Content Is King.


(A small excerpt from the new fourth edition of Hey Whipple, Squeeze This.)

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“Dudes! Come in here! Look at my computer screen!”

That’s me in the year 1990 and the amazing “Flying Toasters” (Figure 5.6a) are making their first appearance on my 128k MacIntosh computer and its butt-kicking 8 MHz microprocessor. At the time, this soon-to-be-ubiquitous screen saver was pretty much all it took to amaze knuckleheads such as myself.

Hey, no laughing. Beyond a few word-document retrieval sites, in 1990 the Flying Toasters were “content.” At least they were better than that grainy-ass picture of Felix The Cat which comprised the first “show” on television. (Figure 5.6b) You’re not missing anything with this still photograph either; that’s all it was – a shot of a stupid cat.

It has been interesting, my career, straddling as it has the years before and after the web. Interesting too has been the evolution of all the content available in the media.

In 1994, TBWAChiatDay’s Lee Clow was our speaker 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, examining the changes wrought by this amazing company and what it all meant for traditional creatives like us.

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

Lee was right. When television first came along, pretty much all the content and commercials sucked – (“I’m head over heels in Dove!”) — but people loved it because it was cool new technology. (“Honey, look. It’s Felix!”) No one knew what we were missing until artists began to inherit the medium in the ‘60s and realize its larger potential. Same thing happened in years previous with radio. Today we find ourselves in a digital era when the artists are beginning to fully inherit the technology first wrought by Tim Berners-Lee.

Consumers are also inheriting technology and theirs is giving them more control over all this same media. What started with a TV’s on-off button changed to a mute button and then to time-shifting devices like VCRs, then DVRs, and now that consumers have complete control over everything they view on- and offline, it’s fair to ask, “How can a brand get any attention at all?”

The answer: Have better content than everyone else.

Quit interrupting the interesting things people want to look at and start being the interesting thing to look at.

Quality content trumps all.

This content can be anything; well, anything that’s useful, entertaining or beautiful, to borrow R/GA’s terms again. Content can be a how-to video, a Q&A chat room, blogs, apps, or downloadable video games. Content can be a white paper, a non-PG video, or a ringtone.  It can be almost anything as long as it has either entertainment value or is something a customer will find useful.

We’re entering an era when all brands, big and small, will have to be in the content business. This means agencies will have to be in the content business, too. Interbrand’s CEO Andy Bateman agrees: “Content and functionality are the new creativity.”11

As with any commercial creativity, there’s a discipline here and as you sit down to think content, you must have an objective. Why are you making this content? What purpose does it serve?

When ABC Entertainment created content for their show Lost, there was a clear objective: keep the fans involved in the show off-season. In The On-Demand Brand, ABC’s Mike Beson described how they “actually started to bury web addresses in the final episodes of Lost after Season One, that took people to [fake websites like] Oceanic-Airlines.com. It was … content as marketing. 12

Even insane content like the Skittles “Touch The Rainbow” YouTube series needed to report to a strategy. TBWAChiatDay’s Gerry Graf told me that Skittles’ ’90’s-era TV campaigns had helped Skittles “own” magic, but it was a PG-rated Disneyesque magic that needed some modernizing.  “To bring it up to date we referenced things like Spike Jonze videos with Christopher Walken flying… our own version of magic. A big difference was that, in our world, the magic wasn’t amazing. It was just part of life. Rabbits sing, beards are an appendage, all the magic was a given.”

“Switch Singing Bunny” and “Beard” were in fact two of their most talked-about television spots and these only whet their customers’ online appetites for more magical weirdness. What’s even cooler is that in bringing the campaign to YouTube, BBDO Toronto took advantage of the laptop medium by inviting viewers to place a finger on the screen. A voiceover said: “Touch the rainbow! No, seriously, put your index finger on the screen where the Skittle is. A video is going to start and your finger is going to be soooo delicious.” The videos were built to interact with the presence of a finger “in the scene” and in the most disturbing execution, a cat appears to be licking the viewer’s finger and is pushed aside by a creepy man-cat who does the same thing. (Figure 5.7)

As of this writing, there are a couple thousand delighted responses posted under this Skittles video; from “oohhhhhmyyyygod that was so weird” and “had to wash my finger!” to “favorite video ever!!!”

This particular execution hits on almost all the guidelines out there for creating good content. It should meet a brand’s customers where they are, it should talk to them in their language, it should be extremely useful or entertaining, and if it can require participation from the viewer, all the better. (Check, check, check and check.)

There are thousands of great examples of content online for you to study, content best seen in situ than the pages of a book. You might start with a quick look at Fallon’s BMW Films. This work is credited as being the very first online-only content-driven brand campaign – a series of cool mini-movies called The Hire, shot by A-list directors, starring A-list celebs and the latest BMWs. The breakthrough Fallon made with this idea wasn’t so much the action or plot of the movies but the whole notion that a brand could come up with something so interesting that their marketing ceased to be an interruption and become a destination; a place customers actually wanted to go.

New and better examples of incredible content appear online almost daily now and anything I commit to paper here will date. Yet for the purposes of a short intro course in “content studies,” I’ll direct your attention to these early efforts which are – at this writing – still viewable online:

• Arcade Fire’s music video The Wilderness Downtown: Viewers participated by providing their address. This allowed images from the viewers’ own streets and neighborhoods (pulled from Google Map’s Street View) into the story of the music video.

• The launch of the game Halo 3: Instead of the typical commercial showing the clips of actual game-play, McCann San Francisco and AKQA posted a long video titled “Museum” where viewers could see the game’s epic battles told as back-story and meticulously executed in the style of a museum diorama.

• For the JFK Museum, The Martin Agency created a site called We Choose The Moon which “rebroadcast” the entire flight of Apollo 11 in real time from take-off to splash down.

From these few examples, I see a few house rules to keep in mind as we begin our own work.

The first comes from Skittles’ Creepy Man-Cat. One of his YouTube viewers posted a note saying, “Doesn’t work very well with a touch screen. It pauses the video.” I’m guessing the creative team was aware these videos wouldn’t work as well on touch-screens, didn’t care, and went ahead anyway. (I would have.) Still, it’s a good reminder that as you come up with ideas there’ll be technical realities to keep in mind, such as making sure your idea is viewable from all the devices your customers use. The fancy-pants term for this is being vendor agnostic.

In addition to paying attention to technical differences like Apple vs Android and Flash vs HTML, you’ll also need to design your content for the type of screen it’ll likely be viewed on. Generally, people watch lengthier pieces on the big living room TV screen and “snack” on media elsewhere. For instance, I’m not likely to watch epic movies on my iPhone nor to use a FourSquare app on my living room TV. Given these viewing habits, the rule of thumb is to concept for one overall screen, design for the big screen, and then optimize for the smaller ones.

Technical realities aside, having incredible content is what it’s all about. We conclude here with Doc Searles simple message from The Cluetrain Manifesto: “There is no market for messages.”

Shooting one idea through the lens of another.

(A small excerpt from the new fourth edition of Hey Whipple, Squeeze This.)

In a screenwriting book I read years ago I stumbled on this basic Hollywood trick that seems to apply to what we do here in advertising. To create a story, the author said, “Create one world and then look at it through the eyes of another.”

Long before the term was popular, this author was talking about mash-ups. For instance, isn’t Bladerunner basically an old-fashioned gumshoe detective story seen from the future?  More recently we’ve had Cowboys and Aliens. I don’t mean to go all-sci-fi-geek on you, so how about Brokeback Mountain … which one could argue is sort of a Cowboys and Gay Guys. One world, seen through the eyes of another.

My point is this: thinking in terms of mash-ups may be a good mental exercise to add to your regular creative process; a doorknob you’ll want to rattle as you search up and down the hallways of your brain for ideas.

One of my very favorite mash-ups was a piece used to create talk for Mingle2, a dating site. It was called Zombie Harmony, a dating site for the undead. It’s worth a visit.

For an Aussie beer named Tooheys, they mixed the worlds of money and beer. In this world, doing a favor like helping a buddy move was worth a bottle of Tooheys, while helping him move in with your ex-girlfriend would cost him a case.

Another way to start the mash-up engine is with a meme. Take a popular cultural image or saying and shoot it through the world of your client’s brand. Kit-Kat candy bars started a nationwide buzz by taking the whole silly Shroud-of-Turin, Jesus-on-toast thing and mixing it with the world of candy. (Figure 6.4) Voila, you have Jesus on a Kit-Kat, a “story” that was planted in Facebook and eventually picked up by the news media (on what I can only hope was a very slow news day).

FIG 6.4 JESUS ON A KIT KAT BAR

Memes are in great supply on YouTube, as are mash-ups. With a few edits, The Shining + comedy became a trailer for a happy family movie. You can also mash up media. Foursquare is Google Maps + social. And Google Maps + Twitter = Twittervision, a site displaying the location of tweets and tweeters in real time.  And TiVO + lots of marijuana = the Domino’s/TiVO ordering service that lets furniture vegetables order pizza without having to stop watching The Princess Bride for the 800th time.

Fourth Edition of “Hey Whipple” Now Available.

Download flyer. Click on red link, right.

Thanks to all the folks who helped me research it (in particular, Sam Bennett of GSD&M). It features new and updated work throughout. And in particular has large new sections on digital, social and interactive. Special thanks to art director Keli Linehan who did the cover.

It’s available now on amazon.com and will soon be available as an iBook for your iPad. (Coolest part about the iPad version is that all the examples cited in the book have links right to the work.)

FLYER/SUMMARY OF HEY WHIPPLE_al

Haterade, Eddie Haskell Marketing, and Thoughts on This Year’s Super Bowl Advertising.

I remember a time when, back in say the early ‘80s, when America sat down to enjoy the Super Bowl and the commercials with – not a less critical mind – but perhaps a less angry one. Oh, there were comments back in those days, yes, but not the kind of vitriol I see in the audience today. Here, for example, I quote one of the many panelist’s out there who was drinking Hater-ade® by the barrel:

“So our ‘best creative minds’ couldn’t come up with a single innovative or compelling super bowl spot. Madison Ave is the worst.”

Perhaps this anger isn’t new. Personally, I can remember the times I judged the One Show and it seemed in order to be a “cool judge,” you had to be the first one to groan, the first to say – even a bare two seconds into a radio spot – “Oh, puh-lease, next!”

Now don’t get me wrong, authentic criticism has an important place in any intelligent society. I think we should be skeptical. But this anger I feel out there, for commercials? Well, I’ll reserve anger for the ones that fail not on creative measures but on moral ones,  the ones that appeal to our lowest common denominators, to the Beavis & Butthead in us. And for my money, there were only a few of those in the mix this year: GoDaddy’s annual national embarrassment, of course; Teleflora’s you-give-me-flowers-and-I-give-you-sex spot.

As for all the rest? Heck, I wish advertisers tried as hard as they do on Super Sunday all year long. Overall, isn’t it fair to say that Super Bowl commercials are generally more interesting than what we see the rest of the year? And if you agree, here’s the interesting thing: Why do most brands save their most entertaining work just for when a billion people are watching? It’s as if they say, “Well, when only a few million people are watching,  see, that size of an audience doesn’t matter. We put on our Sunday best only for Super Sunday; the rest of the year we’re gonna bludgeon those schmucks with some seriously boring stuff .”

That’s Eddie Haskell Marketing®. (The link’s for those under 45.)

That said, I believe almost every one of Sunday’s advertisers could’ve dialed up the sell in their spots without hurting the the entertainment value. Perhaps in the scramble to put on a good show, clients and agencies forget they have the opportunity to make a real point about their brands, to say something important, or lasting, or truly different.

Only one advertiser did that this year; the same guys who did it last year.  – Chrysler and Weiden + Kennedy. When I posted how much I loved the “Halftime in America” spot, a Twitter follower asked me: “What made Eastwood’s a good spot? Am not being snarky. Value your opinion. It felt precious and tedious to me.” It was a fair question and clearly not from an angry viewer guzzlin” Hater-ade. I wrote this thoughtful viewer with my two cents: first of all, the idea was built on a cultural tension, on a national feeling that American cars have kinda sucked for years and that perhaps we deserve to be second-best. Additionally, I loved how they used the halftime itself as a media buy; partly because it supported their “Halftime in America” concept, partly because it was a cheaper buy. I loved their inspired choice of voiceover – Eastwood. (Thank you for not defaulting to Morgan Freeman.) And finally there was that wonderful copy. Wow. It just doesn’t get better.

There were lots of other good spots Sunday night; good even though some of them used trusty ol’ Super Bowl formulas (whacky + animal + guy humor + etc.etc.). Here’s how the top seven spots stacked up for me.

I’d love to hear your opinion. Well,  if you’re all hissy-fit and anger about it, go hang with the trolls on YouTube. But for cryin’ out loud, in the end we’re talkin’ about commercials here, folks.

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CHRYSLER: “It’s halftime, America.” – My fave.

AUDI: “Vampire Party” – Audi’s LED headlights crisp-i-fy all the partying vampires. “Daylight now in a headlight.” Fun to watch and built entirely on a real point of difference, even if it is only an ancillary one. Good stuff.

CHEVY: “The Apocalypse-Proof Silverado” and “Happy Graduate” — Yes, “Apocalypse” was a big budget, but don’t hold that against it. Some of that money went to Barry Manilow’s “Looks Like We Made It,” an inspired choice of music. Note also that sell copy rarely works when spoken by an actor inside of a spot, but because the Sarcas-Matron® was on such a high setting here, it worked for me.  (“Dave didn’t drive the longest-lasting most dependable truck on the road.”) Loved the appearance of other random brands like Big Boy and Twinkies, as well as the frog rain from the movie Magnolia. And then the “Happy Grad” spot? The chanting “Best gift ever! Best gift ever!” was a delight. I was particularly impressed with their restraint. They could have gone sooo big with this (i.e., say the graduate’s college band marches through, etc., etc.) but they didn’t. Their other spots were good too, so Chevy gets my vote as best Super Bowl client.

DORITOS:  “Dog” – This was Gary Larson’s The Far Side brought to life. And I think it’s cool how crowd-sourcing can end up with stuff like this. (I’m assuming it was in fact done by a “non-professional,” right?)

FIAT Abarth: “You never forget the first time you see one.” – Not many may agree with me on this one, but I loved it. Loved how it was sexy without being sleazy.

CARS.COM: “Confidence Head” – Your basic Whacky-Super-Bowl approach, but it works because it spells out what the product does and, more importantly, the feeling it gives users – confidence –  plus it’s funny all the way through. Guy reminds me of Will Smith; has that same comic touch.