The Privilege of Being Invited

A while ago, I was traveling back from a client meeting with two senior people in our planning department. I asked them what they liked most about their jobs. Sue Mizera, the director of Young & Rubicam Business Consultants gave an amazing answer that's really stuck with me. Here it is:

"It's a privilege to be invited into someone's house to work on something that is very important to them."

Product Benefit Exercise

In the event you're not working off a brief (i.e., you're a student, you're doing pro bono work, or you're trying to beef up your book on your own), here's an exercise worth trying.

Take whatever it is you're working on, and brainstorm 20 product benefits. Say you're working on Legos. Here are 20...

  1. Fun
  2. Make you smart
  3. imaginative
  4. indestructable
  5. timeless
  6. appeal to all ages
  7. no language barrier
  8. teach kids about connections
  9. you can lose track of time
  10. they keep your kids quiet
  11. interactive
  12. so much better than watching TV or playing video games
  13. MIT has a Lego Lab
  14. colorful
  15. They're a step-up from Duplo
  16. Variety of sets (space/medieval/town/Star Wars)
  17. Not hard to find
  18. Play that doesn't make you dirty
  19. Always enough to share
  20. You can build with as much or as little as you like.

Once you have your list of 20 product benefits, start doing ads for each area. For this, do some ads about how Legos appeal to all ages. See how far you can go with that. Then do some ads about how you can add to the sets. Or how, unlike other toys, they're still fun when you lose a couple pieces. Obviously, some benefits will be better than others. I'm not sure how many people ever bought Legos because they're "colorful." Still, do three ads per benefit, and suddenly you've got 60 ideas. Keep doing ads off every benefit until you realize which area is the most fertile. Then go do more ads in that direction.

You may not always have a brief. But you should always be working off a strategy. This is just one simple way of finding out what that might be.

By the way, don't do ads for Legos. Too studenty.

(Much love to Coz Cotzias who showed me how to do this a decade ago.)

production Rules, Part Two

I found this in some of my digital files. (Sorry I don't have the credits.) Click to enlarge.

Answers to Questions

A couple posts back, Bukes asked two really good questions.

Q: As a junior, how realistic is it to get to work on anything other than the "bill paying" projects?

Greg says: That depends on the size of the agency. If you’re in a small shop with only a few teams, you’ll work on pretty much everything. If you join a larger shop, the chances diminish. That’s why you’ll hear the mantra, “Take advantage of every opportunity.” You only get to work on tray liners? Make them tray liners worth entering into the One Show. You’ve only got a table tent? Make it more than a table tent.

Jim says: I wholeheartedly agree. Every project counts. And if it's a tray liner, do the best tray liner anyone has ever seen. Then bring ideas for posters and napkins and in-store posters and anything else you can think of. I was offered my very first job because of an assignment to re-design the McDonald's employee application during an internship. My partner and I wanted more stuff for our books, so we did in-store posters, drive-thru posters, menu signs and, yes, tray liners. The creative was okay, but the creative directors were just impressed that we took the initiative.

As a junior, you want to prove that you're a source of great ideas. And nobody's going to fault you if you say, "I know the assignment didn't call for stunts, but we had this idea we thought could be really cool." Just MAKE SURE YOU DO THE ASSIGNMENT first. It's not "We didn't want to do tray liners so we did a spot." It's "We did these tray liners AND had this other idea."

Q: How long should you do that before you can expect to start building your professional book?

Greg says: You start building your professional book the day you start earning a paycheck. Not feeling like you’re getting enough great creative? You’ve got two choices: 1) quit and find another job, 2) start doing great creative. Give the clients something more than they asked for. If it’s good enough, most agencies will pay to run and enter it. Or go out and get a pro bono client. I shortlisted at Cannes this year with a client that I went out and found on my own. I had some great creative directors and producers help bring it to life. But if I hadn’t made the cold call, I wouldn’t have it on my reel.

Jim says: Keep in mind, high-profile assignments aren't always all they're cracked up to be. There's a lot to be said about the tiny assignment nobody cares about. As a writer, I LOVE to do radio because (and shhhh, this is a secret), nobody gives a shit about radio. Creative directors nod along and check their blackberries when you present it, then it's usually a junior client approving it. Compared with political, high-profile projects where you might have 9 creative reviews before the work even leaves the agency, assignments that nobody else cares about can be rewarding in more ways than one.

Work > Talking About Work

"Do you think a headline would help?"
"Do you think a different layout would make more sense?"
"Do you think it needs a line?"

I hear these questions a lot from students when I look through their portfolios. And my answer is always the same:

"I don't know. Go find out."

It's impossible to tell if a headline would clarify the ad until you've written tons and tons of headlines. There's no way to know if there's a better layout until you've done several so there's some comparison.

You can't talk theoretically about advertising. It's like saying, "If I had a killer headline and an awesome visual, would that make a good ad?"

If you have an ad you're not sure about, play with it. Write some headlines. Or taglines. Or body copy. You may find out it's exactly what you need. Or you may find out why it's perfect without them.
If you've laid it out one way and you're not 100% convinced, lay it out 10 different ways.

You've got to work. You cannot theorize.

Julia Cameron said it best:
"Art is not about thinking something up. It's about putting something down."

Never Present The Boss

A few things I didn't learn in portfolio school:

  1. Bruce Springsteen will not license his music for commercial use. Never present a storyboard that uses one of his songs. It ain't gonna happen.
  2. R.E.M. won't license their music either. (Although a couple of their songs have been covered by others and used commercially. No idea how this happened.)
  3. Don't touch any of Disney's property - mouse ears, "When You Wish Upon A Star," references to any of their theme parks, etc. The only thing they protect more vigilantly than their copyrighted material is Walt Disney's cryogenically frozen head, which is kept in a vault under Space Mountain.

Don't present to a client something that can't be sold. Don't present to a creative director something that makes you look naive.

Side note: I know from personal experience that Travis will not license their music either.

Is An Agency Being Honest With Itself?

A buddy of mine recently emailed me with a topic he thought would be good for the blog. It's something to consider when you're interviewing with agencies: How much of the agency's work is good work?

Every agency, even the ones that are all over the award show annuals, have that work that they kind of sweep under the carpet. It's not the work that makes the annuals. It's not the work they put on their website or show when they give talks at schools. But it is work that pays the bills. For most agencies, that's the bulk of the work.

So the thing to figure out when you're looking at an agency is:
1) What is the ratio of good work (i.e. the work they feature) to other work? Sometimes you can get an idea of this just by looking at the client roster.
2) Who gets to work on the good stuff? Are there a few privileged teams, or is it spread around? Even if the good assignments are agency-wide gang bangs with 12 other teams working on them, at least you'll get a shot.

The buddy who emailed me has an interesting way of looking at it as well:
"What portion of an agency's work would get someone hired at that agency? It's kind of a talk/walk ratio. I'd say that if 20% of an agency's work is good enough to get the writer/AD hired there, that's pretty good. Or at least, a pretty honest agency."

That's a great point. Most agencies know what great work is. They want to hire people with great portfolios. But can you build a great portfolio working at that agency? That should always be your biggest priority.

Award Shows and Priorities

Here's a post from earlier this year. Please allow me to share it again.

Let's all do good work.

Production Rules, Part One

No matter how great a director is, the work will suffer if he doesn’t “get it.”

A couple of years ago, our team was faced with two directors on a spot. One was a cool, music-video director with one of the best production houses in the country. He was young, hip and eager. The other sounded like a slick ad-guy, saying all the right things, and buttering us up in all the expected ways.

But even though his schmoozy, unctuous over-sell made us roll our eyes, one thing was obvious: he got it. He knew what the essence of the spot was. The cool, hip guy kept talking about props and set design.

We went with the cool, hip guy, thinking we could help him get our vision. Boy, were we wrong. He obsessed about shots that had nothing to do with the story, wardrobe, and motivation for wardrobe, tiles and wall color. I want my directors to have this attention to detail. But only after they give detail to the shot that really matters.

No surprise, the spot (which I originally had a lot of heart for) was awful. The client hated it. And we ended up recutting it, removing the dialogue and replacing it with supers. All because we thought we could eventually bring him around.

I read once that Steven Spielberg wrote a treatment for the first Harry Potter movie. He deviated from J.K. Rowling’s vision in several ways, most notably by suggesting Hogwarts be an American school. And he wanted Haley Joel Osmet to play Harry Potter. I love Spielberg’s movies. He’s a brilliant director when he’s on his game. But as far as Harry Potter, he did not “get it.”

World's Best Presentations has announced the winners of their "World's Best Presentation" contest. You can view the winner and the runners up below.

The first and third presentations are potentially complicated messages that could have harbored a trove of tangents. Instead, they're clear, simple, and very engaging.

Next time you're mocking up your ads, ask yourself if they do as good a job as these presentations do at communicating. Don't confuse that with minimalism. Done correctly, long copy can be crystal clear and very engaging. But if your ad isn't as lucid and as smart as these presentations, try peeling back a few more layers.
View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: design crisis)

Foot Notes
View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: design inspirational)

Zimbabwe in Crisis
View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: refugee hyperinflation)

The Manifesto

When I'm trying to wrap my head around a brand, I'll often write a manifesto. I give this assignment to my classes a lot as well, and they've always found it pretty useful.

The manifesto is just a paragraph or two that answers a very simple question: What do we stand for? Part of this may be what we're against. But basically, you want some very concrete language that defines the brand in an impassioned way. If you read it out loud, you should feel it. It should be something that deserves background music. Something you want to stand up and salute.

If the brief is the intellectual foundation for a brand, the manifesto is its emotional foundation. Often, you'll be able to pick through your manifesto and find great headline fodder, or thoughts that can lead to other ads. And they're great to read in client meetings before you present the creative, because they fire everyone up and set up the work.

Here are a couple of examples of good manifestos:


And this one below was written by one of my former students (an art director!) for Ford Mustang.

FORD MUSTANG. A little Detroit exists in all of us, whether we admit it or not. If you’re a tax accountant in San Jose or a 3rd grade teacher in Macon, Georgia, you wish, at least a little, that you were from Detroit. Then you’d have some of the attitude, the swagger, the trigger middle finger and the grizzly-bear-like resistance to winter that we have. The only reason we need hipsters and yuppies is to rob them. This is Detroit. Rock City. Motor City. We helped end the nightmarish disco era and gave you Techno and Motown. This is Hockey Town. Not Golf Town. Not Niketown. Not US Open Town. The only tennis players you’ll find here are the ones dating our hockey players. We have an insatiable desire to live off sliders and donuts and we’re riotous fans of the flagrant foul and the dirty pick-and-roll up high. We wanted to jump Ron Artest in the parking lot, sleep with his sister and then run from the cops. We breed loudmouth white guys with nasty demeanors and questionable music which we bump in our 10s. And deep down you realize you’re one of us too. But your inner 313 is still stuck in the closet, unsatisfied, waiting to shout “don’t fuck with me after 9pm.” You’re stuck in a cul-de-sac or a cubicle with a cup of decaf coffee, and you can’t stomach Schlitz and you order your wings mild. You’ve been resisting, but now it’s time to indulge. Finally say what you’ve been secretly dying to say all these years: Move, bitch. Get out of the way.

Showing Your Work Around

"I don't know what's good anymore."

We've all had this experience. We work on something so much, for so long, that we completely lose perspective. We're too close to it. We can't tell if something's clear, funny, stupid, or so stupid it's funny. At times like this, it's good to have a few go-to people.

"Hey, what do you think of this?"

You need someone who's smart, has good taste, and will be brutally honest with you. Sometimes it's good to have a few of those people.

"One person I showed thought that the cat kind of reminded her of aliens, because this one time she had a dream about alien cats."

If you focus-group an ad around long enough, you will get some pretty strange feedback. We all know the chronic focus-groupers. Sometimes they're legitimately confused, but often they're just fishing for compliments, or searching for the one person who will tell them that their crap ad is brilliant. Don't be that person.

Have your few trusted brains. Use them as necessary. If they all agree that the ad's not working, take that to heart. But don't take every piece of thinking that you ever poop out and show it around to everyone. It's annoying and, because everyone will have a different take on it, it will just confuse you.

As much as learning how to come up with a good idea, you need to learn to evaluate a good idea. Trust your gut. And when your gut is full, trust the guts of a few smart people around you. But don't trust the guts of everyone in the school, or everyone in the agency. That just leads to a big, gooey, gross, gutty mess.

It's the Music, Stupid, Part III: Demo Love

Jim recently posted a great piece on music. He mentioned the trap of demo love. Here's a quick story on how very real this molotov cocktail can be.

A couple years ago, we presented a rough cut to our client. We went to great lengths to explain how rough it was. We vigorously explained that the music (ELO's "Mr. Blue Sky") was place-holder.

While the edit was coming together, we found an awesome piece that fit spot perfectly ("Energy" by The Apples in Stereo). The Apples song had everything going for it:

  • The lyrics, theme and feel of the music aligned with the spot. "Mr. Bluesky" sounded good, but had nothing to do with it.
  • The album "New Magnetic Wonder" was barely a fortnight old. "Mr. Bluesky" had already been used in approximately 1,732 commercials.
  • The album was getting great reviews, was a breakthrough work for the band, and the client could have ridden that wave.
  • Most astonishingly, The Apples in Stereo were asking $50,000 for unlimited licensing. Jeff Lynne of ELO wanted $250,000 to use "Mr. Bluesky" for six weeks.

So which one did the client pick? Let's just say Mr. Lynne probably bought himself a case of new shampoo/conditioner, and we weren't able to help fund one of my favorite band's European tour. And yes, after the 6 weeks of ELO licensing expired, the client didn't have enough to renew and we had to use needledrop.

Resist the siren song of demo love. It is very, very irrational. And very, very real.