The Creepiest Client I (Or Anybody For That Matter) Ever Had.

One of the reasons I love advertising is it gets you on the inside of so many different kinds of businesses.

I have watched how Twinkies are made, toyed with the controls of the Goodyear blimp, explored the back hallways of a Norwegian Cruise Line ship, and had a man in a white coat at Purina explain to me with a straight face the difference between a “kibble” and a “bit”

THE CLIENT

Of them all, the strangest business I ever had the pleasure of exploring after hours was The Mütter Museum. Located at 19 South 22nd Street in Philly, the Mütter Museum began life in 1858 as a medical education facility. Today the structure still stands but houses instead a brooding collection of medical oddities, anatomical and pathological specimens, wax models, and creepy antique medical equipment – a list I’m tempted to end with the lyric of that song, “these are a few of my faaaaavorite things.”

I’d read about this fascinating place several times and one day when things were slow at my agency, I decided to board a plane and visit the nice lady there who’d answered my emails, Ms. Gretchen Worden.

Over several trips to Philadelphia in 1999, I spent many delightful hours down in her dimly lit basement office chatting with this marvelous woman who was part professor, part historian, and part Stephen King. Sadly, Ms. Worden passed away in 2004. In fact, I heard about her passing only by chance while reading Sarah Vowell’s great book Assassination Vacation. Ms. Vowel, too, had travelled far to meet this woman who was a frequent guest on The Late Show with David Letterman displaying, said the New York Times, “a mischievous glee as she frightened him with human hairballs and wicked-looking Victorian surgical tools, only to disarm him with her antic laugh.”

As we chatted in her office, surrounded by shelves piled high with curiosities and objet d’creepy, she seemed happy someone had come along to help her promote the museum which her efforts eventually turned into a national visitors center.

What delighted me most about Gretchen was how she could move between being a horrified giggling rubbernecker and being the loving and respectful curator of this strange world of human pain. In a New York Times interview she said, “While these bodies may be ugly, there is a terrifying beauty in the spirits of those forced to endure these afflictions.”

Gretchen, I miss you. Thank you for inviting me into your dark and beautiful home.

THE WORK

“There are jars of preserved human kidneys and livers, and a man’s skull so eaten away by tertiary syphilis that it looks like pounded rock. There are dried severed hands shiny as lacquered wood, showing their veins like leaves; a distended ovary larger than a soccer ball; spines and leg bones so twisted by rickets they’re painful just to see; the skeleton of a dwarf who stood 3 feet 6 inches small, next to that of a giant who towered seven and a half feet. And ‘Jim and Joe,’ the green-tinted corpse of a two-headed baby, sleeping in a bath of formaldehyde.” –New York Times, 9/30/2005

Here’s the thing. If you can’t make a couple of cool posters working with a product like this, hang it up, dude.

In fact, a quick aside if I may?

Let’s agree that doing advertising for “clients” like this is fun. Let’s agree that it’s a lot easier than real advertising where there are no committees to sell through, no quarterly sales goals, and no shareholders. But to nerdy creative geeks such as myself, projects like these are a joy to work on because they allow us to show off a little bit; to have some fun.

Let’s also agree that work for “clients” like this has, of recent, muddied the waters of award shows competing as they sometimes do with legitimate paying accounts. Let’s hope that someday award shows will figure out how to celebrate the creativity of these one-offs without pitting them against real work.

That said…here are the five posters we did for Ms. Worden and her Mütter Museum. I say “we”  only because I was the creative director (traveling sales guy and account person). The real work was done by the talented Atlanta team of writer Scott Biear and art director Clay Davies. The photos were a donation, courtesy of Andrew Zuckerman.

In the end, we didn’t have to worry whether our fake-client work displaced any real-client work from the award shows. They never got in; not in a single show. Perhaps the judges were tired of seeing work like this. Or perhaps the work simply isn’t as cool as I think it is.

In any case, Scott, Clay and I, we have no regrets. We had fun doin’ it. And here I am eleven years later fondly remembering both the work and the lady we did it for, Ms. Gretchen Worden.

HEADLINE: Group tours are welcome and for the squeamish, strongly encouraged.,
HEADLINE: We won't be opening a theme restaurant anytime soon.
HEADLINE: We're not open at night. That's probably a good thing.
HEADLINE: We'd display a Van Gogh if we could get our hands on his ear.
HEADLINE: Asking people not to touch the displays hardly seems necessary.

“This Place Sucks. I Should Leave. Seriously.”

Most of the time it was probably real bad being stuck down in a torture dungeon. But some days, when there was a bad storm outside, you’d look through the bars of your little window and think, “Boy, I’m glad I’m not out in that.”

–From “Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey.”

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I remember a time early in my career when I had serious “Fallon McElligott envy.”

Nowadays, of course, there are other kinds of envy – take your pick: Crispin envy; Wieden envy. For me, back in the early ‘80s, it was Fallon envy. This condition made me kind of a pain in the ass to be around, because I would bring up my admiration for that agency at pretty much every opportunity.

It was worst on days when things weren’t going my way. If an ad of mine didn’t sell, I’d whine, “Man, I bet they woulda sold it at Fallon.” If I saw a great Fallon campaign in a magazine, I’d flog my own agency by saying, “Man, there’s no way we coulda sold that ad at this agency.” If I was put on some little low-budget job, this too was cause for keening, “Man, if I was at Fallon I wouldn’t have to work on stupid crap like this.”

It has been said that whining is simply anger coming through a very small hole. As much as I hate to admit it, I was once a whiner. (But I had to, don’t you see? Because everything sucked except me. Clients sucked. Research sucked. Account people sucked. Right? Am I right?)

There are a lot of whiners in the agency business. I’m not sure why this is so but that’s my take on it anyway. Here’s the thing: can you imagine if agency whiners started turning up in other lines of work?

CUT TO WHINER DOING SURGERY IN AN OPERATING ROOM.

“Man, if I were at the Mayo Clinic, I’d be doin’ something besides these stupid fibrosarcomas.”

CUT TO WHINING NUCLEAR PHYSICIST.

“Man, the particle beam accelerator over at MIT is so much better than this piece of crap.”

CUT TO A WHINER AT A SHOE STORE.

“Man, I should get a job over at Foot Locker. Those guys are so good. This place sucks.”

My guess is that if we overheard whiners in other lines of work goin’ on like this, we’d just slap ‘em into next Tuesday. We’d wanna yell, “Then quit, you knucklehead. No one’s holdin’ a gun at your head.”

In my defense, I don’t whine as much these days. Part of what cured me is that eventually I did land a job at Fallon and worked there for ten years. To my horror I discovered there was stupid crap to deal with at Fallon, just like everywhere else. And so it goes. Even today, I have friends at Crispin who, in hushed whispers over the phone, tell me “Man, this place is so screwed up.”

Maybe what makes advertising such a perfect storm for the creation of whining is this: I read somewhere that every company in the world is broken in some way; basic faults run through every company that make working there way harder than it has to be. Which means our problem in advertising is we work in a broken company for another broken company. Like tectonic plates crushing against each other, these pressures result in volcanoes and earthquakes but of the whining variety.

You probably know a whiner. I encourage you to keep your distance because their effect is fairly poisonous. It’s hard enough to keep your spirits up in this business. Having someone draped over the chair in your office whining about how bad things are, it’s not good for the spirit.

(This article sucks. I bet if I wrote for Mashable’s blog I’d be writing really good stuff.)

Writing To The 2014 Customer.

What follows is one of the single most interesting passages I’ve read in my 50-some years of reading. It’s from a marvelous book called 1939: The Lost World of The Fair, by David Gerlernter.

It paints a picture of an America that no longer exists.

“Question: What is wrong with this picture? [Rhetorical; there was no actual picture in the book.] It appeared in a 1939 survey of New York City: a construction site with pedestrians walking past in front, leafy trees and apartment buildings to the rear. Painted on the fence around part of the work site are the words ‘DYNAMITE STORED HERE – DANGER EXPLOSIVES DANGER.’ It is a tall, solid board fence. But there is no barbed wire, no policeman; Women and children [walk] by a fenced-off magazine of high explosives,” the caption reads.

I find this observation amazing.

To think that there was actually a time when you could safely store dynamite in an unprotected shack in New York City; and to feel so certain of the character of your fellow Americans that a simple danger sign would be sufficient to keep people away. It’s hard to believe such a world ever existed but clearly there was some social force in play that kept this dynamite safe. This force, Gerlernter proposes, was the fact that in 1939 “people lived in an ‘Ought’ culture.”

Such a marvelous insight, and all gleaned from one photograph in a yellowing magazine – America as an “Ought culture.” We ought to eat our vegetables. We ought to doff our hats in the presence of ladies. We ought to report neighbors who we suspect of communism.

Later on Gerlernter expands the definition to what I’d describe as “Authority culture.” In fact, it’s arguable the entire period from ‘30s through the early ‘60s was all Authority culture. Citizens trusted authority entirely, wherever it was; in a corporation; in a policeman’s uniform; or just the voice over the radio. (“Hold on, ladies and gents! I’ve just received this important telegram!”)

For purposes of discussion, I tender here a few advertisements typical of the times, copied from my collection of old magazines. I regard advertisements like these as windows into the soul of the times; emotional Polaroids of ancient evenings; the zeitgeist in rotogravure.

Note how Plymouth baldly states – with neither hesitation nor proof – that big-ass cars are glamorous. Saying it’s so, makes it so. General Electric decides for us that spring has a new color. And don’t  get me started on this ad for Gaylord shaving supplies ad. I will however also note that illustration seemed to be the preferred visual style of the ‘40s through the ‘60s. Screw photography; illustrations let advertisers show life the way they wanted it to be and showing it so, of course, made it so. All three also feature exclamation points. Hey, when you’re an authority, you shout your orders.

Simply running an ad in a magazine made you an authority. (“See, honey, it’s printed right here. In a magazine!”) A cigarette ad could claim there wasn’t “a cough in a car load.” The government could deny radioactive iodine 131 was in the nation’s milk supply. Facts didn’t count. Authority did.

Pick up an old magazine sometime and see if you don’t agree; almost every ad and every article feels like a pronouncement from an authority.

Sometime in the mid-‘50s, however, this omnipresent voice of authority started to lose its credibility. How this came to be is perhaps a story for another day, but it happened. Somewhere in the cultural whirlwind of the times (the dethroning of McCarthyism, the quiz show scandals, the arms build-up), Americans developed the ability to be skeptical; to doubt; to question authority.

For my generation, I’ll wager many of us date the last days of unquestioned authority with the Vietnam war – its final public humiliation, the resignation of Dick Nixon. America finally had evidence – on tape even – that authority could be more than just wrong, it could be corrupt.

FROM AUTHORITY TO AUTHENTICITY.

Let’s turn the yellowed magazine page now to the year 2014.

Imagine we were to run that Plymouth ad in next week’s Time magazine. I’ll bet that even if we updated the ad’s look and feel, its presumptuous tone (“Big is glamorous, dammit!”) would still make today’s readers snicker at its authoritarian cluelessness. We simply wouldn’t get away with it today. It is a different America now.

We’ve become a nation of eye-rollers and skeptics. We scarcely believe anything we hear in the media any more and marketers can’t make things true simply by saying they’re true.

So, what I’m wondering today is this: where people once looked to authority to tell them what was true and wasn’t true, perhaps what people look for today is authenticity.

Merriam-Webster says something is authentic when it actually is what it’s claimed to be. Which makes authenticity in advertising an especially tricky proposition given that advertising is at its heart self-promotion and driven by an agenda. And yet while Americans today are suspicious of anyone with an agenda, being authentic doesn’t always require the absence of an agenda, only transparency about it.

Admitting that your commercial is a paid message with an agenda is one way to disarm distrust. Under-promising and over-delivering is another. Even self-deprecation can help establish authenticity; VW’s “It’s ugly but it gets you there” being perhaps the most memorable example.

DDB’s early Avis work was similarly authentic whether it was admitting to shortcomings (“We’re only #2.”) or giving customers with complaints  the CEO’s actual phone number.

In my opinion, Canadian Club’s masterful print series is an excellent modern example of an advertiser leveraging reality, warts-and-all, to sell its wares. An unapologetic statement of “Damn right your Dad drank it” coupled with images of ‘70s dads (somehow still cool in their bad haircuts and paneled basements) leveraged authenticity instead of authority.

So too does a marvelous campaign for Miller High Life. Here the beer truck delivery guy takes back cases of his beer from snooty people who aren’t truly appreciating the Miller High Life. Grumbling on his way out the door of some hoity-toity joint (“$11.95 for a hamburger? Y’all must be crazy.”), he is himself a spokesman for authenticity.

But even with these good examples of authentic messaging, it’s now time to question the supremacy of the format itself – that of paid messaging. It worked fine in the ‘50s when TV was new and citizens were happy to listen to the man tell them Anacin worked fast-fast-fast.

But everything is different in 2014. As Ed Boches said, “In an age when the manufacturer, publisher, broadcaster and programmer have lost power to the consumer, reader, viewer and user, … the power of controlled messages has lost its impact.”

AUTHENTICITY IS THE WALK, NOT THE TALK.

It may be getting to the point now where marketers can’t make anything happen by employing messaging alone, no matter how authentic. Doc Searles, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto, agrees, stating that a brand isn’t what a brand says but what it does. What all this suggests is that perhaps the best way to influence behavior and opinion in the year 2014 is to do things as well as just say them.

Where it once served our clients to make “claims” on their behalf, it may be better now to do things that are less claim-based and more action-based, or reality-based, or more experiential – to demonstrate in the ad itself a brand’s promise or a product’s benefit.

For example, a print ad promising that VW is a fun brand, well, that’s nice. But bringing this claim to life with a subway stairwell of working piano keys was more powerful in a number of ways. Instead of making some happy claim about an emotion, it created the emotion right there on the stairs. And of course there’s the P.R. talk value of such an interesting execution.

I’m reminded also of Denny’s offer to America: a free breakfast during a recession. This is an event as much as it is paid messaging, and America took them up on it. Also from Goodby came the Hyundai Assurance Program, which allowed customers who bought a new Hyundai to return it if they lost their job within the year. These are not ads so much as they are events. They are not “claims,” they’re actions.

In the end, these musings suggest several possibilities.

• Marketers cannot simply list a product’s benefits and tell customers why they should want it. It doesn’t work very well anymore.

• Persuading a nation of eye-rollers requires a message, tone, or platform that is authentic.

• No matter how authentic your message, you cannot become X by saying you are X. You must actually be X. So, after you figure out what your brand needs to say, figure out what it needs to do.

• Same thing with customers: after you figure out what you want customers to think, what is it you want them to do?

• Similarly, don’t try to tell customers how they’re going to feel. Help them actually experience the emotion.

The bottom line:
Brand actions speak louder than words.
Brand experiences speak louder than ads.
Walk beats talk.

BIG PHILOSOPHICAL CLOSING

My college psychology professor once wrote on the board, “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” It means the life of the individual organism is often reflected in the life of the species.

I confess I see in my own life a similar pattern of authority-to-authenticity. As a child, I blindly ascribed authority to many things (first was my parents; second, the Beatles) and in so doing came to know the world. But as I grew up, black-and-white authority became nuanced with the greys of authenticity.

Perhaps the nation grew up the same way.

We don’t need Dad-Brands anymore, wagging their fingers at us with nothing by way of proof beyond “Because I said so.”

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

I got some much-needed advice on this essay from the delightful and brainy Nicole McKinney here at GSD&M.Plus I updated the title from 2010 customer to 2014. Sue me.

Putting Too Much In One TV Spot.

Boring TV commercials loaded down with too much detail remind me of that poor donkey you always see in old Westerns.

You know the one — the sad beast way at the back of the wagon train.

With 200 pounds on its back: gold ore, sleeping bags, guns, clanking pans and bottles of liquor, pick axes, spare boots, and everything else the cowboys could throw on.

Once fully loaded, the skinny thing was slapped on its behind and forced to carry up a cliff what was basically the complete inventory of a Home Depot.

When I see a commercial being mistreated this way, I just look the other way. It’s too hard to look at. And don’t we all do this? Just sorta . . . look away?

We pay no attention to these burdened and broken little things because
. . . well, they bore us. These arthritic critters that hobble onto our TV
screens, their knees wobbling under the weight of the entire
product line-up, shots of the storefront, the showroom, and the top five items on sale — they’re boring. We avert our eyes and look away.

But how do these crimes, these abominations that happen right on prime-time television, how do they go so unnoticed? Especially when you consider how noisy they are.

The cruel “Voice-over Man” starts barking orders the instant the Thirty clanks onto the screen.  “Do this. Mention that. Tote that bale.” Why doesn’t anyone see it all happen? It’s as if it’s invisible.

Loaded high and wide with a clanking pile of product features and co-op logos, these insensate beasts lurch drunkenly onto our TV screens and are then flogged in public for a full thirty seconds. Lash after lash, they suffer the entirety of their short half-minute of life, bearing the full inventory of every showroom . . . and oh, how they suffer. Watching this, we suffer, too.

And as we suffer, we become bored and fall asleep.

Perhaps to shield us from this spine-snapping load of detail and dreck, the Sweet Chariot of Morpheus swings low and sweeps us away. Narcotized by the drone of the Constantly-Talking-Man, we ride off on gossamer wing to a sleepy, happy place where things are interesting and men do not read us brochures.

Yet, while we slumber, the poor beast lurches on. It begins to bleat for our attention. Sometimes it even walks up to the glass of the TV screen itself, its sad donkey eyes peering out into our warm and interesting living rooms. But we are not there to greet it. We are asleep on the couch, our mouths open and limbs akimbo, our bag of Chee-tos on our chests, rising and falling.

Twenty-eight long seconds pass. The wretched little commercial has
wobbled its iron load almost to the end, when the cowardly off-screen Voice-over Man does his most wicked work.

Onto the beast’s concave licorice-stick of a back he heaps additional weight: a localized price, two addresses, a phone number, and sometimes even a “violator.” In the worst case of abuse I’ve seen, three overweight salesmen piled onto the tail end of a Thirty and actually started waving at the camera.

Can we put an end this inhumanity? Yes.

First, we must insist on “cruelty-free” commercials. And second, we must vow not to buy products advertised on the bent backs of these suffering animals. And finally, we must agree not to let our good clients besmirch their own name by torturing any Thirty on their behalf.

Remember, a Thirty is capable of carrying a branding message and a retail message. But use restraint. Let your Thirty carry only what you need to get a client’s point across.

A final word: If you see an abused commercial, by all means put it out of its misery with quick mute button between the eyes.

*********************

This is an excerpt from my book, Hey Whipple, Squeeze This. Sorry to be pulling stuff out of the archives, but am still recovering from knee surgery. Back soon.