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Career Warehouse

Your career is a warehouse. It's got an inventory. And you decide what comes in, and what you keep in storage. Unless, of course, you stop paying attention.

That's when crates of 20-second legal copy start to show up in the shipping office. That's when the forklifts bring in palates of "ACT NOW!" starbursts. You sign for these deliveries because the client or your creative director promises "just this once." Or maybe you let them pile up because you're "just paying your dues."

But then the shipment for the One Show has to go out. And you look around your warehouse and realize you're out of creative stock. There's nothing good on the shelf. All you have are some moldy cardboard boxes marked "CONCEPT STILL IN TESTING" and "POLISHED TURDS."

The easiest way to keep your warehouse from being cluttered is to keep an inventory. I recommend monthly. Quarterly at the very least. Figure out what you need more of and find a way to go get it. It's the end of the month. Why not take inventory right now? It sounds like a Stephen Covey aphorism, but a little self-evaluation is better than hoping you catch a break on the next assignment.

Going a whole year without getting into the One Show isn't so bad. Going a whole year without having anything to enter into the One Show is.

It's the Music, Stupid, Part II

Eureka! After months of looking for this old article I knew I had somewhere, and finally giving up on it, I found it today. It's an adcritic article from August, 2003, that I printed and filed away because I thought it had some great advice on picking music for spots. It was written by Lance Jensen, who knows what he's talking about when it comes to picking cool, provocative music that can take a spot to the next level.

He gives 11 great tips, which I'll paraphrase:

1. Don't use the words of the songs as your copy points. The lyrics can allude to the meaning, or have the right sentiment, but being too see/say takes all the fun and depth out of it.

2. Lose the voiceover. It ruins the vibe. If you have to include VO, keep it short and at the end.

3. Don't use the latest hit song. It feels like you're trying too hard. Find something great that nobody's heard. There's plenty out there.

4. Use "geeky" songs. Lance gives the example of his use of the Styx song "Mr. Roboto." A song he just liked, without irony.

5. Please someone use a Yes or Men Without Hats song in a spot.

6. Don't overthink it.
Your first impulse may be your best. Overthinking takes the emotion out, and music is all emotion.

7. Avoid Demo Love. Demo love is what happens when you play a song in the early presentations and say "We're thinking of a song that feels like this." The client, and everyone, will fall in love with that song. If you don't know what to use, don't play one yet. It's not fair to the original musicians or the composers who have to rip off the song the client has fallen for. Give the music company room to do what they do best--create great music.

8. Stay open until the end. Listen to your director, editor, sound engineers. There are a lot of really talented people in this business. Your job will be much easier if you let other people do theirs and keep the process open and collaborative.

9. Try getting artists you love to write songs for you. Check out this great song for a Spike Jonze Adidas spot. The music is by Karen O. of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Squeak E. Clean. Rumor has it this wasn't the first choice--they had another song they wanted to get, but the artist wouldn't license it. Not bad for a plan B.

10. Stay away from lyrics with sex or drug references in them. I'd add that you might want to do a little research about the song meaning too. I laugh whenever I hear Iggy Pop's "Lust For Life" on those Royal Carribean Cruise Line spots. First, see #1. Second, I always picture all those old folks on a 7-day heroine bender.

11. Just pick something that moves you on a personal level. This could be said for almost all aspects of what you do. If you love it, odds are other people will too.

When it comes to picking music, Mr. Jensen's the man, and he gives great advice. The only thing I'd add, is don't mimic the new popular soundtrack. Once a year, a movie or show with a great score comes out, and you hear 30 commercials copying it. American Beauty. Amelie. Rushmore. You're trying to stand out. Having the same music as everyone else doesn't help.

Pictures and Lines

Last week, I had to write headlines for a headline-driven billboard. After an entire day, I had two that were worth anything.

The next day, I had to write headlines for billboards that had pre-approved but fairly interesting visuals. I had about 20 within ten minutes.

This isn’t coincidence.

It’s significantly easier to write headlines to visuals. This is partially because with a visual, something’s already being communicated. Maybe the idea has already been established.

Not every solution will be (or should be) a visual one. But if you’re stuck, try solving it with a picture. Maybe you won’t come away with an all-visual solution. But finding an interesting image to write lines to is better than reverse engineering from a headline.

Why I Suck at Foosball

I am a horrible foosball player. I ended up sitting out all the pickup games at my last agency, because office rules held that you played for a dollar, and I got tired of always losing dollars.

I think one of the reasons I'm so bad is because I tense up. I take foosball much too seriously. Especially for someone with such poor foosball skills. Last December, when my nephew and niece were creaming me in a game, my wife made fun of me because because, in her words, I looked like I was "trying to save the world and losing."

I used to tense up when I sat down to make ads. A blank piece of paper. And I'm the one who has to fill it. I was trying to save the world, and I was afraid of losing.

I don't approach ads that way anymore. It's counterproductive and counterfun. I work hard. But I know that if I whiff on an assignment, I've got either another round or another assignment headed my way. 

I'm a lot more successful and have a lot more fun coming up with ads than I do playing foosball. Because to me one's a game. And the other is a competition I'm trying to win.

Our Job In A Nutshell

Two unrelated pieces. But brought together, they make perfect sense. That's our job. It isn't always easy. But it can be a lot of fun.


I was trying to figure out why this video is relevant to this blog. Maybe it's a metaphor for ideas? I don't know. It's just cool.

Once It's Gone, Let It Go

"I just keep going and don't look back. I work very hard on the film when I'm working on it, but once it's over, it becomes over for me."
-Woody Allen in The Onion

There will always be something you could/would/should have done differently. Learn from those things, but don't dwell on them. Leave them behind.

The Kevin Lynch Challenge

My old boss, Kevin Lynch, used to write a television commercial every day, as soon as he sat down at his desk. Not necessarily for one of the agency's clients. And not for an assignment or according to a brief. He did it just to get better at writing television commercials.

The sports analogy goes like this: If you’re a professional basketball player, of course you’ll show up for the games. Of course, you’ll show up for practice. That’s what everyone does. But how often do you go to the gym when you don’t have to? How often do you practice your jump shot when no one’s asking you to? What are you doing to get better?

Being vs Saying You Be

Anyone who has ever taken a fiction writing class has heard "Don't say it. Show it." You can tell me that Mr. Perkins is a cantankerous son-of-a-bitch, or you can tell me that he kicks a stray cat in the ribs and spits his wad of tobacco into the cup of the blind panhandler.

The same is true of brands. Brand building is character development.

Or another analogy I like is the comedian who gets on stage and talks about how funny he is versus the comedian who tells funny jokes.

In short: don't say, do.

Here's a slide show from Zeus Jones. I couldn't agree more with their philosophy.

And here's something that my agency did which I think is pretty cool (I had nothing do do with it).

What Is The National Interest?

I just read this article on that the cute little Chinese girl who sang at the Opening Ceremonies in Beijing was actually lip synching. The actual singer was chosen for her voice, but deemed not cute enough for TV. CNN quotes the ceremony's musical director saying, "The reason was for the national interest. The child on camera should be flawless in image, internal feeling and expression."

It cracks me up that the Chinese officials (who are used to controlling their media) did this "for the national interest" and may have made the country look like more of a joke. One thing I love about communists: they're a very consistent brand.

I bring this up because it reminds me of clients who think that they are still in 100% control of what their brand is and how others will interpret it. Jim recently wrote about the knee-jerk reaction some clients have, assuming they're in complete control of their brands.

It's easy for creatives to snigger and poke fun of clients like this. And, yeah, maybe they deserve it. But when it's our own clients, and when they start talking to themselves, and when we start listening, I think the onus is on  us to raise a red flag.

SXSW II: Social Marketing

The buzz this year at South By Southwest, and one of the big buzz words in the industry right now, is social marketing. Getting people to talk about your brand. Using people as a medium. Relying on a social network rather than a television network to create buzz.

One reason good social marketing is so coveted by marketers is that it can be cheap. Think about all those people running around talking about how great their iPhone is. Apple's not paying them for that. And partly because Apple's not paying these people, you get the second great thing about word-of-mouth: It's trustworthy. People are more likely to value a message that comes from a friend than one that comes from an ad, a paid celebrity or the news.

There's nothing inherently new about social marketing. It's really just another name for good old-fashioned word-of-mouth. What has changed is that technology has hyper-charged these word-of-mouth social networks. Because of all the social networking sites, I have 400 readily-available social connections. If I find a message worthy of it, I can easily disperse it to all of my "friends."

Companies were originally excited about how the Internet could change change the way they could speak to their customers. But what it's really done, more importantly, is change the way customers speak to each other.

The question companies have, of course, is how do we use these incredible social networks? How do we get people talking about our brands? The answer is to support these communities. Make ourselves useful to them. Become a generous member. Stop talking about ourselves and start making social gestures.

Here's a crude drawing of the mass media way:

That's us, up there in our ivory tower, shouting our message to the masses we hope are out there. And our message is usually about us.

Now here's the social gesture model:

When we start thinking about ourselves as members of a community rather than marketers to a community, we look at the landscape in a completely new way. A few observations about this shift:

1) Come down out of the ivory tower. Talk to the people, not at them. Have conversations. You have all the tools to do so. It's not as easy as mass media, but with a little legwork, there's a much greater upside.

2) Stop talking about yourself. You're a member of a community, and nobody likes selfishness.

3) Stop trying to make a buck and start trying to build communities. Stop selling to people and start helping them make good purchases. Sales are the byproduct of good relationships.

4) Really, don't be selfish. Don't pretend to back a community. It has to be genuine, because if it's not, people will turn on you. All those social connections can also work against you.

Is social marketing appropriate for every product? Probably not. But every brand should stand for something around which a social network can be built (if one doesn't already exist).

This way of thinking is about doing rather than just saying. I'll post more about that soon.

Portfolio School Lies to You, Part 4

Another lie that took me a long time to recognize:

Great creative sells itself.

This is one we want to believe. That you’d present something so groundbreakingly brilliant, the client has no choice but to run it.

But here’s the reality:

The Apple “1984” spot was never supposed to run. The clients hated it. The only reason it ran was because the media – a Superbowl spot – was already purchased.

The clients initially hated Wendy’s “Where’s the beef?” campaign. Cliff Freeman was told, “Under no circumstances should you run this spot.”

You need to be focused on creating great work. But great creative will not sell itself. You have two choices:
  1. Develop the presentation skills you’ll need to sell your work.
  2. Find someone whose presentation skills you trust to sell your work.
There are different schools of thought here. One says the account management should sell the work because they have the objective view and usually more face-time with the client. Others say the creatives should sell the work because nobody is as intimate with the work as the ones who created it.

One way or another, I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll have to do some presenting at some point in your career. This is especially true if you want to become a creative director.

Learn how to sell your work. Not like a used car salesmen. Be able to communicate why the spot works beyond, “It’ll look cool.” If public speaking’s a challenge for you, take an improv class and expense it to the agency. Do whatever you need to do. Because the work isn’t going to do it for you.

How to Juggle

Currently, I’m juggling four projects at work. I prefer juggling assignments like this. It’s keeps my thinking fresh. It keeps me from being bored. If you’re in a position where you’re multitasking, here’s a little tip: Give yourself mini-deadlines.
  • Two hours concepting on project 1.
  • An hour writing headlines for project 2.
  • Two hours re-working the scripts for project 3.
It doesn’t matter what time limits you give each project. It doesn’t matter how often you revisit a project within the day. But if you’ve got a lot to do, give yourself a structure, pressure, and a target. It’s a lot better than working until your brain’s fried on one project and then trying to switch to another when your mental energy’s spent.

Interview Questions

Peter posted a great comment a couple posts back. He asks “how to kill in an interview” and posted a short list of questions he had so far:
  • What's the creative dept like, working with partners or mix and match?
  • How often do you do new business pitches/what accounts do you go for?
  • Where do you see this agency in 5-10 years?
  • What's it like working here? (best asked to juniors)
  • What's the best and worst work that's come out of here in the last year?
I think all of these are great questions. I might add these:
  • What will your expectations of me be?
  • Specifically, what will you expect to have seen from me within the first six months?
  • What are the biggest challenges the agency faces right now? What are you doing about them.
All these questions are good to ask. But questions alone aren’t going to help you in an interview. That’s all personality. You’re either going to fit or you’re not.

When Mark Figliulo hired me, he admitted I might be the last nice person he’d hire. He’d already hired too many nice people, and thought it might be good for the agency if he hired a jerk. I don’t think he ever did, but it was probably in the back of his mind every time someone came in. Maybe he just never met the right jerk.

Point is, don’t fake yourself. Don’t be who you’re not. Don’t try to be bubbly Mr. Personality if you’d really rather be listening to darkcore techno and brooding in your office. Maybe brooding fits the agency.

Match Wits With Professor Layton

I’ve been playing Professor Layton and the Curious Village on my Nintendo DS. It's a very addicting puzzle game. Here’s the trailer…

There are over 100 puzzles in this game, from simple riddles to chess games to jigsaw puzzles. A famous riddle that appears in the game is this: “If A is the first letter, and B comes after, what is the last letter of the alphabet?” Of course, you immediately answer “Z,” which is incorrect. Because the question's really about the last letter of the word "alphabet" and not the 26 letters.

I was really stuck on another one where I had to create a + on a field of pegs. Given the parameters, it seemed impossible. Until I realized that if I tipped the + on its side to make an X, the problem was workable.

What does this have to do with advertising? Almost without exception, the puzzles in this game are solved by looking at the problem from another angle. They’re deliberately phrased to make you assume one thing, but it’s not until you see past those presumptions that you’re able to crack the code.

Like approaching a new assignment, you go in with some presumptions. Like you can’t do award-winning work on packaged goods. Or the client never buys humor. Or the answer is a full-page print ad. Or any kind of an ad.

Presumptions. Scrap them. Ignore them. Pay them no mind. That’s what Professor Layton does.

How we're going to kill the viral video

First off, I need to get this off my chest. Stop saying "We're going to make a viral video." I hear creatives, students and clients say that all the time. You create an Internet video. If you do it right, and if you're lucky, and if you seed it and do all the legwork, it might go viral. But don't say you're going to create a viral video. It's like saying "We're going to create a word-of-mouth phenomenon."

We're in an interesting time right now, because with the economic crunch and the shifting media landscape, clients are more and more willing to take chances with Internet videos (partly because it's not that much of a financial risk--it's really cheap). And they're also willing to put material on the Internet that they wouldn't be willing to run on TV. Stuff that's edgier. This is probably due to the antiquated belief that the Internet audience is a completely separate animal, younger and edgier. But I think we'll see that distinction disappear soon. If it's not fit for a brand to air on TV, why would they air it online? They're not a different brand with a different voice just because they're online.

Which brings me to my main point. Every brand, regardless of whether they're connecting with customers online or on TV, is trying to sell something, yes, but also trying to build relationships. Which is why it baffles me to see the number of "fake stunt" videos that marketers are doing and students are proposing in their books. It's one thing to create cool content, whether it's blantantly branded or not at all. Levi's created this cool "Backflip Into Jeans" video.

No harm there. Do we need to know it's from Levi's? It's a cool video either way. But then there are the popcorn + cell phone videos.

These were created by a bluetooth headset company to take advantage of the buzz in the media about the possible link between cancer and cellphone use. It's a completely rigged stunt used to drum up fear. Or, as they used to say, it's a lie. We're going to get customers by lying to people. Brilliant. Here's a more in-depth story at

The worst part of it all is that the company's website got tons of hits and their sales went up (I'm not mentioning the company name because the last thing they deserve is more press). For students, there are two things to take away from this. The first is that this kind of stuff has been done before. The Blair Witch Project and Sega's Beta-7 campaigns pioneered the fake background story years ago. Done=bad for book. But secondly, it's crappy marketing. Not because it's immoral (which should be reason enough), but because you're duping customers. I didn't know that headset company before the hype around these videos. Now I know them and I hate them. I can't think of a worse way to start a relationship (well, maybe killing customers, but the cigarette companies already did that, so don't put that idea in your book either).

Love Is In The Air

This is not an endorsement of either John McCain or Barack Obama. I don't want to bring politics to this blog. But communication stategy? That's worth talking about in this forum.

Frustrated with the media attention Obama's been receiving, the McCain camp created the following ad (I assume as online content as it's way too long for primetime)...

Does the McCain team have a point that the media is favoring Obama? Sure. Is it fair to say that just because the media prefer one candidate, that's no reason to vote for them? Again, sure. What the McCain people really want to say is, "Don't listen to the talking heads. Look at the issues and make your own decision. Ignore the media." That's a decent argument. But, at least with this piece, it's communicated all wrong.

And here's the problem: When you try attacking emotion, you're fighting an uphill battle. I wrote about this in an earlier post. Whether you agree with Obama's politics or not, you can't attack him by discrediting the way people feel about him. You end up insulting the people you're trying to communicate with. "That's how you feel? Well, let me tell you why you're wrong." Not the best way to be persuasive.

How does this affect you as a young advertising professional? Understand that facts are good. And you should use them to your client's advantage. But you can't build your entire case on them. You need emotion. You need that thrill going up Chris Matthew's leg.

(As a side note, the original piece featured Frankie Valli's "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You." But since the rights to the song were never cleared, the original was pulled. What you see here is a second generation edit with some elevator music and the "Paid for by John McCain for President" stripped off the back end.) 

It's the music, stupid. Part I

Everyone knows how big a difference music can make. The right song can make a movie scene unforgettable, or turn a commercial about two dudes driving around in a car into a classic. Here's my favorite new example of how radically music can alter the tone and meaning of picture (a tad long, but makes the point):

Traditionally, the music is the responsibility of the copywriter (though I've worked with many art directors and producers with encyclopedic music knowledge, which is awesome). But it's one of those things that you don't learn about in ad school.

What I'd recommend to any aspiring copywriter (and art director, for that matter), is that if you're not into music, get into it. Force yourself to listen to types of music you wouldn't normally listen to. Expand your musical world. There are tons of great resources out there to help you do this. Read Pitchfork. Listen to the podcast of Sound Opinions. Listen to Pandora. Or check out one of my favorite Internet communities, the International Mixtape Project.

The point is that, as Greg pointed out in an earlier post, you need to be able to communicate with your vendors. This includes musicians. Having a decent working knowledge of music types and being able to speak the language makes the process a lot easier. You don't need to know the difference between an 8- and 12-bar blues, but be able to give direction to a musician in a general sense. Like whether you want Johann Sebastian Bach or just Sebastian Bach.

Those of you who are into music, where do you find new stuff?