My Top 5 Faves from CA’s Interactive Annual.

I love advertising competitions because they feature work I might not’ve seen but for the shows. The new Communication Arts Interactive Annual 21 just came out and I have done my readers the courtesy of picking out the top five projects featured in the magazine. There is no charge for this service.

This first one reminds me of that great saying they use at RG/A; “Make sure what you’re working on is either beautiful, useful, or entertaining.”

Screenshot 2015-04-18 19.52.34

Well, this first one is beautiful and — if you were thinking of travelling to Maine — also useful. “The Maine Thing Quarterly” site is beautifully art directed and flows along so sweetly I suddenly find myself 20 clicks into it and going deeper. Still, it doesn’t beat my all-time favorite piece for Maine tourism, a bumper sticker that read: “Ah-yuh. Been To Maine.”

Screenshot 2015-04-18 18.32.52

Google Labs had several things in the show. This first one is called “DevArt” and it’s a collection of cool artsy stuff people have made with code. For example, in the “Giant Map” idea, kids can stop through Gotham like they’re Godzilla. Here you can see cool stuff made out of different APIs like flickr, Instagram, tumblr, Twitter, Google Maps. As I tell my students, “Don’t make stuff for the internet. Make stuff out of the internet.”

A similar Google project called “Made With Code” was also featured in CA’s Interactive Annual; similar, but different. Made With Code is all about reaching out to girls to show ‘em how learning to code can help them build the next world and then rule it. Also, it doesn’t hurt that grads who can code start their careers at around $60k; that’s almost $15k more than most grads pull in their first year out there.

images

Also featured in this year’s annual was an app called the John Lennon Bermuda Tapes. It’s available on iTunes and if you’re a Beatles fan, dude, go get it. It’s an interactive app that tells the story of Lennon’s life-changing journey sailing through a mid-Atlantic storm in June 1980. The “interactivity,” while fun, is mostly silly stuff and isn’t technically interesting, but that’s okay — you can hear demos he made for Double Fantasy. Way cool.

coke-zero-sweater-hed-2013

Meanwhile, Coca-Cola has quietly turned into one of the best clients out there and their latest collaboration with Droga5 is also featured in the annual — the Coke Zero Sweater Generator. Me, I’m still partial to what they did for Coke Zero on Mother’s Day.

Those are my favorite top things from the new CA Interactive Annual. Again, there is no charge for this service. You’re welcome.

Your Site VS Your Book.

Your substitute teacher today is Mr. Carroll.
Your substitute teacher today is Mr. Carroll.

Good morning, scribblers. Your substitute teacher this morning is Mr. Carroll again. You remember Mr. Carroll, a CD at Austin’s GSD&M. He’s here to teach us how to get jobs so please give him your full attention.

YOUR SITE VS YOUR BOOK

Yes, there is a difference between the two.

1.) Your site is the thing I look at on my mobile phone when I’m in a meeting, pretending to listen to account people. Your site gives me a sense of who you are as a human being, your creative sensibilities and, of course, your best work.

2.) Your book, on the other hand, is the thing you talk through when we meet in person. Unlike your site, in your book you can show, say, the detailed version of your integrated-digital-social-mobile-experiential-AR-and location-aware campaign for pet food.

I’m not suggesting you have different work on your site and your book; only that you package and display the work differently to best capture the attention of the most ADD people on the planet: CD’s like me. (True story: I checked my email five times before finishing writing that last sentence.)

Let’s start with the site and some tactical considerations.

3.) Make sure your site is responsive. (If you don’t know what responsive is, find out.) Make sure your site works beautifully on mobile. It may be frustrating to hear, but nearly everything I do is on my mobile – including looking at your work. And I’m not alone. My phone is the one thing I always have on me. So if you email me a link to your site, there’s a good chance I’m checking it out on my iPhone. Same thing if our recruiter has a site she wants me to see; I’ll get it via mobile. Now … if I really like your site, I might go to my laptop and check it out in more detail, but I can tell from the mobile site alone if you’re the type of person I wanna call in for an interview. (Also, having a site that’s built for mobile says you get it.)

4.) I always go to the “About Me” section before I check out the work and I’m not alone. Most creative directors do this and nearly all recruiters do. Why? It gives me quick look at who you are, your skill level, and your work experience. It gives me a frame of reference for how to judge your work. This section is almost as important as your work so don’t blow it off or half-ass it. This section (and really your entire site) is your opportunity to make me like you; really like you. If you purport to be a writer and you can’t entertain me or make me like you with words, well, that’s a problem. Give me an insight about you, how you think and how you look at the world. We don’t hire books; we hire the people behind the books. You are the one I have to travel with. You are the one I have to put in front of a client. You are the one I’ll be spending weekends and late nights with. It helps if you’re a likable, interesting person.

One of the best “About Me’s” I’ve seen was for a junior art director who titled his bio section, Ten Things About Me That Might Be the Truth or a Lie. When you rolled over each one of the ten things, it would tell you, true or false. Each of the statements was hilarious and it became a game to determine what was true about this person and the more you learned, the more you wanted to learn. (Dude now works at Wieden.)

5.) Treat your site like a campaign in your book. Every aspect of your site is an opportunity to show off and to impress me — from the design, to how you talk about your work. If it’s a standard Cargo Collective template, part of me calls you out for being lazy. With all the resources out there, you couldn’t customize a site to best reflect you and best showcase your work? You’re trying to land a job that requires you to help brands stand out, breakthrough and connect with their audience. Show me you can do that for yourself.

4) The first campaign in your book needs to floor me. You can’t stumble out of the gate because you’ll never get anyone to check out the second campaign. Put your simplest, most compelling idea first. Simplicity and power is key.

Too often, here’s what I see: the first piece of work on the site is an integrated campaign executed in five different media with a paragraph explanation for each execution. Half-way through, I still can’t figure out the idea and so in an attempt to show me how big their idea is, I’ve lost the idea.

You should be able to explain the problem in a sentence, the strategy in a sentence and the idea in a sentence. Follow that with an image or two (or one-minute video) taking me through the idea. If the sentence describing your idea doesn’t sound interesting, chances are, it isn’t. That’s a problem.

Next, put your second strongest campaign. I know convention is best campaign first, second best campaign last. “Start strong, finish strong,” and all that. I disagree. This is a boxing match. Try to knock me out with each punch; don’t save your best for last. If I love your first three campaigns, you are moving on to an interview.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

I hate it when I have to learn things from people way younger than me. But Ryan’s right about how the “start strong, end strong” thing is bullshit. I used to think so, and so I’m making that correction in the next edition of Whipple. Fact is, I’ll be including a lot of Ryan’s material. Dude’s smart.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Portfolio Advice From 20 Top Recruiters.

How recruiters felt about videos in student books.
How recruiters felt about videos in student books.

Recently I had the chance to meet with and talk shi…. talk shop with some 20 or so creative recruiters from agencies all over America. It was a great opportunity to ask a bunch of top agency recruiters what they look for (and don’t look for) in student portfolios.

In particular, I wanted to know if recruiters took the time to play those concept videos students sometimes put in their portfolios. You know, videos that show how a campaign unfolds, with voiceover to describe the flow; one of those ideas that’s hard to show off with just a few flat pages, you get me, right?

While the recruiters’ answers weren’t unanimous (this is a creative business), they did agree on a few big things. So let’s start off with the majority opinion (and it isn’t good).

• “I hate every single video I see.”

• “The thing is, nobody wants to watch them because they take three minutes to explain what could’ve been covered in thirty seconds.”

• “I think videos are a catastrophic waste of time.”

Wow, thank you for that constructive crit….

• “My god, those videos, they take way too much time, especially when I have ten books to go through and 20 minutes between meetings to do it.”

• “The videos are all about five minutes too long because students don’t seem able to edit them down.”

Okay, everybody, so what I’m hearing you say is “maybe”…  No, it’s “no.”  A big fat no. Okay. Okay. Still, you gotta agree not every concept can be shown in….

• “Yes, an integrated campaign can be shown in 2-D.”

• “I think having a quick 2-D visual of the main idea of the campaign along with a very short description of how the idea translates across multiple platforms, I think that solves the ‘quick-look’ issue.”

• “And for those students who really want videos? Have ‘em do Vines. They’re just six seconds long and their length might actually inspire our CD to click on ‘em.”

Oooookay then. That went well, … right?

Good talk. Good talk.

So we chatted some more. Turned out not everybody hated videos.

• “Include a video only if you absolutely, totally and completely cannot show your idea on flat paper.”

• “If I see it’s longer than a minute, forget about it. A minute or less, always. We even have that rule for our own case studies.” 

• “It has to be engaging from the very start. Give me a reason to keep watching.”

• “If there has to be a case-study video, put a two-sentence elevator pitch right above or below it. Sell me.”

• “The set-up you put next to the video needs to sell it, needs to make me want to click PLAY. Persuasion is what you’re supposed to be good at, right? Selling? So … show me you can do it. Show me right here, right now.”

• “I’m in the minority, as I honestly enjoy a good case study now and then. (I’ll just watch one though.)  Figuring it’s their prized idea, if they can keep me engaged, I welcome it. I also love the personality that sometimes comes through these videos.” 

• “I’m seeing more people coming into the business being able to shoot and edit their work. These skills are becoming important to demonstrate.”

 • “Once I narrow the books down based on other things, maybe then I’ll start looking at a few videos.”

• “I’m a little more willing to watch a video … if the rest of the book is killer.”

We also had time to talk about other stuff, just some general do’s and don’ts, one of which was, surprisingly, don’t suck. (Nah, I threw that in.)

• “It’s really simple. From writers I wanna see great writing. From art directors I wanna see great design. And from everybody, great thinking. Period.” 

• “I want the creativity to jump out of the book and slap me.”

• “Make it fast. If I can look at it and love it in two seconds, there’s nothing more powerful than that. I want to fall in love in two seconds.”

• “Have a pdf version of your book. It’s faster for us to review pdfs.”

• “I’m tired of ‘fancy’ websites that work only on specific browsers and make me all batshit crazy trying to navigate. I usually just go right to the pdf anyway.”

• “The first thing I assess is how the work looks. I want to see the kind of attention to detail this person puts into the way a thing looks.”

• “At the top of the page, have one single sentence to intro the campaign. No, target audience stuff. Just have… well, here’s a good example in a student book: ‘Citi Bike: How do you take an activity New Yorkers already do and turn it into something that does tangible good?’ See? It’s one sentence.”

• “Don’t do an app. Please, stop with the apps already.” 

• “Here’s what I think a student book ought to have: three or four integrated campaigns, obviously, plus one digital-only campaign, a couple of 2-D campaigns (print/outdoor/etc.), plus a few things that’re just … cool: inventions, evolutions on existing products/services, etc.”

Looking back on all the comments, a theme jumps out – speed.

Obviously, your concepts have to communicate quickly. But so does your whole website. Recruiters should be able to fly through your site, startin’ with your best work upper left (that’s how we read), then click in the center, then click on the right, just barrelling along clickety-split with no videos-as-speed-bumps to slow ‘em down.

My two cents?

Yeah, I think you probably oughta have at least one cool video; one big-ass integrated idea, if only to show your chops in using Adobe programs for visual storytelling. Set the idea up with a one-sentence caption, park it under the PLAY frame, make sure the video starts fast, no set-up, just get right to the coolest part, and be gone in sixty seconds.

Oh, also… it shouldn’t suck. Sucking, apparently, is bad.

 

 

 

Guest post from Ryan Carroll on why you need to be more than just a CW or an AD.

Your substitute teacher today is Mr. Carroll.
Your substitute teacher today is Mr. Carroll.

Okay, class. Today’s substitute teacher is Mr. Carroll. You remember Mr. Carroll. He was here two weeks ago. I expect you to give him the same respect you give me. People? Settle down, people.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

T-shaped skillset. I hate using this term since it’s so overplayed, but the truth behind the word is important. As a CD, I don’t want just a strong writer; I want a writer that can flex other muscles – shoot and edit content, or write code, or who are DJs at night, or write for McSweeney’s. I need to be able to lean on you for other skill sets beyond advertising writing or art direction.

Any given day, we may be building prototypes for clients, shooting and editing stop-motion videos for Instagram; we even develop new products. There isn’t a “Miscellaneous” department at the agency that handles this work. It’s up to our creatives to execute.

And beyond the tactical value of having these skill sets in the building, when you have skills beyond your core craft, it shows me you’re a hard worker. It shows me you’re a well-rounded thinker and you have a curiosity that pushes you to discover new things.

Side Hustle. I love juniors who have entrepreneurial drive or at the very least have built a their own brand. When I see an art director who has 20,000 followers on Instagram, it shows me they understand branding. When I see a junior writer who built an online Queso business, it shows me she thinks like a businessperson.

It’s this kind of junior who intuitively understands the realities our clients live and breathe every day. Combine this side hustle with the other things I [wrote for this blog two posts ago] and you’ll be an unstoppable force. The days of “crazy creatives” with crazy ideas are gone. Budgets are smaller, problems are aplenty and it’s nearly impossible to find a client who will gamble on an idea that isn’t directly tied to solving an actual business problem. That’s not to say audacious ballsy ideas aren’t still needed. But when they’re tied to a solid strategy and solve a business problem, they aren’t audacious anymore. They’re just smart.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

Ryan’s bio: Hello. I am a Group Creative Director at GSD&M. My work has been recognized by Cannes, The One Show, Communication Arts, The Webbys, FWA, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Early Show on CBS (which made my Mom proud) and Maxim magazine (which made my Dad proud).  I like tacos. Follow me @digiryan

Examples of Work –

http://www.adforum.com/award/showcase/6650183/2014/ad/34499149

http://www.adforum.com/award/showcase/6650183/2014/ad/34493944

http://www.dailydot.com/technology/avoid-humans-sxsw/

Guest post: Ryan Carroll, GSD&M, on getting hired.

This is Ryan. His partner, Scott Brewer, is much better looking.
This is Ryan. His partner, Scott Brewer, is much better looking.

I met Ryan Carroll when I worked at GSD&M in Austin. He was a young writer then, and now he’s a big shot, group creative director and won’t take my calls. It was his team that came up with last year’s Radio Shack spot on the Super Bowl: “The ’80s Called.”  You can read a bit more about that spot and about his partnership with Scott Brewer on FWA. On a recent phone call he told me he was frustrated, looking through too many junior books to find a good creative hire. I said, dude, write a guest post for me, and he did.

Most student books look/feel/sound alike and most CD’s I’ve talked with agree. This shouldn’t be too surprising. There are really five or six solid portfolio schools out there. Schools teach a method and students apply that method and so perhaps it’s no surprise most books look similar. The gene pool is pretty shallow.

So as you build your book and your site, it’s more important than ever to find your own voice and style. Just like you do for the brands you work on, you need to make your own brand stand out; to take those lessons you’re being taught and make them your own.

Here are some things I look for when reviewing a book:

1.) I want more than just ads. I want to see you solve business problems. Identify a problem for a brand and then show me how your idea can make the client money. How your idea will attract more customers or make people look at the brand in a completely different way.

Here are two great examples from a student book. His name is Maxx Delaney and we just hired him.

Citibank

Netflix

As you can see in the video, for Citibank, he (and his partners) invented a product that would attract an entirely new group of investors. And in the Netflix video, his idea gives millions of users an entirely new reason to use the product. These are the types of problems modern creatives need to be able to solve. This is much more than advertising. It’s about business.

[HeyWhipple’s note: I love Maxx’s About Me paragraph: “Maxx Delaney likes to think about stuff and then write about those thoughts that he thought while he was thinking about things.”]

2.) More than integrated campaigns, I want to see you execute an idea brilliantly with a given technology.

Too often, I see this – an integrated campaign that shows me how your pantyhose idea can work for TV, works on Facebook, works in a bus shelter and then – drum roll – an iPhone app. (Because we all know people can’t wait to download another brand’s app.) The problem is that the extension ideas are rarely as strong as the initial idea.

When I see this, I believe the student is trying to convince me it’s a big idea because, look, it’s in all these places. Instead, just pick a technology (mobile) or platform (Instagram) and show me a brilliant idea that makes the most out of that technology or platform. Make me look at using Instagram in a way no one’s thought of and I will love you forever. Or at least hire you.

[Ryan had lots of other cool stuff to say and we'll be posting that in a week.]

Don’t Show me Something-About. Show me Something.

This is not an idea yet.
This is not an idea yet.

“So we have this idea, okay?” says the young creative to the creative director.

CD goes, “Great. So what do you have?”

Creative says, “Well, okay, it’s not totally formed yet but it’s something about … “

Let’s hit pause on this scene right here, shall we? Roll the tape back to the part where the guy  …  stop … right there.

“… it’s something about.

Today’s lesson is about that. Don’t ever present somethin’ about. Present something.

See, the thing is this. Your creative director?  He or she can’t do anything with your somethin’ about. Because it’s not an idea yet. An idea fits in a sentence; an idea can be written on a Post-It note. But a somethin’ about takes a whole bunch of explaining.

And please, never defend your somethin’ about with, “Hey-I’m-just-an-idea-guy.” Unless, I get to be an idea guy too. In which case my idea is, “Go away. And don’t come back until you have something to show me.”

See, the main problem with somethin’ about is you’ve left your audience to figure out the problem for you.

Don’t get me wrong, somethin’ abouts can be an important part of problem solving. Because problems are rarely solved in one flash. Good ideas come after a lot of digging around. Used this way, somethin’ about is a fine way to suggest, “Let’s dig around in this area for awhile.” It’s what you say to your partner, not your boss.

And definitely not to your client.

Can you imagine if your doctor said the cure for your illness was “Ohhh I can’t say exactly how to keep you alive but I have this kinda idea, it’s somethin’ about ….” No.

Or if the guy at the garage thinks your car needs somethin’ about a….

Somethin’ about is soft thinking. If an idea is a bullet, a somethin’ about is a cotton ball. Only one of them can make it into somebody’s head.

Dang. Sorry for the harsh image. Let’s end with a laugh. Like this cartoon from The New Yorker. It never fails to make me laugh.

miracle

 

How Not To Suck as a Creative Director.

Screen Shot 2014-11-07 at 11.01.12 PM

I think it’s a shame that so many people, when they become creative directors, forget what it was like being a creative. Most of them seem to forget what it was they themselves most needed, back when they were a workin’ creative. They forget what it was like. They forget what they were like.

Me? When I was a young copywriter, I was (among other things) insecure, arrogant, clueless, impatient, and always cynical. Always cynical. And cynics are hard to lead because they don’t believe a thing most managers have to say. And the thing managers do that cynics find most grating?

Cheerleading.

“Hey, it’s not so bad we have to re-pitch this client! I just know you can come up with something better!”

Cynics hate cheerleading. Cynics don’t want account people to beat around the bush saying, “It’s okay, your ads are with Jesus now.” Just say “Dude, your campaign died because the client didn’t get it. And yeah, it sucks.” I’d counsel managers to share the creatives’ pain, to share their frustration. They don’t need you to come in and plop some whipped cream on the shit sandwich.  In fact, when one of my teams was told they had to do something that was stupid or just kinda sucked, I said, “Hey, when you have to eat a turd, don’t nibble.”

Cynics hate cheerleading. They also hate pretty much everything about corporate structure: memos, meetings, time sheets, expense reports, all that H.R. stuff. It bores them or irritates them. The smart creative manager will do everything he or she can can to streamline the corporate red-tape and act as a buffer against agency bureaucracy.

Cynics also hate meetings. They’re a huge time-suck. Cynics think, “Why did we even have that meeting? You coulda just leaned into my office and said it.” My suggestion: fewer meetings, more conversations.

Here’s another interesting thing about creatives. You’d be surprised how much torture we can take if you just tell us why we’re being tortured. Creatives like transparency. They wanna know what they’re part of. They wanna know why they’re being asked to do something, even if it’s a dumb reason; and in this business, it usually is a dumb reason.  Smart creative managers don’t try to “protect” creatives from the bad news; and in this business, it usually is bad news.

It’s bad news, so just say it. If you try to tiptoe around it, you’ll end up sounding like that guy in Office Space who was always goin’, “Uh, yeeeeaaahh, if you could just go ahead and come in this weekend.”

Another thing I wish I’d heard less of when I was a young creative?

It usually comes during a creative meeting. Someone in the back of room puts down their donut and says, “Well, if I could just be the devil’s advocate here for a sec….”

Dude, shut up.

Ideas are fragile. The bubble can pop so easily. Instead of being the devil’s advocate, why not be the angel’s advocate? Don’t just blurt out what you hate about something. Not liking stuff is easy. Anyone can do it. It’s harder to find out what’s good about the idea. The trick is finding that little coal and then blowin’ on it till it’s flame.

I forget where I read this quotation from writing coach Jay O’Callahan, but it went like this: “It is strange that, in our culture, we are trained to look for weaknesses. When I work with people, they are often surprised when I point out the wonderful crucial details – the parts that are alive.” He went on to suggest, “If our eyes are always looking for weakness, we begin to lose our intuition to notice beauty.”

I found this very same advice from a venture capitalist, David Sze of Greylock Partners: “Anyone can tell you why something’s going to fail. The real trick is to find out why something will succeed.”

Before I wear out my welcome here, I’ll just close with one last piece of advice, this one from my old boss, the late Mike Hughes of The Martin Agency.

Mike said that rejection is such a daily part of this business, and so it’s important to remember creatives need to score a victory every once in a while. It doesn’t have to be a huge win; just a little victory at the right time can keep creatives very motivated. He said:

“[A creative director should help find] relief for the people with thankless jobs – the copywriter on the account that has a new direction every week, the account person who deals with the especially difficult client, the project manager on the project that can’t be managed, the planner who’s partnered with a not-very-good creative team.

“Sometimes that relief means the top people at the agency need to get involved with a problem client or account. Sometimes it means moving people into different positions – even if it makes everyone involved feel a little uncomfortable. Sometimes it means creating or investing in projects that have a high likelihood of meaningful success, even if that success isn’t a financial one.”

Oh, how I miss Mike.

–Luke Sullivan

[Full disclosure: I didn’t plan for the essay to stop this abruptly, but the fall quarter is ending and I gotta run.]

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Condensed List of Some of the Stuff I Teach at SCAD.


sull2

I once read that smart companies should give away what they know. I didn’t get it at first but the more I read, the more I saw how these “generous brands” actually attract paying customers. Cool. So, with that in mind, here is a condensed version of pretty much everything I try to cram in my students’ heads every quarter.

What is the truest thing I can say about my product or category?

It’s not a very big idea if it doesn’t fit on a Post-It note.

Platforms start talking to you and won’t shut up.

Where is the emotion in this product, service, or category?

Identify and leverage the conflicts/tensions/polarities in your product or category.

All drama is conflict. Find a “bad guy.”

When everything is okay, people are not interested.

Bad is stronger than good.

Without is stronger than with.

Remember, it’s “got milk?” not “have milk.”

If tension’s not evident in your category, make it up.

What is the wrong thing to do? Be disobedient at every turn of the way.

Will people talk about this idea?

Are you sure they’ll even let us do this idea?

Don’t make things for the internet, make things out of the internet.

It’s less about messaging, more about content.

It’s less about ads, more about experiences.

It’s less about talking to, more about talking with.

It’s less about making people want stuff, more about making stuff people want.

The new ideas may not look like ads as we know them.

The new ideas come from culture not commerce.

The new ideas don’t just fill media spaces, they create them.

The new ideas are shareable and participatory.

Would the press cover it?

Would a person use it?

Would a person share it?

“Is what I’m working on beautiful useful or entertaining?” (from R/GA)

You can’t become X by saying you are X.

Brand actions speak louder than brand words.

A brand can’t claim it’s authentic. It must be authentic.

Authenticity doesn’t mean no agenda, just transparency.

Can you tell the idea to your best friend with a straight face?

Simplicity: You idea should communicate in a FLASH.

Product = Adjective

A platform is an idea that creates ideas.

A platform is not a story. It is the mother of stories.

Big ideas are good. Long ideas are great. (Doing one good idea is kind of like doing  one push-up. It’s pretty easy. The trick is to do it a lot.)

 

Cool New Book Explores, Explains What I call “Problem Finding.”

Screen Shot 2014-09-13 at 1.31.46 PM

I just finished reading a really good book, a new title from Warren Berger, who’s been writing about the ad industry for a long time. Smart guy.

Book’s titled A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas.

What Berger calls “inquiry” or “questioning,” I’ve been calling “problem finding.” But I’ve never found as good an explanation for why questioning or problem finding is becoming such a big deal. And I’ll put it this way:

“There was no ‘job order’ for the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s album.”

Sounds weird, I know, but when you think about all the coolest things you’ve seen in the world, heard in the world, read in the world, how many of them were ordered, you know, like a hamburger? How many of them were a solution to a problem?

Don’t get me wrong, many great things have been creative solutions to problems. But the coolest things out there, the stuff that blows us away are things that are answers to problems we didn’t know we had.

When asked if Apple depended much on consumer research, Steve Jobs responded, “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” He’s right. I never sat around the house goin’, “If only there were a pocket-sized digital device capable of holding thousands of songs.”

The really spectacular new stuff comes less from problem-solving, and more from the kind of exploration and play that uncovers whole new worlds. (Here’s my new word for that: “Terra mensa incognito.” Chicks dig it when you speak Latin, seriously.)

The reason why this is such a valuable skill is that most brands have the marketing basics all figured out, you know, the blocking and tackling of marketing, they got that stuff down. Agencies that can solve only problems that are handed to them, well, they’re just not as valuable a business partner. Problem-solving is good, but it doesn’t result in sea changes or giant leaps forward. I’m reminded of that cool quotation, “Good advertising builds sales. Great advertising builds factories.”

The author quotes business consultant Min Basadur who says “If you’re able to find a problem before others do and then successfully answer the questions surrounding that problem, you can create a new venture, new career, new industry.”

Berger’s shorthand for the process of problem-finding is asking “Why? What if? And how?”

Why is most music sold as vinyl or magnetic tape? They both degrade.

What if there was a way to store music the same way we store regular old data?

How can we use digital technology to create a new music platform?

Voila, the iPod.

As the school year starts, I hope to keep reminding my students that there are plenty of creatives out there in the world who know how to read a client job order and solve the problem. Rarer are the ones whose intelligence is amplified by a consuming curiosity, a curiosity that has them questioning basically everything.

 

 

Richmond 1985: Life at a Small Agency and a Really Small Agency.

In 1983 – for you English Lit majors, 30 years ago – I joined the creative department of a small agency in Richmond as hire #10 or so. I went on to work at medium-sized and large agencies, but my time at the Martin Agency I remember with particular fondness. For students waffling between big versus small – both have their charms – today is about small.

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This is the original building at Lee Circle where I first met Mike Hughes, best boss I ever had. (To our great shock, Mike died this last December 15th.) We ten creatives whom he oversaw worked on the third floor, which was an old ballroom. The biggest client at the time was Barnett Banks and while I don’t remember their billings, we did maybe two TV spots a year, buncha magazine, and too much radio. (Today their big account is some company called Wal-Mart.)

In those days, creative teams weren’t as common and everybody pretty much worked with everybody; and everybody knew everybody, and not just in the creative department but all over. If I were a new staffer at some big-ass shop in New York, I doubt their president woulda walked up to my desk – like Don Just did – to whisper, “Psst, we’re takin’ the timeshare jet to Palm Beach for the weekend and stayin’ at The Breakers.” (What followed was kinda like Spring Break, but without the youth, beauty, or sex.)

Not all small agencies were as fun as Martin was in the ‘80s. Come to think of it, it was probably the crazy decade of the ‘80s that got us nuts. Nah. It was us. We were crazy. Well, maybe five of us were crazy. Okay, I was crazy.

We’d gather almost nightly in one area bar or another, and not just Martin Agency people. The creative departments from other city agencies (Siddall, Matthus & Coughter, Lawler Ballard, Ford & Westbrook) gathered at joints like Humphrey’s, Jay’s, Strawberry Street Café, and Joe’s Inn; the last of which still has some of our brain cells on the ceiling, plus I think Mahoney left an open tab there.

Cynicism and sarcasm were the coinage of our realm, and we encouraged leaning into people’s cubicles to insult their work, looks, age, sexual orientation, whatever was handy. Insults were so common on the third floor they were the default setting of all hallway greetings. In fact, to signify you actually had something nice to say to someone, you had to lean in, speak, and then back away with two raised and open hands. (“I’m unarmed, not a threat.”)

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Rollover to enlarge.

Sometimes blanket insults were called for, such as the time I tacked this list to the third-floor bulletin board. It was for all “my” art directors, a list of rules about proper behavior while riding my coattails to the One Show. (My favorite being rule 5, somethin’ about, “Be quiet, I’m trying to think up here.” Boom!)

Though Richmond was a small ad town back then and never made the New York Times (well, once) we all wanted to crush each others’ dreams in the local ad competition, burn their pathetic villages, and leave their old women wailing in the streets, “Why do we suck so much?”

Actually we were all great friends and we’d help any and all with concepts and share our ideas scribbled on bar napkins. In fact, it was the napkin-layouts that gave my friend Cabell Harris the idea for Drinking Buddies Advertising and the logo. I managed to save only a piece of the stationery but the business card was cooler; an actual napkin with ad scribbles on it. (Oh, and the Martin Agency toilet paper? That’s from the bathroom during a party at an agency across town, Westbrook Inc.) Also pictured below is the entire creative department of Drinking Buddies Advertising. (Cabell, me, Danny Boone at the Strawberry Street Café branch office). Like Martin, we were a small agency too; we just didn’t have a health plan. (No wait, we did. “Try to switch to filtered cigarettes and always eat the fruit in your drink.”)

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Our good boss, Mike Hughes, somehow put up with all this foolishness and freelancing, as he had only to peek out his office to see we worked pretty hard at our day jobs. Still, I’m not sure any of it woulda been possible at a big-ass agency (or under a different creative director).

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There are more stories to tell another day. For now I’ll part with these last two pictures, both of me and Cabell Harris. It clearly shows what horrible things 30 years in the business can do to a person. Forgive me for leaving out all kinds of wonderful Martin Agency people, but that core group, you guys know who you are: Andy, Cabell, Christi, Danny, Diane, Hal, HV, Jane, Jerry, Mahoney, Russ, Tyson, and Wayne-us. I love you guys.)

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