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

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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.

 

 

A Delightful End to My Week. A Clever Assignment from a SCAD Design Prof Results in Sweet Gift from SCAD Ad Student.

HALEY

A couple of weeks ago, a freshman ad student here at SCAD — Haley Kochersberger — contacted me and said she’d like to interview me for a “writing assignment.” I thought it was just one of those assignments students sometimes have, you know, to go interview people in the industry.

So, we met, and of course I went on and on about my excellent self. She asked some interesting questions, and then we parted.

Three weeks pass.

Today she shows up in my office with a gift. (See pic)

Turns out “the writing assignment” was a ruse. The real assignment was to interview someone and figure out what would be the perfect gift you could make for them.

At one point in the interview she asked me, “Tell me something quirky about your childhood.” So I recounted for her this silly New Year’s Eve ritual we used to have years ago in the Sullivan family. At the time, I was taking Latin in school and it occurred to me that the singular of confetti was arguably “confettus,” which I thought would be a fine word for Webster’s to include in their next edition, defining a single teeny square of colored paper.

So, from that New Year’s on, instead of throwing confetti, we invoked our annual ritual of the “Throwing of the Confettus.” At precisely 12:00am, my brothers and Mom would all cheer as I threw a single tiny square of colored paper into the air.

Silly, I know.

I just love this shot of Haley and her sweet gift. I know it’s impossible to see here, but nestled inside the box, set like a diamond in felt, is an actual confettus. And in the envelope under the band, a helpful instruction book on how one goes about actually throwing a confettus.

Congrats to both SCAD Design professor Warren Thorp on a brilliant class assignment and to student Haley Kochersberger on a brilliant execution. And such a sweet gift. Thanks to both of you.

I believe there’s something more powerful than creativity. (I’m serious.)

More and more these days I’ve begun to think creativity isn’t the most important thing in an ad campaign. Heresy, I know, but I’m thinkin’  there is another way – possibly a better one – for a brand to stand out.

See, the thing is we’re a nation of eye-rollers. We’re cynics. Nothing is authentic anymore. We put finger-quotes around everything.

This national eye-rolling and “yeah whatever” didn’t happen overnight. Our sense of ironic remove is the result of a steady drip of lies from every authority figure we’ve ever set on every pedestal throughout history.

The heavens began to fall (in this writer’s opinion) when President Dick Nixon was exposed as the paranoid felon he was. That was in 1974 and ever since we’ve watched pedestals fall like dominoes as icon after icon was exposed as a liar, a cheat, a criminal, a pederast. Murderous policemen, horny congressmen (remember “wide stance”?), and priests PRIESTS, don’t even get me started. The Wall Street dirtbags, the Enron asshats … the nightly news is an endless perp walk of fallen heroes laid so comically low even our best satirists cannot summon the necessary irony.  Well, Fran Lebowitz came close when she wrote, “No matter how cynical I get, it’s impossible to keep up.”

Even as I write these words, on the news I am watching yet another Florida judge tell yet another pudgy white cretin after killing yet another black man, “Dude, we can’t stay mad at youuuu.”

And so we are a nation of skeptics, cynics and eye-rollers. It isn’t just that our bullshit detectors are set on high; it’s our truth detectors; those we turned off a long time ago. There isn’t any.

Okay, so here’s my question. Given all this, how can any brand manager continue to think people are going to believe his commercials? People don’t believe the news anymore. Considering all this, is more creativity really the answer?

Well, obviously, creativity’s important, but I’ve come to believe that right now the fastest way to stand out in this blizzard of bullshit is to tell the truth.

In The Art of Immersion, author Frank Rose wrote, “People today are experiencing an authenticity crisis, and with good reason. Value is a function of scarcity. And in a time of scripted ‘reality’ TV and Photoshop everywhere, authenticity is a scarce commodity.”

If I were a brand manager today, I’d at least have a go at accurately describing my product with candor and honesty, without superlatives, and maybe throw in a dollop of self-deprecation. And I’d publicly admit, “Yes, we have an agenda. We want you to buy our stuff.”

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Crispin wanted you to buy Domino’s pizza and they brought the brand back to life with honesty (“We heard our pizza isn’t so great.”) and transparency (“Here’s what we’re doing to improve it.”) It isn’t rocket science, as Bogusky himself explained: “This generation knows you’re trying to sell them something. And you know they know. So let’s just drop the pretense and make the whole experience as much fun as possible.”

I’m reminded of one of my favorite ads, the ’60s VW ad shown here. While Detroit was selling “sizzle” and chrome and bullshit, VW shrugged its shoulders and went, “We don’t mind. Have fun at the party.”

So this is where I net out these days: the most unusual thing a brand can do to show up on a consumer’s radar is to be authentic. To be real. To cut the bullshit and quit trying to hide the fact that you’re trying to sell them something. Be authentic. Talk about about your brand the way you would tell a friend. You wouldn’t lie. You wouldn’t exaggerate. You wouldn’t use exclamation points. You wouldn’t oversell. You wouldn’t “spin.”

You’d say, “Hey, check this cool thing out. It works pretty well. I bought one. Maybe you’d like it too.”

Very smart guest-posting by a former student: Racism, Xenophobia, and the Super Bowl Coke spot.

Double-selfie of me and my smart student, Igor Tanzil.
Double-selfie of me and my smart student, Igor Tanzil.

I had, for a number of reasons, left out Coca-Cola’s “Beautiful” Super Bowl spot by W+K out of my ad picks of the year. The first reason being that it didn’t quite move me like my other options did. It was a spot that is worthy of the Wieden + Kennedy name: a larger than life message for a larger than life brand that was executed to a tee. Nevertheless, it didn’t elicit enough emotion in me to warrant a spot in my favorites. Maybe its because I’m not an American, or maybe its because I’m not a huge fan of soda; whatever the case, I saw it, appreciated it for the beautiful sentiment that it presented and moved on.

Now, the second reason I left it out was the obvious can of worms it presented. The moment the lyrics of “America the Beautiful” was sung in another language, I smiled. It changed to another, and another, and the spot culminated in a number of languages I hardly recognized. As previously stated, it was a beautiful sentiment and I admired both W+K and Coke for it. I was however, almost immediately fearful for the backlash it might bring upon itself and chose to avoid touching the subject. Call it cowardice, call it indifference, whatever – I left it alone.

That is of course until the following couple days. I hold my Facebook friends and other social media contacts in high esteem in the fact that I didn’t have to see too many negative reactions to the ad in any sort of agreeable fashion, and for that, kudos my friends: this post is for you.

So a little background for the unaware: Two iconic American companies, Coca-Cola and W+K, presented the nation with a message of tolerance and grace that is a direct reflection of the global world we live in today. Of course, the internet and its denizens reacted as one might suspect and you can find evidence of this on Coca-Cola’s Facebook page, their YouTube spot, and this nice compilation by Matt Binder on his blog: Public Shaming.

In one fell swoop, the consolidated vermin and scum in a country that preached racial equality and world peace came out of the woodwork. Bigots rose as one and cast their Cokes in protest, armchair politicians and closeted Klan members took to their keyboards and bullhorns; and so revealed are a nation’s worst.

I am, admittedly, not a political person and am for the most part content with confining my political views and outrages to close friends and family. However, something like this deserves a little more attention. The unfortunate lifeforms that took to the web are a sad reminder to the many nay-sayers out there that bigotry and racism are alive and well. Lest we forget, hate breeds hate and the clear heads that preach tolerance and understanding are few and far between. In my humble opinion, when you actively hate a culture and people so much as to express your hate in public – please stifle your surprise when they reciprocate.

I grew up in three different countries, I was shaped by two cultures not of my own, and I am more fluent in a language that is not my mother tongue. Such is the nature of a modern, global society. And yet, even in a country that proclaimed world dominance with the right to maintain a role as peacekeeper, such hate persists.

Every remark that condemns this ad is a reminder to all that we are indeed different.

Every can of Coke thrown in anger is a call to others to hate.

We often forget just how easily a little discrimination can lead to full blown war. And to react to a soda ad with such vigorous spite? I’d wager some money that these people also believe that the world is flat and that the sun is in motion around their sad pathetic lives.

To Wieden + Kennedy and Coca-Cola, rock on. No matter how you cut it, the commercial conveyed a message that is apparently ahead of its time. To you and the rest of us who saw the ad and didn’t immediately turn into a degenerate: take solace. For every bigot out there attempting a Coke boycott, the rest of us will go on towards a future that is quickly leaving them behind.

To those who have the urge to express anger towards a multilingual take on a song, please take a moment to consider this:

Your actual nation anthem – called The Star-Spangled Banner, by the way – has not actually been defiled in any way.

Your vision of an all white nation under an enforced language is a similar aspiration held by a one Adolf Hitler in the early half of the twentieth century.

Also, given all the effort put forth by both the ad agency and Coca-Cola to make this commercial a reality, it is safe to assume that countless hours have gone into studying any possible backlash and response from the ad. You, and your inbred bigoted kin have been considered and deemed to be in the minority (or a fantastic emotional pressure point to exploit).

Finally, to those who insist that you aren’t a racist with the argument that the English language is a sacred unifying factor in the United States, well consider this: If your language is the last and sole unifying thread for the country, then the country itself has some issues.

Love of country, regardless of who you are, is an intangible feeling that goes beyond language. It is a feeling that is borne out of familiarity, appreciation of everything your country has given you, and most importantly, the people that make up your country. Countries aren’t divided by language, to that point, why aren’t you the United States of America, Australia, Canada, England, New Zealand, Singapore, South Africa?

A country is an ideal, a feeling, a place, a home.

I’ve watched in envy as people call America “home” regardless of where they are from and regardless of the language they are most comfortable speaking. This is the ideal that made so many of us foreigners flock here, and whether or not we will ever be accepted, we look to this ideal as a beacon of what could be. America, the beautiful, will remain beautiful regardless of what’s being spoken on the street. And my country, Indonesia, will still be mine even after we’ve incorporated the English language into our education. Because at the end of the day, home isn’t defined by a language, a language is but a means to understand.

It’s just a crying ass shame that so much misunderstanding has to fall in between.

- Igor Tanzil

• • • • • • • • • • • •

NOTE: It’s a sad day when the Americans I’m proudest of are from other countries. You rock, Igor.

R.I.P. Mike Hughes, The Most Loved Man in All of Advertising.

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On January 24th, someone told me Mike Hughes was sick again, and when I read his first blog posting it broke my heart.

The first entry on Mike Hughes’s blog: I’m supposed to die tomorrow. Hope not. Two weeks ago, the doctors gave me two weeks to live.  I’m pretty sure they’ll be proven wrong.  In fact, I’m actually making plans now for next week.  A friend now in Ethiopia is planning to travel here at the end of next week. I told him to get here as soon as possible because I might have a funeral I have to attend at the end of the week.

And so began a long series of essays on his blog, Unfinished Thinking: Some Thoughts on Living and Dying.  Today, December 15th at 9:30am, Mike finally died. I have been thinking about him all year long and this morning paged through my journals to read all our emails, all the messages we’d sent back and forth throughout 2013.

Mike was one of those guys who could make fun of himself, and as you can see from this first email, even his cancer was not off limits for comic material.

April email from Mike to me, Mike Lescarbeau, and Jim Riswold: I need new jokes about my situation.  By now everybody’s heard me say that after 15 years of dire warnings I’m embarrassed to still be alive.  They’ve all heard me say that if you want beautiful women to tell you how good you look, get cancer.  I’ve got a million of ‘em. Actually, I don’t. Like all old men I repeat corny old jokes over and over—I can’t help it.  I’m sick of hearing me say these things.  I need new material to run into the ground. I always give credit to others when I tell their stories or jokes.  As you suggested, I picked up one or two things from Tig Notaro’s stand-up.  I’ll really have to give her credit since so many have listened to her routine.  Got any good lines for me? –Mike

Email response from me to Mike: Okay, I’ll send you some. But as a writer I need a deadline. How long do I have? Get it? “How long do I have?”

The jokes I penned for him are lost somewhere in the e-ether but I remember one, somethin’ about “Dibs on your pain killers.” Giving Mike grief was a pastime I remember with great fondness, one that began back in 1983 when I first began to work at the Martin Agency (I think I was creative hire #10). But it was Mike’s taste in movies that was the most common target of my derision. He styled himself a bit of a “film buff” and rarely missed a visit to Sundance with his wife Ginny. Myself, being a middle-of-the-road movie moron (I love stuff like LOTR and Dark Knight) well, we had plenty of mean-spirited things to say to each other.

Email to Mike, Mike Lescarbeau, and Jim Riswold: Mr. Hughes is under the mistaken impression that since he’s sick he gets a  “Get out of jail free” card regarding his hoighty-toighty taste in  movies, or “fil-um” as I think he probably calls it privately. And so, I am very sorry to shock any of you with this news item, (received seconds ago from the World of Rational People who Judge things Fairly and Accurately and are not Drunk with I-was-at-Sundance-and-Saw-a-celebrity Fever)… but the movie Lincoln? Sorry, it was not a good movie. We wouldn’t even be talking about it if anyone other than Spielberg had directed it. …  –Mr. Sullivan

And then in my journal (not an email, just a diary entry) this: … The past two days I have been blue thinking about my old boss Mike Hughes and his losing battle with cancer. People are flooding his Facebook page with well wishes. I just sent him a private message that said, “I love you, old friend. Hey, if you are well enough to watch movies, lemme know what you’re watching. I promise to watch it and also like it without sending you the usual disparaging note about your taste in movies.” And he wrote back: “I don’t want my near-death experience to be inconvenient for your movie-going, but I bet you still haven’t made it through the attached list I sent you last month.” Lordy, it hurts to see this good man leave us so early. He’s only 66 or so. Christ.

A June email to me from Mike: How are you?  Hope all is well. Richard Pine at Inkwell Management in NYC is talking to a ghost writer about turning my blog into some kind of book.  We’ll see what happens with that.  (Or, given my current prognosis, I should say you’ll see what happens with that.)  The writer is looking for additional samplings of things I’ve written.  Of course, if it’s not on my hard drive, I haven’t saved it.  Mike Lear mentioned to me once, I think, that you actually saved some things I wrote back in the ’80s.  You wouldn’t still have anything would you?  If so, could you send a copy to Susan? Don’t bother with it if it’s any problem. How’s academic life?  Want to teach at the Brandcenter? –M

An email I sent to Mike in September: Hey Mike: My son Reed smokes. I’ve been trying to get him to quit for the longest time. I have never expected my occasional emails would have any real effect. … . He remembers meeting you in the RIC airport with me. My possibly inappropriate request is this. A message to him from you, a man with cancer, a man who never smoked a cig in his life, who rages against the dying of the light writes to say, Jesus, what he would give for the health that young smokers so blithely ignore.  You could also then use this email to a young smoker as a blog posting; two birds one stone sorta deal. If you are either unwilling or unable to do this please accept my apologies for asking and know I love you anyway. –Luke

Mike wrote this email, that same day, to my son Reed: We’ve met once or twice over the years.  I worked with your mom and dad a long time ago at The Martin Agency in Richmond.  If you think your dad’s crazy now, you should have seen him then. ¶ Of course, being crazy is one of the privileges of being young.  Hell, it might even be one of the obligations of being young.  If I could live some of my early years over again, I guarantee I would have been a little crazier. ¶ But I hope I wouldn’t have been stupider.  There’s a difference between crazy and stupid.  Crazy is a tattoo.  Stupid is a cigarette.  I personally don’t understand why anyone would get a tattoo; I bet most of our tattooed brothers and sisters regret the decision they made back when they were young (crazy) and drunk (crazy.) But a tattoo is a crazy they can live with.  ¶ My dad started smoking in the pre-World War II days when all the young guys were doing it.  Three packs a day.  As much as he loved the taste of the Camels and Kents he smoked, he came to hate the habit.  It made him quit the sport he loved (tennis) and it undoubtedly hastened his death in the mid ’80s.  He tried to quit many times.  But a 3-pack-a-day habit developed over many years doesn’t go away easily. ¶ He didn’t live to know that the second-hand smoke he left in his wake was almost certainly the likely reason his only son—a lifelong nonsmoker—developed lung cancer.  I’ve had radical surgery to remove a lung.  I’ve been through seven or eight different kinds of chemotherapy programs—half of which kept me sick most of the time.  A collapsed lung sent me to the hospital for a week. I’ve had three or four different radiation programs.  I’ve been hospitalized with a pulmonary embolism.  I’ve spent an entire summer in American Cancer Society’s Hope Lodge while undergoing various treatments.  I’ve been told that my cancer has spread to my pancreas.  To my liver. To my brain. I take 14 or 15 doses of medicine every morning, mostly pills, but also injections and creams.  I take half that many again at night.  And about a half a dozen during the day.  Three times a day I do a horrible tasting, 12-minute nebulizer breathing routine.  I spend almost all my time hooked up to an oxygen machine.  I’m going to see an ophthalmologist in a couple hours because my vision’s gotten a little weird lately. ¶ I’ve had to live with the public humiliations and indignities that go with this serious disease. There have been times when I can’t allow myself to go too far away from the bathroom. A couple of times I’ve coughed up a little blood.   It’s usually hard to eat solid foods.  My hands shake sometimes;  my wife or my sister have had to cut up food for me a couple of times. One night while dining with friends at a nice restaurant I repeatedly threw up some strange kind of phlegm on my plate of food.  I’ve listened to the lies friends told me about how good I look when my hair has thinned away and my face has puffed up.  I’ve found out too late at times that I’m not strong enough to climb even one or two stairs.   I’ve given up a number of things I loved:  diving, skiing, foreign travel.  I often cancel visits with friends because I’m just not up to it. ¶ Several times I’ve had to tell my wife and my sons the statistics about how long I have before I am expected to die.  I’ve had to say goodbye to family and friends I thought I’ll never see again.  Lately, it’s become hard to eat solid foods:  my chest feels clogged, my breathing becomes labored, my eyes water uncontrollably. ¶ All that said, I know how lucky I am.  While I often feel sickly and uncomfortable, I’ve rarely felt much pain.  And, amazingly and against all odds, even though I’ve had lung cancer for at least 18 years, I’m still alive.  I don’t usually feel great, but I’m still able to love my life.  And I do. ¶ Increasing your odds of getting cancer is stupid.  When my dad’s generation of young men—the “greatest generation”—started smoking, they didn’t know what we know now.  They thought smoking made them look more sophisticated, more mature.  When young people start smoking now, they just look young and stupid.  That’s what everyone says.  “Look at those kids lighting up.”  “Oh, they’re so young.”  “So stupid.” ¶ The only good news I have about it for you right now is this:  recent research confirms it’s easier to quit the habit now, when it’s still relatively new. Quit. Don’t just try to quit, quit.  Make your mom or dad a serious $1000 bet that you won’t smoke at all for the next year.  Do something crazy a year from now with the money you win.  Just don’t do anything stupid. ¶ You don’t really know me, but I really care about what you do here.  If you do quit now—and stay off the tobacco for a year—my wife Ginny and I will also give you  $1000 to go crazy with.  She’s cc’d here because you might have to give her the good news about the money she owes you after I’m gone.  (Every day is a gift for me now.)  ¶ Please let me know your decision. –Love, Mike

I’d love to report that Mike’s long and thoughtful email convinced my son to stop smoking, but no. Still, I think Mike’s thoughts may yet save my son from this terrible disease.

Email last week from me to Mike: Yo Mike: The passing of Mandela prompts me to nominate him for sainthood. But you, Mike, maybe you could be the patron saint of less pressing causes. Off the top of my head, I think you’d be a great patron saint of, say, the proper use of it’s-versus-its. I myself continue to take the lord’s name in vain every time I see that mistake make its way into print. But perhaps that is too small a cause. I’m pretty sure there’s an opening for patron saint of “Please let me win a $100,000 in next year’s Mercury Radio Awards.” (If you do end up landing that gig, can you ask around to see why my half a million prayers were just, like, TOTALLY ignored?) Your many fans will probably suggest your beatification be instead for some high-falutin’ post, like “Patron Saint of Niceness” or something. Which is cool. Yeah, YOU take that one Mike. I probably won’t land the $100k Mercury Award gig, but when I come up to take the helm as, who knows, Patron Saint of Scratch-Off Lottery Tickets, the first cloud I’m gonna be stopping at is yours, dude, because you’re gonna be a real saint, mos def. –Luke

What I thought was my last letter to Mike: I have put off writing this letter, a real letter, because I don’t know what to say other than I love you. I had a dream about you last night where I finally decided to simply call you on the phone and in the dream I remember saying “I think about you every day” and I was crying as I said it. Thank you for being the best boss I ever had. Ever. Thank you for showing up with your credit card that day I cluelessly showed up in Richmond without a way to pay for the hotel. Thank you for putting up with my erratic and ungrateful behavior during my using years. Thank you for having breakfast that one day in 1983 when you showed me a picture of your son and said, “Kids are the best reminder that there is a life outside of advertising.” Thank you for giving me five of the best years of my career, maybe the best, at The Martin Agency when it was a small agency. And thanks for expecting better writing from me. Even to this moment I’d like to impress you and I wish this letter were better. (Do they give One Show medals for letters? No? Then who gives a shit, right?)  Anyway, I don’t have a punchy ending. My heart is breaking. I love you, old friend. –Luke

But as it turned out, this was the last email I wrote to Mike, sent last week on December 6th: Hey Mike: Here are four poems from the only poet I have ever liked, Billy Collins. [In this post, I include below only one of them.] My mom turned me onto him many years ago. I love every word this guy has written. Try downloading The Art of Drowning, for a start. The four poems I’m attaching here are about death, yet I find all of them comforting. ­–Luke

Memento Mori by Billy Collins

There is no need for me to keep a skull on my desk,

to stand with one foot up on the ruins of Rome,

or wear a locket with the sliver of a saint’s bone.

 

It is enough to realize that every common object

in this sunny little room will outlive me –

the carpet, radio, bookstand and rocker.

 

Not one of these things will attend my burial,

not even this dented goosenecked lamp

with its steady benediction of light,

 

though I could put worse things in my mind

than the image of it waddling across the cemetery

like an old servant, dragging the tail of its cord,

the small circle of mourners parting to make room.

 

The last email from Mike: Luke: OK. I made it through his poems. Then [because one of the poems was called Aristotle] I paged through some Aristotle history. I had no idea how weird Aristotle was about women.  (No weirder than Steinbach on the last page of Grapes of Wrath, but weird enough.)  One thing I both like and resent about this kind of poetry is that it encourages me to get involved. It encourages me to go to Aristotle or to think of the lamp in my office that will outlive me by years.  The reason the lamp thought is better than the Aristotle poem is that Aristotle requires a middle step that I might not want or have the time to take.  With iPads, etc., it’s easier to do the middle step—to get the background on Aristotle—but it’s still a step I’d rather not have to take. I prefer the thought laid out for me to agree with, disagree with, ponder. I’m rambling. Thanks for thinking of me. –M

That was the last email from Mike.

I was planning to write back to him tomorrow, maybe Tuesday. Since he didn’t appear to LOVE the poems I sent him, I was gonna fire off some of the usual snarky crap I send him, somethin’ about how he probably likes the crappy kind of poetry that’s in the New Yorker. (Seriously, I have never been able to decode even one New Yorker poem. Not one.)

Mike’s death today came as such a shock. It shouldn’t have, given his terminal cancer, but still, it felt sudden. I’d grown so used to Mike’s benevolent online presence. All through 2013 he was his normal, thoughtful, marvelous, even chatty self, writing honestly, unflinchingly, about life and death and love and family and all that important stuff we don’t usually talk about until we are certain the end is near.

I love you old friend. Good-bye, Mike Hughes, the most-loved man in advertising.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Old Man Sullivan Yells at Ad Kids from His Porch, “You Kids Just Git Now!”

Selling stuff is so much more important than people.
Selling stuff is so much more important than people.

Okay, I have the next viral branding stunt all figured. Just nailed it.

We go to a college and randomly pick ten freshmen for an “interview” in some office on campus. Obviously, the room will be wired for video and sound and we’ll record everything that is said. The fun starts when our moderator tells the first student:

MODERATOR: I am sorry to inform you that your father just died.

STUDENT: What?!  Wha…

(Oh, the look on her face is priceless.)

MODERATOR: No seriously,” we’ll say handing her a Kleenex, “your Dad, he’s like totally dead. Takin’ a dirt nap.”

STUDENT: My dad, you mean my…

MODERATOR: Yep. Dude fell out a seventh-story window, landed on a bike rack.  Ouch!  Now that’s gotta hurt. … Sooo, anyhoo…

STUDENT [CRYING]: This can’t be happening, it, it…

(Keep the tape rollin’ fellas, this is golden.)

That’s when our moderator says, “That Kleenex you’re using, to sop up all those blubbery cry-baby tears? That, my friend, that is the new more absorbent Kleenex. Boy howdy!”

STUDENT: What?! You….you fuc….

MODERATOR: Your Dad? He’s not dead, ya big silly. But … don’t you love how soft new improved Kleenex is?

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

Okay, so how is this stupid idea any different from those pranks we see more and more brands doing on YouTube?

Yes, they are clever but many of these pranks scare the heck out of people. Watch what they do to the poor lady in this video just to sell their stupid deodorant. The set-up of the stunt is very clever, no doubt, but does the lady look like she’s havin’ fun?

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The latest prank makin’ the rounds is a concept to promote the movie “Carrie.” Again, I love how clever the set-up is, but look carefully at the video. Do the people in the coffee shop look like they are havin’ fun?

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One could argue that this is experiential advertising; really good experiential stuff. Instead of just telling people that “Carrie” is frightening, they make them feel the product. On that score, this promo delivers.

But what if I staged, say, a terrorist take-over at La Guardia airport for the movie “United 93”?

Is a defense of “Well, come on!, We made people experience the product,” is that really justification?

I’ve told several friends how much I hate these fear-producing stunts, and some of my buddies just tell me to shut up and get over it. Maybe I am wrong. Maybe I’ve become the old guy on his porch shakin’ his fist and yellin’ “Now you kids git offa my lawn!”

But I’ll wager I’m not the only one who hates this crap. Am I?

 

Ad School Ain’t Like School School. (Or “Problem Finding VS Problem Solving.”)

Here’s the thing. I went to a School School but now I teach at an Ad School. And it’s really different.

At School School, you study the books they assign you, do the homework they give you, take the tests they hand out in class. You’re checkin’ the boxes so you can make your parents proud and get good grades.

Good grades are fantastic if you want to be a certified public accountant or a lawyer. (Please, don’t be a lawyer.)

However, for those of you trying to get into the ad business (or any creative industry for that matter), let me assure you that no recruiter or CD will ever ask you what your GPA was. They will not care what school you attended, nor will they care if you even graduated. All that counts is your book. “Show me the work” comes before “Show me the money.”

But getting to a great ad portfolio is very different — and much harder — than getting great grades.  Mostly because there’s a single correct answer for any test question, one you can usually find written down somewhere in a book. A great portfolio, on the other hand, is a big hot mess of mind-roastingly cool ideas pulled out of the thin blue air and executed so well they raise the hair on an interviewer’s arms. But the main difference is this: the really great books are the ones filled not with problems someone solved, but problems they found.

Problem finding is way cooler than problem solving. Problem solving is easy. You just wait at your desk and after a while someone brings you a problem to solve. And even if it’s a hard problem, it still has an answer, maybe several, but there is an answer.

The thing about problem-solving in advertising? It’ll never take you to an entirely new place. And if you’re not doing something entirely new, well, it’s a little bit like this marvelously snarky news item from The Onion.

‘TACO BELL’S FIVE INGREDIENTS COMBINED IN TOTALLY NEW WAY.”

“LOUISVILLE, KY–With great fanfare Monday, Taco Bell unveiled the Grandito, an exciting new permutation of refried beans, ground beef, cheddar cheese, lettuce, and a corn tortilla. ‘You’ve never tasted Taco Bell’s five ingredients combined quite like this,’ Taco Bell CEO Walter Berenyi said. ‘With its ground beef on top of the cheese but under the beans, it’s configured unlike anything you’ve ever eaten at Taco Bell.’”

See? You’re just sorta reorganizing things, stuff we’ve all seen before. But problem finding?

Problem finding is about exploring a thing so thoroughly, digging so deep, and thinking so creatively, that you begin to see around corners, and start asking questions — usually really stupid questions – and finally you flip the game so hard on its head that instead of thinking outside the box you sell the goddamned box on eBay and reinvent the problem, opening a hidden door that leads to more doors that all open into new and interesting places.

Remember, there was no job order for, say, Halo, or iTunes. Nobody walked in anyone else’s office and said, “Damn, if only you could solve this problem.”

Back in school, yeah, we solved problems; we sought order and found it in the predictable corners of the isosceles triangle. But in ad school, we’re looking for solutions to problems we don’t even know we have. Think about it. What “problem” did Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band solve?  What problem did YouTube solve?

Where problem solving ends after you solve the problem, problem finding means you’re just gettin’ started. And these cool discoveries, almost all of them happen out of a sense of play, not work, but play; they come out of the clear blue; out of a “Hey what if we…”

This leads me to a piece of advice I see becoming more and more relevant: “Always be inventing.”

Inventing means making something new; which is basically problem finding in my book. Inventing things uncovers new problems because with each iteration of a new idea, we see what are called “adjacent possibilities,” the definition of which somebody (can’t find the source just now) put this way: “The adjacent possible is what can be done with the next iteration using the elements present in this one.” The boundaries of the adjacent possible just keep growing as you explore the boundaries; doors opening onto doors.

So, don’t worry about grades. Just keep inventing.

(Or if you prefer, the Ellen-DeGeneres version from Finding Nemo: “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming.”)

 

“It’s not a principle until it costs you money.”

The quotation above is from the famous Bill Bernbach. I think it is one of the smartest things I’ve ever heard and is such a great way to truly describe what the word “principle” stands for. The best single example of somebody standing up for a principle (and having it cost them some money) was what my old friend, Wendy Ludlow Clark, did when my agency pitched for the company she worked for. Without saying names of brands or names of agencies, suffice to say that I was the CCO at the “losing agency” she mentions in her article below. I was there the day she came to our office to tell us who had really won the pitch (>ahem<)….and why it went to someone else. Wendy went on from that day to rise to the highest echelons of a far bigger brand (Coca-Cola)  and yet what she did on that long ago day is what I respect her most for. Excerpted below from the site LeanIn, this is an example of someone with principles in a business not famous for them.

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

Early in my career I encountered a situation that challenged my personal ethics and became a Lean In moment that forever shaped my life.

I was about 10 years into my career running an agency pitch for a campaign that would almost certainly gain national prominence. I was a director level/middle manager within the organization, but I was leading the campaign, so it was my responsibility to successfully lead the agency review.

Accepted practice when you run an agency review is to provide a fair and balanced opportunity for all the competing agencies in the process. Each agency is given equal access to internal knowledge, data, insights, experts and so on.  During the review period, agencies are not permitted to curry individual favor, time or insights with company contacts, as it can provide unfair advantage and can also muddy the clarity of decision-making for those involved from the client side.

In this instance, as we were ending the agency review (an intense 10 weeks), I discovered that an executive from one of the participating agencies and one of our senior executives had spent extended time together (a weekend golfing) during the review process.

Perhaps it was my naiveté, but I was shocked. To me this was, without question, outside of acceptable and appropriate boundaries and significantly compromised the integrity of the review and, indeed, the results.

Following corporate protocol, I immediately voiced my concerns to my direct boss. I was disenchanted and disheartened that this could have happened under my watch and my first thought was: How can I ever explain how this happened to the other competing agencies who have worked nonstop, in good faith, for the last 10 weeks?

Instead of agreeing with me, my boss essentially told me “sometimes things like this happen in business” and “to be a good soldier.” When I argued my point further, he said the agency decision had been made and that it came not only from him, but from his boss as well.

I was stunned. That night I sleeplessly wrestled with this outcome as I weighed my options. The same thoughts played through my head: This is not how you want to work. You know the chosen agency did not win the review. This can be the company’s decision, but it doesn’t have to be yours.

Adding to the dilemma was my personal life, including a new marriage and a new mortgage. I gingerly approached my husband about the possibility of separating myself from the decision and, therefore, my job. To my delight, the next morning I found a spreadsheet outlining our current financial situation. While we’d have to make some adjustments, we could meet our commitments without my salary.

So that day I went to work and resigned. News of my decision traveled rapidly through the organization.  Our CEO, confused about why his advertising director had quit, came to my office to express his disappointment, but I held firm.

Within a day, there was press coverage on my exit. That coverage was like a free want ad for a job and I received numerous job offers. I was amazed by the many emails and messages I received from friends and strangers alike congratulating me for “standing up for my values and principles.” And notably, while not a consolation, the “losing” agencies did feel some sense of vindication. Most importantly, I felt proud of myself for standing up for what I believed in.

Perhaps the most important learning from this experience that I carry with me today is this:  I’m pretty sure at the end of my life no one is going to wax lyrical about some advertising campaign I launched in 1999. But, if I do my best to lead with values, purpose and principles, they just might say that I was a decent person. And to me, that’s a far greater achievement.

Actual client comments turned into posters. Plus my worst-client story.

Check this site out. It's funny.

In your career you will hear many very stupid things. Your job, should you choose to accept it, is to keep a straight face and not laugh out loud. And this site just posted a nice series of some of the silliest client comments turned into posters. It’s very funny, very cool. My favorite client story is the “Mr. Froggy” story. It was a tale of such immense stupidity that you’ll just have to take my word for it that it really happened. I put it in my book Hey Whipple, Squeeze This. But here’s the excerpt:

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

Koncept Krushers can be bigger machines than just a client’s research department. The whole company may, in fact, be structured to blowtorch new ideas. This sounds cynical, I know, but I’ve seen it. I’ve stood right next to these furnaces myself and felt the licking of the flames.

Try this on.

The client in question was one of those Sisyphus accounts I described earlier. A big Fortune 500 company. Huge. The kind that asks for tons of stuff that’s always due the next morning and you find out later it’s for a product they’re thinking about introducing 10 years from now.

So, anyway, this poor art director is stuck on a Sisy Corp type of account. She doesn’t know this, so the day she gets a job for a big TV commercial, she’s excited, right?

Well, she and her partner begin working on it. After a vast amount of work, they have a couple cool ideas. I mean some really smart things that also happen to be potential award winners (or “podium wobblers,” as they’re called in Britain).

Cut to next scene, meeting number 1 with the client — all of their ideas are dead. The reason? Doesn’t matter. (You’ll see.)

So they get to work on another series of ideas to present in meeting number 2. Days later, there’s excitement in the creative department, rejuvenation. “We’ve done it again!”

Time wipe: It’s meeting number 3. The client opens the meeting by announcing they’ve changed the strategy.

Okay, here’s where we cut to that movie cliché — the clock hands spinning ’round and ’round, the calendar pages flying off the wall. The changes keep coming in. The client doesn’t like the idea. Or they cut the budget. Or they change the product, or they change the strategy. One time it’s the client himself who’s changed — fired, actually — and now there’s a new client who wants something totally different. Whatever it is, it’s always something.

It gets worse.

During meeting number 4 through number 63, the campaign is watered down, softened, and diluted so much that the final commercial is precisely as interesting as a bag of hair. The last interesting thing in the commercial is successfully removed in meeting number 63. An optimist might say that things should have gone smoothly from here on out. (“For cryin’ out loud. It’s a bag of hair! What’s left to complain about?”) But there are no optimists in advertising.

It’s Friday. The scheduled day of meeting number 64.

Meeting number 64 isn’t even a very important meeting, given that the CEO signed off back around meeting number 50 or so. But there needed to be a few dozen more “For Your Information” sort of presentations, and if any of them went badly the agency would have to start over.

The meeting begins. The art director goes through the old moves, trying to remember the fun of presenting it the first time. But there’s no spark left. She just . . . presents it.

The client sits there. Says nothing at first.

The client then reaches down into her purse and pulls out a small Kermit the Frog doll. (This really happened.) It’s one of those flexible dolls, and she begins bending the frog’s arms around so that its hands are covering its ears. Then the client says: “Mr. Froggy doesn’t like some of the things he’s hearing.”

This really happened.

The client actually said, “Mr. Froggy doesn’t like some of the things he’s hearing.”

Let me put it this way. There are two kinds of hell. There’s “Original” and then there’s “Extra Crispy.” This was Extra Crispy.

Well, Ms. Froggy-Lady, as she came to be known, wasn’t able to kill the commercial, only make it a little worse—a feat in itself. And so, finally, in meeting number 68, the whole company had signed off on this one storyboard.

All in all, it took 68 presentations to hundreds of MBAs in dozens of sweaty presentation rooms. In fact, there were some sarcastic agency memos to the media department suggesting that since the commercial had been shown to thousands of people already, there may not be a need to air it at all.

The creative team went back to the agency, opened two beers, and sat looking at the sunset through the windows of their offices on the 30th floor. There, over the body of the original storyboard that lay on the floor, they performed an advertising postmortem, discussing the more shocking moments of its horrifying death.

Eavesdropping, a casual listener might have thought the two had just come out of the theater and were talking about a horror movie. (“Yeah! And remember when that one guy came in and ripped all its guts out? Man, I did not see that coming at all.”)

That’s when they noticed something out their window — something disturbing.

Outside their window was a 40-story building.

The thing is, the 40-story building wasn’t there the day they began working on the commercial.

With horror, the creative team realized that a building had been raised, built from a 30-foot-deep hole in the ground and 40 stories into the sky, faster than their little 12-frame storyboard had been destroyed and approved.

Why do I tell you this? To chase you away from the business?

No, to steel you for it.

This stuff happens all the time. And keep in mind, none of these clients were stupid people. (Well, we can discuss Froggy-Lady later.) They were all pretty sharp businesspeople, trying as hard as they could to solve a problem for their brand. But as smart and nice as they all were individually, a calcified approval process had crept into the company’s structure, and it became completely impossible to get a decent idea out the door.

This happens all the time. Be ready.

SuperBowl XLVII: How to blow $126 grand per second.

Everybody’s got their faves from the commercials on the Super Bowl. But let’s talk about the bottom feeders.

(Okay, fine. As for favorites, mine happened to end up pretty far down the list of the infamous USA Today Ad Meter: the spot for Oreos (“Whispering in the Library”) made it to only #26. I also happened to like #20, the silly argument between Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd for Samsung. Both spots had all the right SuperBowl-ness to them while at the same time building their story directly around product benefits.)

Nah, favorites have been done. But what about the bottom feeders?

Calvin Klein Guy in underwear
Anheuser-Busch Black Crown party
Anheuser-Busch Beck’s Sapphire fish singing
Anheuser-Busch Black Crown “coronation”
GoDaddy.co Bar Refeali make out

Between you and me, I sure wouldn’t wanna be the brand manager at Calvin Klein who said, “Trust me, this is a Super Bowl spot.” Fact is, the CK spot would’ve sucked on the local farm prices report. Sue me, but I think fashion is the last great hold-out to good advertising. The whole fashion category still seems convinced advertising has to be flash without substance. As long as this belief persists, fashion brands will continue to be the bimbo of the advertising world.

I’m still scratchin’ my head about Anheuser-Busch’s three crappy spots. A-B usually occupies the top spots of the list but this year they stomped $11 million down a rat hole with three commercials that prove yet again your strategy has to be just right, before you do the creative.  In fact, it’s hard to find any strategy at all in the spot titled (ironically) “Here’s to Taste.”

The opening line? “We summoned the finest of this nation to help us taste and choose a golden amber lager.”

The helpful video shows us that the “finest of this nation” is a fake-roomful of AMW’s from Los Angeles. (AMW’s – “actress-model-whatever.”) Criminy. It reminds me of one of my favorite toasts — Steve Martin in the movie Roxanne: “I’d rather be with you people than with the finest people in the world!”

And yet, even after Anheuser hit bottom with “Here’s to Taste”, they kept digging the rest of their way to China with another commercial further defining “the finest of the nation.”

The VO says: “The loud. … The savvy. … The famous. … It took all of us to taste and choose the new Budweiser Black Crown.”

Seriously? Somebody needs to hang up a sign in Anheuser’s break room that says “Crack is for weekend use only.”

The final spot where A-B blew $3.8 million was for Beck’s Black Sapphire. Here the “idea” was a Pixar-like black goldfish sorta swimmin’ around the bottle. I’m guessing they got to this idea by first seeing the beer as “black gold” and then taking that > > > to black goldfish. (“Dude, a black goldfish. You nailed it!!”)

Typically, I never criticize other people’s work in public. Fact is, I’ve done some pretty miserable work of my own. Still, I’m making an exception of these three spots because Anheuser-Busch, … they should know better.

I’ll also happily make an exception to criticize the annual national embarrassments that are the commercials  from GoDaddy.

Yes, bringing up the rear — the spot with the poorest rating – was GoDaddy.  Once again, they didn’t disappoint and aired an execrable spot in which a curvaceous model French kisses a guy who has the skin condition known as rosacea; complete with the squirm-inducing wet sounds of a serious make-out. This isn’t marketing. It’s a drunk frat boy with $3.8 million to blow. Too bad, especially considering GoDaddy ran another spot that wasn’t about boobs or bad taste; it wasn’t half bad. Go figure.

In any case, there you have it. The five worst commercials of Super Bowl XLVII. They cost $11 million in media alone.

If only they had listened to my marketing plan I could’ve made these companies millions in cold hard cash. Here it is.

“Don’t run these spots.”

Boom. $11 mill, right there. You’re welcome.