Interns Should Be Paid. With Money.

Recently an ad student at well-known art and design school came up to me and said, “I just had some of my work produced for a real client at a national agency.” Here’s why this is a disturbing story.

The kid had done this work, and a lot of other work, for this agency as an unpaid intern. To add insult to injury, this kid’s TV spot was one of only two chosen, the other created by one of the agency’s writers, a paid staffer.

This student is not alone in his servitude. A recent article about the intern issue in the New York Times said “experts estimate … one-fourth to one-half [of all interns] are unpaid.” (Note: Internships at my agency, GSD&M, are paid. Tons? No. Paid? Yes.)

Peeeeople. Okay, I know we got two wars goin’ on and an earth to worry about, but isn’t this one of those things we can just fix – boom – like that? So, to agency people reading this I encourage you to e-mail this cranky little essay to the higher-ups in your agency with the appended note, “Man, I hope WE aren’t hiring any unpaid interns.”

Ooops, before you send that note, let’s rethink using the word “hiring.” Merriam-Webster defines it as “payment for the temporary use of something.” Agreed, these guilty agencies are in fact “temporarily using” interns but without that “payment” part, it ain’t “hiring,” folks. So until an agency can cough up a little money – I’m talkin’ even Taco-Bell money here – tell ‘em using word hire is flatly incorrect. Try “captured” instead. Or “tricked.” Or, my preference, “hosed.”

If we can agree on hosed, yay, we’ve made some progress. Now at least we’re being honest. Now the Adweek columnists can write, “Martini Yesman & Longlunch announce the hosing of three new unpaid interns.”

I can hear the blowback coming even now.

“Luke, you don’t understand. Our unpaid interns receive valuable on-the-job training.”

Oh, bite me. If you really believe that, how about you and me, we’ll go out to the street right now, flag down a cab, and see if he’ll take us to the airport in exchange for some valuable on-the-job training.

The New York Times article went on to say there are “six federal legal criteria that must be satisfied for internships to be unpaid. Among those criteria are that the internship should be similar to the training given in a vocational school or academic institution, that the intern does not displace regular paid workers, and that the employer ‘derives no immediate advantage’ from the intern’s activities — in other words, it’s largely a benevolent contribution to the intern.”

So how did we move from providing “benevolent contribution” to hosing interns? The usual villains are in play here of course, profit being the main one.

VCU Brandcenter President, Rick Boyko, wrote “over the years, cost cutting at agencies has made … training programs disappear. This has forced aspiring creatives to look elsewhere for their education. [So] portfolio schools and graduate programs began to do what the agencies used to – teach young people the business and help develop their craft. The cost of this education was absorbed by the creative student who hoped, in turn, of getting a better-paying job.”

But that ain’t happenin’. In fact, as the Times notes, the number of unpaid internships is mushrooming. Somehow the agencies hosing all these unpaid interns are able to look their victims in the eye, deny them wages, deny them health coverage, take their work and still say the interns got the better part of the deal.

Shame on you.

Shame’s one thing; the law’s the other. As Nancy J. Leppink of the Department of Labor warns, “there aren’t going to be many circumstances where you can have an internship and not be paid and still be in compliance with the law.”

Okay, done with this essay.  Time to have “Higgs,” my intern, get some valuable on-the-job training by spell-checking  and posting this thing.

That's my intern, "Higgs", second from left.

Random Thoughts on the Word “Viral.”

If one more person tells me they want something to “go viral” I think I shall retire to my chambers and weep softly until dusk.

“Go viral”? Please.

Take the Beatles. The Beatles didn’t hold a meeting in the 3rd floor conference room and decide, “Okay, we’re going to ‘go famous.’  Ideas, people?”

No. They became famous by roasting our minds with rock and roll. The mind-roasting came first, the famous next.

So, can we please retire the word viral? And perhaps, even temporarily, use that old stand-by term “earned media”? It may not be as poetic but it hits closer to the truth. It describes how a good idea earns its coverage by being cool enough that people actually talk about it and pass it on to friends.

This is basically the idea behind a notion (attributed to Crispin), that goes like this: “What is the press release of your idea?”

What a marvelous way to think about advertising. Don’t show me the TV spot. In fact, don’t show me any advertising ideas. Show me an idea worth advertising. An idea worth advertising. Such a key difference.

What is the press release of your idea?

Show me an idea that – on paper – is interesting. Show me an idea that is so fun, so unusual, so….so somethin’, that the idea is in and of itself worth tellin’ to a journalist.

Now that…. that is the way to get to some stuff that’ll “go viral.”

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A few additional observations on “viral videos”, if you please.

The word “viral” comes with some baggage, probably from its use in describing popular YouTube videos.

Here the word actually makes some sense, describing as it does the ex post facto popularity of a given video. What makes something popular is a subject that’s always intrigued me, so I recently studied several sites that rank the view-counts of popular online videos. The results were not encouraging.

Those of you who’ve seen the movie Idiocracy can probably guess where I’m going here. In the stupid future envisioned in this movie, the world’s most popular TV show was called “Ow! My Balls!” – a user-generated reality show full of accident videos, not unlike the worst of America’s Funniest Home Videos.

Well, a quick study of the view-counts revealed that if you want viewers, show animals. Show otters holding hands, show sleepwalking dogs, piano-playing cats, and prairie dogs givin’ the evil eye. Hot on the heels of cute animals is cute babies: talking babies, Charlie bit my finger babies, and laughing babies.

Wow.

Perhaps that ancient advertising maxim, the one about how effective ads need babies or puppies … perhaps it’s true? They sure get the most clicks. If it is indeed true, again I find myself getting weepy.

Also depressing was the popularity of videos featuring people misbehaving, getting hurt, or doing something embarrassing that we can all have a good laugh at. People having bike accidents, the swearing Winnebago salesman, the Star Wars fightin’ kid, the angry German kid screaming at his computer, the bad sportscaster (Boom-goes-the-dynamite), the mentally challenged Miss Teen South Carolina, and of course Christian Bale and Bill O’Rielly screaming at people off-camera.

These were the videos with some of the very highest view-rates. The world of Idiocracy? It’s here. Such were my thoughts as I inched along the ledge outside my office window looking at the street below.

Eventually, however, I crawled back in my window. There were enough encouraging signs to buoy my spirits. Like the popularity of President Obama’s YouTube message. Or Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture. Or Christian the lion meeting his old friends again. These too were some of the most viewed videos.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. All of life is a bell curve, isn’t it? For every  America’s Funniest Home Videos on television, there’s a Breaking Bad. Okay, maybe it’s not 50-50, but I just need to remind myself, “Walk towards the light. Walk towards the light.”

A Good Day to Count my Blessings.

There are certain brands that it is just a thrill to work on. And often, they’re brand names you don’t have to explain to your mom.

“Hey, Mom. Yeah, we just won the ComGlom-Aero7 account. … What? … Oh, they make these engine parts that go inside of, well, not the inside  but …, ummmm, they’re that one part of a power generator that…. You what? You gotta go? … Okay.”

So today our agency was awarded the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company account. Yeah, just the kind of brand I’m talkin’ about. My Mom knows who Goodyear is. Been around since 1898 (Goodyear, not Mom), makin’ kick-ass tires. And they have a blimp, to boot. How many clients have a blimp? How many clients would even think, “Hey, you know what we need? A blimp.” Ya gotta love the blimp.

I even like saying the word. “Blimp.”

In addition to being a venerable name, Goodyear makes great stuff. Their tires are on more school buses, more police cars, fire trucks, even the stinkin’ Lunar Rover. At the end of the day, an agency can’t do great work if it isn’t a great product. Fact is, I’m lucky to be able to work on lots of brands that make cool stuff, things that don’t suck, and actually deliver on the brand promise.

As I write this, I’m wearing an L.L.Bean shirt. It’s perfect. It’s well-made. It’s gonna last forever. And if I decided I didn’t like it, even if I made up some stupid reason (“Dear L.L.Bean, your shirt does not provide cable service”), this company would take it back and refund me; which is why they’re always winning best service awards every year.

Norwegian Cruise Line? Do you know how cool it is to write for a product you can see in the harbor from five miles away and one mile up as your plane’s landing in Miami? Plus it’s fun to debunk old myths about how cruising is for shuffle-board-playin’ Viagra addicts from Fort Wayne. You step onto one of their ships – like Norwegian Jewel – you are gone dude. You are off the grid. It’s like bein’ in a 4-star hotel where they change the scenery off your balcony every morning.

These are just a few of the brands I’ve had the pleasure of working on in my years at GSD&M, an agency with a roster full of equally way-cool brands.
So it’s a good day to remind myself what a great job I have. And so do you, if you work in advertising.

When the day gets long and you think your job kinda sucks, remind yourself that the Newtonian definition of work is “moving weight over a distance” and that we don’t have to do any heavy lifting in advertising. We don’t have to wear orange vests on the side of the highway. We don’t have to email Bev in Receivables asking her for the 10th goddamn time to send more copies of Form WCC-240, “the one with the tracking numbers in RED, Bev, RED.” We don’t have to say to every customer that, for a quarter more, they can have the big popcorn.

(Am I getting elitist again? I look forward to reviewing all of your complaints on my customer feedback site: biteme.com.)

Man, I love this business.

A Brand Is A Promise Paid Off In The Store.

Full disclosure up front. What follows is four paragraphs about some Southwest Airlines work. I don’t work on that account and this isn’t my personal work, but we did it here at GSD&M and I think it’s pretty cool.

I love that description. A brand is a promise paid off in the store.

That’s what we do in advertising. Make promises. Over the years I’ve made some promises I couldn’t keep, with ads or commercials that over-promised. “This is the BEST Product you will EVER have, EVER!” Partly I did it because at the time I thought, well  that’s what we do here, right? Over the years, of course, you learn  we’re not in the business of exaggerating but of telling the truth in such a compelling way that people notice.

Which is why I feel great about the agency’s recent work for Southwest Airlines. Here’s a brand that went against Wall Street’s advice and decided not to charge for bags. Everyone else did, they were told. Southwest risked leaving about $350 million on the table, money they coulda had just by charging. But they didn’t. They stayed true to their stated purpose: “Giving People The Freedom to Fly.” And if you’re a family of 4, payin’ an extra $100 in bag fees, dude, that ain’t free. So we did that “Bags Fly Free” campaign. Well, they did the right thing. That money they left on the table almost tripled in new sales from people tired of airlines nickle-and-diming.

Aaaaanyway, here’s where I’m goin’ with it. A brand is a promise paid off in the store. So it’s Valentine’s Day, I’m walkin’ through some airport, I forget where, and I see this signage at one of Southwest’s counters, just some silly stuff done by the employees where they’re givin’ away heart-shaped lollipops. And that nice competitive line above it. I just think it’s cool when brands really embrace who they are and have fun with it. Good for them. I’m diggin’ it.

How I Use Twitter.

If we were to meet at a party, the first thing you would notice is that I am not there, because I never go to parties. I am an introvert and I never “do things.”

I also take great pains to avoid ever having to “chat.” I find small talk makes me uncomfortable. In fact, given the choice, I would prefer to have Pop Rocks placed under my eyelids and my eyelids sewn shut with barbed wire and catgut.

That said, I don’t “chat” much online either. However, I am not a complete misanthrope. I like to know what my friends are doing; what interests them. So, what chatting I do take part in, I do on Facebook. But actual chatting is live and interactive, so what I do on Facebook doesn’t qualify as chatting either. It’s more like listening to humanity through the walls. In fact, I feel guilty when someone sees that I am live on Facebook and sends me a text: “Hey, how ya doin’?”

The thing is, I don’t want interactivity. Which is why Facebook is perfect for introverts who actually like the human race. It is as if I can watch my beloved species from a high window; I can see what they are doing but bear no actual risk of interaction. I’m pretty sure this isn’t why most people like Facebook, but it’s where I net out.

Twitter, on the other hand, I use for learning. I hear many people dismiss Twitter by saying, “I don’t give a tin shit that u r having coffee @ Starbux.” With that part, I agree. But the thing is, I don’t follow people who post pabulum like that. I follow people who are out there pushing great content. I follow people who post links to great articles, cool videos, websites, SlideShare presentations. Then, when I log on to my Tweetdeck, it’s kinda like I am scrolling through a Table of Contents to a great magazine, one that’s being published every minute. When someone follows me, I always follow back. But to keep my list interesting and “@ Starbux free”, I go through my list every other day or so and unfollow anyone who posts useless stuff.

Yes, I know Breaking Bad is good but I could I puh-lease have the half-second of my life back that you stole by posting such useless crap? Thanks.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: The 2010 “Pardon-Airport-Construction-Signs” Creativity Gala Held in Austin.

COPY: You’ve seen them. Those signs in airports around the world, hand-painted and with just a hint ‘o’ creative.

“Pardon our mess while we FLY thru making a better airport for you.”

Well, it was that time of year again here in Austin, Texas, last night when airport creatives gathered ‘round the stage to honor the best Pardon-Airport-Construction-Signs of 2009. And the show was no disappointment.

Gold went to Richmond’s Byrd International Airport for their anthropomorphizing of a bird into the delightful “Captain Bryd” who directed airport walkers down a temporary hallway with the headline:  “Captain Byrd reminds you to watch your step during our reconstruction to make a better airport for you.”

And the silver (highly contested) ended up in the hands of the creative team from the back room at Chicago’s O’Hare. The applause was deafening when the silver-winning sandwich board appeared on the big screen: “O’Pardon us for all O’the construction as we make a better airport for you.”

NEXT POSTING: Why does absolutely every single logo for economy motels have to SUCK?

Report From SXSW Interactive: “I See Dead Ad Jobs.”

I was born in the year 1954 when stamps were three cents.

If you thought, “Wow, three cents??” you’re a digital immigrant like me. You’re a digital native if you thought, “What are stamps?”

Unfortunately, there is a third group: digital rejectors — you’ve met them. The eye-rollers; the shoulder-shruggers; the print and TV addicts who need to go to some sort of media rehab. For the purposes of today’s article, we’ll dub them digital douchebags, but no laughter please; we’re at their funeral and it isn’t polite.

Worse, they don’t realize they’re dead. Like Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense, they continue to wander the brand landscape laminating their portfolios and waiting for a fax with the news they got into the local Addys. As my friend Kathy Hepinstall observed, there used to be a small bit of Dick-Van-Dyke-ian charm to a creative person being a technophobe; today, it simply means you’re a digital douchebag.

Full disclosure: I am a digital d-bag. Now in recovery. No one likes a laminated print ad more than I. But the first step in recovery is admitting your old print portfolio is basically Confederate money.

Case in point: From my collection of laminated ads, I offer this one. I wrote it in 1994 for a new website created by Time, Inc. called Pathfinder. Oh, this was the new-new thing, folks. Pathfinder allowed you to use your computer to look up text articles. Kid you not – text articles.


A print ad I did in 1994 for a new website. I still love the print medium for its clarity and simplicity. Headline reads: “Pathfinder Personal Edition brings back just the information you’re interested in.”

I still like the ad but the point here is that it was written in 1994, a brief fifteen years ago; when Netscape Navigator was the big browser and Mortal Kombat II was the hot game. Fifteen years later, Netscape is history, dusty MKII cartridges are available at curiosity shops and, up the street at 7-Eleven, they’re now selling Farmville gift cards which allow you to “buy” “acres” on a “digital farm” and then bother your “friends” on Facebook with that “information.”

Jesus.

(Oops. My d-bag was showing there for a second and I apologize. The thing is, we don’t have to like every nook and cranny of the web in order to embrace it.)

Here’s the point. Not only is the acceleration itself accelerating, the bus has left. Digital natives have most of the nicer seats, we immigrants are hanging on the sides, and for traction under the tires we’re all using the digital douchebags. This just in: the Visigoths are not at the gates. They are in your kitchen eating your lunch.

GO SXSW, YOUNG MAN.

Okay, so now we’re doing a slow dissolve from 1994 to April 2010. (Wavy lines, wavy lines.) And we’re in Austin, walking into SXSW Music/Film/Interactive. Here, where interactive once occupied only a wing of the four-floor Convention Center, it has engulfed the entire building and much of the adjoining Hilton. I enter bearing a Gold Pass, invited by my friend Damon Webster to chair a Core Conversation titled: “How Does an Advertising Pro Adapt to New Communication Techniques?”

On my iPhone, the “mysxsw” app reveals the details about our session’s focus: “With the advertising landscape changing at the speed of light, how do the traditional advertising pros adapt? Does the market now belong only to the tech savvy? How do you migrate what you know in other media over to 2.0? We’ll be gathering to share ideas, generate new ones, network, and then share the information digitally.”

I think it brave of Damon to host such a session. He admits he is not a guru. Once a producer on the agency side he’s managed to migrate his own considerable skill set online, creating among other things a site called Photoinduced.com: “The First Stop in Your Photographic Life.” What he brings to the table today (as I hope I do) are the fundamental creative skills learned over years in the advertising business. But we’re here in the eye of the digital hurricane today not to preach but to listen.

By 12:30, Conference Room J on the 4th floor of the Hilton is packed. In the crowd we see some folks we’ve invited. David Slayden from Boulder Digital Works is here. So are a dozen kids from VCU Brandcenter’s newest track, Creative Technology. At my side is Nicole McKinney, digital native and friend from GSD&M, who’s capturing everything people are saying while keeping an eye on our Twitter feed (which captures what they’re thinking).


That’s Damon. I loved his tweet advertising the session. “I see dead ad jobs.” I thought it made a good title, too.

After our opening remarks, the session begins with a few longish speeches, people talking about their own companies, and the Twitter feed gives us our first lesson in adapting to the new world — which is: “No commercials. Let us talk.”

Like consumers everywhere, the people here don’t want to be the audience. They want to be the actors. They crave interactivity and want an immediate response. Which they get. We start moving the microphone faster, encouraging people to step into the middle of the circle, say their piece and move on — itself another lesson. In today’s back-and-forth with consumers we need to worry less about message strategy and more about a conversation strategy. This isn’t an audience; it’s a community.

CONTENT IS KING.
CONVERSATION, QUEEN.

The microphone is passed to a young woman, a recruiter named Andrea Andrews

“The people with traditional skills still have some catching up to do on the digital side,” Andrea observes. On the other hand, she continues, people with digital expertise don’t always have the skills associated with traditional media like TV. “You need tech skills, yes, but agencies still need storytellers.”

Andrea says most of the calls she gets are from agencies looking for “about a 70/30 split in digital skills versus traditional. A ratio that, to me, represents the ideal candidate, actually.”

As she speaks, I am reminded of a recent interview of Avatar director, James Cameron. Asked what permanent changes technology has made in filmmaking, Cameron answered, “Filmmaking is not going to ever fundamentally change. It’s about storytelling.” Which may also explain why some of the Star Wars prequels kinda sucked — it was special effects over storytelling. (Storytelling as metaphor here leans a bit to a “push” platform, but you see my point.)

The microphone is passed to a young man from BBDO Canada.

“If you want to adapt to the new world, you need to understand it. And if you’re not actually on Twitter, if you’re not on Facebook, if you’re not uploading videos to YouTube, well, you’re not digital.”

He goes on: “I’ve been watching movies for years and I talk a lot about movies. But I have no idea how to make a movie. Just because I consume content like that doesn’t mean I know how to create it.”

Another attendee agrees, weighing in later via email: “A lifetime of TV watching helped make me well-versed in broadcast advertising. But now I need to acquire the same amount of exposure to digital content in order to become as savvy with it, to understand its nuances.”

It is advice we hear over and over again throughout the session. Yes, the digital waters are deep and cold, but the answer isn’t to tiptoe down the steps into the pool, torturing yourself every razor-cold inch of the way. Dive in, headfirst, off the deep end.

In fact, most folks suggested going for a one-and-a-half; do a cannonball; risk a bellyflop. In the online space, a sense of play is important, and part of play is failure; the skinned knee, the black eye. Everyone, to a person, said to push past the pain and “fail forward, fail harder, fail gloriously.” Whatever flavor of fail you get, our group said, walk it off and go for it again.

I expected the people giving all this great advice in today’s group to be the goateed and the tattooed — Gen Y’s, full of ironic remove — but that was just my own 3¢-stamp world-view talking again. A woman who could be your mom has the mike now and she’s telling the audience she’s frankly a little tired of that deer-in-the-headlights look some creatives give her when she assigns a job with digital components.

“Get over it, you know? It’s not like I’m some expert. I fail a lot, but I’m doin’ it.”

It appears to be as Kathy Hepinstall said it was. In her talk about attending Hyper Island’s master class she observed, “When it comes to digital there’s not an age problem, only a curiosity problem.”

A PERMANENT BETA MENTALITY

Years ago, again in 1994, Lee Clow was our guest at Fallon’s creative retreat. We met at an old hunting lodge on a lake in northern Wisconsin and to this day I remember Lee leaning against the fireplace as he talked about Apple, talking about the changes wrought by this amazing company and what they meant for traditional creatives like us.

“Throughout history, the technology always comes first. It’s just technology for awhile. Until the day we artists inherit it.”

And so it goes. Television sets came along and for years all TV advertising sucked — until the artists inherited it. Same with radio. And now it’s time we artists fully inherit the technology wrought by Tim Berners-Lee.

This advice was echoed by everyone in our smart audience. Don’t wait till it’s raining to build an Ark. The web has made creating content as easy as accessing it. “The tools are all around you,” said one. “Pick them up.” Just do it. Embrace the learning curve. Don’t worry about being an expert because in this space you never will be. You need to adapt what’s been called a permanent beta mentality.

Watch, too, for old mentality creeping back in. So warned David Gillespie in a brilliant speech I found online where he described the “classic McLuhan-esque mistake of appropriating the shape of the previous technology as the content of the new technology.” Many early efforts in digital did exactly this; direct mail became email; billboards were resized as banners. My friend Stephen Land here at GSD&M agrees, calling digital efforts which don’t leverage the interactivity of the platform mere “print-eractive.” But this was understandable, says Gillespie, because at the time the alternative was standing still. Now it’s time to push through.

JUST DO IT.

This is how we learn. By just doing it. In fact, this cool quotation I just wikied makes the point: “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” It’s from some guy named Confucius, probably an ECD at Tribal or something.

How you do-and-understand is your business. For now, I tender this small list from our talkative group at SXSW as a starting point.

• Embrace low fidelity. Make things yourself. Example: Boone Oakley’s YouTube website. A junior creative team did it.

• Start your own blog, Twitter account, or video channel. Example: A Twitter account called Shit My Dad Says launched just last fall was recently optioned for TV by CBS, and last week (July, 2010) the book was #1 on the New York Times Best Seller list.

• My partner, Damon Webster, said: “Get yourself an HD camera. Learn Final Cut Pro. There isn’t going to be a two-day class that will change your life. Put the work in and make it happen. If you don’t have the experience, make the experience.”

• Take a Flash class and learn the language. Download apps. Play with tools like Gowalla and foursquare. Click, you analog bastards, click!

• Start a never-ending education online, today.

To aid you in your education, Damon and I asked everyone at our session (as well as in the Twitter and Facebook universe) to send us their favorite websites, those great places where they get education and inspiration. We gathered all those URLs and (for now) have parked them all on Damon’s website. Visit http://tinyurl.com/sxswadpro for a full clickable list. I have my shortlist of faves listed in the Blogroll over on the right-hand side of my home page here on heywhipple.com.

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.

Okay, we’ve heard all the warning bells. Yes, we know 100 million videos are uploaded to YouTube every day. Yes, we know Facebook’s population is now bigger than Japan’s. And yes, we read how Fast Company predicted “ad agency executive” will be among six jobs that won’t exist in 2016. Fine. Enough already. It’s time to remember what we traditional creatives bring to the party.

As a traditional creative, I know the fundamentals of presenting brands in compelling ways to the right people at the right time. I can write. I can think clearly. I can condense a complicated brief down to a few words and then architect the information into the short flow of a 30-second commercial. I can make a 3×5 space interesting. I am creative, which is something they don’t teach at Hyper Island and you couldn’t learn it if they did. I have the fundamentals, and the thing is, there are no new fundamentals.

So it’s a fantastic time to be in the business, traditional or digital be damned. Creativity matters now more than ever. We can’t buy people’s attention anymore. We can’t keep interrupting our way into their lives. We now have to be so stinking interesting that people put down what they’re doing to come over and see what we’re all about.

In fact, Alex Bogusky said recently that for the first time in history the most important entity in the whole media world could feasibly be the ad agency, being as we are at the nexus of where people who spend money for brands connect with people who spend money on brands.

But it ain’t all unicorns and kittens for traditional creatives. The ROI on our innovation is survival. And there is no safety either in declaring traditional a “specialty.” (“Well, we’ll just do the TV, print, and outdoor and we’ll team up with the digital guys to finish the campaign.”) Ask the Chief Financial Officer at your agency if she can keep paying for two groups of creatives — traditional and digital. She can’t.

So what do we do?

Well, this time let’s dissolve back to the year 1519. (Wavy lines, wavy lines.) Cortez and his marauders have come to pillage and destroy Mexico. The way forward is unknown. The size of the enemy, unknown. So to rally his men, the dude gives a pep talk of just three words. “Burn the ships.”

He removes the option of going back.

What if you burned your ships? What if you had to advertise a brand and you couldn’t use TV and print? Don’t ask me. I don’t know the answer. But I do know it’s probably time to burn the ships and step into the jungle.

Capitalism is OKAY.


(Article I wrote for the Los Angeles Times.)

My mother, a dyed-in-the-wool Minnesota Democrat, is sitting across the breakfast table from me. She’s reading the paper and comes across an ad for the big after-Thanksgiving sale at The Mall of America.

“How can people even go to that place?” she laments. “It’s just a … just a monument to Capitalism!”

She’s my Mom, so what can I tell her? I wish I could say, “Ma, that dress you’re wearing? Did you, um, grow it or something? And those shoes, did you … whittle those? No, you bought ‘em, Mom, with money, in a store. That’s capitalism … and it’s okay.”

Exactly why do so many people get disdainful of the idea of stores and buying things and capitalism this time of year?

The Thanksgiving dishes are barely in the sink and before the first boozy uncle can tether his blimp to the sofa and unbutton his Spandex to make room, everyone’s all “Christmas has just become so commercialized.”

Shopping is suddenly bad. And why? We’ve been coming out of stores all year long, teetering under Grinch-size piles of merchandise that would buckle a sherpa’s knees. Eleven straight months of spend-spend-spend, but have a turkey drumstick, watch a football game, and boom – the nation’s on the shrink’s sofa again going “Geez, aren’t stores bad? It’s bad to buy things, isn’t it?”

Everybody seems to have forgotten the long July 4th weekend and that 3-day AmEx bender we all went on at Home Depot. And when it was over, I don’t remember any hair-shirt whining about “Who can celebrate national independence anymore, what with lines this long to buy a grill? Kinda makes a fella forget what the Declaration of Independence really stands for.”

Didn’t happen.

But here we are again at that one time of year when our nation’s super-ego puts on its Self-Hatred Christmas Special, when the apologists line up to lament the excesses of one of the world’s strongest economies, and through it all we’ll hear one Scrooge after another puttin’ the spin on the Ghost of Christmas Past: “It wasn’t like this when I was a kid.”

Oh hush, it was exactly like this when we were kids. The presents were geekier, yes, and the lights on the tree were the big hot kind you could smell from upstairs. Other than that, it was exactly the same.

As a child of the ‘50s, I personally recall some serious merchandise worship happening under the tree. It may not have been an xBox I was opening, but don’t try to tell me I was on some higher spiritual plane as I ripped through the 1959 wrapping paper, my teeth gritted in full Merchandise Frenzy: “Shut up everybody! It’s a Daniel Boone raccoon hat and it’s mine!”

Let’s face it. Stuff is fun. And stores are where we get stuff. But the Puritanical gene, though recessive, still runs strong in America. A penny saved is a penny earned, but now it seems a penny spent is the top rung of the ladder straight down to hell.

But the fact is, ladies and gentlemen, ours is a species that runs on commerce. And whether your tribe happens to trade pelts or Euros, the rites of celebration have always involved a bit of excess consumption. At history’s very first ritual of celebration, I’ll bet Grandpa homo sapiens bought drinks for everyone in Olduvai Gorge, yelled “Kill the fatted calf,” and woke up a day later to a cave that was a complete mess.

Go ye forth, Americans, I say, and spend. Note I didn’t say spend without restraint, but spend without guilt. It’s part of life.

Personally, I’ll be doing much of my shopping online this year. And, yes, one day when I’m old I’ll be slumped in front of my son’s computer, grousing about my own Christmases Past. “Well, back when I logged onto amazon.com, I tellya, downloads happened just like that! And click-throughs took you right to the Christmas specials. And those damn pop-up ads let a man shop in peace!! I remember back when e-tailing meant something!”

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.

Getting Off Promotional Drugs

(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.