Never mind the long tail. What's your long pole?
The dad of one of Jackson's fellow Cub Scouts recently emailed about his son's progress toward the Wolf badge, singling out the requirement to make a chart of household duties, and keep it regularly for at least a month, as the Long Pole in the Tent. I immediately knew exactly what he was talking about, because Jackson, while screaming through the other requirements, has become stymied by this whole chart thing, or rather, by the need to actually keep up with the chart thing. So the chart is Jackson's Long Pole, too -- it's holding everything up.
A useful expression, I think. Here, William Safire discusses it at length in the NYT Magazine. You might need a subscription -- I'm not sure. Surprisingly to me, I have one -- so, if you need one, it must be free.
The Cub/dad email got me thinking about my own various Long Poles.
When it comes to client work, I find that the Long Pole tends to materialize somewhere in the neighborhood of "new things we're not quite sure about and might possibly be afraid of." Though the web is tailor-made for experimentation, little else in advertising has been for the past fifty or so years -- so the fear of new things easily and regularly becomes a Long Pole. Education can help this particular pole, most of the time. This is one I don't take personally - it's just one I run into. The personal one is next, and much harder to solve. At least it is for me.
When it comes to creating things other than immediate work assignments; creating anything, sometimes including immediate work assignments; making moving images, which I get very few opportunities to do at work, but which I love to do, and can do, noting that it's how I made my living for 15 years -- my personal Long Pole is time. Or, rather, the shortage of it. There's simply not enough time to make stuff. Or, at least, to make stuff right. One of the downsides to an always -on society and industry is that if you're not always on, you'll soon be off. Which means your time is spoken for. And if you want to use time to do anything other than what has spoken for it, finding time can become a Long Pole. The economy has shifted a lot of advertiser activity to the digital space, which simply means there are now more things speaking for time that's already spoken for, and the Long Pole in my personal tent is getting much longer. I'm not sure how to shorten it, but when I get time, I'll think about it.
So, what's your long pole? Time? Money? Fear? Could be anything, I suppose, including an aversion to keeping a chore chart for a month. The point is, you can't do anything to change, eliminate, or finally raise the Long Pole in the Tent until you've identified it.
Thank you for reading.
Once a week, for a very long time now, I've spouted off about advertising. Mostly interactive advertising. Before that, I spouted off more often. An awful lot of you read my spoutings regularly. Thank you.
I also spout off, though less, um…spoutingly, on adotas.com once a month, and whenever I can (which, I'm told, isn't often enough) on the Brunner Digital blog. That's a whole lot of Ernie-opinions to digest. And I want to sincerely say, "thanks for reading."
I also want to say I'm thinking about evolving this particular blog.
A funny thing happens to you when you're a creative. If you're good -- meaning, if you win lots of business, or lots of awards, or lots of both, you get promoted. Then you get promoted again. You get wiser, and older, and if you stay good, you continue to move up the agency ladder. Except…
Except the things you're expected to be good ad change. Your job changes. If you're a great art director, or a great writer, or a person who's great at making great things, there's a sure bet in the agency world that you will quickly (or, at least, eventually) find yourself in a position in which you make exactly nothing. Except phone calls. And meetings. The wisdom is, "You're such a great creative, we simply must turn you into a manager." Why that's wisdom, I don't know. I'm too resigned to fight it.
What I'm getting to is this: Blogging is kinda the same thing. Or at least, it has been for me. When I started blogging, it was on the heels of my eBook, Use A Stick, and it was at the very beginning of the groundswell of forward-thinking agency people blogging about how backward-looking agency people were going to have problems in a world where people can blog about the fact that you're having problems keeping up. That whole groundswell turned into a tsunami, and the problems are still there, and people are still not keeping up, and the changes just keep coming, just like I and countless others continue to blog about. It's kind of a sea of the same thing. Occasionally, real solutions are offered up, but more often than not, the juicy stuff is too good to blog about -- at least until you can prove without a doubt that it cannot really be monetized, and therefore is fine to share with the world.
In short, I miss making stuff, just for the joy of making stuff. And I want to spend more time making stuff. So something is going to have to adjust. Not go. Adjust.
I'm thinking about evolving this blog to be a little more personal, and a little more filled with stuff I make, just because I want to make it. Some of it will be advertising. Some of it will be art. A lot of it won't be either. But all of it will be something I make because I want to make it.
I hope you'll hit the archives, and read through some of my opinions on the state of the industry at any given point in time. I'll probably do a post that highlights some of the stuff I think is most worth your time. And then I'll post a picture of something I made, or saw, or thought, just because. Because I don't spend enough time doing that -- at work, or otherwise.
I hope you'll continue to read, subscribe, and share. Because this is, after all, an evolution. I want to use the blog to enhance my craft, by giving me a place to expose what I craft, rather than just giving me a place to talk about what I craft. (I'll, of course, continue to do that on adotas and Brunner Digital, though.)
It makes sense to me. Hopefully, as it evolves, it will to you, too.
I remember one time, in my first incarnation as a Creative Director, when I was extremely upset about some client changes to a multi-regional TV spot for a major QSR (fast food) brand. In the moment, I just couldn't see how the client could have the perspective she did -- all I could see was a perfectly good spot being watered down to the point that it wasn't really a perfectly good spot anymore. It had become just a spot. Nothing remarkable in either its horrible-ness or its greatness. In my mind, the worst kind.
One of the partners of the agency, the lead Management Supervisor on the account, pulled me aside. He was about 15 years my senior, and I suppose, due to our respective functions in the world of advertising, we didn't always see eye to eye. He could see how upset I was. He put his arm around my shoulder (probably not acceptable in a 21st century agency, but whatever), and just when I was expecting him to tell me to do whatever it takes to make this client happy, he simply said, "Relax. It's just a f***ing hamburger."
Now, there are a lot of creatives, then and now, who'll think I'm a pariah for this, but you know, I know he was right. I could have fought to the death for the spot as it stood, and I would have been the casualty. As it happened, I made the changes, then made the most of the changes, and the result was a spot that made money for the client and the agency, and sold a bunch of f***ing hamburgers.
I could have fought for the vision -- losing battle or not -- but the truth is, it was my vision, not the client's vision. And in that particular case, the client's vision mattered more. That's not always the case, of course, as I went on to prove that year with quite a few other hard-fought spots for other clients that won awards and sold plenty of product. But this time, what mattered was that the client got the spot she wanted.
Did I care about the work? Absolutely. But what I cared about was a bigger picture of the work. I cared about the agency's ongoing relationship with the client, and understood that this particular spot was but one piece of that relationship. Now, that's not to say that giving in on creative principles is always the correct way to foster a good relationship. In fact, it's almost always not the way to do it. In this case, though, it was. And I cared enough about the ongoing work to know it was time to change the piece of work at hand.
Creatives don't like it when people change their work. That's always been the case. After all, we're hired to think the stuff up, and we're good at it. We're better at it, rather. We have the books and reels to prove it.
But very often, caring about the work gets confused in the creative mind with caring about self. Sometimes, somebody other than a creative has a voice that matters. Sometimes, that voice matters more than the creative's voice, or the particular creative vision. And -- here's the hard part -- sometimes, that voice helps create a piece of advertising that's better in the end.
The thing about the web is that the voice that matters tends not to be the voice of the client, or of the account supervisor, or even, anymore, of the creative director. The voice that matters is the voice of the user. And they're not shy about speaking up, by clicking, opting in, buying, downloading, commenting -- or, by actively doing not a single one of those things.
Caring about the user is caring about the work. Creative virtuosity doesn't exist just because you say so anymore. It exists when people say they like what you did by interacting with it.
Creating is harder than it used to be. The challenge is still to make the greatest piece of work ever concepted by someone in an advertising agency. Succeed, and you will have pleased the user. But if you don't please the user, you won't succeed. Pleasing the user -- and seeing the evidence -- is part and parcel of the definition of great work now. So, if you really care about the work -- really care -- then you must care about how the user experiences it. It's not a compromise. It's part of making the work better.
It's 77 degrees, and the sun is shining. Jackson just played his first hockey game of the season, and his first ever game in goal. Now he wants to work on his Wolf badge for Cub Scouts.
The economy's in the toilet, global markets are panicking, the presidential election is nasty on all sides. Shifts in client direction have created some do-overs, we're running to capacity, if not a bit shorthanded, and my time for strategic thought has been minimized in favor of just getting things done. Today is the day I write about advertising, but I'm completely in the weeds with everything that's going on.
It's 77 degrees, and the sun is shining. Jackson just played his first hockey game of the season, and his first ever game in goal. Now he wants to work on his Wolf badge for Cub Scouts.
It's a beautiful day. Once you determine priorities.
If yours is reading about advertising, cool. Hopefully you'll read my latest column for adotas.com, here.
Today, mine are somewhere else.
When I was in a class at the American Film Institute, I got in a bit of a friendly argument with the instructor, who was an episodic TV director. He kind of looked down his nose at those of us who directed spots. Of course, I was the only commercial director in the class, but that's neither here nor there. The particular lesson was on the role of the director in the film-making process. He said, “The director’s ultimate role is to be the advocate for the audience.”
I agree with that completely. Did then, do now.
Like I said, he knew I was a commercial director. He gestured toward me, and said to the class, “Unless you’re directing commercials, in which case, your job is to be the advocate for the client.”
I spoke up, disagreeing with him: "I think bad commercials are made by directors who are only the advocate for the client. Good commercials are made by directors who are the advocate for the audience, within the boundaries of delivering the message that the client wants to deliver."
Now, no matter how many Creative Directors there are who think differently (and there are a lot) I can promise you that directors (film, video, spot, episodic, etc.) and Creative Directors are not the same thing. I've been both. More than once. Not the same. However, they do share some similar skills. One of those is being the arbiter of what's good, given a specific set of circumstances.
For as long as I can remember, the job of a Creative Director has been to apply his or her knowledge of the client and some knowledge of the target with talent and experience in an artistic category (writing or art direction) to determine what was good for the piece. The focus is on the specific piece of work, in context with the campaign, if applicable, taking all the above into consideration. The skinny: A Creative Director (when not in meetings) is the artistic arbiter of creative decisions about what combination of words and pictures are best suited for a particular piece of communications.
Except, not anymore.
The web changed that. On the web, it's not just the pictures and words that matter. It's the whole experience. It's what happens when you roll the mouse, how easy the tabs are to move through, where the links are, where you're transported when you click, what you find when you get there, what you do and don't do with the things that you can do, and what you feel throughout the process. "You," as you know, in the above run-on sentence, is the user. And the user experience is not only an opportunity to create -- it's a critical part of the user's decision about whether to pay attention at all to what you create. It is the single most critical consideration in a piece of interactive work.
But, I don't think paying attention to user experience is just an interactive thing anymore. Because the web, and the way it works, has caused a cultural shift, on and off line. People don't form the same relationships with the things they buy anymore. Or they form the same relationships, but they form them via different processes, now. Processes that include every single time they come in contact with your brand. The experience they have when that is happening -- whether they're on your site, or catching a glimpse of a logo from a speeding car -- affects the way they feel about you. Every experience with your brand is, in fact, a user experience.
You won't be able to control that experience. Notice I didn't add "all the time" to that last sentence. Because the truth is, you can't really ever control it at all. No matter how well you craft the architecture, no matter how many possible paths you predict -- no matter how brilliant the outdoor placement. But you can work hard, and work creatively, to give the experience the ability to positively contribute to the message.
A lot of Creative Directors will think I'm talking the talk of the media department. And I am, but I'm not. Because you can't separate a creative idea from the experience the user has when she interacts with that idea anymore. Nor can you any longer separate a truly creative message from the medium for which it was created.
Advocating for the audience = Direction. And now, advocating for the user = Creative Direction.
Most weeks when I write this column, I try to make some sort of sweeping marketing or advertising or interactive point by relating an experience I've had during the week. This week, though, I'm up to my eyeballs with so many....um....experiences, I'm not sure one grand point is appropriate, or even doable. So, I'll hit you with a couple of highlights:
Interact 2008 is happening Monday and Tuesday here in DC. It should be quite cool. Brunner Digital has a booth on the floor, and what we have planned for booth activities should be both interesting and fun for all. If you make it to the show, please stop by. If not, we'll have a flickr gallery up starting sometime on Monday. The link will be on brunnerdigital.com Also, on Monday afternoon, I'm part of a panel discussion about trends in interactive employment. In a nutshell, the outlook is probably much better than it is in lots of other businesses. I'll try to summarize things after the panel.
My newest piece for adotas.com was delivered Friday. The editor there is usually pretty quick to get things up, so I expect it to post early in the week. Of course, one never knows. So you can check the front page there, or my author page at adotas.com/author/ernie-mosteller. As usual, I have quasi-snarky things to say about parts of the advertising industry just not quite getting this whole internet thing.
What I really want to talk about, though, is the Cub Scouts. My son joined for the first time last week, and I went to the Pack meeting with him. It brought back a lot of great memories. Not only was I a Cub Scout, but I stuck with it, and made it to Eagle Scout. Of course, that was a long time ago. The thing that struck me, aside from nostalgia, though, is how much -- and how little -- has changed with the organization since I was a part of it. There are new divisions, about a jillion new badges to earn, a far more "Politically Correct" atmosphere on so many different levels -- if you look closely at the details, you'll see what appears to be wholesale change in the organization. Yet...
Yet, taken as a whole, the Cub Scouts today are essentially the same Cub Scouts I belonged to when I was in Mrs. Burr's Den 1. If you didn't know, you'd never know.
The changes in the way people communicate with and relate to brands are rapid, massive
and ongoing. Smart brands can roll with the changes without losing their essence. The Cub Scouts have been able to do it. And if the Cub Scouts can....
I had to make the bun yesterday. It wasn't pretty.
Let me explain: Saturdays are busy around here. Hockey, lacrosse, ballet, play dates, and whatever else materializes from the gigantic social spreadsheet that represents my children's lives. In this maze of activity, I function well as a chauffeur. I'm also a decent kid-food cook (peanut butter and jelly quesadillas, anyone?) I play great music on the car stereo, know all the good drive-thru places, and have been known to approve ice-cream, just because. I'm ok assisting with hockey equipment, but just ok. I'm quite good with lacrosse equipment, and even with passing, catching, and "hustle" tips. But when it comes to ballet, I, thus far, have been delivery and pick-up only. Until yesterday. Yesterday, I had to make the bun.
My five-year-old daughter's new ballet school is pretty strict. I suppose that's a good thing, even if I do keep thinking, "She's five -- can all this possibly matter?" It has a good reputation -- they required auditions, didn't accept many, etc. And, unlike her previous ballet school, they're picky about ballet attire. White tights only - a specific cut. Spec shoes. Street clothes to enter and exit. And hair in the bun. Not just a bun. A specific bun. The bun. No embellishments, or bun-covering bun covers. Just the official bun. The bun is hard to do.
My wife had a meeting she couldn't miss. She gave me explicit instructions the night before on how to make the bun. I listened. I watched. I thought I had it. How hard could it be, anyway? Way back in the day, I was good with my own ponytail. Way back.
Things went sideways with the goop that glues the hair together. I think I got too much. And I know I didn't get the hair tight enough, but I was worried about giving a five-year-old a face lift that would be more appropriate for an aging Hollywood starlet. I shouldn't have worried about that, because the tight-enough thing is an important thing. You can't really cure it with several hundred bobby pins. Trust me on this.
When we were done, my daughter thought she looked beautiful. So did I, but I knew it had nothing whatsoever to do with the bun. But we were edging on late, so we headed off to class, inadvertently dropping a breadcrumb trail of bobby pins in our wake. Upon entering, I made sure the very strict-looking ballet marm knew that my daughter had good reason to show up with a (here's an understatement) less than perfect bun -- by cracking a soft joke about how mom was busy, and I'm not great with hair, while referencing my own cue ball. "Well, it looks better than it would if you'd shaved it," came the visibly unamused reply.
I could learn to do the bun. I can take classes from my wife. I'm sure there is some sort of online reference guide. But the truth is, I don't think I'll ever be as good with the bun as an expert bun-maker. My wife is an expert bun-maker, and it was an anomaly that she wasn't available yesterday. This is a strong case for me out-sourcing the bun. No matter how easy it looks, and no matter how much I study it, the bun will always be better if I don't do it. By extension, so will my daughter's tenure in this particular ballet school.
But that's enough about ballet. Let's talk about the web.
The web has, and has always had, a DIY spirit. Technology has placed into the hands of everyone almost all the tools the experts use to create almost everything. Anyone can shoot and edit video, tweak and manipulate digital photography, publish an article, build a site. Because, like I said, almost every tool an expert would use is available to anyone.
The operative word in the last sentence is: Almost.
Because, to truly become an expert, it takes more than knowledge of the tools. Knowledge helps -- a lot. And lots of knowledge comes from experience, which is just one form of practice. But knowledge alone won't do it. Talent has a say, too. A big say. And talent is the tool that isn't available to everyone.
Frank Compton is a great creative director. His perspective on what makes great creative, and how to put together the environment that helps it come to life is some of the most valuable insight anyone has ever given me in this business. Frank explains his perspective on creativity with an easy-to-grasp metaphor: Michael Jordan. The athletic ability represented by Michael Jordan isn't just something you're born with. And it isn't just something you can attain by practicing every day. It takes both. Innate talent, and the application of that talent -- every day, for a long time -- to reach the highest level.
So, back to the web. Because the tools are available, there are lots and lots -- and lots -- of people who know how to use them. And they use them well -- or at least, according to spec. But spec doesn't make the product great. What makes the product great is the infusion of talent, on top of perfect mechanics. For that, you need an expert. And if you defer to that expert, the product will be visibly better, every time.
Because of the availability of tools, there are lots of people who know how to make stuff. Which means there are frequent questions from many about the real value of bringing in an expert -- whether it's for design, code, content, strategy, or whatever. My personal guess is that this has a lot to do with the newness of the tools. As tools become easier for everyone to understand completely, it gets easier to tell who is truly an expert -- and the value of a real expert rises. Right now, you hear lots of clients saying, "The intern can shoot, edit, and post the video." But almost no one thinks anyone who can use a pencil is Picasso. Pencils have been around for a long time. It's easy to tell the Picassos. It will be the same with the web, but it isn't, just yet.
In the meantime, if you're ever questioning the value of hiring an expert -- if you find yourself frequently thinking, "how hard could this be, anyway?" I invite you to my house on a Saturday morning before ballet class. Take a crack at the bun. It's not as easy as it looks.