Old way: here's your campaign.
New way: here's a way to solve your problem.
As production dollars come down for all forms of communication, agencies are going to have to think a bit harder. I've seen about a jillion storyboards with $500,000 concepts, and $80,000 budgets. Advertisers aren't paying as much for delivery, so they can't justify as much for production. But frequently, agencies aren't thinking about that when they begin thinking.
Throwing money at a bad idea doesn't make it a good one. Under-producing an expensive idea almost always makes for a bad product. Broadcast, print, online, or anywhere else.
Expensive doesn't equal good. Good equals good.
Seth's right in this post:
The bar is higher now.
Labels are the ultimate sound bite. We all talk about how much the internet, improved communications, and general enlightenment have made us into a thinking society, immune to market-speak and labeling. Guess again.
If someone’s a conservative, does he oppose gun control?
What about a liberal?
Does someone who calls herself a vegetarian eat cheese?
Can a still photographer draw?
Can an art director write?
Can he write music?
Of course, the answer to all of the above is: it depends on the individual.
So, what does something labeled “ad agency” do? Better yet – what could it do?
It depends on the agency.
Somebody needed me to write a bio. This isn’t it.
It’s long, because it covers a lot of steps I've covered to get to here. Maybe you'll find it fun.
Fun in Advertising: My career, according to me.
I started out as a copywriter. Ok, that’s not true. I started out as a magazine writer. But a guy who owned a small agency in Atlanta told me I’d have more fun in advertising. Considering that, at the moment, I was writing about a feud between growers and processors in the pecan industry, fun sounded, well…fun. So the magazine thing didn’t last long.
I went to work for a small shop in Columbia, South Carolina, and learned a ton about how not to do advertising. The shop got a lot better later on, but at the time, we were all kind of learning while churning out silly puns for restaurant table tents. They were nice people, though, and gave me time off to work as an art director for a local production company. I learned good stuff there, and had fun. The guy in Atlanta was right.
I figured if it was this much fun in Columbia, Atlanta must rock. So after a year, I up and moved. Worked in a gas station for about two weeks, while I peddled my book. Got a job at another small agency. I was a junior, and was assigned a junior art director. We hit it off. Wish I knew where he was now, because were really good friends back then. The senior writer/ACD wasn't much fun. She took all the good stuff, and gave us the worst accounts in the place. Within a year, though, the worst accounts in the place had become the best accounts in the place. Funny how the One Show can get young creatives noticed. Fun.
After awhile, another small agency in Atlanta dropped some bait, and I bit. More responsibility, more TV and radio…more fun. Won more awards, got several raises and promotions, and several job offers. Took one that got me closer to the beach. Sounded like fun.
When I got back to my home state, Florida was relatively sleepy as far as advertising was concerned. Chuck Porter’s agency was a dot. The agency that hired me had just landed a big grocery store account, and put together what would, years later, prove to be an all-star creative lineup. The Executive Creative Director was a truly great guy, but slept a lot. That was actually ok. We were young, hungry, good, and allowed to run. In short order, we dominated the addys, especially in broadcast, and started winning enough national stuff to get the place noticed. By the end of my four years there, with the ECD still enjoying his nap, I was EVP, ACD, 123 or something like that…the de-facto leader of a seriously respected creative department. I also had a voice in agency management. Eventually we went separate ways, pretty much all of us enjoying a certain amount of national attention. Advertising was definitely a lot of fun.
I had always been a really visual copywriter. I’ve pretty much always designed, painted, and shot stills. So I was at home with television. And we did a ton of it. The more I did, the more I wanted to do. And the more I wanted to direct. Went to LA for some courses at AFI. Badgered every director on every spot I wrote. Read every book and technical manual I could get my hands on. Shot something every day. I had fun.
When IPG bought the shop, it was decision time. Sign a contract with lots of stock, but a long commitment, or leave and direct. Directing sounded more fun. I signed with a small production company in Miami. They were truly great people. Guaranteed fun.
I hit the ground running. Within a few months, I had a Fila spot running in the Northeast on the Super Bowl. Yeah, it was a regional slot, but it was New York, and the Super Bowl is still the Super Bowl. For the most part, I got tapped by New York agencies, mostly when they had stuff that was to run on MTV. MTV was still considered new, even though it wasn’t. I was young, got it, and understood how to translate a marginal spot for mouthwash into something somebody under 30 might want to watch. I had a lot of input on creative, sometimes getting just a written concept with no boards. It was more fun than fun.
I hit it off with one of the Executive Producers there, and we started bouncing around the idea of a production company of our own. But then Stephen Cannell’s spot-production company came calling. Serious network spots, the opportunity to do some of his series, and big time press attention. I wanted my own place, eventually, and knew that this could get the recognition I needed to start it. I signed. But very quickly I learned that all the truly great people I had met in advertising and production thus far, weren’t necessarily the prototype for the industry. It wasn’t very fun.
But it worked. I got all the attention I needed to make a splash when we opened NurEye films. We were new, we were news, and we were doing the cool stuff. Lots of fashion, lots of efx. Offices on South Beach, and on the edge of the East Village. More efx came. Sometimes pushing the boundaries of the existing technology of the time. We were the first to try a lot of stuff. Then along came the toys.
In the early and mid 90’s, if you did efx, you did toys or cars. Cars, at the time, were sewn up by guys who had been shooting nothing but cars for 20 years. Toys were kids. They seemed more fun.
And they were fun, for a very long time. Profitable, too. They were kind of formulaic, and came in big packages. We shot in Canada, and Australia, and New York and Miami, and Costa Rica, and lots of other places. The problem was, the fun was in the execution. The creative was pretty so-so to begin with, and was controlled by iron fists of toy agency creatives. I’ve got lots of funny iron fist stories. So, even though there was money flowing in, the nagging desire to make something good kept growing. I was, after all, still an advertising guy. Directing was fun, but the fun had its limits.
It was at this point that I realized the real value of an Executive Producer. If all he knows are toy agencies, all he’s going to bring in are toy boards. If he’s making lots of money bringing in toy boards, he sees no reason to do anything else. The breakup wasn’t fun.
Now, trusting no one…and I really mean no one…I set up Fried Okra Entertainment on my own. It worked. And it was fun. Still lots of toys (you get what you have to show), but a few really nice pieces mixed in. So, some of the work was better, and more fun. But the bulk of the work, and income, was still from kids and toys.
Which makes sense, I guess, because I know a lot about how to get good performances out of kids. (Which, incidentally, isn’t all that different than getting good performances out of adults, as most actors are pretty kid-like. Kids just haven’t learned all the acting buzzwords yet.)
I know a lot about other stuff, too; but agencies don’t think directors know a lot about advertising, so they don’t ask. They don't really want you to tell them, either. They don’t ask for your copywriter/art director/creative director book, or about your knowledge of strategy, or well, about anything other than the very specific subject of their very specific storyboard, when they’re looking at reels. And they don’t want to see anything more than a month old. So whatever you’re doing this month is probably what you’re doing next. I have funny pigeonhole stories, too.
Pigeonholed or not, at some point along the way, directing tv commercials ceases to have anything to do with making good advertising. No matter what kinds of commercials you’re directing. Not a lot of directors will admit this publicly. They all deal with it though. And talk about it in private. But I've never been one to follow the crowd. What directing eventually turns into is: a guessing game. You have to guess what the creatives from an ad agency want to hear on a conference call.
Maybe they want you to tell them exactly what they just told you, but in your own words. Or, maybe they want you to tell them they should go in a radically different direction. Of course, if this is the case, you can’t actually mean what you say, because they’re not really going to go in a different direction. But they might really want you to say they should. The game is: guess right, and you get the job. Guess wrong, and you have to look for the next one. I’m pretty good at the game. But the truth is, the game isn’t fun.
What’s really fun for me is making good advertising. In any medium. So, in-between playing the director’s guessing game, I kept busy. Not always making advertising, though I did do some pretty well-received pieces along the way; but mostly thinking, studying, and observing. I also did a lot of experimenting, and dabbling in emerging formats. Because I saw things changing.
The last ten years in advertising have been incredibly interesting. The next ten will be more so. Advertising is changing, and it’s going to be fun.
Not all directors are ad guys (or girls). In fact, most aren’t. So, most of them aren’t all that interested in the road the spot traveled to get to the set. Even fewer are interested in the back end, and how it performs once it’s done. But I’m an ad guy. So I soaked it up, as if I was still a creative director. And the coolest thing happens when you’re in the director’s chair. It becomes a catbird seat. You’re not the client, so the agency tells you everything. You’re not the agency, so if you make friends with the client, they tell you everything. You’re able to see, quite clearly, what both sides are doing right. More importantly, you’re able to see what they are doing wrong. Sitting in the catbird’s seat is fun.
From that chair, I see changes. Lots of ‘em. Coming faster than agencies can keep up. Advertising has always had some weird dynamics, when it comes to the client-agency relationship. But they’re getting weirder. Because the changes in the market, and the way people communicate, and the kinds of information and entertainment that are available, and are going to be available, are changing so fast that agencies are scrambling to grasp the next big new thing that will solve all the problems. Trouble is, the clients are grasping, too, in different directions. And what really happens is: the next big thing isn’t all that big for all that long. It gets replaced by the next-next big thing. Fast. And it’s getting faster. Fun, if you keep up. Not so fun if you don’t.
Integrated agencies kind of have the right idea, except the things they’re integrating are, basically, traditional advertising plus the internet. That’s good, but I think it leaves a whole bunch of stuff out. I think everything matters. Stuff that wasn’t advertising before is advertising now. Ideas matter now, even more than good concepts used to.
From my perspective, the way most agencies deal with change is to build a division. Problem is, by the time the division is built, the change has changed again. Another division. And so on. Still behind. Not fun.
When trying to solve the problems brought by rapid change, agencies usually develop really complicated solutions. Every agency has a proprietary set. Only, I don’t think it has to be that way. I think the solutions are simple. Not easy. Simple. Maybe even fun.
All this thinking made me think it might be fun to write a book about all this change. So I did. It’s been downloaded a bunch. You can get your copy for free at www.useastick.com. Writing it was, as predicted, fun. Even more fun was hearing from owners of small and mid-sized agencies, stuff like: “this is now required reading for our whole agency.” Just as fun, in a strange way, was not hearing boo from the big shops. Truth is, I didn't expect to. Big places, I’ve found, don’t move as fast. Or hear about new stuff as soon. Or, really…have as much fun.
I started to blog to expound on the book. Some people read what I write. Most who do seem to like it. If you’re reading this, you’re reading the blog. Hope you find it fun.
So, now it’s now. And the questions are: will advertising continue to be advertising? Will it change? Will it be fun? My answer: Yes. Because I think great ideas work. Great ideas change. Great ideas are fun. And great ideas are all that matters.
My next idea is about to launch. Will it be great? Maybe. But, most definitely, it’ll be fun.
There are plenty of agencies who say they create “ideas,” not “ads.”
Some do. Some don’t.
My gut tells me the ones who say it, but who can’t quite manage it, have a few things working against them:
• Client tendencies to only understand traditional executions.
• Client bureaucracy.
• Agency tendencies to only think in traditional forms.
• Agency bureaucracy.
Saatchi says it’s an idea company. And I’m sure the top thinkers at Saatchi think of Saatchi that way. But Saatchi is big. Real big. And bureaucratic. And has big bureaucratic clients. And by the time the ideas are filtered through all that bureaucracy, they pretty much always come out as ads. Worse, they come out as ads we’ve seen before.
I buy most of the cluetrain.
As time moves, I’ll buy more.
But I also believe in advertising. I just don’t think it’s going to remain static in form for much longer. And I don’t believe that the new forms that emerge will have long life spans, either. Evolution will accelerate, until it reaches…whatever it’s going to reach.
Not everyone is ready for a ride on the cluetrain just yet. At least, not exclusively. Which leaves a lot of stuff that still has to be sold traditionally. Time will change that, but business needs now. Now needs nimble, flexible, and inventive.
Bureaucracy filters all that out.
The new chapter, I think, will be written by smaller and mid-sized advertisers who are more flexible – who understand that different is the only safe alternative, and the only way to compete against “big” and “same”. The people who help them write that new chapter are going to be in agencies who share the same characteristics.
The great idea as a silver bullet may sound simplistic. But if you know me, or read me, you know that I believe in simple. Details might get complicated, but strong building blocks are pretty much always simple concepts. Most of Star Wars is just 0’s and 1’s.
Simple isn’t always easy, though, and the hard part here is understanding that a great idea isn’t a great TV concept. A TV concept might be part of it, but the idea has to cross boundaries. Everything matters when you’re building a brand – from the TV spot to the nametags on employee uniforms. A truly great idea crosses all those boundaries. Or it, at the very least, is something people don’t expect.
Ad agencies are filled with the kinds of people who, theoretically, should be just the right ones to think up great ideas. At their core, the basic skill agency thinkers possess is an ability to talk to and persuade people via the combination of words, images, music, pixels, and other stuff. The problem is, they’ve become accustomed to thinking in 30 seconds, or full-page bleeds, or one of the other four formats they understand how to make themselves – and have been making for a long time. They start the thinking process with traditional forms.
The argument from agency people I talk to is, “we know how to make TV – so we think in TV. In order to come up with web, or viral, or guerrilla, or product design or customer interaction ideas, we’d have to know how to make all those things happen, too.”
And they do try to learn all those things. But they do it by building dedicated departments, designed to execute one format. So now, instead of starting their thinking with a TV spot, the interactive department always begins thinking with a web execution.
There’s a flaw in the argument. The flaw is agencies thinking they know all about how to make TV spots. Or print ads. Or whatever. Truth is, they don’t. What they do know is who to hire.
I can tell you, from running two production companies, that real agency knowledge of production is, even at the highest levels, small. I’m sure the really good printers out there can say the same thing about the printing process. It’s like I told an agency producer once, before hiring him as an executive producer – there’s stuff behind the curtain. Just because you eat out all the time doesn’t mean you can run a restaurant. He quickly found out I was right. When I made the move from Creative Director to Director, I thought I knew everything about how to make a TV commercial. I didn’t know anything.
So the truth is, agencies actually excel in creating ideas they don’t really know how to execute themselves. Once they realize that, they realize their thinking doesn’t have to be bound by traditional formats. And better ideas start to happen.
This isn’t to say that non-traditional advertising is better than traditional stuff. That’s not my point. My point is that everything gets better when the thinking begins unencumbered by formula. I just don’t think most agencies are set up to think that way. Yet.
Integrated agencies have sort of the right idea. Problem is, what they’re integrating is the web and traditional media. By my count, now that’s five ways to deliver an advertising message: TV, print, radio, outdoor, web. A few more, if you subdivide the web into sites/banners/text/electronic viral/etc. But not much more.
My problem with that is: I think there are an infinite number of ways to do it.
My other problem with that: the web isn't new anymore.
Link: Maturing Industry Feels Growing Pains - Yahoo! News.
Traditional agencies, for the most part, don’t have a clue what to do online, except for two things: A – treat it like TV; or B – hire an integrated agency to subcontract. Ditto for guerrilla, ditto for viral, ditto for anything that they haven’t been doing every day for the last 50 years. They’re trying to catch up to new things, but keep the commission flowing the way it used to. I don’t think it’ll work.
Online marketing evangelists don’t care much for creative. They’re getting click-throughs now without it, because, while cluttered, the text ad world is still targeted extremely well. Eventually, though, it’ll become clear that all advertising isn’t going to become what amounts to an interactive newspaper classified. Competition will take care of that.
Bloggers believe blogging sells things. I do, too, in some cases. When a product is novel, or a considered, major purchase, I want to know more. Getting the information from a blog I trust is a good way to find out more. I’m not sure I’d read a blog about paper towels, though.
Everyone’s searching for a silver bullet.
They're just searching in the wrong place. Because they're only looking at new, novel delivery methods. Things change too fast now. What works today, won’t tomorrow. And the next day, it might not even be relevant, or even exist. Something else takes its place, lives on top for awhile, and the cycle repeats.
There is a silver bullet, though.
It’s the same bullet that’s always been silver: a great idea.
Notice I didn’t say, “concept.” I could have, but in advertising, “concept” implies a medium. In today’s world, a great idea crosses all boundaries, all media, and infects every part of a business’ face to the public. Delivery method is part of the idea - but not the idea itself.
How to get there? Stay tuned.
Got home last night to the comforting sight of my house. A few tree limbs broken. Lots of pecans and tree parts in the yard. Quite a few shingles missing. But nothing more. Galveston fared well.
Thank you, God.
My route from Florida took me through the paths cut by both Katrina and Rita. A sobering drive, if there ever was one. The news has hashed it over and over, so I won't talk about the obvious things. Just a few observations that stuck out for me. The total devastation is overwhelming. But some of the smaller things stick in your mind in an ominous way.
One thing you notice is the cars on the side of the road. Abandoned for whatever reason. Not the ones that ran out of gas evacuating -- these were cars left headed in all directions, in two different hurricane zones. Marked for towing by various state DOT's (I saw them all along the I-10 corridor), they've obviously been sitting for awhile. After about the 20th one, I figured out that these were the products of ordinary breakdowns that happen all the time on the interstate. It's just that the highway department and state patrols have too much to do to worry about removing them right now.
The billboards tell the tale. The giant ones that advertise casinos and beach resorts to tourists driving I-10. The closer you get to the places where the eyes of the storms made landfall, the more destroyed they are. Forty or fifty miles out, the vinyl is ripped. Thirty or so miles, and partial skeletons appear. By 20 miles from the path of the center of the storm, there are nothing but skeletons. Then, closer, they're bent backward. Closer still, they're twisted into knots. Closer still, and they're crumpled heaps, lying a long way from where they once stood.
Fifty miles east of here, in Beaumont, the complete destruction is visible from the freeway, as is the military presence. It was like that, starting just east of Lake Charles -- and stayed like that almost all the way to Harris County (Houston). Then, I crossed an invisible line, and there were lights. Traffic moving at normal, breakneck speeds. Life.
I listened to the Lake Charles and Beaumont stations, taking call after call from people who just wanted information. The guys on the air have been working since before Rita, and will continue to work on generator power for as long as they need to. They are the only voices in a very black night for an awful lot of people. They are heroes.
Galveston was a welcome sight. Still is. A few signs down. A few trees to clean up.
I'll take a day or two to set up the office again -- I took most all of my hard drives with me -- and I'll be up and running. But only because I had the good fortune to live 50 or 60 miles west of where Rita came ashore.
Again, thank you, God.
Thanks to everyone who has written to express concern. We ended up a long way away - at my parents' house in Florida - for about a billion reasons. Word from Galveston is that our house is pretty much ok -- nothing major broken, though we do have a tree down, some shingles missing, and, of course, no power. The city fared relatively well, because there wasn't much surge on the west side of the storm. Mostly wind damage, and fire damage, which I'm sure a lot of you saw on CNN. (That one scared me -- it was about 8 blocks away.) Contrary to reports, Galveston didn't escape unscathed, but we did fare much, much better than points east. We're all thankful, but are seriously concerned for our neighbors in Port Aurthur, and all the SW La. parishes.
I thought it would be good for the kids to play on grandma and grandad's farm for awhile. Will probably head back to the Island over the weekend. In the meantime, my four-year-old caught 6 bream yesterday -- skunking his old man. So, I guess coming all the way here was a good thing to do.