Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Best b[r]and ever?

The readers’ poll in tonight’s edition of thelondonpaper asks whether Led Zeppelin were the greatest band ever.

The question has sent me scurrying back through the depths of my ipod, listening to their songs with an attention I haven’t paid since high school.

I tend to think questions and polls about the best band/ album/ song are a bit of a waste of time. All they do is encourage people to attempt the impossible - constructing logical scaffolding around their (emotionally based) tastes. It’s seldom a seemly sight. (Besides the answer is clearly Belle and Sebastian/ Her Majesty (The Decemberists)/ I’ve been loving you too long (Otis Redding). And I can prove it with algebra.)

But Led Zeppelin thing has a certain weight to it (pardon the pun). Because, questions of how good they were as a band aside, they were a spectacularly consistent brand.

And what did the brand stand for? Power.

Virtually every component of their music was some kind of dominance display. The force with which John Bonham hit the drums (so loud, apparently, that they often used to set up the mics in the next room when recording to avoid redlining the meter). The range and power of Robert Plant’s vocals. The lightning speed of Jimmy Page’s guitar playing. The Terminator-like precision of John Paul Jones’s basslines. And of course the sheer volume of their live shows.

It’s difficult to think of another band that hewed so single-mindedly to an aesthetic, from Plant’s tight pants to the Norse god imagery that became their leitmotif.

Even their quieter moments, you get the feeling, were only there to make the loud bits seem more powerful. (And of course to casually show off their virtuosity in that area too).

Sure, there have been louder, faster and heavier bands since. Possibly there have even been more technically adept ones.

But most of those sacrifice some elements for the benefit of others – the boring, root-note bassline that serves to anchor the guitar; the unimaginative melody that simply echoes the killer riff.

At risk of reducing art entirely to commerce, I wonder how much of their success stemmed from staking out a compelling proposition and executing it brilliantly?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Simplicity (again)

Left to my own devices, I'm a "more" kind of a guy.

In the kitchen, I'm always convinced that a hint of just one extra flavour will set the whole dish off.

In the studio, I'm always the one who says "wouldn't it be great if we doubled that slide guitar part with a glockenspiel. And a horn section. And a childen's choir."

So, when i first started studying advertising, the whole aesthetic of simplicity was kind of hard for me to grasp.

I liked complex music, complex books, complex films - why should ads be any different?

The answer, of course, lies in the willingness of the audience to engage.

I got that eventually.

But I still occasionally see an ad that's not single minded, that buries its central idea in a bunch of other fun stuff, but still works.

Normal creative aesthetics would dictate that this whole spot be about the hairy chest comparison.
But on the whole, i think it's stronger as it is, with that thought as just one of a procession of gags.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Um...your strategy is showing

Despite myself, i quite like this little viral from Drambuie.

It's certainly not because "yobs don't like it" is an original strategy, or because it's executed with any finesse here.

In fact, I always kind of thought the way snobbery worked best was when you had some sort of a figleaf to hide behind, like when Lynne Truss types cast themselves as selfless protectors of clear communication, rather patrolmen policing class borders.

I think I like it because, despite its fairly cringeworthy endline ("For princes, not bogans"), it's actually not too hard on the guys it's supposed to be satirising.

In fact, I think most of them would be rather pleased with how they come off here.

The question is, in a country where working class credentials are so highly valued that even deeply religious mandarin-speaking ex-diplomats feel compelled to drop into broad strine and call everyone "mate" when they're running for prime-minister, will more people in the target audience come down on the side of the bogans?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

144 words, I'm told

Northern Planner has some nice thoughts on presentations here.

They put me in mind of this, a reminder that, as the man said, "in a work of genius, execution becomes content".

Friday, November 16, 2007

Miranda Writes

So i've been kinda obsessing about digital at the moment. The spec spec slots in my book are full of all sorts of pieces that aim to fully exploit the possibilities of the medium and show how young and hip I am.

And yet the best piece of digital I've come across recently has not even the vaguest whiff of 2.0 about it.

In fact, techologically, it could have been made ten years ago, maybe even fifteen.

Tellingly, it's not been done by an agency. I doubt it could have been; it relies too heavily on tone of voice, which is one of the hardest things to protect from the 250 people client side who want to "add some value".

It's by this woman, Miranda July.

There's clearly no need for a picture here; I'm just adding it 'cos I have a crush

Best of all, it works. I found the site on a Thursday, went back to it a couple of times on Friday, and bought the book on Saturday.

Here's the site.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Research results - Guinness/ Artois

Sample size:

To avoid observer effect, subject was unaware she was participating in research. She was studied while sitting in her own home on her sofa, watching television. To avoid arousing suspicion, researcher posed as her long-term partner.

Stimulus 1: Guinness Cog

Subject was exposed to Guinness ad in premier spot during "Californication". She was either unaware of preceding hype or unmoved by such.

After observing between 5 and 6 seconds of advertisement, subject's attention turned to article on Amy Winehouse in gossip magazine.

When questioned about Guinness ad at conclusion of commercial break, subject denied that one had been aired. In the face of subject's superior skills of reason and argument, researcher was forced to acknowledge that said spot could not possibly have aired. (Subject has tutored logic at a tertiary level. She can build a Turing Machine; if he's perfectly honest, researcher doesn't quite understand what one is)

Stimulus 2: Artois- Pass it on

Subject seemed to be focused on this ad for about the first 10-12 seconds. She then began to relate a story about something that happened at work that day. When researcher attempted to draw her attention back to the TV, as he was quite curious to see the ad, he was immediately silenced so story could continue.


Perhaps consider introducing Amy Winehouse into Guinness ad?

Make "Pass it on" interactive by including a url where people can pass on their work stories. Either that or add more monkeys (subject likes monkeys).

Post Script:

Although the £10 million Guinness spot (which researcher, for the record, rather likes) failed to engage subject's attention, the much lower-budget ten second spot that followed it did raise a couple of chuckles. And that's all you can ask for really.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Evidence against me

Number 378(b) of the quixotic positions I constantly take with account people, clients and even occassionally creative directors is that people aren't stupid.

Sometimes they may be ignorant - they may, for example, not get my hip pop-culture references. But all of our spheres of knowledge are limited. Joe and Betty Barbecue probably know a shitload more about V8s and football than I do. It's just that, for fairly arbitrary reasons, some spheres have higher value placed on them than others.

Likewise, they may be busy or distracted, and so attending to my lovingly crafted 30 second spot with less than their full attention. That doesn't mean that, if I do manage to do something that engages them, they can't bring fairly sophisticated interpretive and reasoning skills to bear.

I'm fairly confident I'm right about this. And having grown up in a working class neighbourhood myself, I've seen how badly it can misfire when some halfwit private school boy with a bad BCom decides to run a piece that patronises ordinary, working people.

But occassionally, I see something that challenges my faith.

Like this piece from the manchester evening news, detailing how a scratch card has had to be withdrawn because punters had difficulty understanding negative numbers.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

This hurts

It's true, it's kinda funny, but what interests me is that whoever made it felt compelled to express their gag in ad form.

I'm guessing it wasn't done by someone in the industry (it's not single-minded enough. While there's nothing wrong with the wrinkle on the Adidas tagline, it's a seperate thought that doesn't really gel with the main one. Plus there's too much information in the headline).

So why did they feel the need to construct a simple gag as an adidas ad?

I think it's one of two things.

Either the languge of print and poster advertising has become so pervasive that it's the first thing people think of when confronted with a task that involves combining images with the written word.

Or there's something immutable and eternal about the principles of communication generations of writers and art directors have evolved to tell a story.

I'm quite tickled by the latter idea.

Perhaps anyone, anywhere, would formulate a set of principles of communication similar to those we employ. I'm not talking about content here - just things like what function a headline or a subhead serves, how relative weights between the elements affect the overall meaning, how the same headline can mean different things depending upon where it's placed in the layout and so on.

And it makes me think: this really is a fabulous language we have here - it's economical, flexible and, at its best, capable of conveying things no other medium could. So why is it not more widely used to communicate things other than commercial messages?

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Yet another argument in favour of simplicity

I've mentioned my dislike for the tabloids before. To be honest I've always stuggled to understand what anyone sees in them.

But recently, over a rainfilled weekend in Glasgow spent in their exclusive company, something clicked:

Tabloids prosper because they make the world simple, and people find that comforting.

Violent crime up? Longer sentences will fix it.

Heroin use rising? Addicts just need to learn a little willpower.

Scared of terroritsts? Sheer military force can fix it!

These are all issues that, if you look into them at all, become frighteningly complex.

Take crime for example: so many factors feed into it, and we really know so little about how to stop it that the more you think about it the more helpless the situation looks (the one thing that criminologists tend to agree upon is that the deterrent value of longer sentences is negligible - "If i was only going to get six years for assaulting this guy, I'd do it. But now it's ten i think I'll just have a cup of tea instead").

By lending their editorial weight to an easy answer, the tabloids make it respectable not to ask those questions. They take a load off your mind.

How does this relate to advertising? Well, I don't think it's too much of a long bow to draw to suggest that simple arguments are not just more effective because they are easier to take in, but that simplicity actually makes an argument more attractive.

In an advertising context, it's probably most relevant as support for the idea that we should say one thing and say it well. Additional points - say, ten other reasons why your soap powder is great, aside from the fact that it makes your clothes whiter - run the risk of opening up additional lines of enquiry for the consumer, factors : Is it environmentally friendly? Is it concentrated enough? Is it gentle on synthetics?

Each of these factors demands to be weighed against the others. To a particularly conscientious shopper, each even demands to be weighed against compeitor products.

And if I can't be bothered engaging in that sort of mental effort for the big issues, why would do it for you?

Monday, August 6, 2007

This is still a going concern

If anybody still occasionally takes the trouble to to pop over here and check if i've updated, i apologise for my recent prolonged silence. I've been on holiday in Croatia for a month trying (and failing) not to think about advertising. Before that i was all of a fluster getting ready to emigrate to London. I arrived on Saturday.

Normally people's travel tales are tooth-grindingly boring, so I'll try and keep Croatia-related content to a minimum, but it did give rise to a few new new thoughts on commuuncation and advertising.

For instance, when we arrived we recieved SMSs from T Mobile, asking us if we wanted daily weather forecast texted to us free each evening.

I presume this was supposed to be, at least in part, a marketing exercise for T Mobile. If that's the case, it failed spectacularly. The forecasts sometimes skipped a day, sometimes arrived two or three at a time. We were signed out of the service two or three times each, and asked to reapply several times - even when we were still recieving forecsts. All in all, it made T Mobile look like a pack of hacks.

On the other hand, if the Croatian tourist board wasn't involved, then it ought to have been. Every forecast was so alike, it became almost a standing joke between my girlfriend and me: Mostly Fine, Minimum 19, maximum 32, sea temperature 23.

Limited utility as a weather forecast, really, because you already knew what to expect, but a brilliant reinforcement of the county's reputation for beautiful weather.

So in essence, every evening I recieved a text (probably the only one i'd recieved that day), encouraging me to reflect on what a good time i was having.

Pretty good post-purchase reinforcement.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The emotional sell

As a viewer/ reader of advertising, I find that, despite our best (or worst) intentions, very little of it is genuinely emotionally affecting.

That's not surprising - you know that advertisers are deliberately setting out to manipulate you for their own ends, and that puts up some fairly high wall. Generally, only the most sincere and thought-provoking ads can surmount them.

Often, it's big budget ads with lush visuals and immaculate sound-design that manage to do it.

But the other night I was late back at work, trying desperately to find something to distract me from the fact that it was the third night in a row I'd eaten pizza, when my eye chanced upon this:

It kinda hit me in the guts. It's the back page of a Rivers catalogue (Rivers is a bottom-end-of-the-market clothing store that specialises in rural-style clothing). It's ostensibly trying to recruit retail assistants. But the top testimonial, the one about 65 year old guy with the downs syndrome son, is what makes me feel good about Rivers.

He started work there in 2002, when he would have been about 60. There aren't many places that would hire an unskilled 60-year-old. And anyone who's known somebody over 50 who's lost their job and can't get another knows just how devastating that can be.

But maybe the reason it works so well as a piece of communication is simply that it looks inadvertant - I suspect they weren't actually setting out to tug my heartstrings, just to demonstrate that they'll hire people from broad range of demographics.

I'm not sure. But it's the first piece of advertising that's moved me in a while.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

I hate Scamp

Because his latest ad looks like this:

And mine doesn't.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

An eternal conflict resolved?

This whole video is interesting, and the applications of the technology he discusses seem limitless, but there's one (probably minor) aspect thats seems particularly promising.

Check out the section about two minutes in where he navigates around a fake car ad in the Guardian.

On one hand, we generally strive to make our layouts as clean as possible to attract the eye. On the other, the client generally has a dozen things they want to say about the product, thus cluttering up our ad with bullet points, contacts, extra logos, etc. Mostly this is an entirely unnecessary exercise in arse-covering on their part, but occasionally they're right, and people do need more information than we have the space to give them.

I don't know how many times I've fought this battle, and this technology tantalisingly promises a world where both sides can be winners.

Thursday, May 24, 2007


One of my pet hates is mindless positivity.

Yes, I realise that we're in the ad business, we sell stuff, and if we want people to buy it we'd probably ought to be positive about it. But that doesn't mean we have to be positive about everything.

Indeed, I'm a big believer in Barthes' theory that meaning is purely differential, that a quality becomes evident only in the presence of its opposite, that there is no beauty without decay, no light without shade.

By and large, people expect positivity from advertising and because they expect it they filter it out. A little dash of negativity is both more arresting and more credible, and therefore more persuasive.

But all that aside, negative stuff is a heap more fun to write.

So imagine my delight when an AD at work asked me to craft for him this nasty letter terminating his account with his ISP.

Dear Sir/Madam,

I would like to cancel my dial-up internet service with you.

Take a look at that sentence again: “I would like to cancel my dial-up internet service with you”.

It seems fairly simple, doesn’t it? It doesn’t use advanced syntax, it’s not conceptually complex, and it’s only twelve words long. Yet despite repeated efforts on my part to have you give effect to it, your ironically-named “technical support staff” seem unable to grasp its meaning. It would seem that your levels of customer service are, like your namesake, extinct.

Let me explain (I’m getting rather good at it by now – I’ve had quite a lot of practice).

Since you changed your connection numbers several weeks ago I’ve been unable to get online, yet I still seem to be paying for the service.

I’ve contacted your technical support people 8 or 9 times to attempt to have them rectify the situation. I suspect you will find this unsurprising, but they have proven to be spectacularly unhelpful. To be fair, I don’t think the fact that English is their second language, their third-world telecommunications infrastructure or the prompt cards from which they were reading helped them in understanding my particular difficulty, but they still seem to have an attitude to customer service that would be the envy of an Eastern Bloc secret police force.

The last time I called to speak to a customer service representative, I had to wait for 15 minutes before being put through to someone (and nothing says “service” like hold music). When we finally did speak, they were more than happy to help me cancel my service, which was great news, except they couldn’t do it there and then. Someone would have to call me back within 3 days.

I’m sure it will come as no surprise to you that two weeks have elapsed and I’m still waiting.

Perhaps you could contact them on my behalf to find out why they were unable to solve my problem. I’m sure you’ll enjoy the same level of service and support as I have.

Instead of trying for a 10th time, I’ve decided to cancel my service with you.

As I have received no service since roughly the end of April, I expect you will want to refund my service fee for the intevening time. Don’t bother. Instead, I’d prefer you to make a donation on my behalf to the mental health charity of your choice, in order to provide some help to the poor souls who have been driven mad by the monotony, frustration and despair of dealing with your organisation’s staggering incompetence.


What fun.

Monday, May 14, 2007


I've always considered bloggers who just post a link to something without adding any insight or commentary of their own to be lazy, but there's something about explosions that short circuits my critical faculties.

Explosions are cool.

(Ummm...appropriate branding...mumble mumble...insight into mind of consumer...etc)

Friday, May 11, 2007

Why I don't trust research groups

Essentially, it's because you can't trust what people tell you.

Ask most people what they'd like to see more of in the news and they'll tell you the same thing - less "human interest", more commentary on global events, less celebrity gossip, more context about the important stuff, so we can get beyond the headlines and really get to grips with the world around us.

And until recently, we'd see other people on the tram with their nose buried deep in a broadsheet, assume that's what they were reading and feel guilty about turning straight to the TV section ourselves.

But the "most popular articles" section on newspaper websites has out paid to that. Here's today's for Fairfax, steadfast guardian of all that's socially engaged, middle-brow and middle-class in Australia.

Forget massacres in Darfur, global warming or elections in East Timor. What's really important is anything with the words "oral sex" in the headline.

I know it's the first article i went to.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Controversy in the creative department

Senior AD and I had a bit of a dust up over this new spot for Nando's. He reckons it's a "bunch of cats": several half-formed ideas shoved together with scant regard for coherency. His argument is that there's so much going on that the proposition - that Nando's is addictive - is obscured.

I can't really argue with him about any of that, it's just that I think the jumbled up nature of the ad is part of its charm

I could be wrong, but I don't think Nando's alleged addictiveness is really what the ad's about. I think it's more an exercise in brand personality - while all the other fast-foodies are trying to be The Beatles, Nando's fancies itself as the Pistols - edgy, a little dangerous and not interested in tastefulness.

It's got massive cut-through, it's polarising and it completely defies the norms of fast-food advertising (not a lovingly shot lettuce or a seductively framed tomato to be seen).

It's exactly where a challenger brand should be.

Monday, May 7, 2007

One for the writers

Or two, actually.

A: Subterranean Palindromesick Blues

No fan of words could failed to be wowed by this offering from Weird Al. Bob Dylan's infamously verbose "Subterranean Homesick Blues" with new lyrics composed entirely of palindromes.

Check out how tightly they fit the rhythm and rhyme scheme. Genius.

B: A rant from adssuck

Every frustration you've ever felt with a client, laid out with such elegance and venom that all I can do is present the link with an wry smirk, and murmur, in the words of Sir Francis Urquhart, "you might very well think that, but I couldn't possibly comment."

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Consumers aren't stupid

A staring contest, earlier today

For those unfamiliar with the Herald Sun, perhaps the best way to get a feel for the type of paper it is is via its nickname, the "Herald Scum", or "The Scum" for short.

The chief reason for this moniker is, i think, not so much its unrelenting right-wing bias (a characteristic of all News Corp media organs, including The Australian, which engenders nothing like the same disgust) but its undisguised contempt for its readership.

Unlike The Oz, the Scum doesn't make even the faintest of nods in the direction of journalistic objectivity or balance. The paper doesn't so much blur the line between editorial and news as it does take an exact note of the line's location and dimensions, carefully paint over them with a thick slime of xenophobia, homophobia, anti-intellectualism and anti-union sentiment and stand gloating beside them, smug in the assumption that its readership will be too stupid to notice. No story is too complex to oversimplify, no adjective too blatantly biased to employ.

Yet for all its misguided "i-mentioned-the-war-once-or-twice-but-i-think-i-got-away-with-it" arrogance about its readers' inability to detect its agendas, on Thursday the Scum credited them with greater cognitive ability than most marketers ever will.

In order to try and steal some of the centre ground back from ascendant Labour Leader Kevin Rudd, PM John Howard had suggested that he would mitigate one of the more doctrinaire clauses in the new Workchoices legislation.

The Scum led with a two-word headline:


On the face of it, it's a pretty simple headline. But it in fact demands the reader to bring a great deal of information with them in order to make sense of it.

First of all, the reader has to get the analogy between an electoral race and a staring contest. It's not a particularly obvious connection because, taken on its own, it's not a particularly relevant metaphor (Howard's not really backing down to Rudd, per se).

In order to completely get it, you have to be familiar with the history of that metaphor's use. Ideally, you have to know that, almost forty five years ago at the resolution of a nuclear standoff between the USA and the USSR, someone at the higher levels of the US government (i've seen the quote variously attributed to JFK, RFK and Secretary of State Dean Rusk) described the Russian backdown thus: "we were eyeball to eyeball and the other guy blinked".

That's some fairly obscure knowledge to assume of a mass audience.* No marketer I've ever met would do it.

And that raises the question: are we,as a profession, more patronising than the Herald Sun?

*You probably don't actually have to know the whole story, but you do have to be familiar with the reference as it has translated in pop culture, as in, for example, the title of former Pepsi CEO Roger Enrico's book about the cola wars.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Overheard today...

Two designers arguing quietly, respectfully, but with undeniable passion, over whether or not to turn over the word "is" in a subhead on a DL brochure.

And I think that's fantastic.

Because, either way the cards fall, nobody else is ever going to notice. Not the suit. Not the client. Not the consumer.

They're not going to win acclaim or promotion for caring about such details. In fact, far from being incentivised to care about such things, they're disincentivised (apologies if that's not actually a word). They're wasting good billable hours.

But care they do. And working with people who care about Getting It Right for its own sake is, to my mind, one of the best things about the industry.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

An ad waiting to happen...

I was going to keep this one to myself, but on reflection it's too brilliant not to share:

I. A Conversation at the Grownup Table, as Imagined at the Kids’ Table

MOM: Pass the wine, please. I want to become crazy.


GRANDMOTHER: Did you see the politics? It made me angry.

DAD: Me, too. When it was over, I had sex.

UNCLE: I’m having sex right now.

DAD: We all are.

MOM: Let’s talk about which kid I like the best.

DAD: (laughing) You know, but you won’t tell.

MOM: If they ask me again, I might tell.

FRIEND FROM WORK: Hey, guess what! My voice is pretty loud!

DAD: (laughing) There are actual monsters in the world, but when my kids ask I pretend like there aren’t.

MOM: I’m angry! I’m angry all of a sudden!

DAD: I’m angry, too! We’re angry at each other!

MOM: Now everything is fine.

DAD: We just saw the PG-13 movie. It was so good.

MOM: There was a big sex.

FRIEND FROM WORK: I am the loudest! I am the loudest!

(Everybody laughs.)

MOM: I had a lot of wine, and now I’m crazy!

GRANDFATHER: Hey, do you guys know what God looks like?

ALL: Yes.

GRANDFATHER: Don’t tell the kids.

From a recent New Yorker. Full article here.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Hypodermic model still sucks

Being always slightly behind the zeitgeist, I've only just gotten around to picking up Freakonomics.

So far there's one passage that delights me particularly. The authors give a list of ten words often used in real estate ads and ask the reader to pick which correlate with higher sale prices and which with lower:

Great neighbourhood

Unsurprisingly, the list breaks down as follows:

Terms correlated to higher sale price

Terms correlated to a lower sale price
Great neighbourhood

Admittedly, the authors have a much more sophisticated explanation, but what's important to me is that those terms that convey concrete information (granite, corian, maple) sell, while those that simply assert virtue (fantastic, charming, the dreaded screamer) either do nothing or actively work against the sale, because consumers assume that if you actually had something persuasive to say, you'd be saying it.

Copywriting may not be poetry, but its nice to see the two needn't be entirely antithetical.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Remarkable new planning model

Planners? Beg the question? Never!

Friday, April 13, 2007

Vale Kurt

The conceit that gave birth to at least a dozen TVCs, scores of music videos and very probably Martin Amis's magnificent "Time's Arrow":

"The formation then flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks.

"The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again and made everything and everybody as good as new.

"When the bombers got back to their base, the steel containers were taken from their racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mostly women who did this work.

"The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again."

Arguably, it's still at its most potent in the original.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Together Everyone Achieves More?

My AD's been away a bit recently, so I've ended up working with a few freelancers.

Although I couldn't say I've really "clicked" with any of them, it's been an interesting experience and it's got me thinking about exactly what the role of the creative department is.

My partner and I, and most of the other teams here, are very "clean" thinkers. If (and it's a big if) we agree that the SMP is right, we'll rarely present work that deviates from it. We constantly ask ourselves "is this persuasive?", "is it compelling?" as well as "is this novel?" and "is this interesting?"

A couple of the guys I've been working with are much looser/ less precise in their thinking. Their only yardstick is whether it's creative and/or interesting. It doesn't really matter to them whether the work makes a convincing case.

And maybe that's alright. Maybe it's a good thing.

Although they come up with a lot of ideas I would consider irrelevant, they also come up with a couple I wouldn't have thought of.

Yes, on the face of it it seems to make sense that everybody on a job ought to be pulling in the same direction. But there are perils in that approach. It's how you get group think, how dodgy reasoning becomes dogma.

It's how you end up internalising the client's rules and a priori assumptions.

So maybe it makes more sense if we concieve of different departments as working adversarially, or at least as working to achieve different goals.

So our job is to make things interesting, planning checks if they're effective, account service makes sure they're practical. The tension between those different concerns produces the best result.

I'm not sure what I think.

On one hand, my gut feeling is that anything that stops self censorship and removes creative fetters must be good.

On the other, I quite enjoy the "strategic" side of the job. The thought of abdicating it makes me feel a little more like the "monkey at a typewriter" - a random idea generator.

I'd be very interested to hear other people's thoughts on this.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Tips from radio creatives

A rather bizarre experience the other day. We had one of the creative teams from a national radio network come and present to us.

Mostly it was preaching to the choir - lots of earth-shattering revelations about how radio commercials ought to be simple (Gosh, really?) and you ought not to talk down to your audience (who'da thunk it?).*

That said, there were a few nuggets worth repeating:

1) The world is not chopped into 30 second sections
They played us a bunch of quite good ads that were 5, 10 or 15 seconds long. Compressing the length has the dual benefits of forcing you to think outside the tired "two people talking -> announcer read -> two people talking reprise" format, and preventing the client from jamming their laundry list of product benefits and contacts from wall to wall.

Apparently most radio stations are keen to get outside the 30 spot as well. I guess it's up to us to suggest alternatives.

2) Maccing up your ideas works on radio too
If an idea is truly novel, it can sometimes be a bit of a hassle to explain, even if someone actually listening to the spot would instantly get it.That's why they had got a number of their more adventurous ideas across the line not by presenting scripts but by going out and recording them first. Admittedly, it's easier for them, being part of a rdio station and all. But it shouldn't be too hard to convince your agency to invest in an m-box, protools and a half-decent mic.

3) They presumed an extrordinary degree of cultural literacy on the part of their audience
Assuming your audience isn't a pack of idiots is one thing; assuming they actually know stuff is quite different.

I've always been a champion of the former, for a fairly conservative reason: an ad that patronises you is infinitely more likely to alienate you than an ad that goes over your head is, so I prefer to err on the side of the latter.

But I've always been wary of assuming too much general knowledge on the part of the consumer. TV shows like the Simpsons may be laden with pop, high and mass culture references, but very rarely do you have to "get" the allusion to understand what's going on.

In the compressed, single-minded environment of an advertisement, we rarely have that luxury.

Yet these guys had quite a few great spots that required knowledge of external events to understand. One ad referenced a five-year-old news story. Another was narrated by a D-grade celebrity who remained unnamed, despite the fact that the whole ad relied upon people recognising her.

*I pointed out to the director of planning that we were perhaps not the most appropriate audience for the presentation,that it would be more useful if given to suits or, ideally, clients. He responded that, in his experience, trying to get clients excited about effective communication was "like casting seeds on concrete".

Friday, March 23, 2007

Interestingness - Exhibit A

During the 1980s, Billy T James was far and away NZ's preeminent comedian.

Comedy is, almost by definition, a genre we look to for creativity. Its force rests on subverting expectations.

But Billy's material wasn't particularly funny or clever. At best, you could see the punchline coming a several miles off, at worst he trafficked jokes that ought to have been retired when the music halls shut down.

But we loved him, to such a extent than NZ's annual comedy awards are called the "Billy Ts".

Why? I reckon it was because he was so exceptionally charming.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007


It's not surprising that the ad-blogosphere is full of folks posting great ads. After all most of us eat, sleep and breathe the things, and it's only natural that we're interested in seeing and learning from the best in show.

But I wonder if, in obsessing over ads, we run the risk of forgetting one of the central truths of the endeavour: our real competition isn't other ads - it's anything else that might compete for the consumer's interest.

That means, if you're in a magazine or newspaper, you have to try and be at least as interesting as the articles. If you're a TVC, you have to try and be at least as interesting as the surrounding programs.

I say "at least" because there are countless distractions outside of the TV, the paper or the computer. You have to try and out-interesting getting a cup of tea, a chat with your mate, or simply staring out the window as well.

I know there's nothing new in this observation. I just don't think it can be repeated too many times.

I also think it suggests a couple of things, one orthodox, another less so.

The first is that ads ought to be creative. We need as many arguments for that as we can muster, so here it goes again: the new, the fresh and the surprising are almost guaranteed to create interest.

But the other is that it suggests that creativity isn't always the answer.

The two qualities (creativity and interestingness) aren't synonymous; the creative may be a large subset of the interesting, but it doesn't exhaust the category.

In fact, people are constantly willing to give their attention to things that aren't creative in the slightest. If you turn up to a Bruce Willis movie, you know exactly what you're going to get. It may be entertaining, but it's not creative. Same when you flick on a quiz show, or flip to your favourite columnist in the paper for a reliably sympathetic take on a new issue. Celeb gossip mags seem to be undergoing a massive surge in popularity, but their content is almost farcically predictable.

In each of these things, people must find some pleasure other than creativity.

I think we all know that intuitively. It's easy to think examples of mediocre TVCs that have been rendered fascinating by beautiful song choice, or average print concepts ennobled by great photography.

Nothing will ever beat a truly brilliant new thought or a genuinely fresh juxtaposition of old ideas. But, for a variety of reasons (time, budget, client), that's not always achievable in the real world, so maybe sometimes we need to look for other ways to engage the consumer.

Perhaps, if we keep the vast array of reasons people enjoy things other than creativity at the front of our minds, we can at the very least broaden our palettes.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Ethics in Advertising

For some reason I haven't been able to put my finger on until now, this guy bothers me.

For the uninitiated, he's Major Michael Mori, lawyer for Australian Guantanamo Bay detainee and former Taliban combatant David Hicks, and he's mounting an incredibly successful defence of Hicks in the court of public opinion.

Mori's "edge", his "positioning" I guess, is that David Hicks is a decent guy, an idealistic but insanely misguided kid who just got mixed up with the wrong crowd. In this campaign, he's been aided by the, who have been running ads featuring photos of Hicks as a kid.

My problem is that, for all it's persuasiveness, this is a terrible - and ultimately dangerous - argument.

The real reason we all should be concerned about Hicks' predicament is that it represents an abrogation of years of basic common law rights - prohibitions against retrospective legislation, detention without charge and a whole bunch of other stuff that I can't really get into here.

If we decide that the reason Hicks deserves those protections is because he's a good Aussie bloke, it tends to suggest that people who aren't good Aussie blokes don't deserve them. In effect, it undermines the very reason those protections were put in place - to ensure the law was applied equally to all and that guilt wasn't predetermined.

What's the relevance of all of this to advertising? Probably not a lot if you're flogging chocolate bars or broadband packages.

But if you're writing ads for any sort of social, environmental or political issue, a similar dilemma is likely to rear its head, because the most intellectually honest argument isn't necessarily the most persuasive one.

So you're left with a choice: do you serve the client's immediate best interest, and in the process add your little clod of mud to the already debased and murky waters of public discourse? Or do you serve the broader public interest and attempt to keep the debate clear by eschewing fallacy and misrepresentation?

Of course, it's your job to do the former. But, even when, as in the Hicks case, it's in a good cause, I'm not sure that's a good thing.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Five reasons ads are not poems

Martin over at The modern word has an interesting post comparing copywriting to poetry.

It's not the first time the comparison has suggested itself to me. In addition to sitting in a candle-lit bedroom listening to The Doors and vomiting forth the usual teen dross, I was, a few years back accepted into an Elite And Serious Literary Course designed to create the Challenging Young Authors of Tomorrow (caps intentional, and everso self-congratulatory. Interestingly, of the twelve of us who made it in, at least four are now in advertising, and two are lawyers. Sad really.)

So for a time I took writing poetry quite seriously (which is not to say I was particularly good at it), and the similarities in the process are quite striking. Few other writers I know will worry over their sentences, their word-choice, their cadences quite as much as poets and copywriters. Few will edit so vigorously.

And a good piece of copy, like a good poem, is the singleminded exposition of a solitary idea.

Why, then, are the outcomes are so different? Copywriting generally ranks as amongst the least engaging and least readable of all genres of text. Here's my take on the reasons:

1. Adjectives - Poets hate 'em, we love 'em (or rather our clients do - "how are they gonna know it's fantastic unless we tell 'em 'fantastic holiday to be won?'"). They use them grudgingly, if at all. When they do they are almost always used in surprising ways, given fresh meaning by their context. Which brings me to my next point...

2. Novel language - In poetry, language generally calls attention to itself. It's hyper aware of the gap between the language and the thought, between the thought and the reality. It's where displays of lingustic firepower reach their most virtuousic.

Most of the time copywriting aims to be the opposite - prose laid flat on the thought and rendered entirely transparent, so that, ideally, you are not even aware of the act of reading. This aesthetic has evolved in deference to...

...3. The audience - I know this is obvious, but poetry speaks to an engaged audience, reading for the sake of reading. If that audience doesn't get it, it doesn't necessarily mean the poetry hasn't done its job; it could just as easily be the audience who's not up to scratch. Copy, at best, speaks to an audience hungry for the information it contains, at worst to one barely interested. And if they don't "get it", it's your fault

4. Open texture - Most modern poetry acknowledges the instability of language. It's knowingly polysemic, inviting you to bring your own experience and own interpretation to the text. We, on the other hand, often labour to shut down alternative readings of our text. Ambiguity is our enemy. (We could learn something from the poets here. Their view of how language works is much more accurate, and working with that could allow us to craft much more resonant copy)

5. Agenda - We have one, most of the time they don't. That's always going to put a reader's critical barricades up, and we'd be fools if we didn't fortify our prose to try and overcome them.

Magic Words

Today I got a snippy rebuke from a client for not including a call to action in a press ad.

Admittedly, it was an oversight - I'd sent it off in a bit of a hurry as one of the elements of a larger campaign, and I just forgot.

But it reminded me that, for quite some time, I'd deliberately left them out (I always lost of course).

In most ads, contacts like phone numbers, websites etc are already included. I'm not sure exactly what finishing your copy with "For more information call us on..." adds to that. Surely it's implicit in the idea of an ad that we want you to take up the service/purchase the product. Saying it explicitly is (1) Unnecessary and (2) Kind of patronising.

Does anyone know of any research that suggests that including a call to action actually makes a difference? Because, in the absence of any supporting evidence, or a situation where you want the prospect to do something unusual ("Attach expressions of interest to the leg of a carrier pidgeon..."), I'd still say they ought to be done away with.

Monday, March 12, 2007

I'm with Bill Hicks (not the bit about advertising people killing themselves)

A couple of weekends ago I flew back to New Zealand for a friend's wedding. A bunch of us got together to play a song as the bride walked down the aisle.

There were eight musicians involved, all guys, none of whom knew more than two or three of the others. With only an hour to get it together before the ceremony, I was terrified it was going to turn into a musical version of that scene in Reservoir Dogs, the one where they're all bickering about who gets to be Mr. Black. Luckily, under the guiding hand of the extremely talented Mr Neil Watson, we managed to pull it off.

It was (and I don't intend to brag here; my role was limited to backing vocals and shaker), one of the most beautiful performances I've ever been a party to.

This is the song we played:

Even moreso because of the stark - and ultimately crystalising - contrast with the last time I was at a wedding where a piece of popular music was played in lieu of the wedding march. At my uncle's ceremony, my aunt-to-be walked up the aisle to this gem:

Now, despite many years trying to make music as well as I can, I've always strived to stay agnostic about whether there is such a thing as "good" and "bad" music. If you take some sort of deep spiritual nourishment from Creed, then good for you. If listening to Michael Bolton floods your soul with profound reverence for the beauty man is capable of, then, I thought, so be it.

No longer.

As a result of last week's ceremony, I've now admitted to myself that some stuff is just objectively, eternally, obnoxiously garbage.

The choice of song at my uncle's wedding transformed it into a farce, an exercise in bathos. Music like that is lazy, it's fake and above all it's insulting - not only to people who listen to it, but to people like Mr. Tweedy (above) who devote their lives to making the good stuff. You're allowed to like it, but you're wrong.

Bill Hicks was right: this shit is capable of scientific proof.

We should always be striving for the transcendent. Anything less is misguided.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Gimme some truth

This is the stuff: get to a truth first and interpret it elegantly.

I guess the advantage of being a commedian rather than a marketer is that you don't have to have seen it in four movies, three sitcoms, two ads and a focus group to be confident it's universal.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

A joke

A man walks into a pub and goes up to the bar.
Barman: "I'm a publican and a philosophy graduate"
Man: "Is this a pub then?"
Barman: "Of course it is, didn't you see the sign outside?"
Man: "Yes, but the bond between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary."
"Oh yeah," says the barman, "What makes you Saussure?"

I found this this morning on a comments thread on the death of Jean Baudrillard.

Gave me a bit of a chuckle, and I was about to send it on until I realised that noone else in the agency would get it.

Now I'm not suggesting that the rest of the agency is stupid. Far from it; I work with some very smart cookies. Nor am I suggesting that de Saussure's work is so important that everyone should be familiar with it (for the record, I'm deeply suspicious of that whole French structuralist/post-structuralist tradition). But it does highlight a worrying lack of theoretical grounding in what we do.

Unless you subscribe the the medieval view that communication is direct and unproblematic, that the reader is a passive recipient who plays no role in manufacturing meaning, it seems obvious to me that there should be someone in the organisation whose job it is to understand how the brain interprets messages, be it planner, creative or suit.

There are probably far more advanced ways to approach the topic than the transcribed notes to a century-old lecture series (Saussure never published his theories; we are only familar with them from his students' notes). Cognitive psychology, neuroscience, sociolinguistics, philosophy of language, even literary theory would all be relevant. But the point is that, if we're serious about communicating with people, we ought to be engaged in these fields.

Aside from helping us be more effective in our thinking, it would also give us a much more sophisticated toolkit to argue the case for creatvity to clients.

Perhaps the most consistent point of conflict I've had with clients is that they often see "what we want to say" and "what we want the consumer to think" as being the same thing.

The more we know about how the brain manufactures meaning, the more easily we can demonstrate the gap between the two. And the more convincing we can make our arguments that we need to be creative to get noticed and that there are more effective means of persuasion than the moronic, repetitive thud of assertion.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Angry man

On Friday my partner and I were putting the finishing touches to an award submission for a DM campaign we did last year when we were told that we wouldn't be allowed to enter the work. Why not? Apparently "the agency doesn't enter creative awards".

Now, putting aside my obvious displeasure - it's hardly great for my career - that policy seems like a mistake.

The official line is that the agency is all about effectiveness. We therefore enter effectiveness awards, but apparently we've told all our clients (if not our creative department) that we don't enter creative awards. Presumably this is because clients think awards are a bunch of self-indulgent wank.

It's not a bad argument as far as it goes, I suppose. It creates a unique positioning for the agency, signals that we have the clients' best interests at heart, etc.

Ultimately though, it's a pyrrhic victory. We lose more than we gain.

Regardless of how accurate they are, awards are the most obvious measure of an agency's creative strength. By saying we're not interested in creativity but are interested in effectiveness, we're essentially saying creativity and effectiveness are incompatible. That's kind of a perverse position.

How can a piece of communication be effective unless it's been first noticed and then engaged with by the consumer? And what better, more respectful way to accomplish both of those goals than by using creativity? If sugesting the two are incompatible isn't quite not logically inconsistent, it's damn close.

Clients are already suspicious of creativity; many of them wouldn't need much encouragement to jettison it entirely. If it is in fact logically prior to effectiveness, then in encouraging them to do so we're doing them a massive disservice.

But not as large a one as we're doing ourselves, because ultimately creativity is all we have to offer.

Think about it. Clients can, and often do, hire inhouse designers. They can liase with media planners. They can commission research. Sometimes, if beaten over a long enough period with a large enough stick, the better ones can even assemble, think through, structure and write a brief.

Sure, agencies tend to do all of those things better, but only if you define "better" as "in a way that encourages good creative."

If they don't need it, then why do they need us?

Friday, March 2, 2007

Moving into the 21st century

Five years after most consumers latched on, and a good decade after the early adopters dicovered them, it seems marketers are beginning to discover viral emails en masse - at least if the clients I know are any yardstick.

After pitching viral ideas to clients for years as a cheap way for brands to engage consumers and collect data, I'm all of a sudden wading in to work each morning through a hailstorm of briefs demanding "online opt-in content".

Which you would think would be great.

Except the clients seem so eager to be involved the Next (or, more accurately, Last) Big Thing that they don't want to waste any precious time considering the consumer's point of view.

Viral communication - digital media stuff in general - is the ultimate opt-in media. That means you actually have to spend good money engaging, or even (shock, horror) entertaining your audience.

It means that the old "hypodermic model" of communication, where the consumer is seen as nothing more than a passive recipient of the message, is not just wrong (as it always is); it's demonstrably, conspicuously, tooth-grindingly obviously wrong.

If you expect people to endorse your communication enough to put their cred on the line and pass it on to their friends, it should be 98% fun. Relevant, brand-aligned fun, but fun nonetheless. Otherwise you just make them look like a gimp.

A point seemingly lost on one client, who said "Hey, that last piece of DM you guys did was great. Why don't we just turn that into an email?"

I just hope that when the inevitably miserable response rate stats come back, the response is "maybe next time we should listen to the agency and try something people will enjoy" and not "We tried viral. Doesn't work."

Or, God forbid "We just didn't include enough product benefits".

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

A Fienne ad

I'm guessing this is a scam, but that doesn't make it any less brilliant. Indeed, in these days of viral emails, it's probably just as effective for the brand as it would be if it really did appeared on a billboard, plus it has deniability.

Does it articulate a compelling reason for me to choose to fly with Virgin?


Does it even make any sort of claim at all about the brand?

Does it communicate with me in a memorable, engaging way that makes me think fondly of the brand and propels it into my consideraion set the next time i'm thinking of flying?

Yes. And in that regard it's infinitely more successful than any number of price-led offers that are only really talking to a tiny slice pf the potential audience - people thinking of flying to destintion X at time Y.

It's certainly a hell of a lot more effective than the ANZ outdoor campaign floating around at the moment, which consists almost solely of the nuanced, persuasive copy line "More convenient banking".

They say in the old days there were ways to convince people other than repeatedly asserting your proposition, but I've never seen it myself.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

"A bunch of cats"

I heard a senior Art Director use this lovely expression at work today.

He was using it to refer to a TVC concept which was not strictly relevant to the proposition (but was kind of cool anyway), and which the writer had liberally slathered with words from the brief in order to make it look like it was on strategy.

Apparently, it stems from that episode of The Simpsons where Martin asks a props guy on a movie set why he's painting horse to look like a cow":

Martin: Uh, Sir, why don't you just use real cows?
Painter: Cows don't look like cows on film. You gotta use horses.
Ralph: What do you do if you want something that looks like a horse?
Painter: Eh, usually we just tape a bunch of cats together.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The tricky business of positioning

Crafting a positioning is a delicate balance.

On the one hand, you want to have a single strong sentiment that's present every time consumers interact with the brand. On the other, you don't want that overall positioning to confuse the point of any individual piece of communication it may have to be attached to.

As this spot from Westpac demonstrates.

On it's own, it's quite a powerful spot - a message of social responsibility from a bank that takes serious credibility from the fact that it starts with a mea culpa. It's even making a unique claim.

But then comes the positioning line and cuts the whole thing off at the knees (that said, on its own it's not a bad thought).

So, what do you do when you have to cap a green message with one that promotes endless economic growth and rising living standards?

My guess is you stay very quiet during those awkward silences in the creative reviews and try not to look anyone in the eye.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Vale Robin Cooke

I don't really move in those circles anymore, so I only found out yesterday that Lord Cooke of Thorndon died last August.

I'm not sure if it's quite right to describe yourself as being a fan of someone's jurisprudence, but insofar as you can, I was a fan of his.

Cooke was President of the NZ Court of Appeal in the 80s, and retired in 1996. By the time I started law school, his robust, natural-law tinged approach to statutory interpretation was deeply unfashionable.

In the minds of many of my friends, Cooke's expansive approach was a sign of mental and sentimental weakness, and inability to simply apply the law in cases where to do so would result in unfairness.

He became something of a joke. Students would groan in class when his judgments were discussed. His name became, like Lord Denning's, a byword for sloppy, woolly-minded, bleeding-heart thinking.

Even at the time this struck me as unseemly. A bunch of jumped-up private school kids headed straight for commercial practise for whom a "black-letter" approach was a handy pose, the ideological equivalent of a meerschaum pipe and leather elbow patches, making themselves look smart by sneering at the expense of an intellectual heavyweight who had devoted his life to the public service. If he on occasion refused to bite the bullet, it was because he was aware that his decisions had major effects on the lives of real people.

But as time went on, I became convinced that my friends' disdain was not just unsightly, but wrong.

I wrote my honours dissertation on a series of cases the Cooke Court of Appeal had decided. They weren't glamorous or heart-rending. They didn't involve human rights or criminal law or any of the other fields that usually spur judicial adventurousness. They were mostly just about public utilities. But they arguably formed the high water mark of judicial legislation in New Zealand - and it mostly passed unnoticed.

In the 80s, upon inheriting a bloated and rotten public sector from its predecessor, the newly elected Labour Government undertook a hurried program of first corporatising, then privatising public utilities. Unfortunately, the program was pushed through so hastily that much of the legislation was poorly drafted and, if taken at face value, would have been impossible to give effect to.

Under Cooke, the court had little difficulty filling the gaps, substantially overstepping the generally agreed bounds of judicial power to effectively write provisions into the law giving effect to the legislative program.

It was only when I got to grips with those cases that I became certain that Cooke was not merely an otherwise brilliant judge who occasionally let his emotions get the better of him. In fact, he was as consistent and rigorous as any of his contemporaries, and every bit as eager to give effect to the intent of parliament.

It's just that in doing so, he was willing to strain the meaning of individual sections in order to make the law as a whole coherent. He would always assume, in the absence of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that parliament's intentions were benign, and that they too were working with this goal in mind.

In the process he propagated a far more lively brand and intellectually engaging brand of law than his contemporaries, one that encouraged good government by asserting the role of the courts as a counterbalance to legislative overreach and executive populism.

If he also stopped the odd little old lady from getting turfed out of her family home and onto the street, then so much the better.

I suppose he was something of a hero of mine. The world is richer for his work, and poorer for his passing.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Evangelical culture jamming

So walking down Bridge Rd the other day, I saw this:

A couple of thoughts ran through my mind:

1) Were it not for the sticker, I never would have looked at the poster. To that extent, it was counter-productive.

2) It's probably the first time I've ever seen culture jamming from a right wing/social conservative angle. It's understandable, because culture jamming is inherently a counter-hegemonic form of communication - it's the voice of those expressing discontent with the people in power, who are traditionally the right.

But it makes me wonder if maybe, as social values grow progressively more liberal with each generation, we'll see more of it.

3) WTF? What was whoever pasted this sticker trying to communicate, and who were they trying to convince? If they were trying to convince the secular majority, they don't even get off the ground, because they're arguing from a first premise - the existence of of the Christian God - that said majority don't accept.

But if they're arguing to theists they don't get much further, because their contention (that Jesus Christ is the son of God) doesn't necessarily lead to the conclusion they presumably want you to take (euphemistically, God don't dig the Mardi Gras).

Couple that with the aggressive, serial killer-style dehumanisation of the guy in the poster by blocking out his face and you have a spectacularly dysfunctional communication that's more than likely to sway readers to the opposite point of view.

Why is this interesting to me? Because I wonder if anti-capitalist/left-wing/anti-war culture-jammers make the same error. They generally don't bother to make their case, tending to assume agreement and focusing instead on demonising their opponents - Bush, Coke, Blair, Maccas, Howard.

If you're sympathetic, it's easy to miss how alienating vitriol can be to those who aren't entirely onside.

There are few things less convincing than hysteria.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Complexity of Simplicity - Pt 2

According to the received wisdom, one way to ensure that a communication is simple is to reduce the number of elements in it to the absolute minimum. There's a popular diagram that begins with a layout of a standard car ad. All possible elements - headline, subhead, visual, body copy, logo, stapline, starburst etc - are included.

The elements are then gradually removed, until only the picture remains. Even in layout the point is clear. The last frame is considerably more impactful and engaging than the first. Why? Because it's "simple".

But in practice, this economy of style has a tendency to make the experience less simple for the person receiving the communication (I'm not saying this is a bad thing; indeed, ads are generally the better for it).

This isn't an ad, it's a T-shirt design, but I think the point holds true:

The shirt withholds a crucial piece of information: that the Second Amendment is the right to bear arms. If that had been added as a subhead, the layout would have been more complicated - less graphically "simple". But it also would have been easier to understand - "simpler" from an interpretive point of view.

Of course, if the shirt were more explicit, it wouldn't have been as funny. Indeed, I suspect most Americans, who automatically know what the second amendment is, would think it pretty lame (it is, after all, a fairly obvious pun). But when I saw it for the first time I had to think for second, and it's that extra second, that wafer thin layer of obscurity, that made me laugh.

I'm not an Art Director. In fact, I'm renowned for my lack of aesthetic sensibility, so having a clean layout isn't something I makes me feel funny in my special place. But, just like my AD and every other creative I know, I've been known to spend hours crafting a concept so there's just enough information in it to allow the audience to complete the meaning themselves, but not so much that it patronises them (one of the strengths of this approach is that it allows you to say things you'd never say explicitly).

That's often where we part ways from clients, who when they say "simple" mean "I want everyone to get it".

Of course, as the example of the T-shirt illustrates, if you spell it out so clearly that everyone gets it, there's often nothing left to get.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Deceptively simple - Pt 1

Some years ago I was involved in a planning session for a customer loyalty program. The particular tool we were using (I'm guessing something similar exists in most agencies) was a Path-To-Purchase type thing. Essentially, you attempt to identify every step, mental and physical, the prospect must take if they are to complete the transaction. Then you figure out the obstacle most likely at each stage to prevent them from proceeding to the next, and attempt to devise something to overcome each of these obstacles.

This was not the first time the client had done this exercise, but the aim this time was to "simplify" the model. In its previous incarnation, it had existed as two parallel diagrams, one mapping the customer's physical experience from the moment they walked in the store, the other mapping the process that began the moment the subject of the loyalty club was raised. To the client's mind, this was unneccesarily complicated. He wanted to collapse the two models into one, choosing the point at which the staff overture was most likely to be made as the starting point for the second process.

The model was internally consistent, but the distortions it imposed on the real-world experience of the shopper became more and more obvious as the session went along. For a start, it foreclosed discussion of the biggest question - when was the most effective time to tell the customer about the club - a concern that started creeping into every stage of the investigation and sending out its own little logic trees,each of which looked remarkably similar to the last. It also led to confusion about customer's motives - were they focussed on the transaction they'd come to complete, or the shiny prospect of the loyalty club?

The diagram grew denser, blacker, ever more convoluted.

Eventually, screwing up all the courage my three weeks in the business had given me, I stood up in front of the whiteboard and suggested it would be more useful if we split the process back into its original dual track.

Three clients. A junior planner. An account director, an account manager and me. Yet the room was uncomfortably silent, until the account manager said to me, in her best "let the grown ups talk" voice.

"Yes, but we're trying to make things simpler."

The rest of the room nodded sagely, and the session resumed.

The plea for simplicity in advertising is unanswerable. I think it probably should be. The logic seems sound - people are busy, distracted and uninterested, so if we want them to listen to us, we should strip our messages down to the bare essentials.

But the word "simple" seems to hold within it a number of often competing ideas. The one-track diagram was simple in one respect - it worked in one dimension and probably had fewer steps. The two-track diagram was more complex on the face of it, but at each step the working would have been shorter and clearer.

Perhaps it would be easier (and perhaps we could communicate with each other more clearly) if we identified what those ideas were.

I'm also not sure how far beyond the actual final communication the aesthetic of simplicity should extend. Is there any reason (besides making it easy for the client to grasp and quick for them to complete) why a planning model should strive to attain it? What (and I know this is at least a bit heretical) about a brief?

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Something like a statement of intent

I've been an advertising copywriter for three years now, and in that time I've encountered a number of oddities in the way we do what we do, elephants in the room that I think cripple us as creatives and through us our clients, rendering engaging, persuasive work the exception rather than the rule.

There are too many factors at play to list exhaustively, among them industry-wide structural problems, the way the people who fill the various roles across the industry are incentivised and trained, and the ever-present individual ego. Not all of them are soluable. But the one thread that binds together all of the obstacles to effective communication I've encountered so far is sloppy thinking.

Too many of the presumptions we work from are unchallenged, too many of the concepts at play in our world are vague and amorphous. We don't make distinctions that need to be made, and I'm fairy sure we make some that aren't sustainable.

There will always be a part - perhaps a fairly large part - of our thought process as creatives that is unobservable and unquantifiable. That's as it should be. It's a big part of the fun. But there's more reasoning in our jobs than we let on, especially in the way we evaluate an idea once we've had it, and the ways we craft if from the initial glimmer to the finished product.

This blog, then, is to be my attempt to get my own head straight about what i think about what we do every day.