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Have Heroes.

Tom McElligott, one of my early heroes.

(This is an article I wrote for Communication Arts in, I think, 2002.)

When I first got into this business back in 1978, I had heroes.

In fact, I had a list of heroes. Their names were all written in the indexes of the 1977 and ’78 One Show annuals. I saw these people as gods. I studied every one of their ads. I memorized their copy. And I dreamed that one day I’d see my name on the list next to theirs.

Having heroes is good. Having them the way I did, wasn’t.

Having heroes the way I did probably kept me from doing better work in my early years. Because when you deify these ordinary people the way I did, you preclude the possibility of ever doing anything as well as they do. They’re gods — you’re just a guy. In an apartment.

With pimples.

There’s no way, I thought, I’ll ever be that good. So the idea of ever doing it as well as they remained only a wild hope, something years in the future perhaps, but certainly beyond the horizon.

My sycophancy also made me do stupid things.

Try this on.

In 1983, I was in New York City interviewing at some big agencies, one of which was the famous shop, Scali McCabe Sloves. After my interview with the great art director Lars Anderson (remember the Maxell ad with the guy being blown back into his seat?), I was boarding the elevator back down to Third Avenue when who should also get on but Sam Scali himself – one of my heroes.

This was only my second trip to New York and so, like a nerd, I had a Polaroid camera. I mean, I had one right there with me.

Without thinking, I said: “Mind if I take our picture, Mr. Scali?”

Holding the camera backwards at arm’s length, I blinded both myself and the famous art director with a cheap flash bulb. As the dazed and, I’m sure, irritated man disappeared into the New York crowd, I figured I had scored The Big One. (“Yes, that’s it! I’ll use this picture in a cool follow-up letter to Mr. Scali!”) A very bad idea I’m sorry to say I immediately followed up on.

I must have had some sense of how much I’d invaded his personal space because a line from the follow-up letter I mailed went something like: “Even if I don’t get the job now, should I do well in the shows this year, I hope you’ll at least remember me as ‘that idiot in The One Show’ and not just as ‘that idiot in the elevator’.” Even now, I shudder to remember this and send my belated apologies to Mr. Scali.

Such goggle-eyed admiration also blinded me to the faults of my heroes. I learned some bad habits from one or two of them, habits I had to break later. Because no matter how cool your hero’s ads are, no matter how many One Show medals are on your hero’s shelf, he or she’s still just a knucklehead who flosses and twangs stuff on the mirror same as you and me, Jack.

This fact came fully home to me one year when I judged The One Show on a beautiful island in the Caribbean. One of my all-time heroes was also invited to be a judge. I was hoping that, as a judge myself, I might be able to saddle up to him, trade jokes, break bread, do something, anything with The Man.

But an hour into the weekend I realized how little I wanted to be around him. Narcissism poured off my icon like cool air onto your feet in front of an open meat locker.

On the last night when all the judges went out to dinner, I finally laid to rest my idolization. There he was across the restaurant, spit-fire drunk and badgering the local stray dog; yelling at the frightened animal, poking at it and trying to get the rest of us to join him. My hero was a drunk and a schmuck to boot.

There was this other guy I knew once. Killer writer. If you saw him in the award books, you’d go, “Whoa, this guy’s great.” But if you saw him in the agency hallways, you went the other way. Because he was an insufferable, arrogant bore. Everybody in the agency hated him and although we tried to be philosophical about his character, the best we ever came up with was: “Well, if you cut him open, you’d find a heart of gold. And if you didn’t, … hey, you’ve cut him open.”

I still have heroes. But I admire them now with my former adoration in reins and a modest amount of esteem for my own abilities. Unclouded by envy, I now try to look only at their work and to learn from it.

My heroes change weekly now. This week, it’s a young writer at Fallon, Tom Rosen, who just did this great ad for BMW. The ad’s on my wall right now; it’s the thing to beat. It inspires me.

That’s what heroes are good for: to inspire, to teach.

Take them where you find them. They’re all over the place. Your career will present you with many heroes to learn from and it will pay to learn how to spot them.

But do your heroes always have to be based on how well they write or art direct? How about how they treat people?

Tom McElligott, my first hero, helped me break into the business. Here he was, the hottest copywriter in all of America, and he took the time to look through my pathetic book, past my bad haircut, and see me as the unformed but passable lump of clay I was. I have been returning the favor ever since, to young people who sit now in my office, over-explaining their books.

Another one of my heroes is my old boss, Mike Hughes, Creative Director and President of The Martin Agency. (I suppose Mike would prefer to be my hero by dint of his writing prowess.) Well, he is a great writer but he’s on my list today for being a kind and gentle person in a tough, cynical business. I still remember my first interview with him back in 1980-something. He lovingly took a picture of his youngest son out of his wallet and said, “Children are a constant reminder that there’s a life outside of advertising.” I have remembered that advice to this day.

Don Just, now a professor at VCU’s Brandcenter (also in Richmond) was the first account guy I ever saw stand up and cheer upon being shown a great creative solution. You cannot imagine the power that kind of reaction has on the creative soul. I would have walked over coals to solve Don’s problems. I hope my own staff would do the same for me today.

The last hero (on today’s list anyway) is my old friend and colleague, Bob Barrie; possibly the world’s greatest art director, certainly the world’s most-decorated one. From Bob I learned many things. One of which was how not to suck. But more important, Bob taught me about the lasting power of resiliency. A client could keep killing his ideas and Bob would always come back with more. He’s a sort of Halloween, Michael-Meyers of Concepts. There is no stopping him. And he never whined. In all the time I worked with him, Bob never whined. Ever.

The fact that Bob was winning One Show pencils in 1982 and is still winning them today seems testimony to the lasting power of resiliency. (It also helps not to suck.)

So, yes, have heroes. Aspire. Want to be better than you are.

But temper your discontent.

Remember, there was a time when even your heroes were quite awful and stayed very late at the agency laying out ads that truthfully and sincerely blew. Remember, even your heroes still have their bad days and don’t always get to great work on the first 40 tries. Remember, heroes can be idolized for many talents; not just for writing and art directing.

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(This is an article I wrote for ADWEEK back in 2002. Still feels true.)

The similarity between the addiction to cocaine and the dependence on month-to-month retail promotions, is chilling.

Similarity #1: Both addictions give short bursts of euphoria and a sense of wide popularity. A deep discount on popular items, like handing out free cocaine, will win you many intense temporary friendships. You will see a sharp uptick of traffic into your store, or into your apartment. However, the consumers will linger long enough only to “Hoover” your loss-leaders and then will disappear, leaving only cigarette burns on the coffee table. They are not likely to turn into long-term relationships.

Similarity #2: Like a high, the grin lasts just long enough for your teeth to dry and then disappears. So too, a promotion will likely get you through the night with lots of jovial activity but when morning comes, as it always does, and when money is needed for food and rent (or brand awareness), the coffers are empty. There is no accrual in the brand bank from nighttime binges on promotions.

Similarity #3: After the stimulus is removed, depression ensues, and there is an over-powering need to maintain the brief uplift with another jolt of short-term spending.

And so it goes.

Having watched many wonderful brands suffer these same vicissitudes, I wonder, is this is any kind of life?

The fact of the matter is that our brands are in business to make money and we cannot make money in the long run by selling wares for less than what they’re worth.

Should we throw out promotions and go cold turkey? Of course not. In the retail world, promotions are an essential part of the marketing mix. What I’m suggesting is, first an intervention, and then partial withdrawal.

As an example, years ago I had a national client (as always in these matters, they must remain Anonymous) who was running promotions 50 weeks out of the year. They knew these promos were driving their brand value into the dirt, but felt they had little other recourse to bring customers into stores.

But they also knew they weren’t going to be able to grow the brand by introducing higher-end products, not when they’re known for cutting deals in the alleyway. Eventually other brands would start cutting the same deals across the street. Yet, they could not stop.

To rehabilitate the brand it took a plan.

From 50 promotions a year, we cut it down to 40 weeks; and to 20 deals the year after. Yes, there were jitters and testiness in the hallways and lots of cigarettes were smoked. The trick, however, was when we replaced the promotional crutch with something more meaningful and longer-lasting.

As we dialed down the “2 for $1.99” messages, we replaced them with messages about new products or repackagings of existing products. Essentially, we replaced “cheap” with “new” and over the course of three years we gave the brand a credibility for something beyond price. Along the way, the brand’s average profits tripled. Not sales, profits.

Does the client still get off on promotions now and then? Well, yes, don’t tell Mom. About every other month or so we still have these spectacular blow-outs where we’re practically givin’ it away, loyal customers are comin’ in and out of our place all night long, and the place is just nuts. But because the brand now stands for something, the promotions are added value, not the only value.

Overall, we discovered that brand will get you through times of no promotion better than promotions will get you through times of no brand.

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Thanks for coming to see Damon Webster and me at SxSW Interactive in March of 2010. As promised, we’ve posted this list of some really cool inspiration websites to get your digital brain thinking. (The descriptions below each link were all lifted off the “About” buttons on the sites.)

THE LIST:

Edward Boches Site
Creativity Unbound: I’m Edward Boches. Chief Creative Officer and Chief Social Media Officer of Mullen. I’m also a copywriter, dad, husband, road cyclist. I’m young enough to have kids in grade school. And old enough to have fallen in love with all things media from admiring the print ads in Life magazine back in the 1960s. Somewhere in between then and now I’ve been a newspaper reporter, speech writer, account executive, public relations counsel, copywriter and creative director. I’ve been lucky enough to have helped build a full-service ad agency; work with dozens of noteworthy brands; launch high-tech and internet start-ups; collaborate with world famous directors, photographers and editors; co-write television commercials with Ellen DeGeneres; present ideas to Oprah Winfrey (she actually liked them); create award winning websites; and launch an emerging social media practice. More surprisingly, I’ve survived for 30 years in a business that typically eats its young. Woody Allen was right when he said “Ninety percent of success is just showing up.” Anyway, I’m still here. Who could leave now? The explosion of technology, the changing face of communications, and the opportunity to invent new applications make this the most exciting time ever to be in the marketing business.

Adland: http://adland.tv/adgrunts/dabitch

Megan K. Green’s blog
Social media, advertising and marketing: a millenial’s point of view

Fubiz
Daily dose of inspiration.

Forbes.com
Forbes magazine’s Best of The Web.

Useful Lunacy
Thinking about thinking, creativity and the power of ideas.

Adverblog
I started Adverblog in May 2003. It’s an hobby but also a great opportunity to keep myself always updated on the latest ideas and trends in interactive. Adverblog is the place where I share the links to the best interactive marketing campaigns I happen to see around the Web, and it has become a daily destination for those who share my same passion.

Linksocial.org
Link Social is a social network and resource for the global creative community. It enables creatives to share the little gems that go undiscovered by most-ideas, inspiration and cool stuff they created or found online.

Buzz Machine
JEFF JARVIS, author of What Would Google Do? (HarperCollins 2009), blogs about media and news at Buzzmachine.com. He is associate professor and director of the interactive journalism program at the City University of New York’s new Graduate School of Journalism. He is consulting editor and a partner at Daylife, a news startup. He writes a new media column for The Guardian and is host of its Media Talk USA podcast. He consults for media companies. Until 2005, he was president and creative director of Advance.net, the online arm of Advance Publications. Prior to that, Jarvis was creator and founding editor of Entertainment Weekly; Sunday editor and associate publisher of the New York Daily News; TV critic for TV Guide and People; a columnist on the San Francisco Examiner; assistant city editor and reporter for the Chicago Tribune; reporter for Chicago Today.

Amsterdamadblog.com
This blog writes about Amsterdam advertising; its hotshops, its people and – of course – its great advertising. Amsterdam is one of the fastest growing creative hubs in the world. The reason is that – apart from museums, coffeeshops and red lights – the city is a cosmopolitan village that cradles an exciting mix of cultural events and original minds – all within the space of only a few square kilometers. Amsterdam Ad Blog is run by a group of independent creatives.

Mashable.com
Great bucket for all things social media/tech/digital.

Brain Pickings
Mostly, Brain Pickings is about ideas — revolutionary new ideas that no one has seen or thought of before, and old ideas that most have seen, but no one has thought of in this way before.

ReadWriteWeb
ReadWriteWeb is the second largest information technology blog in the world. ReadWriteWeb provides analysis of Web products and trends to an intelligent audience of engaged technology decision makers, Web enthusiasts and innovators.

Social Media Explorer
Social Media Explorer is the online home and blog of Social Media Explorer LLC, which is my consulting company. I’ve been called all sorts of things by folks around the social media, public relations, marketing and communications industries.

Adpulp
AdPulp is the work of three men obsessed with making better communications and making the communications industry a better place to be.

Creative Is Not A Department, David Gillespie
My name is David Gillespie. I’m from Australia originally (as seen on Animal Planet) but since December ‘08 have been based out of Toronto. I currently work for McCann Erickson, where I sit and drink coffee and irritate people with extended ramblings around the subjects contained on this blog.

Make The Logo Bigger
About advertising and a bunch of other stuff.

Thought Gadgets
Advertising, marketing and media…what works.

Adscam
A complete rant on the current state of Advertising, with particular emphasis on Big Dumb Agencies (BDA’s) Because, no matter how bad you think it is, it’s actually a great deal worse! “Advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill pail.” George Orwell.

Persuasionism.com
There are times you just need someone to come in and get the job done quietly and efficiently. A good percentage of our engagements are behind the scenes, away from industry press coverage. We create big, organizing brand ideas. We collaborate with marketers, designers, strategists and agencies of every stripe.

Technorati
Technorati was founded to help bloggers succeed by collecting, highlighting, and distributing the global online conversation. The leading blog search engine, Technorati.com indexes millions of blog posts in real time and surfaces them in seconds. The site has become the definitive source for the top stories, opinions, photos and videos emerging across news, entertainment, technology, lifestyle, sports, politics and business. Technorati.com tracks not only the authority and influence of blogs, but also the most comprehensive and current index of who and what is most popular in the Blogosphere.

Technorati’s Top 100
Technorati Top 100 as ranked by Technorati Authority. The Top 100 is updated once per day.

PermissionToSuck
PermissionToSuck.com is a Blogazine about inspiration for passionate creative professionals across all disciplines of commercial arts and music.

The Barbarian Group
The original. The pioneers. The Barbarian Group is a digital services and creation company that delivers the best possible experience for the consumer through the integrated and disciplined use of the best possible practices, good ideas, people and technology.

Tumblr.com
Tumblr lets you effortlessly share anything. Post text, photos, quotes, links, music, and videos, from your browser, phone, desktop, email, or wherever you happen to be. You can customize everything, from colors, to your theme’s HTML.

Alex Bogusky’s Posterous
Posterous is the dead simple way to put anything online using email. Founding Partner of Crispin Porter + Bogusky / Chief Creative Insurgent of MDC Partners. Fear is the mortal enemy of creativity.

Smashing Magazine
Founded in September 2006, Smashing Magazine delivers useful and innovative information to Web designers and developers. Our aim is to inform our readers about the latest trends and techniques in Web development. We try to convince you not with the quantity but with the quality of the information we present. We hope that makes us different. Smashing Magazine is, and always has been, independent.

Copyblogger.com
Copyblogger is all about helping you get traffic, attract links, gain subscribers and sell stuff. And he’s from Austin, too.

Talent Zoo’s Beyong Madison Avenue
The #1 site for Ad, Marketing, & Digital Pros.

Big Think.com
Big Think is a global forum connecting people and ideas. At Big Think, we put you in contact with the ideas of very smart people.

Wooster Collective
woo·ster (noun) A street in the Soho section of New York City. col·lec·tive (noun) Of, relating to, characteristic of, or made by a number of people acting as a group: a collective decision. The Wooster Collective was founded in 2001. This site is dedicated to showcasing and celebrating ephemeral art placed on streets in cities around the world.

ffffound.com
FFFFOUND! is a web service that not only allows the users to post and share their favorite images found on the web, but also dynamically recommends each user’s tastes and interests for an inspirational image-bookmarking experience.

ad:tech
ad:tech provides media, marketing and technology professionals with the tools and techniques they need to succeed in a changing digital world.

Bitrebels
Our articles are meant to give you that second perspective on any given topic, that perspective that you might have missed if not for the Rebels sites.

the3six5.posterous
Everyday for 365 days, a different person will write an entry about their experience that day. It doesn’t have to be about a specific topic, the key is that it somehow relates to what is happening in the world that day and how it relates to them. By doing so, starting from January 1 to December 31 of 2010, we will have a snapshot of the entire year, told from the perspective of 365 individual voices.

Adverblog
My name is Martina Zavagno, I’m an interactive marketer and I work for a premium sports brand. I started Adverblog in May 2003. It’s an hobby but also a great opportunity to keep myself always updated on the latest ideas and trends in interactive. Adverblog is the place where I share the links to the best interactive marketing campaigns I happen to see around the Web, and it has become a daily destination for those who share my same passion.

Digital Buzz Blog
Get your daily fix of digital honey with the new Digital Buzz Blog! Featuring the latest digital ad campaigns, hot new websites, interactive marketing ideas, virals, industry news, social media, insights, and other great digital trends from all over the world.

Bannerblog
Banner Blog started in June 2005 to showcase basic online advertising.

Coloribus
Creativity, Technology, Innovation – Coloribus – the world’s biggest advertising archive has a collection of more than 2 million ads from around the globe – currently available and rapidly growing every single day. This unique selection brings you the best and most creative ideas in advertising – for easy downloading or browser viewing in just one click.

Ted.com

TED is a small nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. It started out (in 1984) as a conference bringing together people from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment, Design.

Favorite Website Awards
WA stands for Favorite Website Awards, an industry recognized internet award program and inspirational portal, established in May 2000. FWA is the most visited website award program in the history of the internet, with over 75 million visits as of January 2010.

Gigaom.com
Gigaom: Trusted Insights and Conversations on the Next Wave of Technology.

TechCrunch
TechCrunch was founded on June 11, 2005, as a weblog dedicated to obsessively profiling and reviewing new Internet products and companies. In addition to covering new companies, we profile existing companies that are making an impact (commercial and/or cultural) on the new web space. TechCrunch has now grown into a network of technology focused sites offering a wide range of content and new media.

stndrd.org
An open source approach for establishing standard and practices in digital production.

Word Press.com
One of the best site building systems. Easy to get into and massive community support.

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