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".