How Not To Suck as a Creative Director.

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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.


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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.)

 

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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World Stops as Area Blogger Unveils New Look, Greatest Hits List.

The world today is full of pain and bad news. In the streets of Aleppo, of Gaza, and Ferguson, Missouri, bad shit is happening. Which is why the world needs a really stupid blog like this one.

It’s stupid mostly because I wrote it. But it’s also stupid because the main focus is advertising, a profession (affliction) thought by most to be immoral at worst, irritating at best.

Seriously, what the hell is wrong with us ad geeks? Caring as much as we do about something as nerdy as advertising?

Well, I don’t get it either, but here we are ¬– stayin’ late at the office or stayin’ up all night at school, trying to come up with a new way to make people give a flying f••k about Mrs. Paul’s Fish Sticks. And so I figured, we need something to read in order not to get too depressed about Aleppo, Gaza, and Ferguson.

I hope you like the new design. (Done by a SCAD ad student; a paid gig, btw.) HeyWhipple’s been up and running since 2010 and over the years I’ve managed to post a few things that didn’t suck too bad. And so, by way of reintroduction, I include below a list of links to some of my favorite posts over the years.

I hope to start posting again with some regularity, now that school’s about to start. Feel free to follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or to subscribe. (Buttons below to the right.)

ESSAYS ON ADVERTISING:

Is Your Ad Complete Bullshit? Try This Simple Test.

“I See Dead Ad Jobs.” Thoughts on an ad business facing the digital tsunami.

How To Advertise to a Nation of Eye-Rollers.

Content Is King. (Excerpt from new edition of Hey Whipple, Squeeze This.)

Big Ideas vs. Long Ideas.

On Making Things Better Than They Have To Be Made.

ADVICE TO STUDENTS AND JUNIORS:

How I Learned Not To Suck. As Much.

Advice on Putting Together Your Book.

Do Not Tolerate Brutal Creative Directors.

How To Last in a Tough Business That’s Filled with Rejection.

An Open Letter to a Creative on the Ropes.

Please Give This Essay Your Full Attention. (The power of focus.)

The New Creative is T-Shaped.

Interns Should Be Paid. (With Money.)

On Picking Your Favorite Flavor of Suck.

Get Great at Writing Radio and You’ll Probably Always Have a Job.

Problem Solving vs. Problem Finding

Why Creativity is Exactly Like Washing A Pig.

Good Creative People are NEVER Bored.

On Presentation Skills.

What I Learned About Presenting From Doing Stand-Up.

ESSAYS I WISH CLIENTS WOULD READ:

On Being a Devil’s Advocate vs. an Angel’s Advocate.

An E-Mail I Came THIS Close to Sending to a Client About Her Micro-Managing.

Why You Shouldn’t Put Too Much Stuff in Your TV Spots.

The Home For Tired Old Ideas.

The Two States of Consumer Awareness: Shopping for Vegetables vs. Being a Vegetable.

What Having a Bad Client Feels Like, as told by a Plumber.

The Best Client I Ever Had: Wendy Ludlow Clark, now of Coca-Cola.

HEROES

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

On Having Heroes.

My Favorite Writing Teacher: Poet Billy Collins

One of the Best Pieces of Creative Advice I Ever Received. From Anne Lamott.

The Day My Favorite Writer Ray Bradbury, Died.

REALLY STUPID STUFF

My Pitch to Chiquita Bananas.

Social Media vs. Those Whacky Waving Arm-Flailing Inflatable Tube Men.

Advertising after the Zombie Apocalypse.

Who Else Hates those Pop-Up Ads That Show Up in the Middle of Your Movie?

The Ad Industry’s Most Common Error: Media vs. Mediums.

A Stupid Film I Made to Make Fun of Pat Fallon’s new Big-Ass Office.

The Prestigious “Pardon Airport Construction Signs Creativity Gala.”

SELF-PROMO STUFF (Me, Wonderful Me.)

An After-Effects Self-Promo Piece Done by a SCAD Student.

The Most Interesting Night I Had in all of 2012.

My Single Fave Thing I Ever Did While Working for Norwegian Cruise Lines.

33 Years in the Ad Biz, and This Was My Favorite Campaign. And it’s Radio.

The Day My Picture Showed Up In The Onion.

My fave winners in the latest CA Interactive Annual.

Full disclosure: I pretty much copied and pasted all this content from various sites around the web, some from adweek, some from Cannes. Please do not sue me as I’m basically a very nice person.

SURRENDER YOUR SAY

Overview: Tourette Syndrome is widely misunderstood. The Tourette Syndrome Foundation of Canada wanted people to comprehend the frustration, randomness and isolation of the condition by actually feeling the lack of control experienced by those living with the disorder. The Foundation worked with Saatchi & Saatchi Canada to launch Surrender Your Say, a campaign in which Twitter users relinquished control of their feed and allowed Tourette tics to be tweeted randomly under their name. It was controversial. It hadn’t been done before. And for a day, thousands felt what it was like to have Tourette Syndrome in front of millions of followers.

BMW A WINDOW INTO THE NEAR FUTURE

Overview: It’s been more than 30 years since American auto and oil industries preempted the original promise of electric cars, and BMW was eager to show New Yorkers that the future of mobility has finally arrived. To build awareness and create anticipation for the new, all-electric BMW i series, BMW transformed a street-level window’s reflection of live traffic on 6th Avenue into an idealistic vision of a world populated by (mostly) electric cars. Four creative agencies collaborated over seven months to design and build the installation, which used digital projection and motion-detection technology to swap BMW i3 and i8 vehicles for the actual cars in the window’s reflection, giving passersby an exhilarating glimpse into the near future.”

CARLY’S CAFE

Overview: Carly is a young woman living with autism, and is the co-author of the book Carly’s Voice: Breaking Through Autism. To help promote her book, john st. wanted to bring people as close as possible to the feeling of living in Carly’s world. Since autism inhibits “normal” social interaction, the project took the form of an interactive video over the course of which the user gradually loses control, an experience that mimics the loss of control and focus Carly describes in her book. The level of interactivity we are accustomed to in websites is also consciously inhibited, and the site gives us a first-person point of view into Carly’s experience.

THE MOBILE ORCHESTRA

Overview: In this innovative app-based holiday card, AKQA sent a clear message to friends, family, clients and beyond: the holidays are best spent with others. Teaming up with the Pacific Chamber Symphony, the agency created an interactive orchestra that joins up to twelve phones and tablets to perform a single song, “Carol of the Bells,” a sort of digital carol to bring people together. Groups of friends can sync their mobile devices and each person is assigned one of twelve musical roles—maybe conductor or cellist. As the carol begins, they play together in harmony. Executive creative director Stephen Clements described the in-house project as “a great process of invention and problem solving. When you have very limited time and resources you make quick decisions and don’t overthink things. It’s more fun that way.”

A NEW KIND OF CATALOG FROM IKEA

Overview: With customers increasingly using their smartphones to get the same product information and decor inspiration provided by IKEA’s print catalogs, the global furniture retailer knew a revamp of its iconic mailer, then in its 61st year, was in order. But with over 200 million print copies still effectively serving readers of all ages in every corner of the world, an all-digital approach was premature. McCann New York devised a balanced solution. Working with interactive studio All of Us, the agency created a mobile app companion to the catalog that let readers scan printed images to unlock a whole world of additional online content—expanded product details, photo galleries, how-to videos from designers and more. McCann’s three-pronged UX/design, technological and storytelling overhaul turned the catalog experience into an evolving innovation platform worthy of a brand that “dares to be different.”

VIRGIN MOBILE BLINKWASHING

Overview: When you’ve already got a cell phone plan, you’re not likely to pay much attention to other offers, no matter how good they might be. Virgin Mobile’s Blinkwashing, an interactive YouTube experience that reacts to the blink of an eye, solves that problem by surprising the viewer into watching. It works by enabling a person’s webcam to scan for eye location and movement to accurately detect when a viewer blinks. Then, with every blink, the video on screen switches, while the dialogue continues uninterrupted. The ad is made up of 25 different films, all perfectly synced for a seamless transition between clips. Mother New York, working with Greencard Pictures and rehabstudio, created completely new technology to let viewers blink their way through an endlessly changing stream of videos detailing the benefits of switching to Virgin Mobile.

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

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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.

Ad Coach’s Post-Game Locker Room Speech

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Hey everybody. Particularly you ad students who were in the national ad competition last week:

Professor Novak sent me an email last week giving me the results of the competition you all went to last week. Like him, I was truly bummed. Certainly not as bummed as you guys, but bummed just the same.

Empathy is probably way-more-called-for here than any lesson, but this is a school and I am a teacher, so… sue me, but I see a learning opportunity.

Believe it or not, I was once a young ad geek too, and back then winning in the shows was the most important thing to me. Nothing else mattered. This attitude served me well….but only on those days when I won a lot of awards. The days I didn’t do well in the shows, I got so depressed. It was kinda pathetic.

Fortunately, I managed to grow out of that phase and develop a healthy respect for my talents regardless of how I did in the shows. A big part of what helped me get to that place was what happened the first time I was invited to be a judge in the show of shows – The One Show.

There I was in Barbados (yeah, not too shabby) with all these big-shot ad stars, creatives I’d been studying for years. These were some really great ad people, okay? As the show was judged over the course of about five days – and to my dawning horror – I saw things die that just….well, shouldn’t have died. Great stuff, dying left and right. I was amazed at the capriciousness of the judges. One day they’d love a piece of work and move it forward in the competition. The next day, “What’s this crap still doing in the show?”

I came back to my job with a renewed vigor and, more importantly, a perspective I didn’t have before.

The shows – both the good and bad, local and international – the shows are all ruled by the Gods. Ultimately, you cannot control what gets in, even if you write the best single ad ever written in the space-time continuum. Sure, excellent work has better odds, but at the end of the day, it’s a roll of the dice.

So, to you guys on the team that competed last week, I say hats off to you. Yeah, goddammit, we didn’t win. It sucks. Fine, feel rotten for a day, but don’t let it keep you from getting in the ring next year. Same thing goes for those great times when you win – feel great for a day, and then get ready for the next one.

If only I’d listened to my old boss, the late Mike Hughes, when I was at The Martin Agency. All those times I came dragging into work depressed that I’d been shut out at some award show, Mike would say, “Luke (you whiny self-obsessed dingbat ….[okay, I added that part]), let your joy come from the journey, not the destination. Let your joy come from the working, not the results of your work.”

–See you in the hallways, Prof Luke

Advice to Students on Putting a Book Together.

Interview Hell, extra crispy
(INTERVIEW HELL, extra crispy version)

Your portfolio is the only way an agency knows how good you are at solving problems creatively. You get one shot.

That said, I’d like to dole out a little advice on the kinds of projects I think prudent to put in your first advertising portfolio.

First off, no public service stuff.  Sorry, I wanna save animals as much as the next guy, but it’s just too easy to do wowzer ads for clients with names like “Let’s Stop Stomping on Kittens.”  (And yes, I know, back in the ‘80s, I did some ads for PETA and won awards for ‘em, but …  but … that was just different. Anyway, shut up.)

Next, don’t do any work for brands that are doing great work. Even if you do come up with a cool concept, your interviewer will likely compare your work to the famous work, which isn’t good. So, no Nike, no VW, no Apple.

Choose instead a real brand that could use some great advertising. Some middle-of-the-road product or service, one that’s running a lot of mediocre advertising. Like, say PetSmart. Or an airline or a bank or a line of power tools.

I’ll also caution you against picking products that are already interesting, in and of themselves. Sure, it’d be fun to do ads for, say, PlayStation 19’s Direct Retinal Control system but as my old friend Bob Barrie says, it’s better to “do something interesting for a boring brand.”

Choose also a service or product that you don’t have to explain. (“Well, ya see, it’s this thing shaped like a dodecahedron that attaches to the…”) If you first have to explain your weird niche product, you’re already playing catch up.

And lastly, don’t work on brands that scream “I’m a campaign in a student book!” Energy drinks, no. Hot sauces, no. Duct tape, no. Every single student in the space-time continuum is doing ads on these. Also, I implore you, please, no pee-pee jokes, potty humor, and for the love of God, no condoms. All of these things have been done to death. You won’t just be beating a dead horse. You’ll be beating the dust from the crumbling rocks of the fossilized bones of an extinct species of pre-horse crushed between two glaciers in the Precambrian Age.

(I stole that last paragraph from Hey Whipple, Squeeze This. Sue me.)

 

 

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.”

The two states of consumer awareness: Shopping for Vegetables and Being a Vegetable.


potato

Open on Scene I: (In front of Hilton at SXSW Austin)

I’m on the sidewalk, minding my own business, inside my bubble.

My taxi pulls up and just as I’m about to hop in, I’m attacked.

Some Jesus-y type of person is in my face telling me how his god is better than my god and how my ass is gonna fry to a crisp on Beelzebub’s Griddle unless I take his stinkin’ brochure.

He doesn’t ask for my permission. He doesn’t know if I’m open to his message. He just thrusts a brochure in my face. I go into Matrix-bullet-time, dodge his sales pitch, leap into my taxi, and I’m gone.

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Cut to scene II: (interior of house, living room).

This time, I’m at home. I’m watchin’ TV. In fact, to make it apples-to-apples, let’s say I’m watching “Taxi,” not waiting for one.

Suddenly the movie stops and another schmuck is in my face. Only now it’s some yuppie at his breakfast table telling me his coffee is better than my coffee. What am I? Flypaper for freaks?

Don’t these guys get it? Whether I’m watching “Taxi” or getting into one, I ain’t shoppin’.

Does lying on my couch in my underwear, eating stale Cheetos, does it look like I’m shopping? I’m not kicking tires, comparing prices, or squeezin’ melons; I’m relaxing.  I’m a vegetable.

Vegetables are not interested in sales pitches. Vegetables like escape. They like stories, adventure, drama, but definitely not pitches.

Tomorrow, however, is a different story. Tomorrow, I actually am gonna be buying something — a new Toyota. And before I buy it, I’ll want all the facts. I’ll welcome the brochures. I’ll listen to the sales pitch. I may even watch the in-store video. But that’s tomorrow.

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I propose that at any given time, every customer is in one of these two modes: “Shopping for Vegetables,” or “Being a Vegetable.”

These two modes go by other names: passive and active. emotional and rational, intuitive and analytical. And if you agree there are times when you’re actively shopping and times you’re not, it stands to reason two different kinds of sales method ought to be employed.

It seems to me that any sales pitch that intrudes on someone Being a Vegetable ought to go easy on the detail and maybe just tell a cool story.

The Vegetable is not shopping, he’s watchin’ “Taxi.” He doesn’t have a notepad and pencil and  won’t be taking notes on whether a car has a V-6 engine or ABS brakes. In fact, even if his current car is on fire out in the driveway, now’s not the time to read him a brochure.

But the next morning? When the Fritos are gone and the TV is cold to the touch,  our vegetable will be in a different frame of mind. Now he’s ready to kick a tire. He’s Shopping for Vegetables. This is where the rational brain kicks in, gathering facts to support what began as an emotional decision; prices are compared, trunks looked in, brochures gathered.

Given all this, it would seem to me that traditional ad people ought to throw themselves in a quivering, grateful heap around the ankles of the internet and say thank you.

Thank you for helping take the load of information that until now every client wanted jammed into every ad, every TV spot, and if it didn’t fit, get a shoe horn and some Crisco because, by God, we’re gonna get it all in there.