing, nobody's going to care.

There are a couple of assignments I like to give my students to hammer this point home. One is to have them do a t-shirt for their product. I like the t-shirt assignment because it requires two things: 1) it must convey some sort of message or feeling that is consistent with the brand you're building, and 2) it has to be cool enough that someone would actually wear it. It can't just be a product message on fabric.

The other assignment I like is a little more difficult. There's no brand. No required message. The assignment is below. Over the years, I've had some really interesting responses, some really bad ones, and a lot that fall somewhere in between. What would you paint on the bridge?


Several years ago, I was on a photo shoot for an Allstate ad campaign at a lake in Northern California. We were out on a boat, cruising across the lake, and we passed under a really long bridge. As we passed by, I saw, spray-painted on the bridge, in 5-foot tall letters, a message: HEY FUCK YOU MAN

Aside from the complete disregard for punctuation, what struck me was how difficult it must have been for the author to write this message. I mean, this was in the middle of the bridge, high above the water. The person had to climb the bank, then shimmy across a ledge, paint can in pocket, all the way out to the middle. They had to hold on for dear life with one hand as they painted their message. A lot of sweat. And what inspired bit of poetry did they find worthy of such an effort? HEY FUCK YOU MAN.

It had a Zen simplicity to it, but I couldn’t help but think it was a missed opportunity. The effort was there. The placement was there. The concept was just lacking a bit.

So here’s your assignment: You’ve got a can of spray paint. You’ve got a bridge. You’ve got the cajones to climb out there. What are you going to write? Remember: if you fall, you could die. So you’d better think of something good. A hell of a lot better than HEY FUCK YOU MAN.

"The Thrill of an Escape...The Tender Warmth of a Family Reunion."

A while ago I pointed out that imitation happens. Call it coincidence, collective unconscious, bad timing, or plagiarism, there's a lot of work out there that will seem like derivations of derivations.

Troy points us to a New York Times article that shows how extensive this is. Honda and Subway using the same song. AT&T and Riverbed Technology using the same concept. Dell, Sears and WalMart all trying to own the word "wish." At least three times in my career I've produced an idea that launched at the same time a similar idea was introduced.

There's no guarantee that the brilliant idea you just came up with isn't strikingly similar to the one a team in Miami or Atlanta just came up with. That's where your craft comes in.

Look at it this way: E.T. was a hit. Mac and Me was such a flop, most of you won't even remember it.

Both movies were based on the same idea: Alien stranded on earth is befriended by a boy. I don't think Mac and Me was a blatant ripoff of E.T. It's just an easy idea for anyone to have. But it was horribly executed. Bad script. Bad effects. Bad directing. Bad actors. Bad, bad, bad.

The only way you can protect your ideas is to make them as great as possible. And the only way to do that is to keep working at them.

The Writers Strike Explained

This won't help you put your book together. But I thought it was worth posting.

Courtesy of

Think Inside the Box

There is nothing that can give you a better idea of what makes a great ad than great ads, themselves. That's why I continually encourage you to immerse yourselves in the annuals.

That said, with the holidays coming up, I'd like to recommend a little inspiration. Pick up a copy of Ernie Schenck's The Houdini Solution. His basic premise is that thinking "outside the box" doesn't get you anywhere. You have to think inside the box - work creatively within the parameters you're given. That's where the real powerful ideas happen, because that's where they become relevant.

Chapter 10 is a list of 50 different ways to jumpstart your creative thinking. I think you'll all find them useful when you're coming up with your own ideas.

What's Up With Tiny Hands?

I have seen three unrelated pieces featuring men with tiny hands in less than 24 hours.

1. Herringbone

2. Burger King

3. A short film

That great, completely original idea you just came up with? Make sure you give the copy and the art direction the time and effort they deserve. Because some team at another portfolio school might have had that same great, completely original idea yesterday.

"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

Pitch Time

I just got through a pretty big pitch. I worked until at least 10pm (usually later) for the past two weeks in a row. I probably would have worked over the weekend, too, but I was on production for another client (so, actually, I was working over the weekend.) The meeting was last Friday, and Saturday I did absolutely nothing, I was that spent.

I mention this because I want to make a couple points:
  1. As students, in my often-flawed opinion, you need to be pulling these kinds of hours fairly regularly. Not every night of every week. But you need to know the feeling so you won't get culture shock in front of your first creative director. If you're not working late into the night out of a passion and determination to have the absolute best book on the market, having a job isn't going to magically give you that desire or capacity.
  2. What is going to help you get through these kinds of weeks is a profound love for your job. You write, art direct, and concept, not because it's your job description, but because you'd be doing it whether you were being paid for it or not.

I posted a photo from the night before the pitch on the Drink In Hand blog. Get used to that scene. You'll become very familiar with it.

Pimp Your Book?

David asks if some brands work better based on the region where you want to send your book:

“For instance, do you think that New York (and/or Chicago) is more conservative and Creative Directors (and recruiters) would want brands in students book that are a little on the conservative side (as opposed to SF or LA)? Should I be concerned about what type of brand I have in my book and get rid of some (aside from the obvious never to work on - condoms, tattoo parlors, etc)?”

It's a valid question. My answer is you shouldn't over-think your book in that way. A great ad is a great ad whether it's for BMW or the local sandwich shop around the corner. And I don't buy that the East Coast is more conservative than the West Coast. New York has Mother and Walrus. California has Grey, JWT and Ogilvy.

I've seen students make different versions of their books for different agencies. In my opinion, that's an incredible waste of time. You can't second guess what a creative director is going to think. (I saw Dan Wieden review student books once, and I was amazed that he was drawn to such conservative work.)

Basically, do the book you want to do. The agency that appreciates it enough to hire you will be the agency that you'll be happiest with.

Awards Show Dilemma

“If you had a moratorium on awards for ten years, if you said there will be no awards for the next ten years, and said that after those ten years there will be awards for the most new and original things that had emerged, then you might find that within those years all the new ways of expressing ourselves will just come out, because there would no longer be any compulsion to impress juries who are steeped in the old, conventional ways.” – Indra Sinha

Indra's got a point here. And it would be a great experiment. If only you could get every creative in the industry to comply.

But consider the position you're in. As students, you don't really have award shows to enter. Sure, you've got CMYK, the One Show college competition, and a few regional things. But your real show is going to be your book. That's your chance to do some incredible work. If a creative director opens it to find a bunch of mimicked ads, it won't make much of an impression.

I also think it's incredibly important for you to study the annuals. Especially early in your career. I think studying the annuals is the best way for you to really understand what makes great advertising.

So here's the dilemma: You need to read the annuals to be familiar with what really great advertising is. You also don't want to simply copy the kind of great advertising that's in the annuals. How do you reconcile the two?

TV? In your book?

TV in a junior book has to be really, really, really, really good. Otherwise the reaction will be, "Why'd you do that?"

Production quality is always going to be low. The picture's always going to be terrible – no matter what kind of camera you're able to get your hands on. There's just no comparing a $100,000 production (that’s a small one) with something you and a couple of friends did. So the idea has to rock.

I've seen a few TV spots in junior books. Only one has left an impression. It was all in the delivery. It just made me laugh. But it was accompanied by a B+ book, so we didn't hire him. Don't start working on a reel until you have an A book. (Not an A- book. The difference is huge.)

I can see TV becoming more and more common, just as a matter of competition. Some portfolio schools have the time and money to let their students dabble in it. But I think most agencies won't start looking for TV from juniors for many more years. Maybe in a decade it will become standard. And even then, if it’s going to be worth anything, it’s going to be about the idea.