Small agencies. Big opportunities.

In a recent Ad Age article, Alex Bogusky gave a shout out to a number of small shops.

One of the most important things students (really any of us) can do is stay abreast not just of the agencies doing great work, but of the agencies with great talent who have enormous potential to great work.

Media is Not a Concept

I often tell my students that media is not a concept. Yes, you want to have non-traditional media in your book. And yes, cutting edge media is cool. But don't use the media just so you can check off a box. Make it relevant. For example, putting a message on the bottom side of a bridge is not an idea unless the message has something to do with the placement.

Similarly, if you're going to use innovative media, know what it's capable of. Every morning I ride the BART train into San Francisco. Underground, between Embarcadero and Montgomery, there is a little strobe light ad in the tunnel, kind of the modern version of the flipbook. All last month, every morning I'd look out and see what looked like a car turn into a bridge, then into a string of music, then a bird or something, and then what was presumably a company logo. The animation was cool in theory, but it was too complicated for the medium, and hence was a complete waste of money.

I've had students show me storyboards of concepts for this subway flipbook technology (I'm sure there's a technical name for it, but I can't find anyone who knows what it is). The storyboards usually show some simple animation, then a logo. Okay, but why? It's basically a crude version of television. So again, if you're going to use rad new media, make sure the concept is as rad. Otherwise it's like saying, "I've got this great idea! We're going to print advertisements on paper and put them as pages in magazines!"

The Pitch

I just wrapped up a new business pitch and was reminded once again of how different pitch life is from regular advertising life. Here's a few things to expect when you're called upon to pitch new business.

1) Hours = crazy. Very crazy. If work hours were normally like this, I don't think I'd be able to do it. But with a pitch, you have a date that you're working toward. There's always an end in sight. So it's easier to dedicate everything you've got to it.

2) Team dynamic. It will get stressful, people will get pissed at each other and feelings will be hurt, but a team that works well together realizes these bumps are part of the process, quickly pushes through them and gets it done nonetheless.

3) Range of ideas. An agency is much more likely to take in a slightly wider range of ideas to a pitch than they might for a current client. They'll blow everything out into every medium, even if the client hasn't asked for it. This is because it's pretty common for a client to pick an agency based on its thinking rather than a specific campaign. So showing a breadth of thinking is sometimes more important than getting the campaign exactly right.

4) Level of finish. While agencies might present with rough marker comps and a mood board to an existing client, pitch work will be executed as if it were going into a portfolio. Storyboards will be tight, professional illustrations or photo comps, or even an edited video. Print should look almost ready for press. This all takes a lot of time, and the craft becomes very important.

5) Pitch theater. Each agency has its own style, but it's always very intentional. From being as choreographed and rehearsed as a stage production to simply putting a really smart person in front of the client and letting him or her present from a booklet, how the work is presented is often as important as what is presented. What will the room look like? Will work be on boards or on a screen? How will the work be brought to life? What will the leave-behind look like?

6) The winner. An enormous amount of time, money and energy is spent pitching new business, and only one agency will have anything to show for it. This can be a morale killer for the losing agencies. The thing to remember is that clients select agencies for all kinds of reasons. It might be the work, it might be the chemistry with the team or the strategic thinking. It might be the name of the agency, or the name of one of its leaders. Or, as happens often, one of the people at one of the agencies might already have a relationship with the client, giving them a leg up. All you can do it put your best foot forward, work your ass off and hope for the best.

Notes on Portfolio Night

Our friend, Perry, has an interesting post on what not to do during Portfolio Night. Worth a read.

Also, check out the conversation I had with co-reviewer Sonya Grewal after last year's Portfolio Night.

Portfolio Night 7. Go. Fight. Win.

Portfolio Night 7 is hosting Portfolio Night 7.

June 11, 2009.

I can't stress enough how important it is that portfolio school students attend this.


  1. You get a huge amount of feedback in a small amount of time.
  2. The feedback you receive is from some of the top talent in the industry, no matter the city you're participating in.
  3. It's face time with the people you want to work for. 
  4. It's an opportunity to make an impression. Mike Shine was the very first person to review my student book at PN's predecessor the One Club Student Exhibition. Six years later, when I interviewed with him, I still had one student campaign in my book. He said, "Oh, yeah! I remember these!" (Probably helped that I sent a thank you card with the campaign in them.)
  5. It's a really fun night. I can't speak for the other cities, but last year DDB Chicago had hors d'oeuvres and Guitar Hero while you were waiting for a review. So much better than sitting on your couch watching Friends reruns.
Go online. Book your tickets now.

Looking for inspiration

“Ideas are all around you. They’re everywhere. If you spend your time looking at award annuals, all you’ll ever do is repeat what other people have done. But if you open your eyes and observe what’s going on around you all the time, the humour and the charm and the fun of things, then you will get ideas that really do surprise, and charm, and are fresh. You can’t invent some of the things that happen.”

– John Hegarty

Talking About Work

When I started out as a writer, I was a very headline driven writer. My attitude was “Here’s my headline. Art Director, make it look cool.”

Similarly, I know many student art directors who approached assignments by thinking about layouts way before they had a concept.

Granted, both approaches may lead you into some interesting areas and shouldn’t be discounted. Just make sure they’re not standard operating procedure.

Personally, my best ideas come when my partner and I separate ourselves from the rest of the agency (either in a coffee shop or a closed conference room), and talk. And keep talking. As soon as two minutes have passed without either of us saying a word, we've stopped working as a team. You've got to keep talking.

Yeah, you'll stray off into travel stories and "Did you see what Chiat/Day just did?" tangents, which is totally fine. (I used to swap recipes with my last partner.) Just make sure you course correct frequently and get back to talking about the brief.

If you're talking, you're thinking. If you're thinking, the ideas will come.

Act Now!

My partner and I were asked to help out on some global work for Colgate with an emphasis on ambient work. Here is a rough comp of an idea we came up with Monday night...

And here is something I found in our agency newsletter Tuesday morning, highlighting an idea from our Singapore office...
This is not the first time this has happened to me. And I'm sure it won't be the last.

If you're a student or a junior, here are two take-aways:

1. Ideas really are everywhere.
2. When you have one, act quickly to make sure you're the first one to own it.

It's Only Okay to Rip Off Another Idea If...

Here's a nice site for the Clios 50th anniversary which has some funny jokes/insights into what we do.

Sometimes it's the Little Things

When I played basketball with my dad when I was young, he liked to post up and, when he got the ball, intentionally step on my foot before making his move. I called it dirty. He called it experience.

There are a million tiny things you can do to help sell your work. Here's perhaps the smallest.

Before you present a campaign idea, do a little setup. Sometimes I put these paragraphs on a board, or hand them out so people can read along. Title or tagline at the top, then a few sentences that walk from the strategy to the execution (in as direct a route as possible--weed out all the tangential stuff). Maybe include a nice mood photo. This is pretty much standard. I have even played music while I read the setup.

So here's the little trick. End the paragraph with your tagline. It's stupid, I know, but think about when you're reading a book, and somewhere in the prose of the book, you come across the title. It jumps out at you, and you start to think there's something meaningful in that sentence. Like a theme. Like something deep. Like an answer, maybe. Sometimes it's the little things.

Idea Rain Birds

You need to come up with tons and tons of ideas. But not at the expense of becoming an idea rain bird.

An idea rain bird is someone who spouts off short bursts of inspiration all over the place without ever stopping to focus on any of them. An idea rain bird churns out sloppy ideas without caring where they land. Idea rain birds have tons of ideas. But few of them have any impact.

Yes, you need to have lots and lots of ideas. Yes, you need to explore tons of directions. But when you say, "What if we did this..." Take the time to really think about your idea before moving on to the next one.

Another Body Copy Tip

If you need three headlines, you should write at least 300. But if you're going to write body copy, don't throw out the 297.

Just because they weren't good enough to make the final round doesn't mean they're not compelling arguments that paint a vivid picture.

Mine your headlines. Build your body copy.

Body Copy: A Dying Art

A week ago I was called in to help do some finessing on a big pitch. One of the things I was asked to do was to write body copy for the ads.

Working from home, I wrote four pieces and sent them off. The CDs in charge of the pitch loved them. So much in fact, they asked me to write body copy for the rest of what they were presenting.

Here's the secret: I'm not the world's best copywriter. But I do care about body copy. I do try to craft it. And I do try to give it a voice. That's really quite rare in this business.

It's very easy to fill up body copy with cliches and aphorisms and words like "introducing," and "finally." And why not? Everyone's doing it, and no one reads body copy anyway.

The truth is probably 10% of consumers read body copy, 80% of creative directors reviewing your book read it, and 100% of the people supervising this pitch were reading it.

If you care about body copy, writing it becomes easy. If you don't care, it's a headache. It's having to get out of bed because you forgot to take out the garbage. It's torture.

My portfolio school professor used to say writing body copy was a dying art. I agree. But if you can become proficient in that art, you'll stand out.

Agency Tenacity

This is an ad some friends of mine made at Y&R Chicago:

Here’s the story of the ad as I remember it:
  • The team working on Craftsman came up with this idea independent of a brief.
  • It was presented to the client who loved it. But they had too many looming deadlines and too many fires to put out for this to be a priority, no matter how cool. It was "put on the backburner" (i.e., ignored).
  • In the meantime, the team created two other posters (muscles and major organs).
  • The agency continued to remind the client that they should run this poster, to which the client kept saying, “Yes, yes. We love it. We’ll get around to it.”
  • Finally, the creative directors said, “The client liking the work isn't enough. We've got to make it irresistible.”
  • The agency printed these as huge posters (something like 3' x 8') and with October a couple months away, the brand manager suggested repositioning them as a Halloween promotion.
  • They were presented to the clients again. This time, they bought them. In fact, they liked them so much, they approved production of a TV spot and hundreds of skeleton/tool t-shirts that were so popular the client charged their own employees for them and they still sold out. (In my opinion, the TV and t-shirts aren't as cool as the original print. But they were still great opportunities, and the agency got paid to produce them.)

What was the difference? It might have been timing. It might have been the moods of the client. But there are three things the agency did right that they didn’t have to do:
  1. They were tenacious. They recognized great work and pursued it. Not every agency and not every creative director will do this. You need to gravitate towards the ones that do.
  2. They invested in making the next presentation irresistible. They printed these out as huge posters, not unmounted 11x17s, or even mounted poster-sized posters. They showed the client exactly what they would look like, and didn’t leave it up to their imaginations.
  3. They made it relevant to the client. These weren’t concepted as Halloween posters. In fact, that almost makes it cheesy. But it was enough to get the work produced. And that’s what matters.
There's an alternate ending to this story:
  • The Craftsman team came up with this idea.
  • The client loved it, but sat on it since it wasn't a priority.
  • It never got produced and exists only as spec work in the AD's and CW's book.
As Sally Hogshead says, "Brilliant ideas are fragile. They won’t get produced unless everyone in the agency is dedicated to helping them through."

* * * * * * *

New addition: In early 2010, Sears began offering tool chests and storage lockers with the Craftsman image. So put down product design on the list of media affected by this off-the-brief and never-asked-for idea.

Credits for the original print campaign:
CW: Tohru Oyasu, AD: Rainer Schmidt, CDs: Dave Loew and Jon Wyville, ECD: Mark Figliulo

On-line portfolios

Do you need to have a slick site to show off your work. Not necessarily. But done correctly, it could help you stand out.

If you're putting together your book online, here is an article from Smashing Magazine you may find interesting.

I do not agree with everything in this article. And I don't think every examples of great sites on their list is worth highlighting. Still, it's worth sifting through to get a sense of what you want and what you want to avoid.

For examples of what I consider sites well done, click here and here and here and here. (That's not an exhaustive list.)

Strategy in your book

Q: Should strategy statements accompany the ads in your book?

A former student recently asked my opinion on this. Let me share it with you:

As creatives, we should be in the habit of eliminating any element that’s not contributing to the ad. I think this includes strategy statements in your book. No, they’re not part of the ad. But in the book, they are part of the presentation. And like a poorly art directed tagline, it’s one more thing drawing the viewer’s attention away from your work.

The argument for including a strategy statement might be to better familiarize the viewer with the brand. But you don’t see strategy statements in the One Show or CA annuals, which feature tons of great ads for brands I’ve never heard of.

Yes, there will be some exceptions. Ambient media sometimes warrants an explanation (different than a strategy statement). And on rare occasions, they might emphasize very big, incredibly insightful ideas. Use your best judgement.

But generally speaking, if the person looking at your book isn’t familiar with the brand, your ad should be enough of an introduction. If it’s not, maybe you haven’t done your job.

Art Directors vs. ad directors, Part II

A Yale student once said, “I came here to learn how to design, not how to use a computer.” Design schools take heed.

-Paul Rand, quoted by John Maeda

15 Minutes with Milton Glaser

What strikes me about this piece is how willing Glaser is to experiment. And I'm willing to bet his process is very similar to yours. There are some real gems in this piece, including:

"One day I woke up and I said, 'Well suppose that's not true.'"

"Fear of embarrassment drives me as much as any ambition."

"If you don't believe in your work, who else is going to believe in it?"

For Those of You Who Are Job-Free

I'm fortunate enough to still have a job right now, but I know that many have lost their jobs or haven't been able to find one. For those looking for some encouragement, ideas, or just something funny to read, here's a blog from a friend of a friend who recently lost her job. She has a pretty good take on it.

John Turturro on Creative Freedom

Last week, Greg posted Jelly Helm's Five Rules from W+K. A buddy of mine just sent me this clip of John Turturro talking about creating the Jesus character in the Big Lebowski, and it struck me that what John is talking about is very similar to what Jelly is talking about. Particularly Act Stupid, Always Say Yes, and Be Fearless.

Turturro's talking about working with the Coen brothers and the amount of trust they have in him. They realize he's an acting genius, so they give him the freedom to do his thing. To let it all hang out and fail spectacularly if need be. And Turturro responds to this freedom by by throwing everything into his performance and embarrassing himself, then trusting his directors to make the right decisions.

This is also a description of the ideal creative/creative director relationship. It could be be said to be the ideal client/agency relationship or agency/director relationship too. Hire the right people, then trust them to do their thing.

If you haven't seen The Big Lebowski, shame on you. So strong is my opinion of this movie that I have named my two English bulldogs Dude and Walter. Below is the scene Turturro is talking about.