Tools to Help Small Business

You will find a lot of frustration in the ad business. There will be many many people saying "You can't do that because..." There will be many opportunities to throw up your hands and settle for something less than stellar. I want to share a time when I did just that and wished I hadn't.

Years ago, I did a stint on the U.S. Postal Service. They were a tough client, with lots of layers and lots of rules. Probably no real surprise there--they're the government. Anyway, we were trying to get some print ads out the door for a line of products meant to help small businesses. After rounds of rejected taglines, I just gave them a very straightforward one: "Tools for small business." Approved.

Then legal chimed in. "Tools for small business" was being used (I think by IBM). I hate legal feedback like that. How could someone trademark such a simple line? Fine, I thought. "Tools TO HELP small business." How's that? Done. Approved.

A couple weeks later, I'm walking down the street in Chicago and I see a mail truck with "Tools to help small business" painted on the side. Turns out, all of the mail trucks in Chicago had my line on them. In fact, every postal service truck in every major city in the country had my line on it.

Was it a terrible line? I can think of worse. But it was a lazy line. And had I known it would end up being the most visible thing I'd ever write, I sure would have spent a little more time on it. Just something to remember when you're tired of writing lines. You never know where they might end up.

O-O-P-S for -20 points

If you were one of the half million people who played Scrabulous on Facebook, or one of the 47,000 who belonged to the "Save Scrabulous" Facebook group, you know that Tuesday was a sad and infuriating day for many people. Due to legal action from Hasbro, Scrabulous was taken down.

If you've read Alex Wipperfurth's Brand Hijack (which I highly recommend), this is not an unfamiliar story. Large corporations often have this kind of knee-jerk reaction when fans take a brand they love and create something new with it. Companies try to control and define their brands so closely that they lose touch with what's really important--their avid fans. Wipperfurth's main assertion is that companies need to let go of their brands and let their fans help define them. They should encourage this fanaticism and support these re-inventions.

Scrabulous is the perfect example. I'm sure people at Hasbro argued that customers were playing Scrabulous online instead of buying new Scrabble boards. But I have a feeling that Scrabulous just created more Scrabble addicts, put Scrabble in the forefront of people's minds and reminded them how great of a game it is. Was there a Hasbro logo on it? No. Did anyone care? Only Hasbro. In the end, Scrabulous probably made more Scrabble fans than anything. And now Hasbro has pissed all those fans off.

O Captain! My Captain!

While you’re refining your shortlist of agencies you hope to work for, take some time to look into the background of the president and CEO of the company. Why? Because in my oft-proved-wrong opinion, agencies do better when a creative is at the helm.

Ogilvy New York’s best years were under Rick Boyko – a creative. Years ago, before he started running the VCU Brandcenter, Rick came to VCU as a visiting speaker. When he mentioned he never aspired to be the president of an agency, one student asked him why he took the position. He said, he didn’t like where the agency might be headed under some of the other candidates. He took the position to help the agency do the best creative it could. Not coincidentally, that’s when all the great IBM work of the late 1990’s started to come out.

Goodby and Silverstein? Creatives. Cliff Freeman? Creative. Who drives Crispin, Wieden, Chiat/Day and Martin? Creatives.

I’m not trying to badmouth account management. And you should never put yourself in the position of thinking as a creative you're somehow superior to the account team. Some of the sharpest minds in the business lead without copywriting or art direction backgrounds. But the person steering the ship has to understand one thing:

As an agency, we have a product. And it’s the creative. The creative isn’t just a department. It’s the reason for the entire company’s existence.

Thoughts? Comments? As mine are often flawed, I'd love to hear opinions on this.


Here's a very good post by Bukes. Couldn't agree more.

Carbon Copies

Here's an interesting site that compares "twin" ads. It's interesting to see how frequently seemingly copied ads win awards while the originals do not.

It reminds me of a Bruce Bildsten quote from Cutting Edge Advertising:

"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."

Explain Yourself

One of the things you'll do as a creative is attempt to convey your vision to directors, sound engineers and music houses.

If you've got a TV spot and you want the track to sound like a Danny Elfman version of a gospel hymn, or a fully orchestral Buckwheat Zydeco, what words do you use to make sure the music house gets it?

If you're a copywriter on a radio commercial, quite often you'll also be the director. How do you tell your voice talent, "Can you make it a little brighter?" or "Let's really hit the word 'and' in this next take," so they give you exactly what you want?

And when your actors aren't delivering their lines or facial expressions exactly the way you imagined, how do you explain to the director what you're hoping to hear and see?

It's a lot trickier than it sounds. And it takes practice.

Below are two files. The first is an agency creative trying to explain what he wants from the music house. The second clip is not what the music house gave him. It's just what they did with his direction.

I had to upload them as movie files, but you're going to want to listen to and learn from both of these. Trust me.

Romancing Your Work

Take a look at this spot. It's about five minutes long, but you may enjoy it... - Watch more free videos

What are your thoughts? Take some time to think here before reading on. Seriously, think through what you liked and didn't like about this. Then read on...

Finished? Okay. Here are my thoughts:

Very cool idea. Fun. Would have been a blast to shoot. But I bet you felt there was something missing, didn't you? I sure felt it.

Did it go on too long? Probably. Editing is one thing they could have done better.

Was the acting off? Yep. These were obviously mostly amateurs. Some acted serious. Some acted over-the-top. There were some continuity problems. You can't say, "This is supposed to look like a serious war movie," and then say, "Have this lady look like she's really-really-serious in kind of a joke way."

What about the production? The costumes  were nice. There was some good detail there. But there weren't many camera angles were there? It was probably made by a really talented kid who's trying to build his reel. Good for him. Or her.

Right now, it looks very amateurish. But couldn't you see someone like Noam Murro or Brian Beletic taking this idea and winning big at Cannes with it? I think this spot just screams to be directed by Baker Smith. Who would you have wanted if this were your idea?

My point is that you have to continue to craft a great idea. Coming up with a great idea isn't an excuse to rest. It means you have even more work to do. Spend a little more time with the headline. Play with the layout just a little longer. Find the right director - not just a big name, but someone who really gets your idea. If it's a great idea, it deserves that much. And so do you.

Why are creatives disorganized?

There's something charming about the disheveled, disorganized creative with the wild hair, who can't find his way to meetings unless he's led by the hand, who shuffles in ten minutes late, wearing mismatched shoes, pulls a crumpled piece of paper from his pocket and holds up a rough pencil sketch that knocks people out of their chairs with its brilliance.

That kind of creative makes a good character for books. But not an agency.

Creatives get the benefit of the doubt. They can sometimes get away with dressing like they're headed to a beach volleyball tournament instead of a client meeting. They can come to meetings late, misplace scripts, forget things. Their office can look like a tornado tore through it, and they can stroll into the office at 10:30. There's a popular stereotype of the creative genius who is and does all those things.

But check this out: that kind of stuff, while people may expect it, or make excuses for it, is not helpful. You want people to think you're brilliant for your work. That's a given. But being organized and put-together, showing up to meetings on-time, taking notes in meetings so you don't have to later ask the account person what was said--these are all very simple, very easy things to do. But they are things that people will appreciate. And because many of the creative stereotypes are true, if you are a creative with great ideas AND you have your shit together, you will stand out even more.

How To Be The Best

Years ago, when Jack Welch became CEO of GE he cut every division that wasn't #1 or #2 in its industry. He wanted to divert the money, energy and resources to the parts of the company that were hands-down the best. So even divisions that were turning in millions of dollars of profit got cut, just because they were fourth-best in their arena. Seems counterintuitive, but this is what helped GE thrive.

This is the same reason why copywriters and art directors who get into advertising to support themselves while they write their novels or work on their stand-up routines are rarely the same ones who are winning Lions, Pencils and getting write-ups in Creativity. I'm not saying it can't be done, and I'm not trying to discourage you from pursuing outside interests. You need them to make you well-rounded and interesting.

But it's so hard to be an award-winning creative and an in-demand stand-up comedian. Or best-selling author. Or TV script writer on a hit-show. If you want to be an award-winning creative, you're going to have to make some sacrifices.

(If you want some quick, inspirational reading, pick up The Dip by Seth Godin. It's a short, 80-page read, subtitled "The Little Book That Teaches You When To Quit And When To Stick. If you're a junior creative in advertising, you're in the Dip. Better find out what that means.)


One of the important parts of our job, and one of more increasingly difficult parts, is to keep up with trends. One of the sites I like is the blog Ubercool. It covers a lot of the technological, sociological, and psychological trends going on, conveniently broken down into categories.


Mike Gorz, the Director of Creative Services at Y&R Chicago used to have this diagram taped to his office wall. There's a lot of truth to this little sketch, and you'll find yourself often wishing clients understood it better.

But if this is the triangle clients should understand, here's another one agencies should have a grasp on.

This represents the reasons you continue to do work for a client. This isn't a "pick two" scenario. In fact, most client-agency relationships are founded on just one. If you get two, you're lucky. All three is surprisingly rare, but absolutely possible.

Hopefully, none of us are in this business just for the money. That's a lousy reason to get into advertising. But sometimes agencies stick with a client that they don't like and who continually kills good work simply because they pay well. Presidents and managing partners do this do avoid laying off employees. It's not ideal, and it's probably not a long term relationship, but it keeps the pink slips away.

A lot of pro bono work is done with the "we like you" and the "you let us do great work" legs. It's the symbiotic relationship of a pro bono account.

I don't know if there's a magic formula for getting all three. If you stumble upon it, please let me know. But I think it's enough for us to realize that these are the reasons we do work for clients. And if none of them are present in a relationship, there's really no reason for it to continue.

How to Say Nothing in 500 Words (A Lesson on Writing)

Copywriters, you should read this. Art directors, it wouldn't hurt you to go through it either.

Lions, oh my!

In one of the mainpage polls, we asked which award you'd most like to win. Most of you said a Cannes Lion with a One Show pencil a few votes behind.

It's interesting to note because when I left portfolio school years ago nobody talked about Cannes. It was the One Show and CA. D&AD was something cool, but not the end-all-be-all. But over the past few years Cannes has really emerged as the show of shows. And I think I know why. It's not traveling to France (although that's a great boondoggle), and it's not because it's a world-wide competition (technically, so are most of the others).

It's because of the clients. Clients respect Cannes more than the other shows. Win a pencil and they're mildly impressed. Win a Lion, and you're retained as the agency of record and given a little more creative license on the next assignments. It lets them brag. It lets them feel (and sometime actually be) famous. Maybe it's the trips to France. Maybe it's association (or confusion) with the film festival. Whatever it is, clients love Cannes.

More and more, it seems if there's a show to aspire to, it's the one in the South of France.

My Partner, Kevin

All this writing about partners got me thinking about my first partner in advertising, Kevin. Great partner. Really energetic dude. Always had something to say.

And that got me to thinking about things Kevin used to say. You see, he didn't filter much. He just said whatever came to mind. I started writing down his quotes and putting them on the wall of my cube. Then other people saw them, and they started writing down things Kevin said. I'd come to my desk every other day and find a post-it with a quote and a date. So I made a website.

I just checked, and much to my delight, the website is still up.

So, for comedic relief, I invite you to Butlerisms.

Partnership II: The Lone Wolf

A couple of posts ago, I talked about job-hunting as a team and the advantages of that. I'd say that if you have a partner you get along with, work well with, and can find a job with, that's ideal. But the reality is that for most people, you'll be going it alone. That doesn't mean that partnership won't play into your job search. No matter where you end up, you'll most likely have a partner. So here are a few things to consider when speaking with agencies.

1) Does the agency assign permanent partners?
At most agencies, art directors and writers are teamed up permanently. However, in some agencies (like mine), everyone works with everyone else, rotating partners from project to project. There are pros and cons to both.

Everyone has a different working style, so in a rotating partner system, you have to take time to settle in and find a routine that works with each partner. That routine is often different from partner to partner. For instance, sometimes you and your partner may do all of your thinking together, where other times you may do it separately and then meet to share your thoughts. Each time I work with a new partner, I like to have this discussion up front. Ask them "How do you like to work?"

Rotating partners can be logistically tough when people start going on production, vacation, or to meetings. For instance, you might be in the office covering meetings for one project while your partner is on a shoot in Sydney, and another partner for another project is at a client meeting in New York. With technology, communication is no problem, but if you like to sit in the coffee shop and concept in person with your partner, it can be frustrating when schedules get hectic.

Still, I find that I like rotating partners because it keeps the thinking fresh. Everyone brings a different point-of-view, and everyone has a different style. Plus, there's less chance of "partner burnout."

2) Is the agency hiring you to be someone's partner?
If you're interviewing with an agency, do they have someone in particular to be your partner? Ask them. Do some research on the person. Where are they from? How much experience do they have? What kind of work do they do? Definitely meet with the person. Grab a beer or lunch and see what your chemistry's like. You'll be attached at the hip to this person, so who they are can be as important as who the agency is.

3) If the agency hasn't hired a partner for you yet, what's the plan?
How long do they expect until they hire someone to be your partner? Any prospects? Will you have any say in who they hire? These are important questions. Without overstepping your bounds, let them know that you'd like to be as involved as possible in their selection of your partner. Be wary of the agency that promises to hire you a partner sometime in the near future. They should be searching for someone who would ideally start the same time you do.

Like most people, I did not find my first with a partner. My agency assigned me one. He was a great guy who had been in the business for a couple of years and taught me a lot of the stuff you don't get in school (client meetings, presenting work, production, etc.). We worked together for four years before parting ways. Now that I'm in a rotating partners system, I'd say that it's really a toss-up as to which system is better. Just make sure you find a partner that you work well with. And speak up if it's not working. Agencies want happy, productive teams. If the chemistry's not right, find a new partner. Your partner is the most important person at the agency.