How Can You Make It Better?

I saw this sign at Jimmy John's yesterday.* This sign could have been your standard NO SHOES, NO SHIRT, NO SERVICE, but someone thought it would be funnier to rewrite it. And it is.

It reminded me of when I first read Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.** When I opened the book, I saw that he'd actually written all of the boilerplate legal copy that comes in the first few pages. The copy that most authors ignore because most readers ignore it too. Eggers' legal copy was the best, funniest legal copy I'd ever read.

You will have a lot of people telling you what you need to include in your ads. Sometimes it's legal copy, sometimes technical copy. But that doesn't mean you have to take it as it is. See if you can make it better. It could be: "Professional driver, closed course. Do not attempt." Or it could be: "Tony Stewart, closed course. You couldn't do this if your life depended on it, so don't even try."

Not that many people read legal copy, but if someone does, why not use it as another chance to give them a good impression of the brand?

*I highly recommend Jimmy John's. For those of you in San Francisco, they just opened one in Crocker Galleria. 
**Highly recommend AHWOSG, or really anything by Eggers.  

Focus Groups

I always find I enjoy focus groups more when I draw the people in them. This won't help you make better ads. But it might help you enjoy your career a little more.

DDB LaunchPad SF Winter Internship

We're looking for folks for our winter internship program. Writers, art directors, designers, digital makers, ux/ui experts, strategists, planners, makers, doers, learners, artists, stay in touch through our Facebook page, or apply by sending a link to your work to 

The internship will run January 7-March 15. It is paid. It is in San Francisco. 

Client Feedback

As we've said before, one of the myths in the industry is that the client is stupid. Thinking like that won't help you do or sell better work. Don't believe it.

But then there's this brilliant side project we found that beautifully illustrates client feedback. And we remember we've been in meetings like this, too.

If You're Interested In Portfolio School...

The VCU Brandcenter is holding two info sessions for prospective students on November 9th and November 30th.

For those of you not in Virginia, the November 30th session will be live streamed.

Click here for more information.

Learn. Re-learn. Repeat.

A co-worker recently sent me this article. I thought this quote was particularly insightful:
"Few traditional career tactics train us for an era where the most important skill is the ability to acquire new skills.” Or as Alvin Toffler says, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn."
Coming up with an idea is one thing. Figuring something out, solving problems, working around roadblocks, learning how to do things a new way...those are all a different skillsets that require you to use your creative thinking in a different way. But that way of thinking creatively is becoming more and more important. Never stop learning.

How to Write a TV Script

If you need to write a TV script, do not start by writing a TV script. Start by writing a premise.

Here's a short story to tell you what I mean:

The very first time to I sat down to write a TV script, I was an intern at GSD&M. My partner and I had no experience at all writing thirty-second scripts.

The assignment was for a restaurant, which the brief assured us was the place to go for celebrations. So we came up with one idea where a kung fu master takes his two 10-year-old students to lunch after a tournament. Realizing there's only one jalapeno popper appetizer left on the plate, one student tries to grab it. His fellow kung fu student blocks the reach with a wax-on-wax-off move. Then he tries to take it, and the other kid uses some kung fu move to block the reach. This results in a flurry of blocks, jabs, reaching, wax-on-wax-off fist movement over the plate as their master sagely looks on. Then the two kids realize the popper is no longer on the plate, and their teacher smiles and says something like, "He who is not distracted gets the popper!"

Kind of a funny spot, we thought. Might not have been super p.c., but I would have enjoyed seeing that on TV. So my partner and I scripted it up.

And that was one of the most agonizing experiences of my internship.

We debated on whether we should open outside the restaurant, or open on one of the booths. Should the jalapeno poppers be freshly delivered to the table, or should they already be eating them? Should there be a waiter or waitress? At the end, should the teacher say, "He who is not distracted..." or "Lesson #8..." or "You have much to learn..." It took us hours to figure out that script.

But the thing is, we'd already figured out the premise. The creative director didn't need a finished script. He wanted an idea. We gave him five scripts. But in the time it took us to script up five fully-formed scripts we could both agreed on, we could have concepted and written a hundred premises.

A premise is a five- or six-sentence description of what the spot is about, and what happens in it. Keep it loose. But keep it interesting. If it doesn't work well as a premise, it's probably not going to work as a script.

Shout Out to Ronny

We don't normally highlight current work on Makin' Ads, but since this great piece was written by a friend and former classmate, we had to give a shout out to Ronny Northrop. Be sure to read Ronny's post on being too old for portfolio school. You're never too old for portfolio school if it can help you create stuff like this.

Chairs vs Sophie

Compare these two spots.

Both are from tech giants. Both have great production value. Nice writing. Well-directed. Good-looking film. But there's a very different feel in how we connect with each.

One talks at us, the other shows us.
One tells us exactly what it is trying to say, the other invites us in.
One feels corporate (although it shows humans), the other is human.
One is ye old Manifesto. The other is a story.

Source Materials for my Storytelling Class

This past quarter, I taught a storytelling class at Miami Ad School with some really talented, enthusiastic first-quarter writers. Here's a list of some of the source materials I used as examples and sometimes just stole from to make myself sound like I knew what I was talking about:

On Teaching and Writing Fiction by Wallace Stegner

On Writing by Stephen King

 The Comic Toolbox by John Vorhaus

Improv Wisdom by Patricia Madson

The Handbook of Short Story Writing, Volumes I and II, by Writer's Digest

Building Believable Characters by Marc McCutcheon

The Moth Stories

This video from J.J. Abrams.

Various lists, such as this one by Elmore Leonard and this one by John Steinbeck

Writing samples from writers much better than myself, including Edward Abbey, James Agee, Sherwood Anderson, Donald Antrim, Roberto Bolaño, Richard Brautigan, Jon Clinch, Mark Costello, Patrick deWitt, A.M. Homes, Dan Kennedy, Chip Kidd, J Robert Lennon, Cormac McCarthy, David Mitchell, Tim O'Brien, Helen Oyeyemi, J.D. Salinger, Jim Shepard, Hunter S. Thompson and David Foster Wallace.

Bad Presentation Can Ruin a Great Idea

A bad presentation can ruin a great idea. This is true if you're presenting work to a client or just in the way you present your work on your website.

Don't spend weeks crafting every detail of a campaign and then slap it on your website with a poorly-written description you crapped out in 30 seconds. Your job is to present ideas. To communicate clearly. To tell compelling stories. How you present your ideas will be judged as much as the ideas themselves.

So make sure you think about how you present your idea. Is there a story behind it? Does there need to be? Should you create a video about it or do a couple simple sentences suffice?

In the words of the great ad man, Albert Einstein: "Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler."

Luke Sullivan: One of the best pieces of creative advice I was ever given.

Most of you probably already subscribe to Luke's blog. But for those who haven't discovered it yet, here's a great piece:

One of the best pieces of creative advice I was ever given.

And yes, Anne Lamontt's Bird by Bird is a fantastic creative help. Almost as much as Luke's book.

All Six Sides of Advertising

I've never solved a Rubik's Cube. I can get one side, maybe two. But I've never been patient enough to solve the whole thing.

But I have solved a client's problem before. I've taken edits and layouts and headlines that weren't working and figured out a way to make them shine.

And I think that's probably what it feels like to solve a Rubik's Cube.

Advertising is a series of problems. Not every problem will lead to a One Show Gold or even a book piece. But most of them are solvable. And the more you enjoy solving them, the more fun you'll have in your career.

Your Career Is a Network Of Random Opportunities

You will be presented with many doors in your career. You don't always have to walk through them, but I'd advise you to at least consider each one. Maybe poke your head through and see what's there. If someone from an agency you don't think you want to work at wants to chat, why not at least chat?

Thinking back over my career, I can think of several opportunities that I completely passed on without a second thought. Some were offers made by people that I didn't really take seriously. When I think of these passed opportunities, I'd like to go back and kick my younger self.

Here's an excellent example of how this can work, by Jason Friedman at 37signals. 


Generally speaking, taglines aren't necessary. Luke Sullivan says, unless you can write a "Just Do It," just don't.

But here are two reasons portfolio students should practice taglines:

1. You're going to have clients who ask for them.
2. Taglines are just one more way to showcase how you think.

When I'm asked to write a tagline, I sometimes begin by asking myself, "What is this? And what does it do?"

The ultimate driving machine.
The uncola.
The king of beers.
The antidote for civilization.
Nothing runs like a Deere.
It gives you wings.
That was easy.
Think outside the bun.
It's everywhere you want to be.

Just a few examples of good tags that answer the simple questions, "What is this? And what does it do?"

Awesome or Awful

Check out Awesome or Awful: A Self-Critique Tool for Young Creatives. Wish I'd had this around when I was first in portfolio school.

One of the authors is Erin Eby, a super-talented art director who helps run an agency in Geneva, Switzerland. I had the pleasure of working with her when I lived there, and we collaborated on a number of projects. I kind of wish this would have been one of them.

Applefied Ads

Does the work in your book have to be great work? Yesterday, I would have said without question. Today, I'm not so sure. Because I discovered that these great Applefied ads were done by Bryan Evans, an art director intern at RPA in Santa Monica.

These are not great ads. But they are great book pieces. Why? Maybe because they're cultural commentary. Maybe because we've all had a client say, "Why can't we do work like Apple?" who really didn't mean it. Maybe because they're already being featured in some of the major industry pubs. But whatever I can almost guarantee these ads will be the difference between Bryan's book and the guy who almost got hired. (Assuming the rest of Bryan's book is as thoughtful and well-art directed as these pieces.)

I'm not saying run out and create a parody campaign. Too late. Bryan's already done that. But this is a great reminder that you need to find a smart, amazing way to set your book apart from everyone else's.

The Competition

If you've ever had the opportunity to attend a major advertising award show like Cannes or One Show, the amount of good work on display can be overwhelming. For my competitions class that I sometimes teach, I tell my students to imagine a football field. That football field is filled with print campaigns. Now put a few judges walking around that field. Will they stop at yours? How will it stand out?

I'll Know It When I Hear It

It's cliché. But we all fear the client who actually says, "I'll know it when I see it," to set the expectations of a campaign. And as creatives, we consider anyone uttering such tripe to be absolute cretins.

But when it comes to music, we often set the same bar, even if we don't use the same words. We listen to track after track, and say we're not able to put a finger on it, but for some reason, this tune or that tune just isn't right.

Let's not be hypocrites.

Learn how to talk about music. Learn how to express the emotion you want your spot to stir. Know the difference between something that sounds organic and something that sounds overproduced. Know when it's better to use an acoustic guitar, and when to use a full symphony, and be able to articulate why. Don't expect the music house or the director or your creative director to help you through this. You need to be fluent in music. Because a great track can be the difference between a B spot and an A spot.

For starters, read some of Jim's "It's the Music, Stupid" posts here.

Internship King

I'd never heard of this list of internships before, and I kind of wish something like this had been around when I was breaking into the industry. Hope some of you will find it useful.

Shameless plug: At the current writing, my agency is #4 on the list.


If your campaign is clear without a case study video, please, for the love of all that is good, do not make a case study video. If you absolutely, positively, without a doubt cannot sum up your campaign in a short paragraph or a few bullet points, then and only then should you make me/us sit through a 2-minute case study video. 

P.S. It goes without saying that you will spread your campaign message through twitter and allow people to share it via social media channels. That is not a concept in itself and does not warrant a case study video. 

P.P.S. We have made this post into a handy jpg. Please feel free to blow it up, print it out and post it at your school/agency/barn. Godspeed. 

Plagiarize Yourself

If you have a good idea that the client doesn't buy, don't throw it away. Keep it in a file somewhere. If it's really a great idea, you'll find a home for it sometime in your career. Aaron Sorkin's built an amazing reputation doing just that. Even when his copy's produced. Works for him.

Simplify Your Copy

Recently, I wrote a TV script. While writing it, I asked if a certain phrase needed to be included. The simplest answers would have been:

a) Yes.
b) No.
c) If it fits, great. But it's not mandatory.

Here is the emailed answer I received:

"I think we've committed to do our best to include, where it makes sense, but without compromising what we need to deliver to make [the] value message most compelling to our audience. And there's probably a lot more impt [sic] info that needs to be voiced...that said, if we think we can easily fit it in, we should (I just don't think that's likely here...which would mean that we WOULD only cover in signage)."

No matter the medium, if you can use fewer words to convey the same meaning, do it.

What's Wrong With This Chipotle Commercial?

The song is too sad.
Most of the spot focuses on the negative.
The animation style is weird.
It's too long.
I don't know what the product is until the very end.
There's no strong call-to-action.
Where the hell is the food? You can't have a food commercial and not show food?
People don't like to be reminded that their food comes from animals.
Willie Nelson is too old for the target market.
Willie Nelson is too country for the target market.
It reminds us of what's wrong with things.
It could be for any farm-fresh product.
There's no voice-over walking us through Chipotle's philosophy.
The cows in the good half are square. Square reminds me of boxes, which aren't natural.
The length isn't good for television, and if we don't run it on television who's going to see it?
The farmer is too fat.

I'm sure there are more. What else?

Stately Sandwiches

Kelly Pratt is a recent graduate of the Chicago Portfolio School. Because she likes sandwiches as much as she likes advertising, she's got a side project called Stately Sandwiches. Check it out. Bring your own chips.

What the Movies Can Teach You About a Big Idea

This is a guest post from AKQA creative and frequent Makin' Ads contributor Nathan Archambault. You can follow him on Twitter @NKArch


Greg has written before about the importance of having a great elevator pitch. Here’s another way of looking at it. This is something I picked up on after attending the Creative Week panel The Idea Matters… Still.

Your best idea should be like a great movie plot. For any great movie, you can reduce the plot down to a single sentence. For example:

Boy’s parents murdered, so he starts wearing a cape, fighting crime and talking in a deep, gravelly voice (Batman).
New York cop single-handedly stops terrorists from robbing an office building, all before the helpful proliferation of cell phones (Die Hard).
Nerd steals website idea from good-looking jocks and becomes an awkward billionaire (Social Network).

Your best ideas should be this simple and accessible. Try this test: take one of your ideas, write it down in a short sentence on a blank piece of paper. No visuals, no technology, no strategy, just an organized jumble of letters.
Now stare at it.

Does it still seem like a big idea? Does it pop? Does it wow? Do you look at that sentence, want to fold it in three and overnight ship it to Gerry Graf, Jeff Goodby and Dan Wieden?

Or, without all the glitter, does it seem empty, boring, unspectacular, less than large?

If, sans glitter, it’s not ready for the limelight, then figure out what it needs. Is it too complicated or gimmicky? Is it just a tactic? Is there something missing or is there something there that doesn’t have to be?

Boiling your idea down to a single, naked sentence can separate the great ideas from the good ones. Because all the glitter we sprinkle on our ideas makes them look better than they really are.

We’re storytellers, after all, and part of telling a story is making an idea seem bigger and better than it is on its own. When we present, there’s always more than the idea. There’s backstory and visuals. A beautiful presentation. People with varied areas of expertise go into an exorbitant amount of detail about each carefully-thought-out step of the process. Then, once sufficiently built up, the big idea is revealed with reserved aplomb.

And it’s glorious.

But if you start with a less-than-great idea, the final product will always have something missing.


So before you put all that effort into presenting and selling your idea, write it down in one single thought and stare at it.

If it still seems like the best idea you’ve ever seen, you’ve got a winner. Just imagine how great it will be once you add all the glitter.

Too Old for Portfolio School

More than a few people have told me they wanted to go to portfolio school, but figured they were too old. Advertising's a young man's game, and they missed the boat. Whenever I hear this, I always think of Ronny Northrop. Ronny and I were classmates at the VCU Adcenter. I was 25 and thought I was old. Ronny was in his 30s. At that age, some people would have bailed and gotten into real estate. Ronny went on to work at places like Crispin and Goodby.

I recently emailed Ronny a few questions, which he was kind enough to answer. Long story short, if you think you're too old to do something you're passionate about, there's a good chance you're wrong.

When did you go to portfolio school?
I started ad school in 1998. Graduated in 2000.

How old were you went you were there?
Let’s see, I started when I was 32 or 33. I graduated at 35.

What factor did age have on your experience there?
I was definitely concerned about my age in terms of getting into an intense business like advertising so late in the game. It takes a hell of a lot of energy to make good marketing. Even more than I realized coming in. And this seems to be something many students don’t understand. Great advertising takes hard work and long hours. There’s a lot more to it than coming up with a bunch of funny ideas. And it’s competitive as heck--more so each year. So every advantage helps, including having a lot of energy to do the work. And the older most of us get, the less energy we’ve got.

On my first day, Jelly Helm, a wonderful teacher I was lucky enough to have, asked the class to talk about their life experiences so far. I think I was the oldest person in the class. And I had done a ton of different things in my life at that point, from a few years traveling abroad to a range of various jobs to going back to college for creative writing…the list goes on. Jelly made the point that the people who had the most life experience to bring to their creative approach would have a significant advantage over those with less to draw from. Which was great to hear. And true, I think.

A few days later I learned that Jelly was the same age as me. And the fact that a hugely successful famous ad superstar—and my teacher, for that matter--had already reached stardom at the same age I was when just starting school, freaked me out a bit. But them’s the breaks. 

Same was true for Alex Bogusky, who I later ended up working for. Point is, if you’re getting into the biz later in life, be okay with encountering many success stories and maybe even bosses who were drooling on a baby rattle when you were half way through high school. 

Another advantage getting started a little later in life brought me was motivation. As I said before, I had done a lot of stuff in my life when I finally made the jump into ad school. And at that point, I really had no idea what else I could do for a career. Advertising in many ways was a last resort for me. And that can be a powerful motivator. Which helped me out-work lots of 22-year olds. 

What factor did age have once you graduated and started looking for a job?
People just want to know that you are a great creative. If there was a 74-year-old dude who was making Grand Prix-winning work, I’m pretty sure the agency would keep him on staff. It’s a cliché I get tired of hearing, but this business has always been about great ideas. If you can consistently deliver the goods, you’re gonna do well.

All this said, it’s no secret that there’s been a shift happening in our industry. More and more work made under unrealistic deadlines, less and less time for craft. Lots of work that attempts to leverage the latest social media platform. Apps, games, tweets, something else that will make client check lists before this blog entry is published. Schedules and themes that, well, us older folks are probably less likely to keep up with than say, someone who learned their ABCs on an iPad.

In my opinion, it’s important to keep up with all this stuff as best you can. At some point someone might say, “Hey, that old dude hasn’t produced anything cool in like, two years.” But hopefully, someone else might reply, “Yeah, but he really gets Pinterest.”

Ronny Northrop is a freelance creative director and copywriter who lives in San Francisco. He’s still in the business, and he’s still got a fair amount of energy.

Amateur Creativity

This is a presentation I gave to the Chicago Portfolio School last month. 

I shortened the 45-minute presentation to about 12 minutes, so I had to cut out some of the showcase pieces.

I also had to rerecord my voice. I swear I sound much better live.

Please send any feedback on how I could improve this presentation to the comments section below.

The Theoretical Ad-Like Thingy

"So there'd be like two guys in a park or at the mall of somewhere talking about normal stuff. And then something crazy would happen in the background and one of the guys would be like pointing but it would be the product. And there'd be some copy at the end that says something about how it gets noticed."

"Do you have a tagline?"

"Yeah, and there'd be a tagline."

"What is it?"

"I don't know yet."

This is a reenactment of the presentation of a theoretical ad. For some reason, students present these all the time in class. It wants me to poke my eyes out or, lately, want to poke their eyes out. There is a vague concept here, but this isn't an execution. It's like drawing the first gesture of a circle and saying "What do you think of my portrait?" I don't know. It's not a portrait yet. This concept above, I don't know. It's not a script. It's a vague notion about a script.

Do not present theoretical ads. Do not present vague paragraphs. Your job is not to create MadLibs.  If you don't know whether a spot should take place in a mall or a park or the international space station, pick the one you think is best. Create a concrete idea in the mind of your creative director or client (or instructor). Talk about options and alts afterward. But first help them imagine something real and specific.

Two things can happen when you present a theoretical ad. The first is that, because you haven't brought the idea to life, people don't get it or don't like it and the idea dies. The second is possibly worse. Because you have left the idea so open-ended, everyone fills in the blanks with whatever's in their head. Instead of everyone in the room seeing the idea as you envisioned it, you now have six different versions/visions of your idea populating people's brains. Which means that if you push your idea forward to the next stage where you do make it more specific, at least five people will think "Oh, that's not how I was picturing it."

Bottom line--be specific. If you've ever taken a creative writing course, this is something they tell you about your language: be concrete. The same is true here. If you're presenting a spot, present a spot. For a print ad, show a print ad. Not an ad-like notion. Or, as my instructor Coz Cotzias used to say: "That's an interesting thought. Now go do a fucking ad."

The Maker Generation

Last week, I was able to catch up with my friend, mentor and first boss Kevin Lynch. Over lunch he said a few things worth sharing here. Paraphrasing, of course. My hands were too busy with my pulled pork sandwich to take notes.

According to Kevin, you portfolio students and recent grads are the Maker Generation. When Kevin or I were looking for our first jobs, if we wanted to pull something real together, we would have had to find a typesetter, a photographer, maybe a sound engineer. Nothing got produced that didn't involve a team.

But today, people are producing work all the time with nothing more than a great idea and maybe a little tech shrewdness. I go to portfolio school reviews each year and more and more, there are students developing their own apps, fonts, websites, radio programs. It's not just theory.

Kevin said this democratization of maker-iness means there's no reason any portfolio school grad should go into a job interview where the person interviewing hasn't already heard of them.

That's a pretty high bar. Thing is, there are plenty of examples out there where portfolio school students (your competition) are already clearing it.

Portfolio Night 10

Good luck to everyone participating in Portfolio Night 10. If you missed the boat this year, put in on your calendar for 2013.

Miss you, Sonya.

My friend and former CD, Sonya Grewal passed away last weekend. She was a great creative, and a great person.

Here's a conversation Sonya and I had a few years ago after participating in's Portfolio Night. With Portfolio Night coming up soon, it's worth your read. If you haven't enrolled in Portfolio Night, yet, what are you waiting for?

Managing Your Career on a Matchbook

In portfolio school, you'll be told to make the most of every opportunity. Even matchbook covers and table tents. If you're given a table tent assignment, make it the most amazing table tent the world has ever seen. Win a One Show gold with a piece of direct mail. Get your first Cannes Lion with a door hanger. Or at least have an amazing piece for your book.

And that's all true.

But there may come a time in your career where you realize all you've been doing are matchbook covers and table tents.

Yes, you need to make the most of every assignment. And be very patient. But beware of letting your work define you as someone who does the heavy-lifting (a euphemism for stuff the more senior creatives don't want to touch).

Are you in the 75%?

According to this global study from Adobe, 75% of people think they are not living up to their creative potential. Makes me happy to be in advertising. But I still wonder if I'm doing all I can be doing.

What are you doing when you're feeling most creative?

DDB San Francisco Summer Internship

DDB San Francisco is accepting applications for our summer creative internship program which, like other DDB offices, we're calling LaunchPad. We're looking for writers, art directors, designers, digital wizards, tinkerers, thinkers, jugglers and pyrotechnic experts. Last year's program was a big success for us (and our interns--we ended up hiring five out of six of them, and that's only because one of them had to go back to school), and we're hoping to keep the streak alive. If you would like to apply, send your name, special powers and a link to your work to Please spread the word.

Chipping Away to Find Your Voice With Moshe Kasher

All creative people know the importance of generating lots of ideas to get to the good stuff. I think the same is true with writing, whether it's a script or a setup or some copy. I've always found it easier to write the first draft long, then edit it down.

I was listening to the podcast Bullseye with Jesse Thorn today, and he was interviewing comedian Moshe Kasher. This is what Kasher had to say as he was describing how he honed his voice:

“There’s this story of Michelangelo, that somebody came up to Michelangelo and said, ‘How do you make something as beautiful as David?’ and he goes ‘Well, I took this piece of marble and I chipped away everything that wasn’t David, and that’s what was left.’ I sort of feel like that’s what you do on stage, to find your voice on stage. That’s what you do as a writer, to find your voice as a writer. And that’s what you do as a human being to find your voice as a person. You start chipping away things that aren’t useful and aren’t you.”

The next time you sit down to write a script, think of it as a block of marble. It doesn't have to be perfect. The shape doesn't have to be defined yet. Just give yourself enough to work with. Get it all out there on the page. Don't chip until you have a big, nice block. Then take out your chisel and go to work.

Exploited by Masters

I just finished watching a documentary on Charles and Ray Eames. Many of those interviewed were designers who had worked with the Eames, collaborating on projects and helping them develop ideas. But no matter how much they contributed, the work was always under the name of Charles Eames.

One designer, Jeannine Oppewall, said, "He may have been exploiting us. But if you are not stupid, you are also exploiting that relationship. I was happy being exploited by a master."

I've worked for creative directors like this - where the entire creative department felt as if it existed only to bring the ECD's ideas to life.

What do you think about this? Would you be happy being exploited by a master? How would that fit into your career?

(By the way, this film is streaming on Netflix. I highly recommend it.)

How to Start Writing Scripts

As a junior with very little script writing experience, I found it challenging to get into the spot. I'd have an idea for a spot. But getting to that idea always seemed clunky.

Recently, I was invited to speak to a class at the Temerlin Advertising Institute at SMU, and we talked about writing scripts for radio and TV. Here's an exercise we did together.

First, watch this classic SNL clip.

Okay. Now, take out a piece of paper and write the first sixty seconds of this skit. It's not a memory game; you don't need to remember the kids names. But how did the skit begin? Go ahead, try it.

When you come up with a great idea for a TV spot, it's a lot like saying, "What if Chris Farley were a crazy motivational speaker who really lives in a van down by the river?" It's a funny concept. But that's not the first line of the script. You have to begin with "Open on a living room." And you have to write some dialogue that's not all that funny, or even memorable. But it gets you to the funny and memorable part.

As you watch TV - sitcoms, dramas, commercials - pay attention to how they begin. What are the first lines spoken? What is the first image you see? Figure out how how those elements serve as a base, and how they lead to the parts you really remember.

Your Dream Portfolio

I recently heard of a fantastic assignment given by Bryan Birch, an instructor over at the Academy of Art University here in San Francisco. I have a scriptwriting class that I'm teaching at Miami Ad School starting in a couple of weeks, and I plan to steal this idea and use it as the first assignment for my class.

The assignment is simple: put together a portfolio of ads you wish you had done. Not ads you have done--ads that other people have done that you absolutely love.

Bryan has his class bring in three and then asks the students to discuss them. With each student's three ads, the class talks about the similarities. "The string that turns the 'beads' into a 'necklace," Bryan says. For example, absurdity might be a common element in each of the ads. This is basically the style of ads you like to do. And there can be several strings in each group. Bryan then has the students bring in ads that they have done that fit on this string.

This gives the students a "North Star," as Bryan calls it. It helps them to recognize and articulate the kind of ads they like to do, see opportunities to work those traits more into their book and push for that in their future assignments. If you quirky, dry humor, it should be in your book. If you hate sappy stories, you shouldn't have those in your book. The point of your job search is to find you a job that you will love (and hence where you will thrive). An agency that wants you because they want you to do the kind of work you like to do--the kind of work that should be reflected in your portfolio.

For my students, I think I'm going to ask them to build a full reel--7-10 spots (or something that has a script)--and put together a Pinterest board. Pinterest is perfect for this kind of thing.

Having a dream portfolio sets a bar. Probably a pretty high one. And with every ad you do, you can look and say, "Is this good enough? Would I put this in my dream portfolio? How can I make it more like the stuff in my dream portfolio?" Wouldn't it be nice if one day, many years for now, your dream portfolio was made up entirely of your own work?

A Little Perspective

A very honest and thought-provoking read by Linds Redding over at the SF Egotist. Well worth the 8 minutes it will take you to read it.

7 Rules for Writing Radio

Writers and art directors, here is what I would like to tell you about radio:

  1. Radio is usually :30 or :60. Time your scripts accordingly. (This applies to TV, too.)
  2. When timing your scripts, read it aloud, and read it slowly. Don't kid yourself. Read slow.
  3. If your script comes in at :32 seconds, don't tell yourself you'll just have the talent read it faster. Edit. Even if it hurts.
  4. Rule of thumb: 80 words for a :30, and 155 for a :60.
  5. Find the little ways of making your spot real. If your spot takes place in bed, consider having the talent lie down while they read your script. If they're supposed to be tired and sweaty, have them do jumping jacks before each take. If they turn their head away from the person they're talking to, have them turn their head away from the microphone.
  6. Make sure your script goes somewhere. Don't just tell the same joke three times in sixty seconds. If it's not building, it's not award-winning.
  7. Great art directors can (and do) help create great radio. Radio is visual. Ergo, art directors can help create great radio.

Troy's News Worth Spreading

Congrats to our friend Troy Burrows whose Sharpie work was selected as one of TED's Ads Worth Spreading.

Troy was a student at the Chicago Portfolio School just a few years ago. What will you be doing a few years after graduation?

Banksy on Advertising

Thoughts? Comments? Is he right? Or is he a hypocrite? A brilliant marketer? All of the above?

(If you don't know who Banksy is, bump this up to #1 in your Netflix cue now.)

Guest Post: Nate Stroot

From time to time, we like to invite guests to post on Makin' Ads. Today's guest poster is a former student of mine, Nate Stroot. We recently exchanged emails about how his first gig out of school made him reconsider what he was looking for. I asked him to write about what he learned from his first experience and about having the courage to set a new course when his "dream job" didn't live up to his expectations.


I am a huge fan of this blog and am honored to be able to contribute to a space that I hold in such high regard. It was my bible when I was at Miami Ad School.

I recently finished school and even more recently was juniored. I won’t be dispelling any advice on the creative process, partially because I am not qualified but mostly because I am still trying to figure it out for myself. What I can confidently speak to is my transition from paying to make ads to getting paid to make them.

I was slated to finish at MAS in the summer so in the spring I started sending my unfinished book to several shops trying to secure an internship for the summer. There was one shop in my hometown I that I loved and adored because, not to long ago, they were considered a premier shop in the industry. Since I didn’t actually know anyone there, I found one of their recruiters on LinkedIn and found an email address. I emailed her and she informed me that they weren’t looking for creative interns at that moment. Although I knew that, I still went ahead and filled out one of their general applications for interns. About a month later she emailed me back and said that they changed their mind. She set up phone interviews and eventually they offered me a 3-month internship with the option to extend another 3-months if both parties were feeling it. If everything went well, at 6 months there would be discussions of a permanent job.

I was excited and relieved that I knew what I was going to be doing after I finished. I finished school on a Friday and started the following Monday. The first 3 weeks were great. About a month in, the shop lost a client, and the current roster was pulling back spending. It hit the creative department and the media departments the hardest. I understood that this was nature of the beast, but it really affected the agency. One whole floor was vacant, and the creative department became a ghost town. Everyone was stretched pretty thin, and I felt that there was a shift in the culture.

Despite that I still signed on for another month, hoping things would turn around quickly. The agency was at an interesting fork where a lot of decisions needed to be made at the top to gain a clearer direction, which led to an unstable environment. At the time, I had no interest of extending, even if they offered, because I felt like I wanted to be in a place that had a clear cut direction of where they wanted to be. That being said, they may have had no intention of ever bringing me on, I am not sure where they were at.

In hindsight, I think the biggest mistake I made was that I went there for the name on the door and they were my dream agency for no reason other than the name on the door. However, I am grateful that they let me in their building where I was able to draw my own conclusions, and I had exposure to some extremely talented people. Perhaps the best thing one of the guys there told me after I left: “The thing about jobs is sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t.” From my short experience, that is definitely true.

After that, I decided it was time to take a break and embark on a new existential journey. I made the conscious decision to not be a contributing member of society. I don’t mean to brag, but I was really good at waking up after 2:00 pm. It was rewarding with the additional bonus of being quite unchallenging. However, around the New Year I found myself nearly out of cash. I started blindly sending my book to recruiters I found on LinkedIn, this time without luck. However, the great thing about MAS is that they host portfolio reviews which is really speed dating for a job. I attended one and was able to meet with a handful of recruiters. After I went home I emailed those I was interested in, and two of them put legitimate offers on the table after a few interviews. It was a really good problem to have.

There were things from the last internship that I wanted to avoid. I didn’t want to go into another unstable environment. I felt like as juniors, we have a lot to prove and a lot to learn which is already difficult. Being at a shop that doesn’t have a clear direction makes it that much harder to thrive. I had no interest in taking that challenge.

Another thing that was important to me was to have a partner. At the last place, it was kind of an assembly line mentality where I would do my portion, send it to a project manager, and then would have no idea what happened to it. I wanted to avoid that too.

The most important thing though was that I wanted to have a lot of contact with whomever I reported to. At the first place, I reported to the ECD running the account. I consider him an ad legend and have a lot of respect for him. However, I quickly found that he was the most overworked man in the agency, so I didn’t get a lot of exposure to him. For me, the best way to learn is to listen what they have to say, in meetings and with feedback and then take that into account on the next assignment. My math is simple. The more time around them, the more one picks up.

I made it a point to look at the books of the CD’s I would potentially report to. At this time, I feel like it is paramount that the CD does the kind of work you want to do. I think you can tell a lot about a CD by their book. It shows their taste, and later down the line, what they will try to sell to the client, which will directly impact the work you’re doing. If it works out right, your book and your CD’s book will mirror each other, at least at that stint. This may sound odd but I didn’t care about the clients I was going to be working on. I have no “dream client”. I was much more concerned about who I was going to be working for.

Ultimately, I ended up accepting an offer from Carmichael Lynch in Minneapolis. I had the chance to talk to the CCO and I really dug his vision and the direction he wanted to take the agency. It seemed like he was really focused on breathing new life into the shop and was going to do everything he could to get the shop to doing great work again. Also, when I talked to the GCD I was going to work under, I got the impression that he was going to do some serious blocking and tackling for me, which is invaluable.

At the time when I was trying to decide between the two offers I reached out to a CD I had a lot of respect for at the place I interned at, and asked him to weigh in. He wrote, “Make sure it looks like it’s going to give you the greatest opportunity to do the best work of your life. Don’t take a job this early in your career where you get stuck on one client. You need variety. You need to work for creative directors that share your passion and eye for producing great work.” It was and still is solid advice, and I wish I would have thought about when I was finishing portfolio school. At least I would have had the opportunity to take that advice or blindly reject it, but sometimes we have to learn as we go. Beta Testing

[Portfolio Launch is currently off-line. We'll repost once we find a new server. 8.29.12]

Before I launch this site officially, I'm announcing the beta version on

There are five concepting exercises on this site meant to help portfolio school applicants put together a competitive book.

The art direction of the site is admittedly underwhelming. I'm working on that. Comments and criticism of the content is very welcome.

Ambient Ads on Pinterest

Check out this Pinterest board from Karin Birch. Karin is a CD at Goodby Silverstein & Partners, and we met when we judged the Las Vegas Addys a couple weeks ago.

Make Your Book Less Student-y! Act now!

I see a lot of student porfolios. And I can peg most of them - say 80%, and that's pretty generous - as being a student portfolios before I even look at the resume. It's not a unique skill. Most people in the industry can do the same. Because most student portfolios just feel student-y. And the thing is, it's the other 20% that make the big impression.

There are lots of different contributing factors to the studentyness of a book. For this post, let me just bring up one: Most studenty books neglect calls to action.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a call to action is something that gives the reader, viewer, participant, whoever, something to act on. It could be as simple as a website or phone number, or as specific as a date and location. It doesn't have to be crass like "Hurry! Limited time offer! Call now!" (In fact, if you're considering that kind of copy, you might be reading the wrong blog.)

Maybe you buy the argument that a lot of advertising is about brand building, or having a conversation with the consumer. I buy that, too. Sometimes. Nike rarely uses a call to action unless they're trying to send you to some kind of microsite. iPad commercials don't end with "Visit" popping up at the end. But for most ideas you're going to present to your client, you're going to need something more than just a logo. A book entirely full of pure branding pieces comes across as a very studenty book.

Look at it from a client's point of view. You're paying your agency to come up with a great idea and execute it. You're paying your media company hundreds of thousands (maybe millions) of dollars to make sure people see/hear/experience the idea. You've got a boss who's expecting you to deliver some kind of tangible results. And you're going to run an add that hopefully gets people to think of you as cool?

You don't have to slip into gross promotional language. Just figure out what you want people to do once they come in contact with your ad. And then give them a way to do it.

Creating. Just to create.

Natalie Goldberg is a writer. And she says as a writer, you have to write every day. In her book Wild Mind, she says people who attend her writing seminars often ask, "What do you do with what you write?" Her answer is, "What do you do after you drink a glass of water?" She's saying writing isn't something always do to get somewhere. You do it because you're a writer and writing's what you do.

Van Gogh didn't sit down and decide to paint masterpieces. Most of his work that's hanging in museums he saw as practice. Here's what he did when he was experimenting with what he saw outside his sanitarium window:

Sometimes we create amazing things. Sometime we create garbage. The point is to keep creating.

How to Make Great Commercials

There's a great series of articles over at Fast Company by Gerry Graf walking through the process of making a spot from beginning to end. Lots of good wisdom along the way.

I don't always practice writing copy. But when I do...

His blood smells like cologne.
He can speak French in Russian.
He's a lover not a fighter. But he's also a fighter, so don't get any ideas.
He is the only man ever known to ace a Rorschach test.

If you were on this account, what kind of lines would you write?

It's a good exercise. In fact, I keep a document on my desktop where I write my own lines for him. Just for fun.

Am I going to send them to Euro RSCG? Nope. They wouldn't bother looking at them.

So why do I write them?

Because I'm a writer. And any writing I do makes me better. I don't have to use what I write for the act of writing to be useful.

So here's an open challenge: What would be your Most Interesting Man in the World lines?

VCU Brandcenter, The Most Innovative Business School in the World

The VCU Brandcenter beat out Harvard, Wharton, Notre Dame and the London School of Business to be named The Most Innovative Business School in the World. Couldn't be more proud of my alma mater.

While this speaks volumes for the Brandcenter's success, I think it also says a lot about a creatively focused organization versus more traditional approach. I'm not about to knock Harvard or Wharton. But I've got to believe they don't approach problems with the same level of creativity you'd find in most portfolio school programs. (Don't let the suits and ties in the photo fool you.)

IMG 3010 1 391x261 VCU Brandcenter: The Most Innovative Business School in the World

I especially love the quote from Lee Clow in the interview: "If you wish to outsmart, out simplify."

Temerlin Advertising Institute

For a long, long time, if you wanted to get a job in advertising, the Portfolio Center in Atlanta was your best (and maybe only) shot. By the time I applied to the VCU Adcenter, the pool of legitimate, post-graduate portfolio schools was up to three (including the Creative Circus). Students today have a much greater selection, and I think that's to everyone's benefit.

I recently met Dr. Patty Alvey, who heads up the Temerlin Advertising Institute at SMU in Dallas. Dr. Alvey's helped build the creative programs at UT Austin at the VCU Brandcenter. Like Luke Sullivan joining SCAD, It's exciting to see someone with such a successful history building a new program and giving more options to those looking to break into the industry.

If you're scouting out portfolio school programs, do yourself a favor and see what Temerlin at SMU has to offer.