Know Your Competition

The AICP recently launched its campaign to drive submissions. It’s called

It’s a fun site. But what blows me away is that it was concepted by students at the VCU Brandcenter.

I give full props to the team at VCU who created the site. But I’m not writing this to give them digital high fives.

I’m bringing this to your attention, because this is the competition. Not necessarily VCU, and not necessarily the students who put this together. But anyone with the tenacity and talent to help produce a big project like this while still in school.

Sure, they had a ton of help from pros (check the credits on the site). And, yeah, they probably got the gig because Rick Boyko knew someone at the AICP. But that doesn't change the fact that these students can claim credit, and it's going to make a huge difference when they start looking for jobs. You can’t sit back and hope your book full of two-page magazine spreads and banners will get you a top job at an award-winning shop anymore.

Everyone has to up their game.

The good news is, coming up with ideas and making stuff is a lot of fun.

Working with Celebrities

Every once in awhile, depending on your agency and clients, you might have the opportunity to work with a celebrity. They might be an actor in your spot or they might be just doing some voice-over work for you. I am by no means an expert at dealing with celebrities, but I have learned a few things over the years.

1) Don't assume anything. Until you know what they're like, don't make any assumptions. They may not be the same person they appear to be on TV or in the movies. Be very respectful, but not a kiss-ass. Be professional (if you're star-struck, try to contain that). After you get to know them, they may loosen up a little, and then you can as well.

2) They're holding the cards. It may be your concept. It may be the director's shoot. But if the celebrity is big enough, they are in control. It's up to your team (you, producer, director, etc.) to get what you need out of them. Years ago, I worked with a certain very young, very blonde and very bratty singer on a Coke photo shoot. She would only shoot with a photographer of her choosing. She wanted only closeups, even though our print concept called for a wide shot. And even though we picked and the client approved a wardrobe, she showed up on set with a revealing top and skin-tight pants held together (barely) on the side by leather straps. Our client was worried for his job. After all, this was a family brand. The photographer worked with her, taking close-ups and slowly working his way backwards until he had the angle we needed. We ended up using a straight-on shot without the slits in the pants showing, and I believe we did a little photoshop work to extend her top. But this was better than our alternative--telling her she needed to change her wardrobe and risking her storming off the set (this does happen). Bottom line: no matter how ridiculous, just deal with it and get the job done.

3) Respect the brand: both of them. Celebrities have brands of their own. They will usually, if they're savvy, be protective of those brands. Ideally, they're in your ad because your brand and their brand share something in common. But you have to be respectful of their brand as well. After all, this is their career here too. When I worked on the Beef account, I wrote and recorded 40+ radio scripts with Sam Elliott over the course of a few years. Once, he killed an entire round of scripts that I'd written. We had already produced one campaign together, and he was kind enough to hop on the phone with me so we could chat about these new scripts (usually it's filtered through agents). In short, I hadn't respected his brand. I'd written some scripts that were goofy and out of character for him (and, not coincidentally, the brand). At the time, I was frustrated that I had to start over, but looking back he was totally right. I ended up learning a lot from him over the years.

4) Work with the talent. Celebrities are usually famous because they are very talented at something. Not always, but usually. Sometimes it may be acting. Sometimes not. If you have to use someone in particular, try to build your concept around what they can and can't do. If a ball player can hit a three-pointer blindfolded but can't act his way out of a paper bag, maybe the spot shouldn't revolve around him pulling off nuanced dialogue (or maybe the concept is about what he can't do--see the classic spot below). And if you are playing in the area of the celeb's expertise, let them do their thing. Get what you need, but don't tell a singer how to sing, or an actor how to act (you wouldn't tell Dwayne Wade how to dunk). They're the professional. Let them do what they're good at.

Not Closing the Loop

Years ago, I took a fiction writing class in which we looked at some rough drafts of James Joyce stories and compared them with the finals. The thing that was most striking in this exercise was that Joyce often revised his work to make it more ambiguous. He made it less clear. More open to interpretation. Which was pretty counter-intuitive.

There's a little diagram that I draw in my class when I'm trying to explain how an ad delivers its message. I usually get semi-blank stares, but hopefully this will make sense.

Imagine all the elements of an ad, everything that carries meaning, forming a circle. So, for simplicity's sake, lets say you have an ad with a headline, visual and tagline. Here's your circle:

Makes sense. The loop is closed.

Now, we've all seen ads that explain the visual, as if the audience is too stupid to put it together for themselves. The same diagram for a see-and-say, redundant, over-explained or dumbed-down concept would look like this:

And conversely, an ad concept that's too obtuse, where the audience can't figure out what the hell you're trying to say, would look like this:

That's no good either. It's confusing.

The thing is, going back to Joyce, that first circle, where the loop is completely closed, that's not the best kind of ad. It doesn't leave any room for the viewer to enter into the equation. You want the loop there, but you need to trust that your audience is smart enough to close it. It doesn't have to be a puzzle, but there needs to be that moment of insight, of "Ah! I get it." When that little thing clicks, little bits of pleasure fill the brain and there's a connection to the brand. The ideal circle looks more like this:

Here are a couple examples of great ads from the last couple years. They don't explain everything. There are layers. Like returning to a great movie, every time I watch them, I notice something different. I feel involved. I feel like my intelligence has been respected.

The first time I saw this ad (and I'll admit I wasn't paying much attention), I thought: "Oh, wild kids grow up and play football." The second time, I got the story, that it was LT and Polamalu and that they'd been destined for this moment their whole lives. The third time, I started noticing subtleties, like that LT was always moving to the right and Polamalu to the left, and how it captured the personalities of the players. My mom wouldn't get this ad. She wouldn't know who these two guys are. But this ad isn't for my mom. It's for football fans. I watch it, I pick up on these things, and I feel like it's for me. Like I'm in on it. I'm a part of the circle.

Everyone's seen this next one. A few months ago, I was at a planning conference (peeking behind the curtain) and, as an exercise, a room full of us were asked to break down the elements of meaning in this ad. The symbols. Like you'd analyze a film in a film class. It was amazing how everyone brought their own interpretations. Balls as pixels. Brilliant color. Sharp movement. Hyper-real. Surreal. Escapism. Watching the world through a window. The whimsy of children. Even things that people read into the choice of San Francisco as a shoot location.

Some of these were definitely planned during the production. Some probably happy accidents. But what's important is that, again, it involves the viewer. A voice-over that said, "We see the world in pixels. In beautiful, brilliant colors. Full of movement..." would have ruined this spot.

So that's my pitch here. It's tough to explain to clients sometimes. The safe way to go is to make sure everything is crystal clear. That's why some clients test the shit out of commercials. And that's why testing commercials can suck the magic right out of them. Testing is about making sure all the loops are neatly closed. But some loops should be left open.

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Pop Quiz

1. What would be the typical budget for one basic 30-second local TV commercial?

2. What would the budget be for a national campaign with a marquee director?

3. About how much would it cost to book an hour at a recording studio for a radio spot?

4. How much can you expect a decent voiceover talent to charge for an hour?

As a junior creative, you'll never have to answer these questions. You can easily let your creative directors and producers deal with the numbers, while you and your partner go to Starbucks and come up with the big ideas.

But be aware that your ECD does know the answers to these questions. So does your CD. And your ACD. And your client.

Do you really want to be left out of the loop just because you're "a creative"?

TRY THIS: Early in my career, I kept a file full of old invoices for projects I'd worked on. I knew how much illustrators charged per frame, and what a normal lighting overage was on a shoot. It didn't take any extra brain power and it didn't turn me from a creative guy into an account man. It just helped me understand our industry a little faster.

You don't have to be an account person to be smart about the accounts you work on.

Diary of a Creative Director

A big thanks to Heidi Ehlers, who recently pointed us to Diary of a Creative Director.

The site's been around since 2005, and I wish I'd known about it sooner.

But now you know about it.

So start watching.

There are some real gems there. Check out David Droga on "Building the Muscle."

Try this when you're stuck

Copywriters: the next time you're absolutely stuck with your copy, try this.

Go pick up a novel of a writer whose style you admire. Say it's Gabriel Garcia Marquez - he's about as unmarketing-speaky as you can get. Open to any page. Now copy the words of the page into your own notebook.

When you're finished, start writing what you need to say about your product. You'll find you're doing it in an entirely different voice.

You can do this with Hemmingway and Steinbeck as easily as you can with Dan Brown and David Sedaris. Go ahead and try some poetry. Works with Sandberg and Billy Collins, too.

Art directors: Do the same by taking out a big book on fine art. Or photography. Or design. You don't have to recreate each painting. But you can try. Sketch out the composition. Study the shadows and the colors. Spend a half hour with a particular style. Then jump into your layout while it's fresh in your brain.

Small trick. But it works. And it's much better than staring at a blank page, or just writing and laying out what you think the client (or the awards show juries) expect.


“It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”

-Harry S Truman

Creative Direction

"Never tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and their ingenuity will astonish you."
-General George S. Patton

It's the Little Things

Awhile back, I wrote about the importance of language in how we think of things. How sometimes really small nuances in how something is phrased or a small gesture can make a big difference.

For Christmas, my wife got some All-Clad skillet thing. In the skillet was this tag:

Everyone's seen tags in their clothing that say "Inspected by #213." Maybe I just haven't been noticing, but this is the first time I've seen one that included the inspector's name. That says quality to me way more than the word "quality" in the ensuing copy.

It's not an idea that would win any awards, but whoever decided that putting the inspector's name on the tag instead of his number was onto something.

What kind of creative director do you work for?

I have worked for creative directors who have kept the limelight for themselves.

And I have worked for creative directors who have gone to great lengths to make sure my partner and I were receiving the credit.

One of the most motivating things a creative director ever told me was, "I used to be nervous we'd hire people who wouldn't win awards. Now I get nervous we won't hire people who will go off and start their own award-winning shops."

A creative director who's willing to help your career is a valuable asset. Make sure you find them. Once you do, make sure you deserve the attention they're willing to give.

Interview with Peter

Our friend Peter Carnevale's been a guest author on this blog before.

I just came across this interview which he so humbly forgot to tell me about. And though it doesn't show off Peter's awesome tattoos, it's worth the read.

The Five Year Test

Any decent creative team can come up with a great campaign. But where does it go from there? Does it evolve like Nike? Or is it an isolated campaign like the old work?

Next time you're working on a campaign - particularly if it's a pitch or a large-scale rebranding - take some time to ask "What does this campaign look like in five years?"

Not having a good answer to this question doesn't invalidate the campaign you've just created. It could be you've got a great idea that moves the brand forward enough before something else takes its place.

But if you're able to show that your idea is great now, and will continue to grow and breathe and be great for the long term, that shows you have a vision for the brand. And it can really help put you over the edge with a client or your creative director.

No one cares that you work hard

Several years ago, my younger self had an interview with a creative director I really wanted to work for.

They weren't hiring (or at least, they weren't hiring me), but I wanted so badly to work for him, I tried to make myself as attractive as possible. In my desperation I told him, "I'm a really hard worker."

He just kind of looked at me and said, "Yeah, but isn't that the price of admission?"

Nail in the coffin on that interview.

A couple of lessons from this:

1. If a place isn't interested in you, it's awfully hard to change their minds. And probably the only way to do that is with amazing new work (not just a new print campaign with some banners thrown in).

2. If you work hard, you don't need to tell anyone about it.

Who Are You Working For?

When you're looking for a job, what are your priorities? Money*? Agency size? Client roster? I'd suggest that an important one should be the philosophy of the leaders of the company. First, find out who the leaders are. A good place to start is at the top. Here's a quote from Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh:

I think of myself less as a leader, and more of being almost an architect of an environment that enables employees to come up with their own ideas, and where employees can grow the culture and evolve it over time, so it’s not me having a vision of “This is our culture.”

Maybe an analogy is, if you think of the employees and culture as plants growing, I’m not trying to be the biggest plant for them to aspire to. I’m more trying to architect the greenhouse where they can all flourish and grow.

That's a pretty rad vision for the culture of the company. Here's the full interview.

*When you're looking for your first job, money should be near the bottom of your list. I know this can sound crazy, especially when you're trying to pay for rent and student loans, but the money will come later if you focus on the other things. More on that later.

Wisdom from Hugh MacLeod

If you haven't downloaded it yet, Seth Godin has a free e-book called What Matters Now. He asks a bunch of business writers to answer that question.

My favorite - and most applicable to creative work - is Hugh MacLeod's:

I usually ignore lists of aphorisms and platitudes, but this one's got some good stuff in it. Enjoy.

A Cautionary Tale

I once knew a creative team where the CW was a little more adored and befriended by agency leadership than the AD. Not sure why. Just the way it was. (It wasn't me, by the way.)

At one point, the AD was frustrated enough with the situation to talk to our ECD about it. Hoping to convey her neglected value, she even said, "That [redacted] campaign we just did? [It had just appeared in Archive.] That was all my idea! I did the whole thing - he just changed one word in the tag!"

The reason I know she said that was because within a week, almost everyone in the creative department knew she had said it. That she would claim sole authorship on some work, however accurate, seemed, as one coworker put it, "so unprofessional."

A couple morals to this story:

1. I have never heard a story about a creative who complained about anything to an ECD to their benefit. Complaining just doesn't get you anywhere. Not even when it's about your clients.

2. You can create an entire campaign on your own. But if you're part of a team, you did the work as a team. A little humility is a good thing. (And if your partner's not doing his or her share, it will show. You don't have to put up any red flags. Your CDs are probably more aware than you know.)

Part of being a good creative is being a great partner

Once, another copywriter asked me how I was getting along with my art director. I told him we worked well together. Sometimes we got in some arguments about the work, but we were always respectful of each other's opinions, and were quick to apologize to each other if the debate got too heated.

I took some pride in being able to argue with my art director. I felt it showed we both cared about the work. And to some degree, there might be some truth in that. But his reply made me see things differently. He simply said, "I don't want to have to fight with my art director."

I've since found, that if I'm arguing with my partner, it's either because one of us is being stubborn (which can be remedied). Or because we have drastically different tastes (and if you don't respect their taste, you should consider a change).

Take the Plant Tour

1. Know your product.

2. Know your audience.

These are two of the first things you're taught in ad school. All great ideas come out of the brand/product, and all great ideas speak to the audience.

Years ago, the brilliant Mark Fenske wrote the "14 anti-laws of advertising." Here's #9:

Skip the plant tour. Stay as ignorant as the audience. Otherwise you'll be as useless as the client. Clients know too much about their own products to be able to write a good ad; all they can do is shill. Though clients may not realize it, they're hiring us not because we're part of their company, but because we're part of the audience. When you know too much you always have the answer. You sound like an infomercial.

While I understand Fenske's point, I would say that you absolutely should take the plant tour. You should be doing whatever you can to learn about the product. Immerse yourself in it. Watch it being built. Talk to the designers or chemists. Read about its history. Travel to the corporate headquarters to understand the company's philosophy.

And then do the same thing with the consumer. As Fenske suggests, be the audience. Walk into the store, find the product. Look at the other products around it. Buy the product if you can. Use it. Use competitive products. Listen to consumers if you have the opportunity. Talk to people who love the product and people who hate it.

Insight and ideas can come from all of that stuff, and you should know all that stuff. The key, and what Fenske is really warning against, is to not get bogged down in it. Just because you now know all of this stuff does not mean it should all be included in an ad. What are you trying to communicate? What will move your target? It won't be a plant tour, but it might be something you learned on a plant tour.

So, by all means, take the plant tour.

Kramerize Your Cliches

Whenever a producer puts together an ensemble cast - especially on sit-coms - one of the characters is bound to be "the dumb guy." Woody on Cheers. Bull on Night Court. Joey on Friends. Even Michael Scott on The Office. It's a good character because it's kind of a sounding board for the audience's reality. But it's also cliche.

A few years ago (before he killed his career), I read an interview with Michael Richards, who played Kramer on Seinfeld. He said that he really came into the character in about the third season. He said it dawned on him that Kramer wasn't slogging a few paces behind the rest of the cast. He was wildly racing blocks ahead of them. If you watch the early Kramer vs. the Season 4 Kramer and beyond, you see what I mean.

Kramer was still filling the role. Technically, he was the "dumb guy." But the blocks-ahead-vs.-steps-behind approach made him unlike any other ensemble cast "dumb guy" ever seen, and one of the most memorable characters on TV. And it's because he took the cliche and turned it on its head.

I bring this up, because turning the cliche on its head is a great tool for you to use. If your CD or a professor points out that one of your ideas is cliche (chances are, you know already), don't immediately abandon it and rack your brains for a replacement out of thin air. Start by admitting that you used a cliche for a reason, so on some level, it works.

Take that cliche and turn it on its head. Kramerize it.