Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A kick in the Annus Horribilis

Thanks to Elizabeth II, Queen of England, Belize, and Australia (among others) for popularizing the term Annus Horribilis.
Her reference was to 1992 - a singularly great year for me, not so much for the Royal Family.
But now it's the last day of 2008, a year that deserves special recognition. Let us raise a glass...

Here's to the whole sorry mess on Wall Street.
Here's to too-big-to-fail.
Here's to corporate jets.
Here's to multi-zero bonuses.
Here's to Madoff.
Here's to Detroit.
Here's to Mumbai.
Here's to climate change.
Here's to negative campaigns.
Here's to the Packers, the Gunners, and the Australian cricket team.
Here's to the ones that got away with it, and the ones who simply got away.
Here's to every single last miserable one of you.
You will make this glass of Costco champers taste that much sweeter.
And a sincere thanks to all our clients, collaborators, partners, readers, commenters, mentors, luminaries, cheerleaders, critics, friends, competitors, spouses, kids, mums and dads. We wish you the very best 2009 ever.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

"These tools, bay-beee!"

Mister Weitzsacker arrived mid-term to Pine Rivers State High School. He was an English teacher, but he didn't speak English as we knew it.

He pronounced his 'r's with the tip of his tongue, not in the back of the mouth like us little Aussies. Barrrbecue versus Bahhbecue. Added to his strange accent, he wore hound's tooth trousers and from the neck up was a doppelganger for Gabe Kotter.
That's right. He was an American! How very exotic.
We loved Mr Weitzsacker. But we soon found out that the parallels between he and the sitcom star cut both ways, that if we displayed Sweathogs-esque behavior, we would be punished Kotter-style.
So, one day we transgressed. And Weitzsacker ordered us to leave the classroom and dig some weeds out of the school flower beds.
We wandered off, bemused at this novel penalty, then wandered back again, even more bemused, when we realized we had no shovels, no forks, no hoes.
"Mr Weitzsacker, we can't weed the garden. We don't have any tools."
His 'tache twitched. His 'fro wobbled.
And he held up his hands and waggled them in front of our faces.
"Use these tools, bay-beee!"
That became the catch cry for the rest of the school year, and could just as easily be the lesson for our current times.
How did Obama do it? How did Netflix do it? How did the Somali pirates do it?
By using the tools that are sitting right in front of them, that everyone has access to, that no one is utilizing to even a tenth of the possible effect.
Plenty has been written about Obama's masterful campaign. It's hard to suppress a 'duh' though, isn't it? And now the weekly presidential radio address... on youtube! Duh.
And Netflix. Forget their fascinating search for the perfect recommendation algorithm. That aint simple at all. Instead, the distribution mechanism (Ye Olde Postal Service), and the constant affirming feedback (through plain old email). They're beating the snot out of the more techie solutions. Double duh.
And the Somali pirates. An unpleasant example, but... wow... men in inflatable dinghies overpowering supertankers. Weitzsackian!
We wonder if we're at that place in the communications revolution, where the novelty of what is possible can fade, where the fervor for experimentation can take its proper place in the priorities list, where we can start to harness what's in front of us in new and ingenious ways.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Feeling the light

One of the many wonderful things about being a parent, even better than Diaper Genies and the reasoning of three year olds, is having a good excuse to go back to school.
As I've mentioned before, my son goes to a terrific one here in Minnesota. He's thriving there, and I'm not doing so bad either.
Here's something I learned on Friday, while attending the school's annual Winter Festival.

A woman who has been with the school for twenty years, and who is the embodiment of the school's culture, shared some thoughts about winter's role in our lives. Though her words were meant for the children in the first ten rows, us parents in the back, craning to catch a few snippets, found an additional layer of meaning.
As I drove back to my office, one particular line echoed around in my head:
"Faith is the bird that feels the light in the dark, that sings of the dawn in the night."
Substitute 'faith' with 'leadership'. Apply it to our New Ice Age economy.
What 'light' can you feel?

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Idea of the week: Skill-Level Airport Security

This is a special holiday travel edition of 'idea of the week'. It was well-spotted by our very own Catherine McIntyre-Velky, who is so very glad the TSA has expanded their 'family line' program. I'll hand it over now to Catherine:
"Last week I was traveling home from a week of work on the road. I departed through an airport in which I don't typically frequent. I checked my bags (I'm a project manager - always packing for every possible eventuality always means over-packing) and was startled to see various security lines instead of one. Expert Travelers this way, Casual Travelers this way. What was this?
Like me, all the people in the Expert Traveler line had the drill down pat: slip on shoes for easy on/off, computer in bag, skillfully packed to be removed for the security bin with one hand and returned in the same manner, no clutter to slow you down, coat strategically removed at the right time so as not to create a wait, ticket with ID at the ready. It was a breeze.
The people in the Casual Travelers line looked happy, too, as the relaxed pace took the pressure off. No more business travelers breathing down their necks. Free to forget that they're wearing a belt with a giant silver buckle, free to forget the keys in the pocket, free to bring a family of four children, each wearing lace-up shoes.
In all the years I've traveled since 9/11, this was by far the most brilliant idea I've seen the TSA create. Why didn't someone think of this before, I wonder?"

Monday, December 15, 2008

Doing Dave Trott the hard way

One of the best advertising blogs anywhere is written by long time London ad hero Dave Trott. It's full of timeless advice, colorful stories, relevant lessons and ruthless logic. Anyone looking to get better, this is an easy, painless way to learn from a master. And make sure you read the open debate Dave had on Scamp. But my post here is not about browsing Dave, it's about Dave and me and learning the hard way...

When I landed in London at the tender age of 24, Dave Trott was already a bona fide legend. His agency was booming, the awards annuals were full of Gold Greenlees Trott work, and his sound bites made for a list of communications commandments.
Dave's agency was built in part on the sweat and talent of a very young creative department. Every few months or so, Dave would take on a few student teams, then have them compete for a more permanent position. Who cared if it was like watching ants fight? If you were one of the combatants, at least you had a chance at working in one of the best agencies in London. Needless to say, I dreamt of being one of Dave's ants.
It was a long, arduous process. I started out by attending D&AD workshops at his agency, in which members of his team would bustle in, lacerate our ideas, then go back to work.
Next, I made weekly visits to the very generous but no less hard-nosed GGT team of Neil Sullivan and Gordon Graham. With their patient guidance, I transformed my book from a series of lame one-offs into a terse collection of eye-popping visuals and straight-to-the-gut headlines.
After six months of this, I had gathered a dozen or so presentable campaigns, so I gathered six of the best into a mini-book, a copy of which I sent to Dave.
No answer. And no getting past the PA, either.
So I put six more campaigns into a second mini-book. This time, Dave’s PA called. He was looking to bring on a few teams, and my mailings had caught his eye. Would I be available for an interview 7pm next Friday night. “Y-y-y-y-yes.”
That Friday, I walked past Neil and Gordon’s office on my way to see Mister Trott. They gave me an encouraging thumbs up - I was representing their hard work as well as mine.
Dave and I spent a bit of time chatting about Australia, John Webster, and some business his agency had just won, then we got down to looking at my work. By now, after sending my best work in those two mailings, the remainder of my portfolio was on the slim side, no matter how many all-nighters I’d pulled the previous fortnight to shore it up.
Dave saw through it straight away.
“This isn’t as good as what you sent me.”
“Ummm… no.” And I gave my excuses.
“And the stuff you sent me… I like it, but I have teams here who can do the same. I don’t need a whole team of center forwards.” Dave being one for the football metaphor. And also for exposing the fatal flaw within the best laid plan.
“You have to run your own race” he continued.
And then, the irresistible wrong. The most awful words spilled from my mouth, each one dragging out the next like links in a chain. I turned white even before my sentence was finished.
“How… do… I… do… that?” I said.
Dave closed my book and looked directly at me.
“The fact that you asked that question makes me wonder what type of creative person you are.”
“But thank you for coming in. Now if you’ll excuse me, I've got work to do.”
And he got up and walked out of his office, leaving me alone to survey the stack of junior portfolios next to his desk, the mountainous pile of scripts on his window sill, and the laughing pub-goers out on Wardour Street.
After slinking out, making sure to avoid Neil and Gordon, I went home to lay in bed. For the entire weekend.
By Saturday morning, I’d devised a plan to re-pot myself into a different career. By Saturday night I had uncurled from my fetal position. Sunday morning I managed to choke down a slice of dry toast. And by Sunday afternoon, I’d thought my way back into giving advertising another try, only this time, in my own way.
Two months later, I finagled a job at a small but meteoric creative agency called Still Price Court Twivy D’Souza.
And a week after that, Dave Trott’s secretary called to ask me if I could come in for another interview.
My answer was no thanks. I already had the job I knew was right for me, and that ultimately set me on my path. My own path. But I’ll always be thankful for Dave’s brutal honesty.
Run your own race. Then you'll always come in first.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Idea of the week: Usefulness

So we're all talking about value positions and stories for our brands. There's a spectrum of communications out there, from staring the recession gorilla directly in the eye to ignoring him completely.

I found this ad for the iPhone to be in the very comfortable middle space, co-habiting with our desires for a cool gadget... while making a simple, very practical case. I'm not reminded of how crappy finances are. I'm feeling smart, and even excited about the possibilities of technology.
Each call out explains an iPhone app, be it free or pay, a utility like Quick Voice or a game like Spore. Added up, I'm left with the impression that this shiny trinket is the most sensible purchase I could make in tight times. Neat trick.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

We're no Whopper Virgins


I remember when senior management at Fallon did their requisite sensitivity training.

In amongst the ever-changing boundaries of what was and was not offensive was the supposedly golden rule: if it offends someone, it's offensive.
This assumes that you're dealing with a relative base level of common understanding. If you're not - oh, and just to be clear, we're not - then you can always find someone who will be offended. (Yes, even that statement will offend some.)
So to the noise surrounding the Whopper Virgins campaign.
Gee, looks like another decent vox pop demonstration to me. Finding people who'd never tried a hamburger, let alone known what McDonalds or Burger King are about. Inviting them to taste the food. Recording their responses. Seems fair.
Food imperialism? A camera crew can't change a village's diet. A new BK franchise, maybe. But that's not what's happening here.
How about promoting unhealthy diet, or ecologically unsound food sources? Well, no more than any other piece of persuasive communications. Which of course doesn't make it right, it's just not more wrong.
On a different note, let's also look at the actual strategy. When we helped McCann pitch and win Burger King (several tumultuous BK-Agency relationships ago), this is the exact angle we took. Despite all the things that people believed McDonalds did better, the one bright spot for Burger King was the Whopper. QSR fans hands-down called it their favorite mass-brand burger. Our campaign created a 'vocal point' for the brand, namely The Whopper, who would share Whopperisms about food and life in general. The line for the effort was "In the land of burgers, Whopper is king" and for good measure, we signed everything off with a flaming Burger King crown.
Unfortunately, McCann held the business for less than six months before yet another client side management change prompted a fresh strategy and agency search. Restlessness is a bad friend.
I like this new Whopper Virgins work. It's on a strategy that had every chance of working last time, before the plug was prematurely pulled. And it's way more direct than the executions we were able to roll out. Teamed with all the other efforts, some excellent, some just noisy, who could argue that BK has improved its brand relevance out of all recognition.
Now, if they could just stop offending people.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Art and Science by Todd Riddle

At some forgotten airport in the past few weeks, I picked up a new biography on Jim Morrison. I'd always liked The Doors, but hadn't really delved too much into the life of Jim Morrison - other than seeing the movie, and having a few of their albums and respecting them as musicians and writers.

This is one of those books that is very detail oriented so whenever an important location is mentioned, the author took the time to give the exact address. That's how I found myself, the next day, sitting on the steps at 8512 Santa Monica Boulevard.
8512 was The Doors office in the late 60s. It's where Jim Morrison and the band would hang out, drink hard liquor, take LSD, have sex with groupies, and occasionally black out. Sometimes they'd muster up enough working brain cells to stumble over to the Whiskey-A-Go-Go a few blocks away. There they'd perform - or more like rehearse in front of a live audience - songs like The End, Break on Through, and People Are Strange.
But on this particular day, 8512 was just a shut-down restaurant. Complete with a very official looking No Trespassing sign posted by the local ordinance.
I walked around the free standing building and looked up to the second floor - where Jim Morrison recorded his last musical album, LA Woman. An angry, naked, pieced-together collection of poems and ideas that The Doors and their producer barely pulled together to fulfill the last of the band's six-record contract deal with Epic.
Then, I hopped in the cab that was waiting for me and went to my appointment at a Hollywood studio.
A couple hours later I found myself sitting in a small conference room watching the credits roll on a rough cut of this major motion picture company's new release. I had just watched the very digitized, incomplete cut of their new film - but I was still thinking about Jim Morrison. The only other person in the viewing room with me, a nice woman from promotions, turned to me and asked, "Well, what did you think?"
"I like it," I lied.
How could I possibly tell her how much I not only hated it, but despised everything that led up to its birth? That I had seen the film a thousand times. That it was flat, predictable, unmemorable, and undoubtedly created by formulas, bureaucrats and focus groups. It was horrible.
In one afternoon I had been surrounded by the extremes of two roads of how to create something. One being the raw, fearless, risk-taking, fuck everything attitude of The Doors. Poetry. Guts. Soul. Love. Hate. Instinct. It will be relevant for a hundred years. The other - the sanitized, artistically void film, that is as of this writing already irrelevant.
I suppose I could make all the obvious analogies about how this pertains to what we do. And then give examples of the kind of work we all aspire to be a part of.
But there's no point in doing so. The Doors made that point a long time ago. We can only look back humbly in awe and amazement and aspire to be more inspired.
My favorite part of the book - a moment in The Doors' career that pretty much encapsulates Morrison's life and what it means to take a risk and follow your instincts - is a scene that takes place on the Ed Sullivan Show.
Jim Morrison had just sang in front of a live audience on national television. And despite the fact he promised Mr. Sullivan he wouldn't sing the word 'Higher' (in the song Light My Fire) he did. And he sang it loud and even made sure to accentuate the 'Higher' part.
After The Doors left the stage, Ed Sullivan angrily confronted the band on their way to the dressing room.
Ed Sullivan: You'll never play on the Ed Sullivan show again! 
Jim Morrison: We just did.
Today, nobody watches reruns of The Ed Sullivan Show. But you can pick up a copy of every Doors song ever recorded on iTunes. In no small part because Jim Morrison created something that was inspired by what he felt and observed. Rather than what a focus group said they felt and observed. Or what a bureaucrat said they should have felt or observed.
Scientific study of consumers and markets at times is obviously useful and will continue to be an important part of advertising and marketing. But there are times when the insight gets in the way of actually being able to create an idea, or when it can kill an idea that may not fit perfectly into the perceived precious boundries. If you dont believe me, do your own scientific study to prove it. Just watch television for a couple hours and draw your own conclusions.
Science. When Einstein wrote his theory of relativity he did it for the most part in a single room and on just three pieces of paper and with the aid of no scientific instruments. He simply thought of it. Years later while taking a tour of the most modern telescope ever built, Einstein's host told him that with this new invention man would be able to understand the deepest secrets of the universe and unlock the mysteries of the galaxies. Einstein's wife replied, my husband already did that on the back of a manila envelope with a number 2 pencil.

(Our friend and collaborator Todd Riddle over at BBH wrote this piece a while ago. He's kindly allowed us to repost it here. If you're a reader - and especially if you're a collaborator - with an intelligent, provocative original article in your bottom drawer, send it along.)

Friday, December 5, 2008

Idea of the week: Samedi

We're hoping this becomes a regular feature of our site - if only we can lift our heads up from our work long enough to recognize interestingness elsewhere in the world. This first entry is from Australia, natch.

Evidently the team from Clemenger BBDO literally consulted the New Orleans voodoo spirit
 Samedi to develop the communications for a new energy drink.
Here's the website, and here is a post on Campaign Brief with more info and credits.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Slaves to symbolism

In what seems like a move in the right direction, the executives of the big three domestic auto companies are planning to leave the corporate jets at home next time they have to visit DC. Instead, they’ll each be driving one of their products.

Progress, right? And great marketing stunt too, yeah?
Well, if I was a stakeholder in any one of those companies – hey, come to think of it, we all are – I think I’d want my leaders leading the company, not sitting behind the wheel on a thousand mile road trip.
I know there’s plenty to be said about how Detroit’s troubles are self-inflicted.
But isn’t it sobering to see another side of modern ‘actions-speak-loudest’ thinking we’ve all been talking up.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

What are you doing for the Ice Age?

Minnesotans know a thing or two about extended periods of sub-zero.
The financial weather report that came in on Monday was a big duh to us. Every last easy dollar went south over a year ago. So we’ve spent quite some time steeling ourselves for the oncoming economic Ice Age.
The challenge, as always, is to see the opportunity in the problem. Here’s a thought:
Take your dinosaurs out for a nice walk in the fields, expose them to the bitter freezing wind, allow them to die a nice, natural death.
We know of one retailer that spends a fortune on direct mail sales catalogues, and has lost money on them for years. They do it because that’s what they’ve always done, and because of the many vendor business relationships that support the development of the materials. Well, that’s a dinosaur. Go play in the snow, Steggy.
Another friend has multiple agencies working on his business, each one alternately competing over the lead client relationship, then standing and watching major opportunities go untended, like a bad tennis doubles team letting the ball pass between them. “I thought you had it.” “Well I thought you had it.” That’s dinosaur behavior for sure. Let’s take it ice fishing.
Needing six months to develop an idea: dinosaur.
Seeing everything through the lens of TV: dinosaur.
Layers, fiefdoms, silos, blackboxes, theory vacuums: all one great La Brea Tar Pit’s-worth of dinosaur.
As Rahm Emanuel says, never let a crisis go to waste. An Ice Age is a crisis… if you’re a dinosaur. Or it can be a bracing slap in the face.